Written by James Zborowski.
In this Alternate Take I want to think about aspects of No Country for Old Men under three main headings.
The film begins with a series of shots of starkly beautiful near-desert landscape, over which we hear the voice of Tommy Lee Jones. His character, Ed Tom Bell, will not appear onscreen for quite some time (and not until the main business of the plot has been set in motion), but in this opening voiceover we learn that he is a sheriff, and we listen as he thinks about himself in relation to all the ‘old timers’ of his profession - some of whom didn’t have to carry guns - whose stories he seeks out, and as he muses over one of his cases in particular: the murder of a fourteen year old girl by a nineteen year old male who confessed that, given the chance, he would murder again.
Tone and response
One person with whom I have discussed No Country said that she thought the film was nihilistic - or something close - in its outlook. Such a stance could certainly be interestingly elaborated upon; as part of the elaboration I would wish to see a distinction made between what the film suggests can be done about that which it depicts (nothing, which is what invites a reading of nihilism) and its attitude towards this fact (which is, I think, serious and sorrowful - not adjectives associated with a common way of understanding nihilism).
At the end of one of the screenings I attended, I overheard someone tell her friend that No Country was the most gratuitously violent film she had ever seen, and that the violence was completely emotionless. (We have returned to something close to the nihilism argument/charge.) It is certainly true that Chigurh, the movie’s main perpetrator of violence, kills without remorse. It is also the case that the movie’s choices of presentation and construction mean that the acts of violence are not editorially ‘placed’ as decisively as one can imagine them being: there is very little music, and there are few moments where characters reflect upon and condemn violent deeds. There are some such moments though, typically involving Ed Tom. The attitudes he expresses to what he sees together with what I have taken to be the film’s desire to encourage us to reflect upon what is represented prevent No Country from being gratuitous or truly emotionless. Rather, what I would suggest we have is an interesting instance of a disjunction between the movie’s mode of presentation, and the mood that mode is intended to evoke in the viewer.
No Country is quietly audacious in its structure in many ways. Its three main characters are for the most part kept separate. Llewelyn and Chigurh share a gunfight and a telephone conversation. By the time Ed Tom reaches Llewelyn, the latter is already dead. Ed Tom enters a motel room that Chigurh is hiding in, but Chigurh slips away. Furthermore, a significant proportion of the film’s screen time is taken up by scenes involving only one character - and without music, voiceover or (with one brief exception) talking-to-self to provide interest or explication. A large part of the interest of these (and other) scenes is provided through a combination of aspects of detective movies and what are sometimes called ‘procedurals.’ No Country is full of clues. Near the beginning, an injured dog and a trail of blood lead Llewelyn to the aftermath of a shootout, which is in a sense a big set of clues about what happened. A large part of Llewelyn’s attempt to make a ‘clean getaway,’ to borrow the film’s tagline, involves him trying to erase any clues to his whereabouts - clues which Chigurh and Ed Tom (always one step behind) are intent on discovering. Whether in the desert or the city, the main characters are using the skills of hunter-gatherers, or trying to second-guess the use of such skills by others. In terms of ‘procedure,’ we get engrossing passages where, for example, Llewelyn stashes the money in a motel air duct then retrieves it from a different room using a device fashioned from a wardrobe rail, wire coathangers and tape, and where Chigurh uses an elaborate method to blow up a car so that he can steal pharmaceuticals during the ensuing panic and then dress his gunshot wounds in a motel room.
The aspect of No Country’s structure which most strongly violates our expectations is undoubtedly its ending. We dissolve from a scene which concludes with Llewelyn being propositioned by a woman at the poolside of a motel to Ed Tom driving up to that motel as gunmen are making a getaway and finding Llewelyn shot dead inside. After this there is a scene where Chigurh kills Llewelyn’s wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) , and two much less plot-related scenes involving Ed Tom: one where he visits an elderly, wheelchair-bound relative; and another (the final scene of the movie) where he tells his wife about his dreams. In terms of structure and of pacing, this is certainly an odd set of decisions. However, one way to begin to get a handle on what is going on might be to ask the question ‘whose film is this?’
Thinking of Chigurh as the central character is interesting. As much as Llewelyn, it is Chigurh who drives events forwards, and we spend similar amounts of time with both characters. Indeed, it is Chigurh, the villain, who achieves his goals and escapes punishment at the end of the film. (We are not shown the moment where Chigurh retrieves the money though. Instead, we see, with Ed Tom, on the floor of Llewelyn’s motel room, an air conditioning duct grille, removed with one of Chigurh’s fateful coins, which he has left behind.)
Ed Tom, though, gets the movie’s first and last words, as it were, and is probably the closest thing the film has to what is often termed a ‘moral centre.’ If the film is thought of as the story of his involvement in events and reactions to them, of his attempt and failure to help Llewelyn, always arriving too late, then both the treatment of Llewelyn’s death (we arrive, with Ed Tom, too late) and the coda sequence seem more justified.
The film’s treatment of Ed Tom, the extent to which it allows him to get into the movie, may be consistent with its thematic concerns, but one can still justifiably complain that this results in problems for the film’s structure and pacing which could have been solved a little more elegantly. The way the film hesitates between its three main characters, privileging each at different points and in different ways, can be thought of as a deficiency and as being inextricably bound up with the film’s achievements. It is a feature that is in itself perhaps unsatisfactory, but which is also central to some of the things about No Country for Old Men that are most interesting.
This Alternate Take was published on February 17, 2008.
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