No Country for Old Men (Coen Brothers, 2007)

No Country for Old Men (No Country) is the most violent of the Coen brothers 10 movies to date and also the most successful, winning four Oscars including Best Film and Best Director. I enjoyed it and I was also disturbed by it, and perhaps I was disturbed by not really being disturbed (if you follow the logic). What alarmed me as much as the violence was the emotional bleakness of the movie. You expect people to die in a Hollywood crime drama / noir / thriller/ black comedy but you don’t expect the characters to be so blasé about it.

NPR does a good plot summary:

A hunter, stalking a wounded deer in the Texas desert, comes across a scene of carnage: A drug deal gone wrong, corpses everywhere, $2 million in a suitcase. The hunter, played in No Country for Old Men by Josh Brolin, takes the suitcase — and knowing that he’s about to go from hunter to hunted, he takes a few precautions, too, spiriting himself out of town in one direction, and his wife in another.
Unluckily for them both, a psycho with a Buster Brown haircut and a weird weapon of choice is already on the hunter’s trail. The weapon — a compressed-air gun of the sort used for killing cattle in slaughterhouses — leaves no clues, which initially leaves the local sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) more than a little perplexed. But he’ll eventually connect the killer and the hunter, and he’ll prove pretty good at playing catch-up in a film that directors Joel and Ethan Coen have orchestrated as one long, seriously alarming chase sequence.

Based on the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country is Texas Noir or what film buffs call neo-noir. Wikipedia tells me that Film Noir “is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize moral ambiguity”. The morally ambiguous hero is Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) while the film’s “ultimate bad-ass” is Anton Chigurh (Javier Badem) whom Walter Kirn fittingly describes as “a strict, conscientious, self-taught psychopath who vigilantly maintains his mental ill health”. Tommy Lee Jones plays the good guy, Sheriff Bell, who’s a weatherworn, taciturn third-generation lawman with old-fashioned family values. I suspect that in real life he would probably vote for McCain and Palin in the US election — or at least approve of Palin’s “God and Guns” philosophy.

Accepting their Academy Award for Best Director, older brother Joel commented on the brother’s 20-year history of film-making: “What we do now doesn’t feel that much different from what we were doing then. We’re very thankful to all of you out there for continuing to let us play in our corner of the sandbox.”

I like that, a recognition that film-making is about playing. And being interested as I am in the psychology of violence, I think it’s an interesting debate about whether depicting violence in movies (even if tastefully done in a relatively restrained way here) is a good thing or a bad thing. In my opinion, what would make the depiction of such violence worthwhile would be if it contributed to our understanding of ourselves as emotionally complex, both loving and hating. One of the things that bugs me about this movie is that the violence doesn’t ring true. In my experience and from what I’ve read on the topic, violence is not as clean-cut and un-emotional as depicted here. Of course there are many different types of violence but the general sense that I get is that “violence gratifies the ego” (Adam Phillips). Anyone who’s seen the pictures of a panga-wielding mob at the time of the recent xenophobic violence in South Africa will immediately recognise the glee etched on the faces of the men seemingly intent on hurting or killing the African immigrants in their townships. In No Country there’s the complete opposite. Anton Chigurh takes delight in his twisted primitive logic (“Call it, Friendo”) but no apparent joy in his killing spree. There’s violence and a lot of chasing and fleeing but no emotional depth.

Walter Kirn calls Cormac McCarthy’s novel “sinister high hokum” but praises the skill with which it’s executed. He also has a neat analysis of the gender divisions:

At times, the whole novel borders on caricature, so unremittingly hard-boiled that it threatens to turn to steam. The streamlined, barely punctuated sentences delineate the grisly action — from running gun battles on small-town Main Streets to the agonized bandaging of bullet wounds in obscure motel rooms — in the point-by-point manner of a technical manual, enumerating every muzzle blast and diagraming every ambush as though violence were a dry industrial process. The characters’ states of mind rate little commentary and are completely dissolved in their behavior, which consists of fleeing and fighting and little else. The women involved are on hand to cower, grieve and plead for explanations of the mayhem that the men who’ve unleashed it decline to give them, partly out of old-school chivalry but mostly because they don’t have any answers. All the men have is momentum and loaded weapons, which seem to fire of their own volition, since that’s what loaded weapons like to do.

