Sunday, 15 May 2011

Echoes of Noir: An Analysis of No Country For Old Men

Warning: Spoilers lie Within
These two images from the beginning of the Coen Brothers' Best Picture winning No Country For Old Men (2007) is reminsicent of "The Dawn of Man" sequence which opened Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Like that classic sequence from Kubrick's film, the opening of No Country For Old Men  visually represents the theme of something "dawning" through the image of the sun rising over a landscape. Of course, the question that should be raised concerns what is dawning at the beginning of this film. I would say rather simply that a new kind of evil is dawning as the film opens. That evil is represented by Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem in his Oscar winning performance for Best Supporting Actor. In the monologue which plays over the scene, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) says that "the crime you see now it's hard even to take its measure." When he says this line, we get the first glimpse of Chigurh, from the back. 

Having this line read over the first shot of Chigurh links the theme of a new kind of evil dawning with the character of Chigurh. Moreover, the fact that we don't see Chigurh's face establishes how Chigurh will be a symbolic character, representing a new kind of evil that Bell will have to decide either to face or to back away from. As Bell states in the last line of narration at the beginning, he has to decide whether to say "O.K, I'll be part of this world."

When I first saw No Country For Old Men, around the time of its initial release, I was, to use a phrase from the end of the film, left out in "all that dark and all that cold" by the film. The plot was relatively strightforward but for some reason I couldn't completely engage with what the film was telling me; but seeing the film twice since the first viewing, the third just being recently, the film has clicked emotionally and thematically with me and I think the film is one of the Coen's best. What I love most about the film is how, like other films from the Coens, it blends different genres together, forming something both familar yet new. No Country For Old Men is at once a chase picture, a dark comedy, a western, a horror movie, a story about old age, and hanging all these elements is the elusive style of film noir. Since I've been leaning towards Film Noir on this blog, I want to discuss the noir elements of No Country For Old Men.

Like many Film Noirs, a feeling of fatalism is embedded in this film. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), while belonging more to a modern day western than a Film Noir, nevertheless embodies the Film Noir hero who is tempted by something which ultimately leads to his doom. In this case its not the femme fatale who tempts Moss but rather 2 million dollars from a drug deal gone bad; nevertheless, temptation by money also suits a  Film Noir reading of Moss' can be argued that Moss is somewhat of a thinly sketched character but I think Brolin inhabits the role of Moss very well, fleshing out the character and making Moss feel like a lived in character who knows how the world works yet can still be reckless. I can get involved with the character's journey because on some level I can relate to the desire for a large amount of wealth to just fall in to our laps. I can also relate to a fear of evil out there in the world that is unstoppable and has no mercy. The film makes us share the claustrophobia of Moss, the experience of how it would feel being hunted by that kind of evil. Moreover, as Richard Roeper pointed out on Ebert and Roeper at the Movies when the film was first released, the Moss character is actually quite smart and is able to keep a step ahead of Chigurh throughout the film. It's an admiration for the unexpected intelligence of Moss, who we may classify as simply a "good ol' boy," that also allows me to care about Moss's plight.

I was saying earlier that Chigurh is a symbolic character, representing a new kind of evil. He can also be seen as representing fate, though that may be too broad. There is a visual motif that seems to frame Chigurh as a figure representing fate. It's the motif of having Chigurh in the background of a shot, while his victim is in the foreground. This motif is established at the beginning of the film as Chigurh walks behind the officer who arrested him, ready to strangle him. As Moss jumps out the hotel window, Chigurh is there in the background, ready to take a shot at Moss. One of my favourite shots in the film is when Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is walking up the stairs and Chigurh comes behind him, creepily casual. Whether one thinks Chigurh represents fate, I think what's important to keep in mind is by being symbolic, he comes in to the film fully formed. As the day dawns at the beginning of the film, so does Chigurh in a sense. This idea of coming in to the world fully formed, for me, epitomizes the universe of Film Noir, where the characters even with their complexities, are fully formed characters, with a specific way of speaking, as well as having their fates sealed for them. I think the idea of having one's fate sealed is what I'm truly getting at when I say fully formed; Chigurh seems a little different though because he stands outside of fate, telling a character such as the gas station owner, that the coin Chigurh holds has been travelling twenty two years to get here, and its either heads or tails, but of course Chigurh can't call it for him. The coin toss Chigurh proposes to the gas station owner and Moss's wife Carla Jean (Kellie MacDonald) represents Chigurh's fatalistic view of the world. As he tells Carla Jean, "I got here the same way the coin did." The coin is either heads or tails and if called wrong, it will result in Carla Jean's death. She doesn't choose, knowing that the coin has no say in the matter, that it's Chigurh's choice to kill her, no one else's. I think this can be seen as an acceptance of fate on her part, that one cannot stop death, "can't stop what's coming" as Bell's Uncle Ellis tells Bell earlier in the film.

