A few thoughts on The Coen Bros. No Country For Old Men

I’ve heard that once you finish writing a book and set it out into the world, it ceases to become yours and it becomes the work of the reader. I understand that somewhat.

Sometimes I’ve had people give me feedback on a poem, short story, or piece and tell me what they got out of it. I find the process of authorial transference to reader consciousness fascinating. It’s like coming up with an idea and watching people riff on that, eventually the idea becomes an independent entity this way. I find the same thing happens with film.

When screenwriters give their scripts to filmmakers, they release the visual interpretation of their words to the director. As in the case with No Country For Old Men, Cormac McCarthy wrote the novel, Scott Rudin bought the rights to the film, the Coen brothers then adapted it into a screenplay to make into a film. The film is seen by audiences to parse in their minds. I haven’t read much criticism on this film and I’ve seen it many times though and know that there are a few books out there that are dedicated to the critical parsing of it.

For me, I’ve enjoyed its silence, its in depth character study in that silence, the epic scenery, and the realization that it’s actually a visually loud film in all that muteness. There is also a huge difference between watching a film like this on the small screen and seeing it loom large on the big screen. I’ve made it a point to watch as many films on a big screen as much as I can purely for the fact that I notice so much more in it’s re-watching in a theatre. No Country For Old Men last night was a new experience for me upon its re-watch at the Lightbox.

For the purposes of time (I have to go put up the Xmas tree and work on some overdue poems), and a lack of brain cells (I stayed up way too late), I’d like to jot some things down and share with you before the steam train leaves my head station (and pardon the quick no grammar/spell check. I’ll come back and edit if necessary later).:

  • There’s definitely music in the film. When I got home I immediately wiki’d and imdb’d the hell out of it and besides the ambient noise, there are instruments being played at times. That’s one of the things I couldn’t really discern on the dvd. I mean, I cop it to being possessed by the film; for the film subtly gets under your skin. Besides the ones I’ve seen pointed out (the first coin toss – humming, the buddhist bells in the desert scene), there are natural sounds and that’s something I’ve paid attention to before. My favourite on the re-watch is the great street shootout between Llewelyn and Chigurh. As Llewelyn gets up, he fires a series of shots at a car where Chigurh is supposedly hiding. We hear the car tires deflate and the bullets ricochet from all over. Llewelyn is right by the car, picks up a rifle, and we hear the faint, but definite chug of a train trundling in the near vicinity.

Of course, setting this film in the western genre, a train is very symbolic. However, in the context of the film, it takes this symbolism in a variety of analytic levers.

  1. Trains were a symbol of the industrial revolution in the time the classic western was usually set.
  2. In No Country For Old Men, it’s a reminder of that, but also part of the recurring “something is coming” theme. Fate plays a big part in the film (If things are meant to be, they work out, if they don’t, you’ll get killed). The trundle of a train is steady and you can’t really run away from its set path. It’s either doom or be doomed.
  • A few scenes caught my eye that reminded me of the way Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock used to set up single person shots. It’s kind of a short tableau vivant (something directors Alain Resnais & Claire Denis drag out, as do the Coen brothers usually) and/or rather more like watching a moving graphic novel.

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The above being one of my favourite scenes for that. There’s something very clean and OCD about it. The lines around Wells frame him in his absurdity. A veteran who is, in every sense of the definition, the embodiment of the western hit man: he’s got an omniscient knowledge of things beyond the scope of the viewer or the people he deals with. He’s smooth and calm, even when confronting his possible end. Yet there he is clean-cut in a power suit, but he’s wearing a white cowboy hat. He is the corporate cowboy. A contemptible notion, but when you think of a cowboy going from veteran to fighting for the power that drives the money, it makes ridiculous sense. Yes, this is a Texan fashion (having seen it when I lived in Dallas myself), but in the context of the film, he’s the only one wearing a power suit and a cowboy hat.

Just before Wells leaves the office, he asks about the missing floor. I may be wrong, but he might be referring to the missing “13.” In the line of work that he is in, he notices these things. It’s also a way of his pointing out that even in the buildings that house the money, old school superstitions still come into play, thus alluding to an assumed lack of control over fate.

In the realm of symbolism and impending doom, this is the one that sticks out:

As Chigurh approaches the windowed door, his shadow transforms into a black triangle comprised of circles. There’s something very esoteric in that symbol. It very well mean nothing, but if we can delve into an occult meaning of light, all seeing eyes, and the figures of light and power, that scene pretty much shows elements to that effect. The women at the counter refuses to give Chigurh the information he demands, even challenging him with her expressions. The totally utilitarian Chigurh can easily kill this woman, but the fact that someone is in the other room, and that she has agency over him with the information she holds, would have made her death illogical. The man that can kill indiscriminately (God), leaves the room a bit emasculated in the moment. It’s a hilarious scene for that.

