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_No Country for Old Men_, its precedents

Last night my brother Paul and I saw the new Coen Brothers film No Country for Old Men. Walking out of it, Paul seemed bothered by the nihilism -- or the lack of a satisfactory conclusion -- of the film.



Speaking with him, I said that "It's a one-week movie. Some movies you watch, and you don't think about them again. Other movies you think about for a day. No Country you figure out a week later."

Warning: plot spoilers ahead.

I'm still figuring the film, which has been praised by the critics, but surely has left many filmgoers unsatisfied. Why? The villain, psychopath Anton Chigurh (played marvelously by Javier Bardem), does not die in the end.

Full disclosure: I loved this movie. It is so noirish, and the total (I think) lack of non-diegetic sound results in a surreal realism -- if there is such a thing -- that amps up the suspense of No Country to levels not seen by the horror genre.

There is a philosophic reason for this. Based on a novel by the impenetrable documentarian of violence, Cormac McCarthy, the film forces the viewer to choose between twin endgames: the way of absurd, violent nihilism (represented by Chigurh) or the way of "normal" humanity and optimism (represented by Tommy Lee Jones' character Sheriff Ed Tom Bell).

Down to the level of the character names, Sheriff "Bell" represents the folks that gather in community together, against Chigurh, whose name, pronounced "shi-gur," as is noted in the film, creates a torture of all things sweet: sugar. And Chigurh strikes me as one of the most solitary characters in a film.

The rest of the characters are proles caught in the chase of big money, even the gangster Mexicans whose corpses litter the film, and white businessmen, and especially the film's mouse, Josh Brolin's Llewelyn Moss. As his surname suggests, while he thinks he is running along the road on the same terms as the seemingly supernatural Chigurh, he is prostrate, and fated for tragedy for his hubris -- he believes he can get away with $2 million from a US/Mexico border deal gone bad.

Sheriff Bell views all of this from his distant vantage point, and with attempts at cynicism, but he can make no sense of the human violence he has witnessed. Chigurh's killing spree functions as a horrifying retirement gold watch, and as the film ends, his dialogue seems unimportant (or at least really hard to remember), but his tone is that of the confused viewer with no answers for the cheapness of human life.

Sheriff Bell's vantage point is, of course, ours, and confronted with nihilism and evil, he can only stand motionless as the tentacles of evil surround him. The man cannot even pray for for the innocent to be spared slaughter; Chigurh is still out there, still out there, still out there.

It is true: we are all positioned in such a manner. We know the violence and death of the world, which an intelligent person could term inexorable, methodical, unstoppable. You know the figures -- 6 million dead Jews, 20 million dead Russians, dead Cambodians, dead Iraqis, dead Americans, dead men, women, elderly, children, babies. Dead, dead, dead. Killed and killed.

We avoid confronting this fact of humanity: more will die, and we can do nothing. There are no prayers, there is no stopping this. And things have always been like this: one man killing another, and another man watching.

In its way, No Country for Old Men recalls some of the great works in its confrontation of this theme. Those who say of this film, "I didn't like it," are at some level uncomfortable with how the film, like a slow maze, forces you to agree: Yes, violence has no meaning or logic; the stories we put around it -- Us versus Them -- utterly fail.

Chigurh lives because he is not a real person as much as he is the instantiation of inexorable violence. Animals, and men, kill, and always will.

Upon further thinking, I realized that No Country has a precedent in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Compare the titles -- very parallel in idea and intonation. The Misfit kills the lambs for no reason, and walks off. So does Chigurh.

No Country addresses violence masterfully using Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt or alienation effect. That's why you don't leave with a smile on your face -- no one can with this film, I think.

"I am content," says the villain Shylock says in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. But Chigurh and death's march will never be content. We call this "modernism" or "postmodernism" -- the disposition that assumes this absurdity of human existence.

I could talk much more about the film -- it's the kind to go right back and see in the theatre again. But perhaps I should say that this film doesn't feel like a "Coen Brothers" flick. It feels like a Cormac McCarthy film, and a couple of my fellow graduate students were indignant at reading one of McCarthy's novels, as so too will you be indignant at No Country for Old Men -- delightfully so.
 
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