Noir of the Week: No Country for Old Men

 

“…I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand.  A man would have to put his soul at hazard.  He’d have to say, ‘Okay, I’ll be a part of this world.’” – Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.

1980.  A gas station somewhere in Texas.  The station’s proprietor rings up a transaction and, taking a gander at the vast expanse of dry nothingness out the window, asks the customer in front of him if there’s any rain up his way – seeing as how he’s got Dallas plates on his vehicle.  The customer’s expression is unreadable.  He sighs as if there’s a job at hand and he withdraws a quarter from his pocket:  “What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?”  And slowly, through the course of a clumsy and dreadful conversation, the proprietor begins to realize every day in the gas station, with every customer walking through the door, in every attempt at small talk, he’s been gambling with his life.

In 2007, Joel and Ethan Coen presented No Country for Old Men, which would earn the brothers their first Academy Award for best picture.  (The Coens borrowed heavily and interfered little with their source material, Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name.)  Though generally admired by critics, No Country would alienate viewers with its graphic violence, anger more than a few people with its abrupt ending, and forever baffle movie store employees trying to shelve it under a genre header.  While Ethan Coen called it “the closest we’ll come to [making] an action movie,” action may be the last word that comes to mind when pondering the nature of No Country for Old Men.  The film is a wink and nod to Sam Peckinpah with its blunt and joyful violence; the photography basks in the Southwest landscapes in a way that recalls John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley; fists will clench through the suspense; laughter is often, and often uncomfortable.  Finally, a small, dark understanding from the viewer: this film is about me.

On the face of it, No Country for Old Men resembles the Coens’ earlier offerings of Fargo or Blood Simple.  The brothers are deft manufacturers of the noirish kind of crime procedurals that center on the simple man caught up in vicious circumstances beyond his control.  Here, our ordinary guy discovers two million dollars in a drug swap gone sideways.  His decision to keep it and flee will set two men on his trail: a psychopath bent on recovering the stolen cash and an aging sheriff trying to make sense of the new type of crime creeping into his county.  McCarthy’s novel offered the Coens a much more sobering and contemplative look at violence than previous films.  Dark humor is present but does nothing to temper the grisly nature of the story the way it did in, say, Fargo.  Violence is a silent partner in No Country, his capricious nature lending as much personality to the narrative as the three main actors.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a welder in the West Texas town of Sanderson when he stumbles across the leavings of a Mexican drug exchange while on a weekend hunting trip.  Brolin plays Moss as a straight shooter; you get the feeling he’s the type of guy who does a job right the first time.  Moss is no bumbler, but by the time the viewer meets him we’ve already seen two killings.  Neither is he naïve: after all, he finds the money amongst shell casing and bloated bodies, so he’s seen firsthand the violence this business provokes.  But like a lot of protagonists in the “everyman” noir genre, he’ll try to hedge his bets because he believes the possible payoff is worth the possible cost.  He may reckon two tours in Vietnam and sturdy Texan genes will help him through the aftermath of poaching drug money, but we know he’s doomed the second he slaps eyes on the cash.  Deep down, he might have the same inkling: “Things happen.  I can’t take ‘em back,” he tells panicky wife, Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald).   Moss’s coin has been flipped.  He’ll just have to decide how to call it.

Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, more chigger than sugar) is tracking Moss, sent by a nebulous crime organization to retrieve the money before the Mexican cartel.  We don’t learn Chigurh’s name until almost an hour into the film, but by then, we have all the information we need about him.  Namely, he sports a chilling Prince Valiant haircut, doesn’t like to get his feet bloody, and prefers to kill folks by way of cattle bolt.  One assumes he likes to keep things neat.  In McCarthy’s work, he’s described in barest detail: his one defining characteristic is a lack of sense of humour.  He’s a psychopath with warped ideas about fate, and the coin toss is a favourite trick of his.  It’s a callous way to decide whether or not to take a man’s life, but Chigurh’s got a twisted code of honor.  He believes the three separate paths of killer, victim, and coin have converged for a specific reason.  Later in the film, Chigurh confronts a fixer named Wells (Woody Harrelson) who’s been sent to dispose of him – Chigurh’s body count is climbing and making his shadowy bosses uneasy.  After he gets the drop on Wells, he mocks him, asking, “If the rule you followed led you to this, of what use was the rule?”  Chigurh’s honest with himself in a way that most of the world around him is not – even the smallest actions of yourself and those around you can have the highest consequences.  If you’re a part of society you must accept that.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is Terrell County’s venerable lawman, drawn into the chaos surrounding by the drug massacre that’s landed within his jurisdiction.  Tommy Lee Jones is one of those actors whose name and face should overshadow any role he plays, but there’s none of that here.  Jones is a deep-in-the-heart-of-Texas native and his craggy face and homespun way of speaking inserts him seamlessly into the story.  If the viewer identifies somewhat with Moss, and not-at-all with Chigurh, we are all in with Jones’ sheriff.  He is the only character whose internal voice the viewer is privy to, in a plainspoken voice over at the beginning of the film.  It’s Bell’s story really, more than it is Moss’s or Chigurh’s, and we sympathize with him by the end because it’s our story, too.  Bell may be a participant in a cynical story about death and violence, but his feelings are shared by anyone who has ever felt left behind or overmatched by changing times.  At the beginning of the film, Bell tells us that as a new deputy he knew police work was a job he had to be willing to die to do… but it is a sentiment he didn’t fully appreciate.  It’s a decision he made as a young man, feeling indestructible and not having seen the things men are capable of.  As an old man, he’s a parable: if you haven’t despaired of the world you live in, just wait.

By the end of the film, Moss is cornered by Chigurh.  Having made no decision other than to keep the money for himself and his wife and run as long as he can, Chigurh calls it for him.  He makes Moss a new proposition: give me the money and Carla Jean stays alive; keep it up and I’ll hold you both accountable for what you’ve done.  Still, Moss refuses the two outcomes.  His new plan to give Carla Jean the money and run is disastrous.  He’s gunned down by the Mexican cartel men, a factor he hadn’t given much credence to since encountering Chigurh.  Turns out another coin had been in the air all this time.  Everyone is given an exit in the film, even if some are ambiguous (and since when has life provided resolution to all our outstanding questions?)  Chigurh retrieves the drug money, and in a sweet irony (that reinforces his own beliefs about fate), is blindsided and grievously injured in a car accident, after killing Carla Jean.  He walks away, perhaps to enter another small town the way he entered Bell’s, perhaps not.  As for Bell, he has squared himself with his part in a violent world, and retired from the job to detach himself from at least part of it.

The Coens are fantastic world builders.  As writers and directors they are masters at adding minute quirks that orient their characters. (The fact that Moss picks up his empty shell casings while hunting speaks volumes about his nature.)  No Country for Old Men doesn’t feel like a period piece, probably because most of us are old enough to recognize the fashion and cars within the film, but the visual details in each scene are so suspiciously perfect, you wonder if the Coens used a time machine.  The cinematographer was the Coens’ ace-in-the-hole Roger Deakins, an old hand when it comes to filmmaking.  He makes the most of the location shooting (mostly dodgy motels and borderlands in Marfa, Texas and Las Vegas, New Mexico).  The music and dialogue are sparsely used – long stretches of absolutely nothing, sometimes punctuated by carefully chosen words or a few music notes.  The supporting cast is small, but strong, the standouts being Woody Harrelson and Garret Dillahunt, who plays Bell’s deputy, Wendell.  Harrelson can’t quite get beyond his identity as well as Tommy Lee Jones is able to.  He’s still Woody here, but that’s okay because his lines are few and the role calls for a certain cocksure quality Harrelson naturally provides.  Dillahunt’s role is small, but important.  Wendell is a reflection of Bell: he’s the young deputy Bell once was, more concerned with impressing “the old-timer” than with making sense of the violence around him.