Perhaps one of the arguments in favour of this kind of film violence is the detailed examination of the consequences. Once the chase is underway there won’t be a resolution until the bloody end (or even then). But a counter-argument revolves around the two-dimensional nature of Chigurh. “You don’t have to do this” is what many of the victims say to Chigurh who is unmoved and kills them anyway. He is the “ultimate bad-ass”, the “devil incarnate”, a ghost, a cipher, a homicidal lunatic, a psychotic serial killer. What makes him so powerful is that he is a two-dimensional screen for our projections of seemingly-unstoppable, calmly-determined evil. He has a primitive morality: life or death is decided by Fate and the toss of a coin.

But if Chigurh were a client on the couch, there’d be nothing to work with. He’s pure evil but he has no history, no family, nothing which serves to explain his behaviour other than his otherness and his bad haircut. One of his defining attributes is that he has no sense of humour and shows little or no emotion of any kind. He’s a feeling-less robotic killer with an iron determination. “You can’t stop what’s coming,” says Woody Harrelson’s character, who also compares him to the Bubonic plague.

As a viewer I want to say, Wait, Stop, even so-called psychopaths have feelings of some kind. Conveniently, Chigurh is an outsider, he’s different in some way. Put him in a turban and there’d be a massive outcry but the outsider-ness here is not that much different (with the obvious disparity being that Spaniards don’t take the character of Anton Chigurh personally).

In terms of the psychology of violence, there are no easy lessons to be had from No Country. But from a cinematic point of view, it was, well, fun. The Coen brothers are masters of their sandbox and give them a dark comedy and they will insinuate their way into your consciousness with a haunting thriller.

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8 Responses to No Country for Old Men (Coen Brothers, 2007)

  1. Rick Boyer says:

    I finally decided to write a comment on your blog. I just wanted to say good job. I really enjoy reading your posts.

  2. Emily Barton says:

    Wonderful thoughts and analysis here. I haven’t seen the movie (not quite sure whether or not I’m scared away by the violence. Violence in movies, like amusement park rides, seems to becoming more and more of a technique directors and producers use in a competitive way: they want violence? Well, let’s see if they can handle THIS), but I like the way you point out the one-dimensional, evil nature of this psychopath. Yes, I imagine someone so “other” and so evil would be scary, but in real life, what’s most scary about psychopathic killers is that, to most of us, they don’t seem so very different.

  3. seachanges says:

    I thought this was a great movie, even if normally I am the first one to decline seeing a movie that is overtly violent. This is not about violence per se though, it is about evil and as you say, evil without a history or emotion. The books is an excellent read as well – I read the book before seeing the film, which may have prepared me I suppose.

  4. musingsfromthesofa says:

    I saw this recently and I was glad when it was over. The violence in itself didn’t bother me, but I felt that it was all surface. I think your point that Anton is two-dimensional is what I was struggling at. Maybe the pointlessness was the point, but it all left me dissatisified.

  5. Dorothy W. says:

    I saw this movie and admired it (I normally hate violence in movies, but this one didn’t bother me that much — the violence fit into the plot in a way movie violence often doesn’t), but you’re right about the Chigurh — he is more a fantasy of pure evil than anything human. That fantasy of evil bothers me because, as you say, it doesn’t exist in real human beings, but it might encourage us to believe it does.

  6. couchtrip says:

    Emily – thanks for the encouragement and I agree about the competitiveness of some of the movie violence these days. It’s as if directors vie with another to take things to another level. It’s also scary how so-called psychopathic killers are sometimes not that different from the average Joe.

    Seachanges – I’m impressed that you read the book before seeing the movie. I enjoyed All the Pretty Horses so I would be interested to read another of his books (although probably not this one).

    Musings – thanks for the visit and I think a lot of people had a similar experience. One reviewer said it felt like an exercise rather than an emotionally engaging movie. Perhaps there’s a comment there about how violence (and Evil) thrives in the absence of empathy and emotional connection.

    Dorothy – yes, I think the violence was plot-driven as you say and was mostly understated (apart from the handcuff scene). I’m glad that you were also bothered about the fantasy of evil that the movie depicts. That uncontextualised, reified evil might encourage us to think that evil is out there rather than potentially present in daily life.

  7. Litlove says:

    I very much enjoyed your review but I won’t ever watch the film. I find Bambi to be about the limit of how much on-screen violence I can watch!

  8. Jacob says:

    From what I have read Anton seems to believe himself to be an instrument of fate. Fate brought him to end these people’s lives. So, in a way, it makes sense that he takes no joy in the violence. It’s just his job to deliver the ultimate fate and he seems soemwhat amused about people trying to avoid an (eventually) unavoidable fate. I never saw him as evil. He just seems resigned to his job in the same way the person that pulls the switch on the electric chair does. He’s not evi, it’s just his job.

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