The film that won Best Picture for 2008, No Country for Old Men (2007), came out on DVD this week. On first viewing, my reactions are mixed. It's a cruel, bleak movie and I'm not certain that I will watch it a second time.
Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Written by Ethan and Joel Coen; based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy
Ed Tom Bell, an aging Texas sheriff..........................................Tommy Lee Jones
Anton Chigurh, a psychopathic killer........................................Javier Bardem
Llewelyn Moss, an irregularly employed welder..........................Josh Brolin
Carson Wells, an egotistical bounty hunter.....................................Woody Harrelson
Carla Jean Moss, Llewelyn's loving wife......................................Kelly MacDonald
That such a film should be awarded Best Picture says much about the level of self-awareness Americans have reached in the year 2008.
Artistically, the film is meticulously crafted and brilliantly written, but my tastes in literature run to stories in which Good triumphs over Evil. Clearly No Country for Old Men does not fit that criteria.
The performances, from Jones down to the actors with the briefest parts, are as perfect as acting can be.
The casting is superb in the variety of faces and types. Each scene is an agony of suspense and yet, often predictable. The story plays out against a textured background in which subtle details contribute to plot and character as much as the dialogue does:
• Sheriff Bell occupying the same space on the couch that the killer has just left
• The dime next to the air duct vent
• The killer looking at the bottom of his shoes after his conversation with Carla Jean
No question. No Country for Old Men is a brilliant production.
So why did I go away from it feeling as sad as old Sheriff Bell? I think the answer must be that the film tears a great gaping hole in the façade with which my culture covers the absurdity of human existence.
No Country for Old Men is a morality play in the tradition of the medieval Everyman. It shows us naked man: a creature born to die. Death can be avoided for a time, but he will catch up with us.
The film says that good people will always be horrified by senseless acts of evil, but they can't do a lot to stop them. If they attach too much importance to money and the things of this world, they are in danger of serving evil themselves.
The two old sheriffs observe that once young people stop saying "Sir" and "Ma'am," decent behavior begins its downward slide. These polite forms of address are symbols of the façade of conventional morality.
The boys who offer help to Chigurh have clearly been brought up in a way that Sheriff Bell would approve. They call Chigurh "Sir" and are willing to help him because it is the decent thing to do. However, once Chigurh gives one of the boys a hundred dollar bill, the boy's decency takes flight. He won't share with the other boy. The blood-stained money has changed him. He claims the money as his just payment for the shirt that a moment earlier he was willing to give away. He's begun the slide. He has become like the youths on the bridge into Mexico who will not help the bleeding man in need unless he pays them.
In a medieval morality play, Chigurh would be called Death. The Sheriff might be Moral Rectitude or Religion. Llewelyn would be Everyman.
On second thought, I think I just might watch No Country for Old Men a second time.