Sunday, March 23, 2008

No movie for twist endings?

Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, the past weekend I saw the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men for the second time - as my friends hadn't seen it, and I enjoyed it enough the first time to sit through it again. It is, as I may have posted earlier, an effective, if limited, movie with a memorable atmosphere - a kind of Fargo with sand, not snow, and a bit more depth. Only I confess that this time, as the notoriously frustrating (at least to some people) ending unspooled onscreen, I began to wonder if perhaps I had fully appreciated the movie's ambiguities - or at least the curious lacunae in its plot - the first time through.


As you may (or may not) have heard, No Country for Old Men, from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, attempts to wring fresh blood from several pop clich├ęs - a drug deal gone wrong, a briefcase full of cash, and an unstoppable hit man (Javier Bardem, above, in a Prince Valiant haircut). That the movie succeeds at some level is beyond question - its long, complex chases are gripping, the Coens keep us guessing till the finish (and as I'll explain, beyond), and the film features remarkable performances from Bardem, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, and Kelly Macdonald. At the same time, however, a certain sense of repetition begins to dog the violence in the picture, a subplot with another bounty hunter goes nowhere, and the sudden "climax" is strangely amorphous (our "hero" does not escape with the cash, but gets killed for his trouble - and off-screen, and not by his chief antagonist, either). This has caused howls of execration from the fanboys who otherwise would have swooned over the movie's elegant mechanics - while at the same time drawing praise from critics only too grateful to reward some movie, any movie, for violating the calcified conventions of pop genre.

But it's actually after the death of the "hero" that the picture begins to get interesting - or at least, intriguingly ambiguous. Ellipses have already figured prominently in the story - the drugs themselves go missing sans comment, and Bardem's character ("Anton Chigurh," a name that almost cries out for explication) seems to always be in the right place at the right time, even eluding the building security of a malevolent corporation. But his final encounter with Tommy Lee Jones's pursuing sheriff proves his most mysterious. We see Chigurh in the darkness of a hotel room, waiting (he thinks) for a returning Josh Brolin (who actually has already been killed by a Mexican gang). But it's Tommy Lee Jones who comes to the door, and hesitates when he sees its lock blown open (a Chigurh signature). Jones then arms himself, and pushes his way into the room - from which the assassin has somehow vanished.

Jones checks the only exit, a bathroom window; it's locked from the inside. He then notices the grille has been removed from a duct in the wall - only it's too small for a man to shimmy through. Jones then slowly sinks onto the bed, mystified; he's already described his prey as a kind of "ghost" - indeed, Chigurh's favorite question is, "Have you seen me?" But could he actually spirit himself through an air duct? Without further explanation, the movie fades to its next scene.

Soon after, however, Chigurh has returned, very much in the flesh, to murder the dead man's wife, Carla Jean, who doesn't have the money he stole (which may, or may not, been recovered by that Mexican gang - another ellipsis). Chigurh is bent on the killing simply because he promised to do it if Brolin didn't fork over the cash (which he didn't). The best he can do, he tells the poor woman, is toss a coin and have her call it - on this she must stake her life. It's a trick he's pulled before, seeming to intimate that his murderousness is an amoral, objective fact, a form of fate, if you will.

Only Carla Jean won't make the call; she insists that the responsibility for his actions remain his own.

And then something curious happens. We see Chigurh leave Carla Jean's house, and wipe his boots on her porch - a motion he has made after other murders (blood spatters and trails are a persistent motif). But the second time around, I wondered - did he actually kill her? And if he did, why didn't the Coens show it (they've hardly been squeamish about earlier offings). I also noticed that Chirgurh had no weapon when he accosted Carla Jean - nor did he leave with one: another curious narrative gap; doubly odd in that friends have told me Cormac McCarthy leaves no doubt that Chirgurh offs Carla Jean with a gun.

Josh Brolin gets the party started in No Country for Old Men.

So what are the Coens up to? The sequence becomes stranger still. Chigurh makes his getaway by car, perhaps slightly less calmly than usual. He is distracted by two young boys riding their bikes down the street - and then is suddenly smashed into, without warning, by a passing station wagon. He drags himself from the wreckage, a shard of bone poking from his arm. The boys ride up and tell him an ambulance has been summoned, but Chirgurh refuses it; instead he pays one for his shirt (as Josh Brolin also did of a passing young man), wraps his arm in it, and hobbles off, apparently to set the wound himself (we've already seen him dig out bullets from his flesh). The last we see of him is a dark form limping down the suburban street.

The scene is weirdly evocative for reasons hard to pin down. First is the creepy sense that Chigurh may be able to survive anything - but weirder still is the feeling that perhaps fate at last has turned on him. What happened in Carla Jean's house? Whether Chigurgh killed her or not, he was forced to make a moral choice, to exercise his free will. If he did kill her, then there's a sense of divine justice in fate sending an errant Country Squire his way. But if he didn't, what does his becoming a marked man say about the universe?

Such teasing suspicions about the cosmos are, of course, a film noir staple - and are integral to the movie's aura of moral apocalypse rising from the empty plains of the 80s. But just how many options can a movie leave open before it becomes a little, well, incoherent? One moment Chigurh is a force of fate, the next, he's a ghost melting into thin air - but the next, he's an existential moral agent, and the next, he's a hunted man. That's quite a few reversals, particularly around a drug deal gone so wrong that neither the drugs nor the money can actually be accounted for. Perhaps the Coens are after something more than moral chaos - perhaps they're after a sense of physical, empirical chaos too. If so, that would explain everything.