24 November 2007

No Country For Old Men

Two years ago, when I read Cormac McCarthy's novel, it reminded me of a Coen Brothers movie. That was because of the author's way with regional speech patterns and a certain spiritual resemblance to the Coens' Fargo in the opposition of a folksy sheriff to hapless and implacable criminals. Now the Coens have filmed a quite faithful adaption of the book and have earned plaudits for it nearly across the board.

No Country For Old Men is about a hunter who stumbles upon the remains of a drug deal gone bad, including a briefcase with millions in cash. A hired killer is sent out to retrieve the money but goes rogue so that other killers are sent after him. Throughout, the folksy sheriff tries to protect innocents while worrying over the new extremes of crime circa 1980, the time of the story. The hunter outwits or simply escapes from the primary killer several times. The killer himself becomes the most memorable character, being monomaniacal and convinced of his own personal code of conduct rooted in fate. The story seems to point toward a climactic showdown between the sheriff and the killer, but McCarthy tries to show that he's above genre conventions by denying his readers the consummation they expect. The Coens follow him in this, which makes the ending even more perplexing because they've filmed all that comes before in very effective thriller style.

McCarthy has a point. It became clearer to me after I read his next novel, The Road. That's a postapocalyptic fable about a father and son trying to reach the ocean following a nuclear war. As they survive the horrors of the ruined world, it becomes clear that McCarthy is challenging the whole survivalist, "country boy can survive" mentality in popular culture. The father in The Road is concerned only with saving his son and himself, and has to be goaded by the boy to help anyone else in any way. Ultimately we see that there's no future for the father, but there may be for the son in an attempt to rebuild a society.
Looking back at No Country now that the film is out, I see a similar message in the fate of the hunter who is determined to defeat his pursuers on his own. He has plenty of skills and has some success, but even without having read the book moviegoers should realize that his struggle is futile. The point isn't to confirm the killer's notions about inexorable fate, but that no one can win if we insist on depending only on ourselves. The more we do that, the more we're likely to succumb to notions like the killer has of being a mere instrument of doom but also a law unto himself. In this context, the denial of a mano-a-mano showdown is supposed to teach us that the larger picture, the social malaise the sheriff laments, can't be resolved by single combat. Toward the end, the sheriff confesses to feeling "overmatched" by events, but is reproached for his guilty feelings over retiring. To think that he alone might make a difference is vanity.

The novel was a best-seller and the theater I went to this evening was packed full, but I have to wonder what the word of mouth will say about the film. It's too soon for me to appraise the film on its own merits, since I couldn't help but see it the first time as only an illustration of the book. I will say that, despite the original affinity with the source material, the film is very unlike other Coen films. There's almost no music on the soundtrack, and the cinematography is more naturalistic than most of the brothers' previous efforts. The main actors are all new to the Coens; there are none of the familiar grotesques like Steve Buscemi, John Goodman or Jon Polito, nor the archetypal suavity of George Clooney. Most of the Coen-like dialogue comes straight from the novel. It's a stark, rigorous movie but most people are likely to find it fatally anticlimactic. At first glance, it's a major improvement on their weak work from earlier this decade, but I wouldn't rank it with the Coens' best efforts. Nor will I join the people who are calling it the best film of the year. Right now I'd put it behind Zodiac and Grindhouse, but there's still time to think this over, and there are more films to see before the year is out.

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