The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, have for more than twenty years been at the top of Hollywood’s list of original and intelligent filmmakers. But what finally brought them onto the stage at the Oscars this year for their first best-picture win (along with awards for best director and best adapted screenplay) was their rendering of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, a film with few of the qualities that made the brothers the favorites of cineastes.
The Coen brothers are masters of a post-modern ironic aesthetic that both embraces and mocks contemporary culture. Their films celebrate familiar genres and at the same time give them tongue-in-cheek treatments. In Blood Simple, each of a series of botched murders is both gruesomely prolonged and weirdly funny. The final scene brings down the evil villain and mastermind with just desserts—a fusillade of bullets. But the desperate woman who shoots him thinks she is killing her husband, and the preternatural villain dies laughing at his own joke about the woman’s mistake.
Perhaps the most telling example of their fiendish humor came in Fargo, in which one of the bad guys end up processed through a wood chipper that spews out the bloody bits. Young audiences found it hilarious, and older folks laughed in spite of themselves. Freud would have said it was the Coen’s inventive wit that encouraged the audiences’ repressed sadism to slip past their super-egos and erupt into laughter. But the Coens do not merely provide a release valve. Their creative drive is powered by the post-modern aesthetic that sees humor in horror and savors both.
Fargo made the Coen’s reputation and earned Frances MacDormand, Joel’s wife, the Oscar for her role as the impressively pregnant but unflappable law officer who goes by the book and gets to the bottom of a faked kidnapping that takes a grisly turn. The Coen brothers’ off-beat screenplay manipulates our genre expectations and humanizes them: A vulnerable pregnant woman, rather than a tough detective, navigates the mayhem; the characters are not caricatures of films past but real people who find themselves in improbable and unraveling situations.
The Coen’s wit is by no means limited to the register of sadism. Their Big Lebowski is a goofball favorite with a wacky plot and surreal dream scenes. Their trademark weird humor is on display when Walter Sobchak goes to spread his bowling buddy’s ashes on the beach and the wind blows them back all over him. If this is too crude for your taste there is more refined pleasure to be had in the witty allusions of their joyous film Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, based loosely on the Odyssey. It is a Joycean treasure chest of sophisticated historical, literary, musical, political, and cultural references with what has to be George Clooney’s most endearing performance. And its soundtrack of folk, gospel, bluegrass, and country music reclaims the idioms of American music—as the brothers do film genres—in a good-humored mix of nostalgia and irony.
Despite these considerable accomplishments the Coen brothers have been having creative troubles in the new century. They had no popular success with The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), and they also lost the critics with Intolerable Cruelty (2003), and The Ladykillers (2004). Indeed Intolerable Cruelty, a romantic comedy of the Hepburn-Tracy style, was a real clunker. Perhaps the Coens needed Cormac McCarthy’s much praised but grim and humorless novel No Country for Old Men to shake them out of their creative rut. Apparently making a movie based on the novel was not their idea, but was brought to them by a producer who thought it was the Coen’s kind of material.
As the film moved from Cannes into American theatres, irony ceased to be its watchword.
McCarthy had in fact begun the novel as a screenplay, so the underlying film structure was obvious. The story, set in Texas circa 1980, has plenty of the Coen’s Guignol horror, but none of their dark comedy.
The plot of the novel brilliantly contrasts three kinds of men. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a West Texas everyman who survived Vietnam with his wits intact. He is out hunting when he discovers what is left of a drug deal gone bad. There are dead bodies everywhere and Moss decides to take the briefcase full of money and run. He is a tough, independent, and resourceful guy and Brolin is wonderful in the role. Will he get away with it? Moss’s nemesis is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who we meet in the film strangling the deputy sheriff with the handcuffs that were supposed to restrain him. We have no idea that Chigurh is connected to the drug deal, but it turns out that he has been hired to get the money back.
The third protagonist is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, in another perfect role) who is supposed to deal with all this violence but feels overwhelmed. His lamentations provide the moral reflection on the murderous events. And it is his view that the good guys are outnumbered and outgunned and that West Texas is no country for old men. He does his duty but he has also given up. Chigurh proves that everything the sheriff believes is true and leaves a trail of corpses as evidence. The twist is that Chigurh never gets to Moss: anonymous Mexican gunmen kill him and take the money. It is as though McCarthy meant to demonstrate that not even his brilliantly plotted narrative could contain the scope of the violence he wanted to portray. There is then another twist and a descent into the quotidian world where there is still more violence, and finally, an unresolved ending that leaves the audience haunted by the horror of what they have watched, and arguing about what actually happened.
