Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 6, 2008

No Country for Old Men: a follow-up

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:27 pm

Did you read what that idiot Proyect wrote about “No Country for Old Men”?

One of my blog articles usually generates no more than a dozen or so comments at best, which is more or less the way I like it. The thought of dealing with 50 to 60 comments, especially those annoying anonymous one-liners, would be enough for me to disable comments entirely. There is one exception to this, however. My November 17, 2007 highly negative review of “No Country for Old Men” has generated 113 comments so far. It is also my most accessed article, receiving over 6600 hits to date. This is mostly a function of it being included on Rottentomatoes.com, surrounded by a bunch of fawning reviews. People are curious to see why anybody would bash this over-hyped nonsense. Along with the equally pretentious “Atonement” and “There Will be Blood”, we can expect the Coen brothers movie to walk off with a bunch of Oscars this year.

After having mulled over the defenses of the movie posted to my blog for a while, I am ready to follow up with a kind of deeper reading of the movie’s problem, which almost everybody acknowledges (fans included) has to do with its anti-climactic ending. For the first 2/3’s of the movie, we see a kind of cat-and-mouse game between a very likable hero named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and the Terminator-like hit-man Chigurh hired to kill him. Moss has walked off with a fortune in drug money left by rival Mexican drug gangs after they have bumped each other off. Chigurh follows Moss all over West Texas trying to recover the cash and killing everybody who gets in his way, usually with a pneumatic bolt-gun used in slaughterhouses.

As the film builds toward a final showdown between Moss and Chigurh, it takes a sharp anti-climactic turn with Moss’s corpse floating in a motel swimming pool. His murder takes place off-screen and we are not clear who has killed him or what has happened to the money. This doesn’t bother the movie’s fans who seem to get intense pleasure out of tying loose ends together in a kind of DIY screenwriting fashion. Here’s one comment from my blog:

The Mexican drug dealers killed Moss, they found him when they were following Carla Jean and one of them asked her mother where they were going. The Mexicans get the money. It is implied that Chigurh kills Carla Jean because he can’t comprehend the choice she makes by refusing to call the coin. She refuses to leave something up to chance that should be decided with human compassion, and Chigurh is oblivious to the implications of chance, thus he is nearly killed by random chance.

You also saw this kind of amateur screenwriting from fans after the final episode of “The Sopranos” was aired. In that episode, the final scene fades to black just before an ominous looking figure at a diner counter may or may not ready to whack Tony Soprano. People wrote their own conclusions: Tony goes into the witness protection program, his son takes over the mob, etc. I didn’t mind this lackluster ending because I had enjoyed “The Sopranos” for over four years and was happy to see it end with a whimper rather than a bang.

The Coen brothers’ defenders also make the point that the movie’s ending was more “lifelike” because life is filled with random, pointless occurrences as this comment demonstrates:

Again, I do not think who got the money is important. The movie is about unfairness, chance and uncertainty in life. It is about morality, and choices, and the partially random nature of the universe. This is not a simple drug and money tale…

Life often has nothing to do with morality, goodness, or evil. I personally do not think that this is bad. The nature of chance makes life way more interesting than if everything were pre-ordained, from the beginning. There is no plan, get used to it! You can still have your beliefs and live life according to your morality. I wish I had realized this earlier in life. I think the philosopher Nietzsche would have loved this movie.

When I read this, I was reminded of what Jeeves told his young master Bertie Wooster, who had begun to read the German philosopher in an effort to impress the young intellectual he was infatuated with: “You would not like Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”

As opposed to this sophisticated interpretation drenched in McCarthy’s patented pop existentialism, his critics were accused of longing for a conventional happy ending with Llewelyn Moss riding off into the sunset with the loot under his arm.

Considering the build-up until the point that Moss gets whacked, it is understandable why some people might be disappointed that this was not the case. When you go through all that trouble to develop Moss as a likable character who is resourceful enough to elude Chigurh’s onslaughts, you naturally want to see him succeed. If you want the audience to be satisfied with his demise, even off-screen, you have to pay a little bit more attention to highlighting his flaws.

Indeed, the conclusion to the 1998 “A Simple Plan” also ends up in disaster for the main character who too has absconded with drug money happened upon accidentally and who also must evade hit-men hired to retrieve it. Unlike “No Country For Old Men”, the main character is not very sympathetic. As played by Bill Paxton, Hank Mitchell is the typical small-town hustler who dreams of a bigger house and other middle-class perks. He allows nothing to stand in his way, including his erstwhile partners one of whom is his very brother. This Hank Mitchell has a lot in common with Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”. Now, it would have obviously been a different movie if Cormac McCarthy had conceived of Llewelyn Moss in this fashion, but I suppose he had his reasons for not doing so—not that I would understand them in a million years.

Unlike Cormac McCarthy, Scott B. Smith, who wrote the novel “A Simple Plan” and the screenplay it is adapted from, had no grand ambitions to be the next William Faulkner. He was compared by one online critic to the great Jim Thompson, who wrote “The Grifters” and “The Getaway”. God, do we need more movies like those.

