Friday, November 23, 2007
Mortal Coils, Part II (Or: The Movie So Nice, I Had to See It Twice)
Warning: Spoilers herein
On Thanksgiving Day, in the spirit of the holiday, I took my parents to see No Country for Old Men. It was my second viewing of the film, their first, and it had been exceedingly difficult to persuade them to go. Based on the previews, they had been under the impression that the movie was about a serial killer who traveled the country selecting his victims based on flipping a coin. ("Call it, friend-o," is his witty catchphrase.) Excitedly I envisioned the Hollywood thriller that could have come of this, including a montage of the killer's crime spree: ordering waffles at a diner ("Call it!"); nailing a job interview ("Call it!"); getting a physical from his proctologist ("Call it!); offering a toast a wedding reception ("Call it!"). Ultimately, though, my folks saw the movie they had hoped to see otherwise, which appears to be an odd reaction: judging by the tempest in a teapot over on the comments board at the Internet Movie Database, a considerable portion of the audience isn't even sure of what the hell exactly it saw.
Much as I would like to be smug, the truth is that I wanted to see No Country again because I myself was uncertain about key plot points (and unsatisfied with my initial review). One reason for this, I'm sure, is because I haven't read the book. Another is that the Coens make movies for themselves. One critic complained about The Big Lebowski that the Coen brothers speak in a hidden language. That grievance is not inaccurate, and it could be applied to their entire body of work. Like many viewers, I've found that you need to spend considerable time in the world they inhabit, to pick up the language and learn the customs.
In recent years, the Coens have gone from filming strictly their own screenplays to adapting secondary source material: Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? loosely updated The Odyssey to Depression-Era America; Intolerable Cruelty was based on an original script by the guys who went on to write the limp family comedy Man of the House (amusingly also starring Tommy Lee Jones); The Ladykillers was a remake of the Alec Guinness/Ealing Studios black comedy classic of the same name. Beyond Oh Brother's music, none of these films worked for me; but in retrospect they served as an important transitional phase to getting out of their own heads and living in other people's worlds. (Wes Anderson, take note.) By adapting McCarthy's novel, they appear to have found the perfect fit for their interests and gifts. The result is the most ferociously focused film I've seen since L. A. Confidential--though unlike Curtis Hanson's classic, which stirs its pot to a full boil, the final 20 minutes of this film's meticulously constructed plot quite deliberately falls apart.
After my first viewing, I had no trouble following that Moss had been killed, that the Mexicans were following his wife and her mother to track down the money, and that the mother had died of cancer after an unspecified amount of time had elapsed. It took two viewings for me to realize that Moss had been killed by the Mexicans and not Chigurh, as I'd initially thought (for some reason, I feel comforted by this), and that Chigurh had in fact gotten away with the money by the time he sees Moss's wife.
The scene that has arguably stirred the most debate--possibly even more than the ending--is one that I'd initially felt certain about: When Sheriff Bell returns to the hotel room after Moss has been killed. We see a reluctant Bell standing outside the door, which he sees has had its lock popped by Chigurh's air gun. Bell appears to see a reflection in the lock hole, and then there is a cut to Chigurh, who seems to be directly behind the door looking at Bell's reflection in the same hole. Bell takes a deep breath, draws his gun, and kicks the door open to an empty room. He inspects the window, then notices an air vent--which we already know must have been where Moss hid the money--and then screws and a dime on the floor, to imply that Chigurh had been there. But when was he there? The two shots of the window suggested to me that Chigurh had been in the room right before Bell entered, and that in the few seconds' pause he had made his getaway. But my mom speculated that perhaps Chigurh's presence had been entirely in Bell's imagination. (Validation of either of these theories or other suggestions welcome.)
Some of No Country's confusion may be the result of an audience's general inability to infer communication visually, but I think most of it is derives from two elements: the choice to kill the movie's protagonist offscreen; and the featuring of a villain who doesn't abide by the rules of nature. Regarding the former, a valid argument could be made--and David Edelstein has made one--on an obligation to give an audience closure, as Carl Franklin did with the climax of his masterful thriller One False Move. In terms of the latter, Chigurh is described at least once (by Bell) as "a ghost," and there is an air of unreality to him that disengages him somewhat from the rules of the narrative. (I still don't get how or why he was arrested in the first place, considering how easily he could have dispatched of the deputy before getting cuffed and taken to the police staton.) Yet Chigurh is just human enough (missing his aim at a pigeon on a bridge, getting shot in the leg by Moss) that the audience understandably applies the same laws of physics to him as everyone else: he didn't have enough time to open the window and escape, right? On the other hand, I didn't see how he could have escaped so quickly from Moss during their shootout on the street, so I can't help but wonder: did he elude Bell too?
The Coens can be charged for using the character to suit their means and justify their ends, but I don't think they're being smartasses and deliberately pissing people off. There's too much affection onscreen for Moss and his wife (their relationship beautifully subverts white-trash cliches) and in the gallery of supporting characters in sporting goods stores, at trailerparks, along roadsides and on border patrols who by turns help and hinder Moss and Chigurh's respective quests (some live, some don't) to indicate that the filmmakers are being condescending or just playing mindgames. Moreover, it is in their nature to build a film organically, even a story that originally wasn't theirs; and as a result there is a lot for viewers to process. By the end, when Sheriff Bell reveals his dream, the imagery of his father riding on horseback, lighting the way ahead, is so ambiguous it could be interpreted as hopeful or dark, I've heard convincing arguments both ways. I've no doubt the Coens have their own ideas, but it's a measure of their generosity with this film that they leave the door open for alternate interpretations. Heads or tails, is what I think they are saying in the end. Call it, friend-o.