When No Country for Old Men was released, critics were mostly positive, while audiences were mixed.  For some, the film contained too much gore and violence.  The contemplative tone was found boring and tedious.  Others felt cheated when the criminal element of the film took back burner and didn’t answer the questions raised: Who took the drugs?  Who does Chigurh work for?  Where did the money really go?   Perhaps, like the country its title alludes to, this film is not for everyone.  Perhaps you have to have learned how raw a raw deal can be to appreciate the anguish of it.  Most of those who had issues with the film were unsatisfied with the ending in which Sheriff Bell reveals a dream he’s had about his deceased father, also a lawman: “And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and that he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. Out there up ahead.”  And if you can see yourself in Bell, I’m willing to guess you’ve lost a few wagers yourself.

***

(Author’s note:  As always, if you are interested in classic film or films noir, please stop by the Film Noir Foundation. If you are interested in learning more about noir, head over to Steve’s wonderful Noir of the Week or the Back Alley Noir forums.

Poster by Emily at Minimal Movie Posters.)

Blood Simple.

(Here is my Noir of the Week review on Blood Simple for Steve-O’s wonderful NoTW site.)

“The world is full of complainers.  The fact is nothing comes with a guarantee.  I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or man of the year.  Something can all go wrong.  Go ahead, you know: complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help and watch him fly.  Now, in Russia they got it mapped out so everyone pulls for everyone else.  That’s the theory anyway.  But what I know about is Texas.  And down here, you’re on your own.” – Loren Visser, Blood Simple

So begins the voice-over introducing us to Joel and Ethan Coen’s somewhere-in-Texas world of Blood Simple.  On the face of it, Blood Simple is your basic homage to films noir in the grand tradition of Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice.  What the Coens deliver is a darkly humorous neo-noir so full of suspense, it would be at home on a shelf next to Hitchcock’s best.  Everything you’d expect to see in a noir is here, as if the Coens were using a recipe to craft the film: an adulterous woman, seedy bars and motel rooms, frame-ups, and double-crossers.  The Coens took their film’s title from Dashiell Hammett’s story “Red Harvest”: a term that describes the frame of mind a person is in after being exposed to murder or intense violence.  The film itself explores the characters as circumstances turn them all blood simple, and is as neatly crafted as any Hammett or James M. Cain story.

Dan Hedaya plays Julian Marty, a dyspeptic Greek bar owner, who is having his faithless wife Abby (Frances McDormand) and his employee, Ray, (John Getz) tailed by sleazy private detective Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh).  Marty’s scheme is simple, but about as sturdily built as a house of cards.  Visser double-crosses Marty, frames Abby, and plans to take the money and run, but crime is never that neat.  What ensues is like watching Abbott and Costello play a round of Russian roulette while doing “Who’s On First?”  A series of miscommunications, suspicions, and fatal assumptions have Abby and Ray eyeing each other warily while a predatory Visser circles on the outskirts of the plot.  The viewer is left in a unique position for this type of film – most directors would leave out key bits of information for cheap thrills and plot twists, but the Coens show their hand: we know who murders who, and how the deed was done.  The characters flounder and struggle while we look on, smug and full of dread.

The film’s small cast all fit comfortably into their roles, with Hedaya and Walsh being the standouts.  Hedaya plays Marty as noir’s typical impotent, cuckolded husband, his rage over Abby’s infidelity steadily simmering just below the surface.  He’s got a big house, a shiny car, a beautiful wife and absolutely no control over anything in his life, especially the rogue private investigator he’s just hired.  Hedaya’s character is an obvious parallel to Nick Smith’s (Cecil Kellaway) Greek diner owner in Postman, but he’s not the poor, sad sap Smith could be.  Marty is at all times smarmy and unlikable, unable to evoke any sympathy from the viewer.