Although I confess to having hoped that Llewelyn Moss would have escaped with his life and the loot, by no means was that a sine qua non. I could have accepted an unhappy ending provided that the ending had what Aristotle called a cathartic effect. Let me provide a couple of examples, including one that might be described as real existentialism as opposed to the bogus product available from Coen/McCarthy.

In 1953, Yves Montand appeared as Mario in “Wages of Fear”, one of four men hired in Mexico to transport nitroglycerine in two trucks up a rocky mountain road to a burning oil well where it will be used to snuff the fire. Like Fred C. Dobbs, the men are jobless expatriates who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

Only Mario survives the perilous trip to the oil-well. Once there, he receives a handsome fee for his services and returns down the mountain road, only to skid off accidentally and hurdle toward his death. You are stunned by his death, but immediately understand it in terms of the film’s overall existentialist message. Made in the spirit of Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus”, it described life as an exercise in futility.

The 1962 “Lonely are the Brave” also concludes with devastating and unexpected results for an equally likable main character. Played by Kirk Douglas, the cowboy Jack Burns has broken out of jail and has fled on his horse up the side of a mountain to make his way to Mexico and freedom. Burns is not really an outlaw but gets into a bar fight simply to land up in jail where he seeks to help a rancher and old friend named Paul Bondi break out with him. It is of some interest given the current situation that Bondi has ended up in jail for helping undocumented Mexican workers get across the border. The movie’s screenplay was adapted by ex-blacklistee Dalton Trumbo from a novel by the legendary anarchist and environmentalist Edward Abbey.

Most of the film depicts Jack Burns overcoming helicopters, posses and the natural terrain. He is not only an endearing character in his own right, but a symbol of America’s rebellious subculture. Every so often the film cuts to a New Mexico highway where a trailer truck filled with toilet bowls driven by Carrol O’Connor, the future Archie Bunker, is barreling down the road. Just at the moment when Burns is crossing the road to the Mexican side where freedom awaits him, O’Connor’s truck smacks into him and his horse, thus ending the movie on an altogether bleak and disappointing note. However, the ending works because of the overall point that Abbey sought to make, namely that the forces of capitalist production tend to overwhelm the common man and woman. In other works he urged resistance but the emphasis in “Lonely Are the Brave” was the crushing and inhuman power of the system.

In 350BC, Aristotle wrote “Poetics”, a work that sought to identify the main characteristics of comedy and tragedy. Of tragedy, Aristotle wrote:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions. By ‘language embellished,’ I mean language into which rhythm, ‘harmony’ and song enter. By ‘the several kinds in separate parts,’ I mean, that some parts are rendered through the medium of verse alone, others again with the aid of song.

What is missing in “No Country for Old Men” is this very purgation that is essential to tragedy. One of the rejoinders that might be made is that we are no longer living in the age of tragedy, since the age of heroes is long gone. All we have today are anti-heroes like Willy Loman or Llewelyn Moss. Perhaps so, but over and above Aristotle’s schema is the need for resolution, an artistic requirement that one can either decide to respect or not. My need for resolution has nothing to do with happy endings. It is a yearning for an artistic whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

In the spirit of the Coen Brothers/Cormac McCarthy fans who have laid siege to my blog, I would offer up an alternative ending that while not perfect is more attentive to the requirements stipulated by Aristotle. I would have had Llewelyn Moss walking across the desert toward freedom in Mexico—just like Jack Burns—but en route discovers that the water canteen he is carrying has been seeping water, courtesy of a bullet hole suffered during a shoot-out with Chigurh. While he is dying of thirst on the desert sands, he writes a letter in timeless prose to his wife. That letter will be far more interesting than Tommy Lee Jones’s ruminations, even if is written by me.

29 Comments »

  1. […] Country for Old Men Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:41 pm UPDATE: My latest thoughts on the movie, including a response to comments made […]

    Pingback by No Country for Old Men « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — February 6, 2008 @ 8:37 pm

  2. The movie is thoroughly repugnant in every way. It’s about a bunch of sociopaths, the worst of whom manages to get away after receiving back his ill-gotten money after killing various people. Who cares? The movie is thoroughly, completely repugnant. It made me not want to go to the movies for awhile, it was so dreadful!

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — February 6, 2008 @ 9:16 pm

  3. I don’t remember that they found Moss’s body in a swimming pool at the end of the movie before they went to Tommy Lee Jones’ sherrif ruminating & philosophizing. I just remember Chigurh and Moss’s wife. I sure didn’t want her go get killed but they didn’t show it.

    (I figured that Moss must have gotten killed by Chigurh.)
    When the screen credits rolled around, I just said out loud ‘ Thats It ? ‘. I didn’t think anything was resolved.

    But this isn’t real life. This is a movie. There has to be some kind of resolution. We have to know what happens to the characters. Even if its something bad, at least it gives the movie an ending. Not having an ending is much worse. They should have made the Coen brothers go back to the studio and give the movie an ending.

