18 November 2007

No Country for Old Men

(Some preliminaries. First, I should note that to say anything about my reaction to this movie, I have to discuss the last third in some detail. If you're the type of person who doesn't like to know anything about the last third of movies, don't read on. I don't think knowing such details would harm the experience of first seeing this movie, but that's just me.

Second, I should say that I did not read Cormac McCarthy's novel, from which the Coen brothers have wrought this film, though a friend who attended with us had read it, and said he thought the movie was quite faithful, or at least as faithful as is possible, given the differences in media.

Finally, I should mention that Richard Larson attended with us, so keep an eye on his blog in case he writes up his response, too.)

No Country for Old Men is as clear an example of subverted genre expectations as any movie I can think of. It gains power from the iconography of certain types of westerns and noir thrillers, and for at least the first hour, the pleasure of the movie is the pleasure of a cat-and-mouse story: a man stumbles upon millions of dollars of drug money, and other men chase him. One of those men is a lone killing machine, a force of destructive nature. Our hero escapes close calls, has some good luck, shows real cleverness, gets battered enough for us to feel his pain.

And then everything starts to get weird.

By this point in the movie, we're settling in to the comfort of familiar patterns played out in expert ways: the pacing is suspenseful, the characters idiosyncratic enough to hold our interest, the mayhem vivid, the stakes high.

But there are rifts in the patterns. Characters who seem to have been introduced into the story for important reasons don't end up being important at all, except as corpses The mayhem continues, but is represented differently, kept off camera -- in terms of violence, a Jacobean revenge tragedy becomes a Greek tragedy, except the violence here offers no catharsis, only carnage. The one stable element is chance. Again and again, till it becomes so obvious as to be annoying, we are told that you never know what's going to happen. It's as if the characters themselves are coming to grips with the failure of their genre expectations.

In some ways, this is a movie about men and the failure of machismo. Every tough guy who says he'll slay the dragon and save the damsel ends up in failure. For all their talk of chance, it's just a mask, an excuse. Chance only rarely comes into play, and how many lives does it save? (Maybe one: the man at the gas station.) Determined evil wins all games of chance.

Or maybe chance is a red herring in the dried-up lakebed of this film. The best review I've read is by Matt Zoller Seitz, and he makes an interesting point about the Coens and morality: that in their movies decency matters most, and destruction falls most fully on those who become corrupt, those who drift away from community and love. Llewellyn Moss, who takes the money and runs, seals his fate when he becomes more cat than mouse. Chigurh, the hunter, succeeds because he is most alone and least devoted to the rites and expectations of the human world. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who never forgets the people around him, doesn't get much of what he wants, and ends up dreaming of his father and distant fire, but he does not, like so many other characters, suffer an apocalypse. He yearns for a lost time when things were easier and evil less empowered, but we've no way to know if such a time ever existed, or if his father, too, dreamed of a bit of light on a far horizon.

Is it satisfying? Not entirely, no, but then neither are movies that connect all the dots of genre patterns, the predictable fare we get most of the time. Even when achieved with great craftsmanship, met expectations are still just met expectations, and we might as well have stayed home and imagined it all in our mind. As with one of my favorite movies of the last few years, Memories of Murder, if No Country for Old Men were more satisfying in its conclusion, it would be a lesser film. It's still trapped by genre expectations, but at least it works against them, pressing up to the bars to say: You are conditioned by patterns that inhibit you. Recognize the patterns and see what it feels like to have them distorted. Then there might be hope for original thought and original art. To step beyond genre is to become sui generis, but there's no shame in taking one step at a time.