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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

My New Appreciation for No Country for Old Men, Curtesy of a Theory about Storytelling

On first viewing No Country for Old Men, I was surprised by how suspenseful this supposedly literary movie was. I found myself pulling for the Josh Brolin character, Llewelyn Moss, just as I would for the hero in a really good action flick. When (spoiler alert) the cameras find him dead in a hotel room, I felt like I'd been had. Here was another perfectly good story ruined by the author's compulsion to preach to us about something every seven-year-old knows: this is just a movie and real life doesn't work like this.

But if this was supposed to be a movie to upset our notions about what movies are and to sabotage narrative's influence on how we view reality it was a really bad decision to have the story feature a villain right out of a comic book. And Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem, really does play a comic-book villain--as Tommy Lee Jones ought to know. He's supposed to symbolize death and randomness, and on first glance it seemed to me the role was created pretty heavy-handedly. After Moss's death, which was built up to brilliantly but for that very reason comes as woefully disappointing, I lost interest in the rest of the movie. Chigurh shows up to kill Moss's wife after the main conflict is over just rub in how evil he is and how horrible it is that the good guy lost. But,then, as if it was supposed to be some revelation, he gets t-boned while driving away from her house--death personified suffers from the whims of chance too. I walked out wishing I'd left twenty minutes earlier.
Watching it again was different. I'd been reading William Flesch's Comeuppance for a paper on James Joyce's story "The Dead." This time the reason why Moss is a sympathetic character was more clear. He could have absconded with the money he finds at the scene of a drug deal that went bad, but he returns later that night to bring water to a man who begged him for some earlier. Moss is doomed because he was acting in his rational self-interest when he took the money. But we want to see him get away with it because he's also profoundly altruistic.
Everything about Chigurh says selfish actor, so we want to see him thwarted and punished.
But the main character in the movie isn't Moss. The narration begins and ends with Jones's character Sheriff Bell. The struggle framed in the opening scene is not between Moss and Chigurh but between the salvation and loss of Bell's soul, which is threatened by all the violence and senseless death he's made to witness. Moss's off-screen death isn't designed to cast us out of the narrative frame (though the Cohen brothers might not have realized this) but because that's just how it happens for Bell. Soon after Moss's shooting, there's even a tense near-confrontation between Chigurh and Bell, like a proxy for the confrontation we were expecting to see. Ultimately, Bell has to quit his post as Sheriff to save his soul--meaning he's not responsible for the murder scene after the death of Moss's wife.
The costly signaling in this story is not of McCarthy's recognition and volunteered affect for his character's altruism, but of the author's willingness to concentrate so long and so intently on the darkest corners of human nature. His proxy character is Bell, not Moss.
And Chigurh does something interesting at the end--something which echoes Moss's behavior at the beginning of the story. He has the money. He could easily take off. But he'd tried to make a deal with Moss for the life of his wife and Moss turned it down. On principle, Chigurh fulfills his promise and returns to kill her--and he pays the price for it when he gets in the wreck. This, oddly enough, is an example of costly punishment. It even has a tinge of altruism: if people don't keep their ends of deals, how can a cooperative society function? So we're not looking at purely rational self-interest--what we're used to rooting against in stories--but rather altruism turned inside out. The second time watching the movie I actually felt slightly sympathetic toward him after the wreck. Hadn't he killed the selfish bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harlson) and the drug lord (Stephen Root) who hired them both? He'd even killed two other bad guys at the outset of his search for Moss. True he kills good guys too. But he's something different, something more interesting than the run-of-the-mill killers for hire. And he's more than what his character is supposed to symbolize.


caynazzo said...

I loved the movie because it was a horror flick on the high plains. Reminded me a little of 7.

However, I have to agree with your first impression over the second. The Coens failed to put enough emphasis on who was the main character.

There's no ambiguity in the book.
The storyline follows Bell and so Moss' unceremonious end is not a cheat. The title of both is interesting because it's not the old conservative whine about corrupted modern times and a pining over the days of yore that never where. Bell falls into this mindset throughout the story, perhaps as a way to cope with what he's seen. However, the conversation he has with this father is a corrective: cruelty and mayhem always were in the southwest. The land doesn't change; it changes you. It hardens people, ages them. And once aged you no longer belong. Early retirement.

Chigurh is an absolute force, a highly principled ascetic...even supernatural. McCarthy has him operating outside any societal divide, customs and rules--even those of fellow bounty hunters--(which might explain the haircut he was given in the movie). McCarthy writes bad guys very well. Remember the Judge in Blood Meridian?

Pointless trivia: McCarthy is George W. Bush's favorite author.

Dennis said...

I can't imagine Dubya reading some of McCarthy's less accessible stuff--but then it's hard to imagine him reading at all.

I agree about Chigurh--reminds me of Terminator, but more interesting.