  • I think this is my last one I can think of at the moment. I love love love LOOOOOOOVE the settings in this film. They’re so palpable, they remind me of travelling desert country as a kid. For its running themes of fate, decay, doom, the old hat handing over the goblet to the new, this scene is a beauty:

One can assume that cats are used as symbols of death and evil (the cat drinking the overturned milk in an implied death scene, Ellis’s home overrun with cats as him and Bell converse about death). However, in the cinematic frame of filmmaking, a cat is a quiet observer. It offers comfort of place in a world of chaos. Anton Chigurh is chaos. As the old time cowboy faces an unknowable foe (for the trick of the western was in the respect of knowing one’s enemy), he feels impending doom for the first time. Chigurh is not a knowable enemy or one that you can just work over in a classic show down. Chigurh is a force of nature, bred in an alien world as the world of consumer culture and corporate war isolates the cowboys (the original superheroes), and brings them down to level ground. The cowboy now fears the darkness and waits for the fire in the night to guide him to a familiar home (think of Lord of Rings where the mythical world hands over the universe to the time of Men). In the last scene, Bell talks about the dream of his father holding a horn with fire guiding his way to camp in the desert. He’ll always be waiting there for him.

I’m reminded of how filmmaker Chris Marker adored his cat Guillaume. Cats were super-human and empathetic to him. In the scene above, the cats just hang around Ellis, either wild or domesticated, but they stick around the old man. They are his eyes when someone walks in, and they are his old country companions; reassurances that things will always be the same no matter how much they change.

Ellis: Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity. 
And it’s true. Down here, in this time, cowboy, you’re just like everyone else. So this is they way I saw the film. Like a book, a film becomes a viewer’s work even if that interpretation is different than the maker’s. We can never be unbiased about what we view or read, nor can what we read or view be unbiased about the mind of its consumer.
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Ok, I gotta have a brunch, I guess. I let the time fly. But feel free to comment if you agree or disagree or if you’ve got other ideas on the film. I’d love hear them before I start reading up on it and the book.
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2 thoughts on “A few thoughts on The Coen Bros. No Country For Old Men

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on No Country For Old Men. | These Girls On Film

  2. Hello Jacqueline,

    While I am no expert in assessing the technical merits of a film, it seems to me that No Country for Old Men is near perfect. As a film. As an adaptation, however, I have issues with it and, therefore, am interested by your opening comment about the degree to which an author relinquishes control of that which he or she has created the moment someone else experiences it.

    One gets a sense – both in the film and novel – that Sheriff Bell would like to have a bigger picture into which he might place Chigurh, and into which he might understand that the evil personified in Chigurh is not the last word.

    The question for the reader, and the viewer, it seems, is whether that evil is the last word. For the Coens it seems to be but, for McCarthy, it is not as obvious.

    By not wrestling more with the tension apparent in the ambiguity of McCarthy, I felt that the Coens, though having created an excellent picture, opened themselves to criticism. I appreciate that judgments have to be made about what to include and what to eliminate from the work upon which something is being based, but I still think the Coens too neatly erred on the side of the Sheriff’s experience of defeat, and did not given sufficient attention to whether the desire of the Sheriff, for a bigger picture, is justified. The Coens, in my view, took the easy route.

    Not included in the adaptation, for example, is a conversation between Sheriff Bell and Carla Jean Moss on the subject of whether her husband has changed for the worse. As the conversation unfolds, the Sheriff states: “I guess in all honesty I would have to say that I never knew nor did I ever hear of anybody that money didnt change. I’d have to say he’d be the first.” Carla Jean, unhesitatingly loyal, responds: “Well he’ll be the first then.”

    Later, in a whole network of scenes which the Coens decided not to adapt, Moss picks up a young female hitchhiker who, as their relationship unfolds, suggests that perhaps Moss might prefer her to his wife. Moss, however, refuses her proposition. Nonetheless, Moss is not given the chance to correct the perception of his previously loyal wife that he has compromised; that he has changed. I think these moments are important because they emphasize the disconnect between what a particular character has as his or her perspective and the slightly wider perspective the reader is afforded. If the reader can see slightly beyond what Carla Jean can, he or she might also have a sense that something exists beyond what Sheriff Bell is experiencing; that despite Bell’s experience of defeat, something more exists.

    The Coens, in my view, shortchanged their viewers of this reality.

    Anyway, thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts and here is my own reaction to the film:

    http://mymusingsonfilm.wordpress.com/2013/08/24/no-country-for-old-men/

    I see you have reactions to both Gravity and Only God Forgives. So do I. I look forward to reading your thoughts.

    KW.

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