    Comment by Carol — February 6, 2008 @ 10:30 pm

  4. After reading the book and 100 comments or so, I finally saw the movie. It’s a lesson in how a script can follow a story line and still alter the story. Changes in emphasis make the difference. For instance, the language of the cornball philosophy is fun on the page, but embarrassing to have beamed at us full- frontal from an actor’s mouth. The lack of resolution doesn’t bother me. Invoking Aristotle seems like bringing in the heavy artillery. This wasn’t meant to be a tragedy in the classical sense. What does bother me is the Bardem role. Playing Chigurth like a creature from another planet makes him supernatural. It tips us into a horror movie. Evil isn’t mysterious. It’s done by people more or less like us. By the way, considering the state of contemporary writing, why would McCarthy’s ambition to be another Faulkner–if he has that ambition–be condemnable?

    Comment by Peter Byrne — February 7, 2008 @ 11:18 am

  5. What annoys me about this sort of unresolved, ambigious endings is that they’re presented as difficult, courageous, artistic decisions, but nine out of ten times are in fact the easiest, laziest way to resolve the story. No need to create a proper ending if you can just leave it vague.

    Comment by Martin Wisse — February 7, 2008 @ 1:16 pm

  6. I find it somewhat amusing that you find yourself needing to reply on this subject again. I can respect your need for resolution, even as I disagree. Perhaps with your modifications you cold have even made a better movie. I could even except arguments criticizing the novel. It is not McCarthy’s best work though it is an interesting experiment in genre form. Unfortunately I think it is likely that those picking up the novel who have not read and reflected on McCarthy’s earlier work will interpret it badly. I think your interpretations of McCarthy are wrong and misguided but I realize that I am unlikely to change your mind on them. McCarthy is not a pop-existentialist nor is McCarthy a ‘conservative’ in a political sense. (No more than Melville at any rate). It is possible to read Beethoven as some sort of crazed Catholic conservative, as one recent Polish director did (Copying Beethoven), or to read Goya in terms of some reactionary liberalism (Goya’s Ghosts) but it is also wrong and mistaken. Similarly with McCarthy. McCarthy is an under-miner of American mythologies. In his southern novels he attempts to do Faulkner one better in this respect and in his western novels, where there is less literary precedent, perhaps the best comparison might cross mediums and be with Peckinpah. Interestingly, in addition to his novels and plays McCarthy wrote a screenplay for a movie, The Gardner’s Son, which was made into a movie for (I believe) PBS in 1976. It is sort of like like Hamlet in a Southern factory town with violent class conflict themes. If you can find it I would be interested in your take on it.

    Comment by dave p — February 7, 2008 @ 7:33 pm

  7. To return to the resolution question, at the risk of amusing you,,,In the novel the non-resolving is shaped by the author as an integral part of the story. The movie ends as if someone got bored and used a scissors. Naturally the audience is disgruntled.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — February 8, 2008 @ 1:55 pm

  8. Chigurth is either Bush or the Taliban.

    When I saw the movie, when the end came, there was like a shriek. The movie’s ending wasn’t flowing.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — February 8, 2008 @ 9:59 pm

  9. I tried to post a rather longish comment, but it seems to not have gone through.

    Comment by Malooga — February 8, 2008 @ 11:14 pm

  10. Hmmm… that went through. Well, I’ll break it up.

    Coming late to the party.

    Well, I’ve read the two reviews by our host and the 100+ comments, and I found a number of them interesting and even enlightening, and yet I come away from this thread of film criticism on a Marxist blog even more disappointed than from the movie itself.

    Yes, the cinematography and the production values were top-notch, but one expects that from any Hollywood film, and has for a long time. It is hard to imagine that one would see a film for the sound production unless one worked in that industry; just as it is equally hard to imagine that one would bypass a film that had something important to say, but where the production values were not top-notch.

    More to the point — and especially on a Marxist blog — is the question of what this film, and film in general, has to say about the human condition, and particularly the human condition at this critical juncture in time on this planet; what does the film have to say about the individual facing the contradictions and violence of modern society, coping with the ever-increasing material and social inequality and constraints on a stable and meaningful life posed by neo-liberal, late-stage capitalism, and the concomitant ecological collapse; what does the film have to say about the individual’s struggle against the very real violent and dehumanizing authoritarian and mass social forces in a time of rapid change; what does the film have to say about the search for community in a time of homogenization; what does the film have to say about the individual confronting the age-old forces of time, fate, change and death, and making a meaningful personal peace with them? Apparently very little.

    Comment by Malooga — February 8, 2008 @ 11:16 pm

  11. To my mind, those are the important questions of our day, and to the extent that modern cinema engages and struggles with those questions is the extent to which it remains relevant. To the extent that a film addresses those issues and reveals some truth, some sense of humanity standing up to the dehumanizing and implacable forces confronting the modern condition, that film remains important and relevant. To the extent that it fails in this challenge, it is no more than escapism – an adult version of cartoons (OK, if it is acknowledged as that.) – or nihilism, and the belief in the impossibility of finding individual meaning and dignity: a condition which the elite who run this world would love to see the great masses reduced to. Where is the nobility in this? Or are we just reviewing cartoons for our entertainment in elevated language here?

