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.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your analysis that the Coen Brothers have left it to the viewer to decide what has happened.

My intake was we have an old sheriff nearing retirement and he's getting concerned that he is not going to make it. Also, there is a saying in the west no sheriff wants to die with his boots on. After Chigurh made his grand entrance by knocking off the Deputy Sheriff in his own office Sheriff Bell felt even more vulnerable. As the movie processes along he suddenly realized this current type of criminal mindset has changed.There was no caliber bullet used in the latest rodeside killing. The weapon of choice was an airgun. Sheriff Bell knew his law enforcement career was over because he couldn't deal with this type of senseless killer.

The scene outside the motel room door with Sheriff Bell showed him mustering the courage to enter the room. When he realized Chigurh wasn't in the room his exhasted relaxed expression was obvious when he sat down. Bell's courage was tested and once again it held. At that moment, he knew he could retire with pride knowing that he had given his best to law enforcement. For me that came through loud and clear in the last scene with his wife. He look very contended in doing nothing.

Sheriff Bell didn't want to die on the job. By contrast, most employees today have to work beyond retirement.


Craig said...

Tom, thanks for your incisive comments. The "die with your boots on" idea is particularly apt, I think, for considering Bell's motives and one of the overarching themes of the movie.

I have a slightly different take on his dream and expression at the end. I see the dream of his father as Bell's idealized version of justice (hailing from a long line of sheriffs), and his haunted expression at the end as a sense of failing to live up to that ideal. I've half-joked about his leisurely approach to the case, but I also see it as a mark of his fear. Remember when he and his deputy -- the Deadwood guy -- just miss Chigurh at Moss's trailer home, with the milk on the table? Bell claims that there's nothing they can do, but going to the office where the woman could have given them a full description of Chigurh would have been a step in the right direction. I see his expression at the end conveying the sense that he could have done more, and done it faster (having just missed later on, again, Moss and the Mexicans, and then Chigurh), but didn't.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your comment concerning Sheriff Bell. I missed completely the Sheriff's lack of interest in pursuing any leads found at Moss's trailer.

Do you think the Coen Bros' idea wae nothing more than to have a movie with the plot being a dream? My dreams after waking up are all mucked up like the last fifteen minutes of this film.


Craig said...

I'm not wild about interpreting films as dreams; that leaves too much wiggle-room for the filmmakers, too many opportunities to cop-out. But I agree that the movie has a dreamlike feel and leaves you feeling out of sorts. It doesn't have logic-logic but it has a dream-like logic, if that's what you're saying.

Anonymous said...

Yes, a dream-like logic. As you said, the movie has a dream-like feel.