Sunday, February 24, 2008

No Country for Old Men (Spoiler Alert)

Why does the film quote Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium"? In the poem, the sensual world of the young is not for the old because it is at the same time the world of death. Seeking to transcend death, the speaker leaves that country for Byzantium, for "the artifice of eternity." While the brothers Coens' film is certainly concerned with human mortality, it is not impressed by the Yeatsian longing for artistic immortality. Yeats's dualism does not drive the film; the film, and the fates of its characters, are driven by the monochromatic force of chance.

If the film is not in dialogue with Yeats's poem, that is partly because it is a monologue. Before the first half hour is up, you get its thesis: chance decides our fate, and the hunter can easily become the hunted. For the first part of the thesis, you get the coin toss practised by the psychopathic hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), to decide if his victim lives or dies; for the second part of the thesis, you get Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) hunting pronghorn antelope before he is hunted down by Chigurh for making away with drug money. Without a countervailing force (the resigned wisdom of the sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), is more choric than active) the movie moves, unresisted, and for far too long, to its anticipated climax. I don't object to unrelieved bleakness, but the lack of relief here, the lack of hope, is grimly gleeful.

Take the ending of the film. It tempts the audience with generic conclusions, only to take them away. Moss, the good guy, does not kill the psychopath, as would have happened in an action film, but is killed by him when he jumped into bed with a woman he happened to meet by a hotel pool. Moss's wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), refuses to call heads or tails, in order to teach Chigurh that he chooses to kill, and not the coin. Chigurh does not learn this humanist lesson, but checks his soles for blood before leaving Carla Jean's house. Then, a car running a red light crashes into Chigurh, and, here, we think, is poetic justice: the man who stands for fateful chance dies by fateful chance. However, Chigurh crawls out of his car, bone sticking out from his arm; he survives and wanders off, alive somewhere. In all these reversals of conventional endings, I sense a manifesto, a program, and so, while I was sickened by the blood and casual violence, I was never seriously shaken to the foundations of my being, the place I think the film is shooting for.


Eshuneutics said...
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Eshuneutics said...

The denial of a moral ending is often disturbing. A sort of existential meaninglessness? I have not got as far as seeing the film, doubt that I will. I suspect the Yeats was just a good title. Poetry is good for that :).

Jee Leong Koh said...

Maybe the book deserves the title better; the film does not.