    At this point, let me say that I watch very little film because I find so much of it disappointing, or merely reinforcing of the most jejune values of contemporary society, albeit dressed up in pretty wrappers. I have been greatly influenced in this regard by the reviews on the wsws website, and particularly the deep and far-ranging discussion between John Steppling and John Walsh on the art and politics of film at swans.com several years ago.

    Film, as a product for mass consumption, is less than 100 years old. Television is half that age. As John Berger points out, industrially produced images, themselves, are only about 500 years old, and we have gone from seeing the rare painted or sculpted image in a church to being bombarded with mass-produced images at the average rate of one every two seconds or so. Our habituation has been total. I spent whole years of my childhood watching cartoons, sit-coms, movies, game shows, and really everything that played across the phosphorescent screen. Did all of those hours teach me anything about life; how society works; how materials and products are grown, mined and manufactured, and the social conditions and structures involved in maintaining such processes; or how society is run, mass belief and thinking channeled, and dissent controlled? I think not; rather it filled my head with all manner of silly notions and illusions about the benignity of American Exceptionalism, and the glorious, religious wonder of endless technological growth.

    Reduced to the mythic level there is the story: The story tells us about other’s experiences in life so that we may incorporate those experiences and lessons learned with our own. The moral narrative story was transferred to image. The average person I know cannot go more than one or two days without the overwhelming need to see (with their eyes) a story – either a movie, a rented video, or something on television. We have moved beyond mere habituation to complete capitulation. We probably view 500-1000 such complete stories a year. For the average 40 year old, that amounts to a total of perhaps 30-50,000 stories, replete with artificially constructed sets, and moving images, since birth. (For others, numbers may go as high as perhaps a quarter of a million or more such stories over the course of a lifetime.) Even if we consciously disbelieve the values and social conditions put forth by the vast majority of the images and stories we view, over time these values and visions become a part of us – and the science of public relations is exquisitely aware of this. (For instance fighting in space is more exciting and important than healing this planet.) Does the average person know more about the forces controlling society, and the struggle against subjugation than, say, the person of 1848 (who incidentally, in this country, was highly literate and read many books)? And if not, than why not? Does the average person have more highly developed moral, ethical, or even aesthetic values than the person of 200 years ago? Has film served a useful social purpose — the “instruct” part of Dr. Johnson’s immortal “instruct and delight” rationale for art, and if, by and large, it has failed at this, then why pontificate against the desire for a coherent ending – if this is only entertainment, why not give the masses what they want? Or at least refrain from arguing that one ending is in some way better than another, except to voice one’s own preference.

    More to the point, is the question of why the average person needs such constant flow of visual stimulation in our society. When people go away on vacation and get away from such a bombardment of imagery, they usually report a greater sense of well-being and happiness. Are the forces of modern society, and the work we are often forced to do in order to survive, so oppressive that we cannot function without anti-depressants and a constant deluge of either escapist fairy-tales, or the perpetual reinforcing of conformist societal values (albeit, often dressed in pseudo-rebellious garb)? Sure, the human mind has the ability, and often the desire, to be in two places at once: to use our imagination. On a personal level we use much of our imagination in fantasizing about an improvement of our condition (for instance, sleeping with someone who we can’t, or owning a house or car we can’t afford). Perhaps cinema, in this sense, frees us from the need to exercise our own imaginations. It helps us escape the bind of the temporal condition, and be somewhere else, face new challenges and see new images: Sun and sea, when we are enmired in snow and ice, for instance. For a time we feel that we own the house and car, and have the mate of our dreams. Is it any wonder why the vast majority of Americans then believe they are much better of than they are, and thus can be manipulated against their interests on issues like welfare, and the inheritance tax.

    But the real question remains: Why does modern man feel such a strong need to escape these temporal bonds? Why does modern man feel such a strong need for cinema? What ever happened to the Zen ideal of being hot in the summer and cold in the winter? Why not engage in a hobby, like woodworking or gardening, to relax and engage our creativity and imaginations? Why the overwhelming desire to spend 10-20 hrs/wk., or even much more, watching other’s stories? These are choices we make, consciously or not. I once lived high up a hill in a tropical rain forest, and when I got home from work (I did have an ordinary stress-filled, conflict-ridden job), I used to just sit and watch the opposite hillside: the flora and fauna, the changing conditions of light and cloud and wind, and the sounds of life, for the same hour or two that I had previously devoted to TV, every evening. Was I any less well off for not having seen some blood-thirsty killer stalking my field of vision for two hours? These are serious questions and, in our society, they demand serious consideration. What is the meaning and relevance of art?