As Abby, Coen brothers’ muse Frances McDormand is a modern noir female.  She’s an appealing crossbreed of both ingénue and femme fatale.  With her sweet, open face and big, guileless eyes we can see Abby may have once been naïve and idealistic, but a few years of marriage to Marty has distilled her Texan pragmatism.  She carries a snub-nose in her pocketbook with a vague notion of using it on Marty, should the situation present itself.

John Getz is arguably the weakest actor here, but that’s not saying much.  He’s not supposed to be the hero; he’s just trying to keep his head above water.  Ray is a simple man with not much to like or dislike about him, and through the course of the film we see his nerves stretch taut and begin to fray as he desperately tries to make sense of the violence surrounding him.  If inexperience keeps Getz and McDormand from fully evoking their characters’ emotions, the exceptional plot excuses them.  Ray and Abby spend a lot of the film looking bewildered, but who wouldn’t, trying to untangle this mess of murder?

The knockout performance of the film hails from its villain, a role written specifically for the actor.  Had the Coens produced Blood Simple on the heels of Fargo, it’s likely M. Emmet Walsh would have been given an Oscar nod.  Watching Walsh settle in as the husky, dissipated Visser is a real treat for the viewer.  With his high-crowned woven cowboy hat, chunky turquoise ring, and pastel yellow leisure suit, Visser borders on the comical but his calculating reptilian eyes veer him into the grotesque.  At separate points in the film a beetle and a fly land on Visser’s face and explore the terrain.  Whether it’s a bit of movie-making luck or orchestrated by the Coens, the viewer understands: here is a bottom-feeder; insects can smell the death on him.  Walsh is so good at being bad that by the end of the film you may be rooting for him, or at least hoping he’ll go out in a blaze of glory.  You will not be disappointed.

Fifteen years later the Coens would go on to write and direct The Man Who Wasn’t There, a send-up to noir so self-aware and referential that, in comparison, Blood Simple almost reads truer as a film noir.  Instead of being constrained by color here, the Coens play with it in between scenes of drab Texas landscape: Visser is half-bathed in shadow, half-lit in buttery Texas sunlight, or harshly lit crimson billboards rising out of a dark desert.  The cinematographer for the film was a young Barry Sonnenfeld, but the Coens meticulously storyboarded the story themselves.  The result is a style that doesn’t speak particularly to Sonnenfeld, but one that is visible later Coen films like Fargo and No Country for Old Men.  Stretches of highway and vaguely familiar landscapes make the film feel like a docudrama… this could have happened!  After all, truth is stranger – and funnier – than fiction, and it’s the funny parts of the film that keep it relatable.  At one point, as Ray struggles to clean up a bloody crime scene behind a two-way mirror, potential witnesses enter the bar and fire up The Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song.”  It’s a dark, absurdist humor commonplace in Coen films, making the audience chuckle in dismay while they wait for the other shoe to drop.  In a later interview Joel Coen would say Ray’s infamous burial scene would take just as much inspiration from Chuck Jones (creator of the coyote and roadrunner cartoons) as it did from Hitchcock suspense movies (one can almost see poor bungling Ray captioned in Jones’ pseudo-Latin: homicidius botchus.)

Like Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Blood Simple is one of those films that movie-goers would revisit after the Coens’ commercial successes of later films like Fargo and O, Brother, Where Art Thou?  It’s sometimes judged harshly when standing alongside the Coen canon of work, but small filming mistakes due to lack of budget, time and experience do not detract from the film’s overall impact.  Once the credits roll, the viewer will sit back and wonder at the richness of plot the Coens were able to build using only a handful of characters.  Here is a film revolving around murder and not once do we see a police officer!  Blood Simple opened in 1985, and though it took home the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance that year, it enjoyed most of its success much later amongst viewers willing to devote the time.  Make no mistake: this film is dense and plods along fairly leisurely, but it packs a wallop of a sucker punch at the end.  Put your feet up, nurse a drink and pay attention to the dialogue and small details… this film is worth the investment.

Blood Simple will be released on Blu-ray August 30, 2011.