Saturday, November 24, 2007

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN



All kinds of spoilers ahead, so if you're planning to see the movie, ignore this post altogether. Well, maybe not altogether, but at least don't read it until you've seen the movie. After all, I want people to read these posts. I spend as many as five minutes writing them!


The MacGuffin is a film term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock to describe a plot device or object within a plot that is essentially the cause of the movie's action. For example, in Lord of the Rings, the ring is the MacGuffin. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, it's the Ark. In Pulp Fiction, the briefcase with the glowing interior is the MacGuffin (Tarantino was actually satirizing the process by never actually showing what was inside the case, since it ultimately didn't matter -- all that mattered was that we knew it was valuable).

Some critics argue that 'MacGuffin' is something of a ridiculous term in relation to a movie plot, since ultimately, everything within a movie acts as a vehicle for the plot in one way or another. This is kind of a big picture analysis that some film theorists like to make in order to be party poopers. It's equivalent to the "we're all going to die sometime" line of nihilistic thinking that someone might make in a theoretical argument over which would be worse, bleeding to death or drowning. No no, the fun is in the guessing! Sure, it's a morbid game, but that's the point! Oh, you're no fun, Grandma. And sure it's appropriate conversation at Christmas dinner!

Anyway, No Country For Old Men features a classic MacGuffin (a briefcase full of money) but it develops into something perhaps more akin to the Coen Brothers' take on this nihilistic point of view. As the film goes on, it gradually becomes apparent that the characters are MacGuffins to Anton Chigurh's story. The briefcase found by Llewelyn Moss only serves to put people in Chigurh's way and, as we soon learn, that means they're dead. End of story. The one exception is a gas station employee that Chigurh spares early in the film apparently only due to a coin flip. Yes, that's right, a character in a Tommy Lee "Two-Face" Jones film used a coin flip to decide a person's life. I wonder if Jones pointed out this coincidence during the shoot, or kept his mouth shut for fear that reminding people he was in Batman Forever would cause the Coens to throw him off the set.

The film is fascinating in its slow unraveling of plot, as Moss tries to get away with his found money and Chigurh simply stays after him with the calm persistence of Pepe Le Pew chasing a female feline victim of a paint spillage. Usually in a movie like this, Moss (Josh Brolin) is the protagonist and you figure the story will eventually lead to Moss turning the tables on Chigurh and leading to a showdown where either Chigurh dies, or both die and Moss is able to go out a hero by saving his wife. Brolin's calm screen presence seems to back this up. This guy isn't a Jerry Lundegaard who is so nervous you just know things will fall apart. Moss seems only a shade less calm than Chigurh and may have what it takes to....uh, nope.

I would expect Javier Bardem to win a supporting Oscar for his role as Chigurh, partially because he's also excellent in the upcoming Love In The Time of Cholera and thus the Academy will likely give him one award to sum up his body of work in the year, partially because NCFOM may be too violent to win Best Picture and thus the Academy will still want to award the film something, and (oh yeah) because he's excellent in the role. Chigurh instantly joins the list of iconic characters in Coen brothers films that people will remember years from now. The role certainly doesn't take a lot of emotion from Bardem (as my friend Matt put it, "I could've played that role just by being comatose") but his utter lack of anything but slightly amused determination makes for one creepy villain. Even when Moss evades him and Chigurh is shot in the leg, he doesn't get mad. He just cleans up his wound and goes back to the hunt --- oh yeah, after blowing up a car in order to get into a drug store to get bandages without anyone noticing. Yikes.

This is the kind of work that Chigurh puts into covering his tracks that leaves the movie's other central character, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (the similarly tri-named Tommy Lee Jones) stunned and disheartened. There's no respectful acknowledgment that "he's the best" or some such dialogue. Everyone refers to him as a psychopath. Even when Stephen Root's businessman character refers to him as "the ultimate bad-ass," but bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) dismisses that notion. Yet, the scene also establishes Wells as one of the few people who has even seen Chigurh and lived. He becomes like a creature of myth --- even the name, 'Chigurh' sounds like a creature from Olde English myth, like something Beowulf would hunt. What NCFOM essentially is is the Coens' deconstruction of the film trope of the one-man killing machine. This isn't like Hitman or Rambo, or even something like Silence of the Lambs where you leave the theatre thinking the killer is kind of cool. Here you leave saying the same thing that many of Chigurh's victims say: he "didn't have to do this" and "these people didn't have to die" for Chigurh to get what he wanted.

The ending is pretty low-key, and the group I saw it with was pretty disappointed with it. Sheriff Bell retires after Moss' death out of the feeling that things are getting just a bit too evil in the world for him to keep up with. The final scene is Bell relating a dream to his wife that seems to imply that all he's doing is waiting for the end to come. I thought it was kind of fitting. Bell is simply facing his fate, just as the rest of the characters in the film do except fate is personified as Chigurh. Actually, I was a bit confused by a scene near the end where Bell investigates a motel room for the still-not-found satchel of cash. We see Chigurh nearby with his rifle ready to go, and yet he surprisingly doesn't kill the sheriff. We see in the first scene of the movie that Chigurh is willing to kill police, so I was kind of curious that Bell was seemingly spared here. At the time I thought this was a sign that Bell would be the one to ultimately finish off Chigurh and thus the killer's one mistake would come back to haunt him, but instead the sheriff just retires to his ranch. Perhaps the unspoken message is that Chigurh is on his way to eventually kill Bell, or perhaps Bell is taking the easy way out. Bell realizes he "doesn't have to do this" himself, i.e. hunt Chigurh. Put it this way: if you were the only one in the pool who survived a shark attack, would you want to hop into the water with a spear-gun to go kill the big fish or would you sit back and just thank your lucky stars? Note: rhetorical question only applies if you're not Robert Shaw.

This is definitely among the Coen brothers' best movies and thus is certainly one of the best I've seen this year. Either it gets a passel of Oscars or else the Coens send Chigurh after the Academy.

3 comments:

Dallas said...

I loved the film too, although I was plagued by Chigurh nightmares afterwards.

RT Murphy said...

While I haven't seen the flick yet, but now will, I just wanted to comment on something you say early on. A very important defining feature of the MacGuffin is that its nature has little to no significance to the plot. So, in Pulp Fiction, what it actually was didn't even matter, it was just a plot device for people to chase. But in the LOTR books and movies, the One Ring is well-explored/developed and quite integral to the plot; its use is even frequent early on. It's not a MacGuffin, at least not in the first movie.

Sorry, got reamed out in a screenwriting class in undergrad for just such a statement. Film people are touchy.

Chad Nevett said...

Saw this for the second time tonight and focused on the motel scene where Bell is left alive. One thing that occurred to me, as one of the big motifs of the film is fate/chance, is maybe Chigurh was in the room right next to the one where Moss was killed, hiding out there briefly--once again at the scene of the crime, but not where you expect him. You almost get the sense that Bell could have went in either door. I'd have to see it again to notice if the lock of the other room was shot out as well.

Or, I could be completely off. Only because I don't see how Chigurh would have left the motel room since the window was locked from the inside and the vent was obviously too small for him (or it looked that way).