    Comment by Malooga — February 8, 2008 @ 11:17 pm

  12. Back to the specifics of this film: It seems there are two ways to treat the film: either by attempting to understand the storyline literally, or by viewing the film mythically.

    Most of the problems with a literal reading have already been brought up, but here are a few more from my perspective. First off, neither I, nor my partner, understood a number of scenes, for instance, the scenes where Bell was speaking to a relative in the trailer. Who was the relative? Secondly, there were the usual string of illogicalities which propel any storyline. Who goes hunting in the desert without water, and if Moss had water, why didn’t he share it immediately? Does dark, oily, unprocessed, crude cocaine paste (it wasn’t pot) really come in from the Mexican border, or is that a myth, to scare the present public into closing the border? There are perhaps a dozen, or more, questions along those lines I could easily come up with. Most persuasive in arguing against a literal treatment is the absolute lack of caricature and character development; the characters were limed as flat and two-dimensional as possible; little hints of their past or any sense of development, or maturation, was provided. The only one who had a sense of past and self-reflection, of course, was Sheriff Bell, a man of such limited beliefs and views (meant to pass as some sort of mythic Western wisdom), that if I had met him alone in a coffee shop in West Texas, I would have been hard pressed to sit still and listen to his banal explanations of society and its forces. And believe me, I have met enough Bells in my life. Also problematic in this sense were the Mexicans: evil, swarming homunculi that would make even me want to close our borders to prevent their infiltration. Clearly, West Texas was a stage set, not a real place, and modern cityscapes, as well as social and economic relationships, were noticeably absent.

    The crowd that gets excited by interpreting the implicit details of a storyline sure liked the haziness of this film. I found myself unable to empathize with the individual 2-D characters, and, hence, uncaring of all the subtle details. After reading everyone’s interpretations on the comments, I’m still not sure if it matters who killed who, and who got the money. It was all fairly run of the mill action film – I’ve seen perhaps 10,000 of these – and without caring about the characters, and their ultimate moral disposition – that, of course, is the key — the details were almost irrelevant.

    Noticeably missing from the all the comments and reviews was any reflection about the supposed driving force behind the plot: the money itself. In a sense, it was the ultimate Mcguffin, and treated as meaningless, really — just a way to drive the action and the violence which, in this film, was the actual point, and took on a life (and death) of its own. What are the social forces behind drug running, how much is $2M really, and would a cartel go to such lengths and dangers to recover such a sum? (Having personally known small-to-medium size drug dealers in Colombia, I think not.) What effect would $2M have upon Moss’s life (Where did he find meaning anyway? Does $2M turn you from an antelope hunter into a Cheney with buckshot?); would taking out only $100,000 have had the same effect? Clearly, the film does not want us thinking about money, and how it controls so many of our actions and decisions in our society in any real way. This is probably the film’s greatest limitation and defect, if we are in any serious manner to attempt to understand the film literally as anything more than escapist entertainment.

    Comment by Malooga — February 8, 2008 @ 11:18 pm

  13. So, I guess we are left to wrestling with the film’s purported greatness on symbolic and structural levels. I can’t underscore how few films, especially Hollywood types, I actually see, and yet it is obvious what is in vogue these days. One of the last films I saw, a full eight years ago, was American Beauty, and, while that was a much better film, the similarities are glaring. It is in vogue to mix genres — in this case, action, film noir, southern gothic, post-modern, etc. It is implicitly assumed that such mixing of genres results in a product that is somehow superior (in a cathetic sense) to the pure genre itself. But such a line of thinking denies the fact that such genres originally developed to emphasize certain qualities: In the case of action, heroism and good-vs-evil; in film noir, the hidden, implacable forces of evil itself; in southern gothic, the sense of cultural and economic strangulation; in post-modern, the absurdity of life itself. It is apparent from the comments presented here that this genre-melding has left viewers with a greater individual range of interpretations of the film’s meaning and quality, depending on their feeling of which genre prevailed, and yet, consequently, a diminished sense of the overall emotional impact of the film. In any event, it seems obvious to me that such a trick has been done before – there is no need for the viewer to be perplexed about it – and that it is neither original, nor even very difficult.

    The second point I would like to comment upon is the currently fashionable technique, again used in American Beauty, of post-modern irony — Chigurh’s hairdo, and bizarre mannerisms, the interview-like quality of Bell’s disquisitions, the tacky hotel settings. All of this has the quality of distancing the director from the film and the statement being made. It is as if the director is saying to us, “This is just a construct, an artifice I am creating; don’t take it too seriously; it’s just a movie, it’s a joke and you’re in on it – so, don’t really listen to what I am trying to say, because I’m not really trying to say it.” Again, this has been done before — it is all the rage in what passes for “serious” film –or so it seems to me. So, we become like children watching war films: we are shocked by the licentious violence, but at the same time, we know it is not real. To which I reply, “Great! But, so what?”

