Mourning a bygone era that never existed

February 22, 2008

Rachel Cohen asks whether No Country for Old Men can be judged on craftsmanship alone.

MASTER FILMMAKERS Joel and Ethan Coen look poised to collect at least one more Oscar this year for their grisly, desolate thriller, No Country for Old Men.

Like their last Academy Award-winner Fargo, No Country couples the sublime with the absurd: elegant cinematography, expert editing and exceptional acting, juxtaposed with the colloquial quirks of small-town communities--as they grapple with a sudden wave of violent crime.

The Coen brothers' talent for building tension and their generally misanthropic view of the human condition has won them a significant following, and no shortage of praise has been heaped upon this effort. But its treatment of themes, from cowboy cultural identity in crisis to the value of American justice, raises some considerable concerns.

The film reportedly adapts Cormac McCarthy's book of the same title with near-perfect fidelity. McCarthy's fiction is known for its tendency to incorporate a fairly conservative philosophy into the traditional American crime drama. And this work is no different.

Review: Movies

No Country for Old Men, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Javiar Bardem.

As Rolling Stone notes, "Misguided souls will tell you that No Country is out for blood, focused on vengeance and unconcerned with the larger world...What do the criminal acts of losers in a flyover state have to do with the life of the mind? Plenty, as it turns out."

Set in 1980 in a border town marooned in the Texas desert, the plot begins with desperate Llewelyn Moss, an impoverished Vietnam vet, who attempts to grab a way out of the trailer park for himself and his wife, a Wal-Mart worker, by making off with a suitcase containing $2 million.

Having discovered the cash at the site of a drug deal gone hideously wrong, Llewelyn knows his choice is foolish. But as this story would have it, his fate is designed to serve as more than the plight of a hapless anti-hero. Instead, he has to answer for the full weight of the corruption of humanity, as his theft makes him the target of a super-human, sociopathic angel of death named Anton Chigurh.

Moss's tall, dark and seventies-hairdo-sporting stalker is a creature of invulnerability, possessed of an unrelenting drive to persecute a swift, merciless and twisted code of justice. His otherworldly gifts for timing, creepy dialog and, of course, murder, suggest his role in the unfolding carnage is to embody to destruction and greed of the modern age.

OPPOSED TO Chigurh's retributive moral code is a wobbling system of U.S. law enforcement, embodied by an aging, disenchanted sheriff, Ed Tom Bell. Providing the film its melancholy narration, along with some of its most countrified quips, Bell represents the voice of rural Texas.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Bell as sarcastic and wizened. But as Walter Kirn commented in his review of the book for the New York Times, Bell is also "an unreconstructed patriarchal geezer...His drawling, cracker-barrel soliloquies overflow with crusty red-state sentiments." These views come through in a subtle debate that winds through the film, as various characters converse with Bell and attempt to locate the root of the evil encroaching on the straight, if narrow, traditions of cowboy justice and Southwestern society.

"It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Any time you quit hearin' Sir and Ma'am the end is pretty much in sight." He complains about young people with "green hair and bones in their nose." From there, our sheriff reckons, the rest of our moral fabric plum disintegrates against what a fellow law man calls "the dreadful tide" of bad manners gone unchallenged, and values eroded.

This reasoning is problematic because it deals with increasing crime as though it resulted from a declining moral climate. It invokes a bygone era that never existed--a mythic American golden age of virtue and stability--and casts everything deemed to be new and different as part of the problem.

This dialog takes place amid an excruciating series of scenes in which nameless Mexican men are slaughtered. Apparently, they are willing participants in the cross-border traffic that the film portrays as the ultimate ruin of American society. It's hard not to assume that the concern over a "dreadful tide" isn't hinting at something much uglier: that the roots of the trouble lie across the border, and that immigration is the "dreadful tide" on which violence and lawlessness are flowing into a once proud America.

This view is trumped only by an even more pessimistic view offered up when an older former lawman reminds Bell of a story from generations past of a sheriff killed in cold blood on his front porch--by "Indians." The suggestion is that savage and irreverent violence is not a new phenomenon but has always lurked on the outskirts of white society--and it's always been clad in brown skin.

The overall effect is to prop up some of the more problematic formulations that one might expect to be hawked on conservative AM radio. It suggests law enforcement is too feeble to adequately protect "our side" of the border (so militarize it), things are getting worse (so we need a return to traditional values), and attempts to break free of working poverty end in disaster (so keep your head down).

No matter the craftsmanship behind No Country, the film's message merits no praise.

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