For me, Chigurh poses the question of whether he is an atheist or a believer. His attachement to the coin suggests a belief in fate; at the same time, does a belief in fate nessciatate a belief in God? In the scene where he kills Wells, he asks Wells "If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?" While this question can be read as referring to Wells' rules regarding his work, I think it can also be taken on a religious level, Chigurh asking of what use was God if he led Wells to this place, implying that if there was a God he would not lead Wells to this place. In the scene between Carla Jean and Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy's novel from which the novel is based, Chigurh implies that he is an atheist, saying "Even a non-believer may find it useful to model himself after God" (256). One may take this line and apply to the film Chigurh as well, interpreting him as someone who makes himself a God of sorts becasuse he doesn't believe there is one, or, as with Death in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, unable to know if he does exist, only aware of his mission in life, like Chigurh. Moreover, they also both reflect on how people always say the same thing when they are their presences. "You don't have to do this" Wells tells Chigurh, foreshadowing Carla's Jean exact statement. Ultimately, I think Chigurh encapsulates the fatalistic core of Film Noir, that presence which is sometimes personified by the Femme Fatale but in this case Chigurh may be aware that he embodies these fatalistic aspects, which is why he tells the characters about the inevitability of their fates.

In closing, I also want to talk about how certain aspects of No Country For Old Men's visual style can also classify the film as a Film Noir. Here are a few shots from the film which I feel really invoke the Film Noir look, a few being from Bell's almost encounter with Chigurh near the end of the film:


The darkest scenes in this film in terms of lighting usually are those with Chigurh. These above shots all use the quintessential noir lighting of shadows and light, creating high contrast. While the film is not in black and white, nevertheless I find these images invoke the shadow swallowed images of the Film Noir classics.

The final shot of Chigurh walking in to the suburbs dissolves to Bell at home. This dissolve, more than anything in the film, enforces the spiritual relationship between Chighurh an Bell. For me, Bell is a man who believes a new kind of evil has arisen but doesn't completely realize there is no definitive new kind of evil; new kinds of evil are always arising, as sure as the sunset. Chigurh hasn't come in to existance just for Bell to face him. They don't come face to face at all. As Ellis tells Bell, "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."  Unfortuantely, by the time Bell realizes this kind of evil exists, he finds himself too old to face what's out there.The final scene of No Country for Old Men, with Bell retired can be seen as bleak but I find it unapologetically human, honest about the choices that may be too easy but ultimately feel like the only choices we can make. Bell recounts two dreams about his father, the screen abruptly cutting to black. Bell's second dream is about him and his father living in the olden times, riding through a mountain pass, his father carrying a horn, riding ahead to make a fire out in the dark and cold. Bell knows when he gets there, his father will be waiting. Then he woke up. The film ends on this line, asking whether comfort can be found in the real world or if when one wakes u from a comforting dream, is that all the comfort one can have in this world. Movies sometimes work as comforting dreams but Film Noir show a dark world where morality is not always simple and violence can be a code.The cut to black at the end of No Country For Old Men suggests a waking up from a discomforting dream, asking whether we can find comfort in a world where God  is silent and violence is code.

1 comment:

  1. Great essay Andrew. Insightful perspective into the philosophy behind some of the cinematography in the movie. You kinda blew my mind there haha... Love learning something new about a film I've seen so many times.