    Along a similar vein, what was the point of Chigurh’s odd weapon – would the film have been as engrossing if he used a common shotgun, and does this gimmick have any other meaning? One is hard pressed to make the argument that there is any substantial commentary concerning our violence to animal life in this film; only, perhaps, that human lives are being treated here with the casualness with which we treat animal life in our society. But, again, why? Is there anything we can do about it, or must we shudder in our apartments until Chigurh blows in our own lock? Why should we stand for human life to be treated this way, much less pay to see it, when we can read a blog like “Iraq Today” and see such violence in reality, and struggle with it personally, and the pain it causes both its victims and us, and struggle with either how to stop it, or grudgingly accept its real implacability. Perhaps I betray a fundamentalist streak, but I find it troubling that people pay to see such violence for enjoyment, but cannot bring themselves to follow the very real violence which is the principle product of our “way of life;” that is simply, boring. Yet, this is treated reverentially; this is “serious” cinema.

    Finally, is it really so amazing and brilliant that the Coen brothers provided us with such an unclear climax and dénouement, with an open-ended resolution and incomplete catharsis? Has that not been done a zillion times before? It is just a style; either you like it or you don’t. Maybe it says that life is open-ended; maybe it doesn’t. Who cares? About ten years ago, I watched a few episodes of the TV show “Law and Order” (With that Fred guy who was running for President. I think that was the title, and a fitting one for mass media, too.); it seems even TV had figured out the trick a long time ago. When simple tricks such as these continue to create such a stir among “serious” cinema viewers, I would argue that the cinema, as many of our other art forms, is stuck and at a crisis. It seems that the great technological and emotional innovations have all been worked out, and, rather than confront the world as it is head-on, meaning and relevance have become rare indeed.

    All of the above innovations of the Coen brothers – the mixing of genres, the ironic distancing, the inexplicable character quirks, the dramatic and narrative incompleteness — I would argue, only muddy the mythic quality of the film, while, arguably enhancing its stylistic value. Mythic value, for better or worse, is the reduction of the messy real world into an idealized war of human value against its opposite, a kind of Manichaen moralism. Stylistic unorthodoxy invites stylistic criticism, not high theatrical treatment. In any event, such stylistic “experimentation,” as mild and unoriginal as it is, is hardly revolutionary, or even progressive, in any sense of the word. How then can we seriously treat such limited innovation by Hollywood as representing even the tiniest change in social relations — even that between viewer and auteur, viewer and critic, viewer and industry, or viewer and viewer – much less between viewer and society?

    It seems, after digesting all of the comments, that the message of the film was, “Shit happens. And often, inexplicably.” Deep. I really learned something. In Shakespearean tragedy — Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, for instance – this is a given. Even the illiterate groundlings of the sixteenth century Globe Theater got that. The interesting part is how a character deals with the shit, with injustice, with fate, especially when the “jig is up.” Well, here they just shoot each other up, or soliloquize in some meandering pre-Alzheimers sort of way until the celluloid runs out and the credits roll. I, for one, was glad when they did.

    Comment by Malooga — February 8, 2008 @ 11:19 pm

  14. I deeply appreciate Malooga’s contribution.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 8, 2008 @ 11:40 pm

  15. Thanks. I forgot the concluding section of my argument:

    A final way of interpreting the film is to see the major players as representing different aspects of property law, that is to say, our relationship to material things. After all, all the action in the film was driven around the money — representing private property — and the individual quest for it. Bell, who McCarthy and the directors seem to have no small amount of sympathy for, represents governmental law in its best Western reactionary, racist, unquestioning tradition, “The law is the law, but unfortunately, it don’t work no more.” Moss, also portrayed sympathetically as a sort-of libertarian sleeper, represents property law in the neo-conservative, “possession is nine tenths of the law,” “I own it and I’m going to do what I want with it” sense. The Mexicans represent entrenched power: “We had it, you stole it, and we’re going to get you.” Apparently, they did come away with the money in the end. Radical, man. More complicated, in the novel, Chigurh, and the Harrelson character, represent the co-ordinator class in its good and bad aspects: paid by the elite to unquestioningly protect its property interests, either nicely or not so nicely. One is free to draw one’s own conclusions as to why the Coen’s were not comfortable portraying Chigurh as the bared fangs of violent servitude to the propertied class – the hired killer, the mercenary; I’m sure there was no personal element to that decision. In any event, the novel was changed, and Chigurh was depicted as simply lust for wealth, at all costs. While he suffered greatly, he persevered, and was even portrayed as having some personal integrity and arcane deeper personal moral code. All the minor characters were innocent spectators, and yet even some of these paid with their lives in the ruthless quest for lucre.

    Nowhere in the film was a progressive voice ever heard, that is, one arguing in any fashion, for a more just and equitable distribution of property, much less any deeper consideration of the meaning of property, in general, for society — even if that character were to get its head blown off amidst gales of Mexican laughter. To me, the nihilistic quality of the film lies in its deeply cynical denial of altruism as a quality, indeed the quality sine qua non of humanity. Again, we are not even speaking of the relative value of altruism as a human endeavor, we are talking about the mere existence of it.

