Saturday, November 17, 2007

11/17: No Country For Old Men

The signal moment in the Coen brothers' excellent No Country For Old Men comes about halfway through, and it's a seemingly minor scene with precious little to do with the main plotline. Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is recounting a story he's read in the newspaper, about a homicidal couple who had been torturing, robbing, and killing old people, and he laments how it took one of the victims running from the house screaming and wearing a dog collar before anyone took notice. "I guess digging graves in the yard wasn't enough," he says, and it inevitably elicits a wry chuckle. It also gets a laugh out of the deputy who Bell's telling the story too, and the Coens abruptly cut to the deputy's "hyuck," before cutting back just as quickly to a disapproving Bell. The effect is electrifying. The scene both provokes a reaction and then proceeds to explore the nature of that reaction, all in a few rapid cuts, forcing the audience to question its own assumptions and the implications of its jaded laughter at such images of violence and human ugliness.

This kind of moral questioning is at the heart of the Coens' film, as it was in the Cormac McCarthy novel which the film is adapted from. In adapting McCarthy's novel, the Coens have remained remarkably faithful both to the substance of the plot and to the feel of the material, the folksy rhythm of McCarthy's border town dialogue and the philosophical inquiry into violence and evil. But this scene indicates at least one way in which the Coens have gone beyond the book's scope, making its moral inquiry a kind of interactive experience in which the audience must follow along with Bell (the moral center in both film and novel) in tracing the ontology of evil. Many people, when they heard that the Coens would be tackling McCarthy's arch-moralist novel, feared that the brothers would inject the film with too much of their trademark ironic humor, dulling the impact of the story and its intentions. But quite to the contrary, in most cases the Coens have actually dulled the novel's humor, stifled it in favor of a deadpan realism that accentuates rather than lifts the horror. In one scene early on, there's another exchange between Bell and his deputy. "This is quite a mess," the deputy says. Bell's response ("If it ain't, it'll do until the mess gets here") was, in the novel, exactly the kind of ironical humor that one would most easily associate with the Coens, and this is the kind of moment that would seem to gel most easily with their own aesthetic. And yet the directors choose to deliberately defuse the humor by emphasizing the dead bodies strewn around the desert, and keeping the body of a dead dog pointedly in shot throughout the scene, glimpsed just to the right of Bell in the background, even framed between the legs of a horse at one point.

In addition to de-emphasizing McCarthy's morbid humor, the Coens have also played up the gore that always figures in McCarthy's work. Their images of violence have a quality of stasis, as though the camera is lingering in order to examine the gore in detail, an effect that admirably captures the extended nature of McCarthy's head-on descriptions of violence. The unstoppable hitman Chigurh (Javier Bardem, incredibly sinister) turns violence into a process, reducible to its steps and casual in its application. His offhand robbery of a drug store, achieved by setting fire to a car outside as a distraction, is followed by a lengthy scene in which he removes a bullet from his leg, shown in all its gory detail. Both scenes are presented as though Chigurh is simply going through the motions, following a set of instructions that he's memorized through repetition. Chigurh's mission is to locate Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who's stolen $2 million from a botched drug transaction he stumbled across in the desert one afternoon. The killer's path is strewn with corpses, as he stoically tracks his prey with little regard for anyone who winds up in his way. He is an incarnation of evil, an evil intimately associated with the modern age but, as the philosophical coda makes clear, not unique to it. Bell's mistake, throughout the film, is to take the (conservative) moral stance that the modern age is degraded and its evil more widespread than in the past. But McCarthy's novel has more historical sense than that, and the Coens bring over a précis of the moral examination that occurs in the final quarter of the book, following the abrupt death of its former protagonist Moss.

This moment, one of the most startling in the book because of its radical disposal, without ceremony, of the hero, has been beautifully preserved by the Coens, as has the sudden switch of perspectives from Moss to Bell. The final 20 minutes of the film are dedicated to Moss' struggle to come to grips with the evil represented by Chigurh. This is a struggle that the audience must engage in as well, and the Coens' film allows plenty of room for such moral questioning. In adapting McCarthy's novel, their faithfulness to the text, despite many necessary changes, involves above all a faithfulness to the book's moral character, its insistence on not just taking murder as a fact of life the way Chigurh does.

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