Now that the desert desperation and motiveless malignity of No Country for Old Men has been showered with awards from the Director’s Guild and the Screen Actor’s Guild, it’s worth mulling over what the film, apart from its skillful acting and directorial panache, is actually about. [SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the movie, key plot points are about to be revealed]
Consider the story: A hapless young man (Josh Brolin) scraping by with a wife and child, happens on some big money left high and dry after a drug deal gone bad. He takes the money and is pursued by a relentless antagonist (Javier Bardem) who gradually mows down everyone who gets in his way, including the hapless young man and finally his wife.
Oh, I forgot. There’s also a sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who makes some feeble efforts to catch the inexorable killer but finally decides to sit around with his deputy and sundry other people to philosophize about how times have changed and such implacable murderers weren’t around in the good old days.
If you think about the story in genre terms, it could be considered a nice comic turn around of a classic western plot. We all remember the stranger who comes into town at the beginning of the movie, cleans up the villains and general corruption, and leaves at the end. Only this time, the stranger is a cold-blooded killer who ventilates most of the rest of the characters–except the philosophical sheriff–and then goes on his way, hindered only by an interesting accident–about which more in a minute.
In the mix there’s also more than a little of another classic plot turn, this time from film noir, where a struggling young man comes accidentally upon illegitimate money and spends the rest of the film either trying to escape from his pursuers or give it back or, in the case of a great Don Siegel film named Charley Varrick, to outwit the baddies at their own game.
I should really stop saying “baddies” in such a jokey way here, though, since No Country for Old Men is hardly going for the obvious pratfalls, although one friend of mine reported that he laughed all the way through, much to the upset of the people sitting nearby. The Coen brothers, who directed it, are known for their comic films, but Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, is hardly known for his kneeslappers. Ever since his breakthrough novel Blood Meridian in 1985 he has been the go-to writer for grim and virtually unrelieved stories of death and mayhem presented in an intriguing blend of Faulknerian melodrama and Hemingwayesqe macho posturing. The clipped Hemingway side seems uppermost in the novel, perhaps the result of the heavy pruning of a reportedly 600-page manuscript McCarthy first turned in.
But back to the story and that tantalizing question: what is this movie, now so celebrated and rewarded, actually about?
When I was working on a book about war and masculinity, many people recommended Cormac McCarthy’s books to me. That’s what they were about I was told, and I did find in them a certain style of masculine brutality–tribal and bloodthirsty, as if the author’s saving grace was to recommend a return to the dog eat dog world.
The title here gives it away: The old man, the sheriff we presume, can’t figure out how to deal with this new breed of criminal. This is no confrontation of equals at noon on a windswept desert street. The killer just blows people away, after a few gnomic remarks about his philosophy of justice.
Of course in the Yeats poems McCarthy lifts the title phrase from, the message is to leave the country and go to a place where the old are appreciated for their wisdom and their ability to create. As the Coens and McCarthy use it, however, it thinly veils a basic misanthropy and disgust with human nature. The only answer is to retreat into private pleasures.
No Country for Old Men turns the western idea of redemption and renewal in nature inside out. Westerns like The Wild Bunch or Unforgiven similarly criticize the myths of the west, but they give us something in return: a perspective on both the usefulness of those myths and their ultimate failure. The brutality of those films, like that in There Will be Blood, makes a point about the costs of survival in a brutal world.
What does No Country for Old Men say? There is evil in the world that can never be dealt with. It is inexorable, it has no conscience or human nature that can be appealed to, and it is foreign (casting Bardem as a character named Anton Chigurh certainly allows for a potpourri of ethnicities).
It used to be that the physical force of the young criminal would be met and defeated by the wisdom and guile of the old lawman. Not here. Bardem and Jones might as well exist in two different movies. Even when they almost confront each other, it seems visually as if they are in different rooms of the same ratty motel, each playing out his own game of genre solitaire. Why doesn’t the sheriff try to protect the young man’s wife? Who knows? Too busy philosophizing.
The only event that seems to halt the killer’s inevitable success is the happenstance car accident. Fate meets Chance, a perfect collision in McCarthy’s nihilistic cosmos.
To praise No Country for Old Men for its play with genre is the ultimate victory of style over meaning, a trap for the Coens ever since Blood Simple. Only in a post 9/11 world, with darkness and paranoia so close to hand, could Cormac McCarthy, with his excessive attention to style and his absence of any meaning beyond despair be considered a major author. He is less the Faulkner of our time than the Mickey Spillane, attuned to all the insecurities of American culture and exaggerating even further–although Spillane at least managed to create a hero. The only hero in the novel No Country for Old Men is the author, whose bleak vision we are asked to applaud, just as the only hero in the movie are the directors, whose virtuosity is supposed to inspire similar praise. Which I suppose is why they’ve gotten the prizes–while the rest of us are left with the emptiness of the film and the world it depicts.