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.