    Louis’ personal page contains a beautiful quote from Max Horkheimer:

    “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.”

    I assume that all of us who read this blog, absent the rotten core of the Rotten Tomato crowd, are activists in one manner or another. All of us have made personal sacrifices in one way or another, whether in money, recognition, time, or some other manner, because we felt deeply, to the core of our beings, that what we were doing was for the benefit of more than ourselves. Some of us have made very deep sacrifices and suffered greatly for it. Many of us have been ridiculed and shunned for our thinking. Much of the so-called “sympathetic world” has merely termed us “underachievers.” To my mind, a film which doesn’t even acknowledge our existence, and those like us – even if it is only to show us getting our heads blown off (and we all know that would not necessarily be an inaccurate portrayal of our type in West Texas at any point in history) — a film which doesn’t even acknowledge any love for that which is greater than us whatsoever, is a deeply cynical, distasteful, and reactionary film – rotten to its very core. Perhaps it is a “serious” post-modern, Fukuyama type of world where all activism will be extinct. But they will have to kill me, and my bretheren off before that happens – and then who will the Coen’s get to watch their reactionary screeds?

    Comment by Malooga — February 9, 2008 @ 1:06 am

  16. It’s late, I can’t really comment except to say that while I haven’t seen the film, and don’t know that I want to, Malaga and Louis’ reviews have brought to mind one film I just saw.

    I really enjoyed “The Outskirts”- a Russian film done in a 1920s/30s style about a group of peasants in the 1990s whose land is stolen under a privatization of a collective.

    It is an anachronistic fantasy that addresses what a beaten down, small but moral, violent but sympathetic group of men do to find out how and who stole the collective’s land.

    The film follows them on their journey, first to the former chairman of the collective, then to the local con-man, then the regional con-man, the con-man above him and finally to the oil baron in Moscow who mocks the men.

    In each scenario the violence escalates, but interestingly, under the influence of Soviet cinema, the violence is not always made (over)explicit.

    There is a happy, many would say, fantasy, ending which upholds the decent, simple life that many were striving for in the Soviet Union of the 1950s to 1960s.

    Check the film out- I think that many would like it, perhaps.

    Interestingly, the film provoked something of an outcry- that the violence against the expropriators would cause unrest, etc.

    So, the film does have a cohesive plot, does have a vision, but the overall style of the film is anachronistic, as if to say, this kind of justice, this kind of society cannot (yet) prevail. Nevertheless, one comes away with a feeling of hope.

    Comment by Alex Briscoe — February 9, 2008 @ 6:52 am

  17. A feeling of hope is offered at all my local churches by people like Mike Huckabee. That saves me a trip to the movies.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — February 9, 2008 @ 8:51 am

  18. Leaving all else aside, it seemed pretty obvious to me that Chigurh got the money. Bell sees an open air vent with a dime lying on the floor next to it. Earlier, Chigurh had figured out Moss was hiding the money in an air vent and used a dime to open said vent.

    Also, someone earlier said they wondered if Chigurh had killed Moss’s wife. I think he most certainly did. Note him checking his shoes as he leaves her house. The movie had shown over and over his obsession with keeping blood off of his shoes.

    Comment by nate — February 11, 2008 @ 8:27 pm

  19. You know what might have been a really cool movie? If you mixed together “No Country for Old Men” and “The Butterfly and the Diving Bell”. The movie begins with Tommy Lee Jones sitting in a wheelchair in a nursing home, the end result of a Chigurh bolt-gun attack that has left him a mute quadriplegic. The entire movie consists of watching Jones in his chair or being wheeled to the bathroom while he ruminates on the whole bloody affair. Instead of seeing Llewelyn swimming across the river with the killer dog in hot pursuit, you hear Tommy Lee Jones saying, “Rumor had it that Llewelyn just barely made it across the river that day. The Mexican’s dog weren’t as good a swimmer as Llewelyn, dad gum it. Reminds me of what Nietzsche once said: ‘Ah, ye brethren, that God whom I created was human work and human madness, like all the Gods!'”

    Comment by louisproyect — February 11, 2008 @ 8:40 pm

  20. I agree with and appreciate Peter Byrne’s comment, that the movie adulterated the ideas of the book by its misplaced emphasis. The book seems to be a reflection on a social situation, whereas the movie puts so much emphasis on the high-octane sensational thriller/action sequences, that when the movie attempts to switch to reflective mode, at the conclusion, it seems incongruent and unsubstantial.

    Comment by Carlos Idelone — February 13, 2008 @ 9:17 pm

  21. “The nature of chance makes life way more interesting than if everything were pre-ordained, from the beginning.”

    Ironically, given the supporting invocation of Nietzsche for this proposition, he believed completely in determinism and advocated amor fati as the best outlook to adopt toward one’s life.

    Feel free to still consider him unsound if you like.

    Comment by Fellow Traveller — February 14, 2008 @ 10:35 pm

  22. You also saw this kind of amateur screenwriting

    Nothing worse than amateurs sticking their 2c in and screwing things up.