Bell, in observing the brutality that permeates the film, is a Greek chorus lamenting the state of the world. There is a kind of irony in his lamentation, but to make it laughable would have undercut the story’s power.
Though their trademark humor is missing, No Country does have the Hollywood staples that may have carried the night at the Oscars: horrific violence, a high body count, and a new kind of psychopath. The Coen brothers also deliver the kind of film that Hollywood’s professionals admire: perfect casting, a bleak west-Texas landscape, inventive cinematography, and a rollercoaster ride for the audience.
But the film lacks what I take to be the Coen’s humanism: no matter how dark their vision becomes, they find the comic side. It is their humor that saves them and us from cynicism. No Country for Old Men is different: it holds a mirror up to America in 1980, and what we see there is unredeemed and unredeemable violence.
In most of the theaters where it played there were moments of nervous laughter but no more. Still I must concede the Coenesque seemed to have found its way into the stylistic touches of the film, particularly in the depiction of Chigurh. Bardem, who earned the Oscar for best supporting actor for that role, was in fact the star of the film and the talk of the blogs. In the book, McCarthy made him a man who takes a perverse pleasure in watching the actual moment of death happen: Chigurh stood “watching the capillaries break up in his [victim’s] eyes. The light receding.”
This serial killer satisfies what some critics have described as an aesthetic impulse that finds beauty in the dying of the light. When his victims plead, “You don’t have to do this,” they, of course, fail to understand his aesthetic yearning. The Coen’s, though, have eliminated this element of Chigurh’s motivation and this makes Chigurh’s character even less human and explicable. Jon Stewart described him on Oscar night as Hannibal Lecter with a Dorothy Hamill wedge cut, but Hannibal Lecter, like most real serial killers, is driven by perverse desires. The Coen’s Chigurh is more like the science fiction robots in Schwarzenegger’s Terminator films who have no feelings, only a program dictating behavior. Chigurh’s program tells him to kill anyone who might get in his way and not always out of necessity. It is as though he is playing some violent video game in which only he knows the rules. In the scene from the trailer that is a YouTube sensation, he tells the innocent gas station convenience store owner to choose heads or tails when he flips a coin. The increasingly frightened man asks him what is at stake, Chigurh refuses to explain that it is a matter of life or death. In this situation, which repeats itself in the film, the audience comes to understand that Chigurh is willing to let chance be the decision-maker, that by his rules he becomes the agent of the person’s destiny. But the fact that McCarthy’s Chigurh will be deprived of his aesthetic gratification if the victim guesses correctly is a significant psychological nuance lost in the film.
Chigurh’s preferred lethal weapon is used in slaughterhouses to kill cattle. It requires a compressor tank, a hose and a device that when placed on the head of the steer drives a bolt into the brain and withdraws it in an instant. In the book we understand that for a man who enjoys watching the moment his victims die, this device offers instant gratification. However in the film its significance is its gruesomeness alone and the absurdity with which Bardem has to carry around this cumbersome equipment. Chigurh’s mop-top adds to the absurdity, his haircut a thin indicator that this psychopathic killer is an aesthete. And surely it is a a touch of the Coen’s black humor when Chigurh checks the bottom of his shoes for blood after his final senseless killing.
If the Coen’s signature was subtle in my viewing, the audience who saw the premiere at Cannes had a very different experience. Reliable reports have it that the glitterati of Coen fans were rolling in the aisles with laughter; they saw black humor and weird irony in all the on-screen horror. But as the film moved from Cannes into American theatres, irony ceased to be its watchword. The critics wrote about its gripping power and importance and much was made of Chigurh as a new member of the pantheon of Hollywood monsters. One can only conclude that fiendish wit is in the eye of the beholder and that the audience for this cinema of sadism has special lenses.
Yeats’ poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” from which McCarthy borrowed his title reads, “That is no country for old men. The young in one another’s arms.” It is a meditation on mortality and a poem of perfect prosody. McCarthy and the Coen brothers have used it to signify a dirge of violence in which evil, not nature, is the victor. The indestructible Chigurh walks away, a soulless robot in a world without hope.
The only consolation we are offered in this bleak film is Sheriff Bell’s dream. On a cold and snowy night, he struggles up a mountain trail. He is freezing and exhausted when he sees his long-dead father, a sheriff before him, riding past, carrying fire to warm his son when he reaches his destination. I doubt that the consumers of violence who find No Country for Old Men great entertainment will even notice it. These consumers are like McCarthy’s Chigurh, finding beauty in violence. I would like to believe that the Coens meant to warn their audience, rather than add to the cinema of sadism. But it is the aesthetic of violence, not the warning, that filled theaters and salvaged their reputation as winners in Hollywood.