    Comment by Scott — February 21, 2008 @ 6:57 pm

  23. I agreed with your review whole-heartedly. I also saw the attempt to re-create “Fargo”‘s dynamic as well as the “Terminator”-like qualities of the antagonist. Did you also notice that the Coen brothers attempted to put a little Leonard Smalls into Chigurh when he shot at the raven as he drove by it on the bridge. I personally found it much more satisfying when Smalls shot the lizard off the rock as he rode by on his motorcycle. That reminds me… Remember how at the end of “Raising Arizona” Smalls kills H.I. McDonnough offscreen and takes the baby? That made the film so very satisfying. Oh, he didn’t do that? I guess that’s why “Raising Arizona” was a far superior film than “No Country” was.

    Comment by vaylen — February 25, 2008 @ 11:16 am

  24. Invoking Aristotle in a blog more pretentious than McCarthy’s “pop existentialism” in a novel, don’t you think? At least he struggled as a writer with his thoughts and ideas. The man has a Pulitzer for Christ’s sake.

    Also, Moss didn’t die in the swimming pool. That was the woman offering him beer. You can see his body is lying on the ground right before the shot of the Mexicans running to their truck. If you want your ideas to be taken seriously, please get the basic facts right!

    Comment by jyf — February 25, 2008 @ 5:02 pm

  25. I agree with jyf: as a film critic, you certainly don’t seem to watch the film very carefully. You made some obvious errors in your reporting of events in the film; this makes it harder to accept your subjective opinions about it.

    As someone who’s read ‘The Brave Cowboy’ (the Abbey book ‘Lonely are the Brave’ is adapted from), I wasn’t very happy with the changes they made in the adaptation – but I still think it’s a good movie.

    I would say the same thing about ‘No Country’. The main character/focus of the book is Bell – this is undoubtedly HIS story. Unfortunately, a huge amount of his story has been stripped from the screenplay. IMO, the main problems with the adaptation could have been fixed with an additional 15-20 screen minutes of Bell’s missing scenes and dialog from the book.

    At the very least, this would have solved the problem of what many people seem to think is an inexplicable shift of perspective at the ending, which it doesn’t feel like at all in the book.

    “…killing everybody who gets in his way, usually with a pneumatic bolt-gun used in slaughterhouses.”

    He kills exactly 1 person with this – in book and movie – for obvious

    As a film crit

    Comment by mark — March 2, 2008 @ 6:15 pm

  26. #25: You made some obvious errors in your reporting of events in the film; this makes it harder to accept your subjective opinions about it.

    You are right. I spelled Llewelyn’s name wrong. I referred to the drug money being in a satchel rather than a briefcase. I now learn that the bolt-gun was only used once. All that being said, I can’t imagine the movie being improved by more of Bell. He is essentially a Greek chorus. That might work okay in Sophocles, but in Coen-style film noir, it sucks.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 2, 2008 @ 6:25 pm

  27. I thought the movie was pretty good as far as keeping you on the edge of your seat. The ending didn’t bother me too much although I would like to have had a better idea as to how everyone ended up. My biggest problem was understanding Tommy Lee Jones when he was talking. When he sat at the breakfast table with his wife rambling on, I couldn’t understand a word he said… so I left the movie thinking the end was explained by him at the table but like I said I couldn’t decipher what he was saying.

    Comment by Jerc — March 9, 2008 @ 10:39 pm

  28. I have to say I completely agree with Louis on the movie. I thought it was riveting and suspenseful, well-directed and interesting… up until Llewelyn gets killed off-screen. My first thought was “After all the buildup between Llewelyn and Chigurh, he gets killed by the Mexicans and we don’t even see it!” WTF? After that, I was hoping that something profound would happen to justify the fact that the movie (and book apparently) killed off what was clearly the main character and the main plot point without a climax or resolution… unfortunately that didn’t happen.

    I also don’t understand how the new main character (Sheriff Bell) — I’m assuming based on the comments and Llewelyn’s death (and the title of the movie I guess), that he was intended to be the main character all along? — could have been completely removed from the story and the entire plot for the first 1:45 would have been exactly the same. I’m sorry, but I had to rewind his ending speech because I tuned it out too, and listening again didn’t clear anything up. I guess his dream was about his death and that his father is waiting for him, but I really didn’t get much connection at all to the story and there was obviously no resolution to any actual plot that I spent much of the movie riveted to.

    Reading all the comments on this post, I can sort of see where others believe this was some sort of existential story about fate or chance and in that context, Llewelyn’s death is somehow appropriate. I just didn’t see any of that while watching the film, which I guess was my loss. Perhaps it was clearer in the book.

    Comment by Bill — April 20, 2008 @ 4:07 am

  29. I think everyone missed the fact that Moss hid the money but not in the last hotel room, which means NO ONE ended up with the money.

    Comment by Anthony — April 20, 2009 @ 11:17 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: