No Country for Old Men. Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. Distributed by Miramax Films and Paramount Vantage. 2007. 122 minutes.
The Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men turns its back on Hollywood’s sappy, happy-ending film formula. Of course, not all moviegoers seem to appreciate this.
The story begins in West Texas, where a local hunter, played by Josh Brolin, happens to come across a stash of millions of dollars at the scene of a drug deal gone bad. Brolin’s character naively thinks he can handle himself in the situation in which he suddenly emerges. Turning in his usual workmanlike performance, Tommy Lee Jones plays a Texas lawman who is struggling to protect Brolin. The dealers send a hit man, played by Javier Bardem, to find and collect the money. Bardem is truly chilling as a sociopathic killer with nearly superhuman abilities.
The usual Hollywood assumption is that if the protagonist (in this case, Brolin) dies, there’s no movie—how can you have an odyssey without Odysseus? But this isn’t the case in this movie, and without giving too much away, I’ll venture to say that this plot development is the crux of the work.
I’ll also venture to predict that No Country for Old Men will not do well at the box office. It challenges people’s assumptions about story structure, order in the universe, and poetic justice.
As the film wound down, I was astonished at the reaction of a dozen or so members of the audience—they acted as if they’d been sucker-punched. Some hooted and hollered; a few left the theater obviously annoyed.
Howard Suber discusses the psychology of happy endings in his book The Power of Film. My main question, however, is not, Why do audiences need happy endings? but, Why do we need endings at all? Many of McCarthy’s, Raymond Carver’s, and Albert Camus’ stories, like reality, do not have endings. But audiences—at least most American audiences—seem to feel cheated if they are not given some kind of resolution. They need closure.
Is their reaction cultural or archetypal? Are we, as Westerners, conditioned to require resolution in storytelling, or is this a universal need? The topic of narrative structure is a serious issue in my field of media history. What does history consist of, and how do we tell the tale? Call me a cynic, but my assessment is that historical studies only “begin” when writers and journalists take note of certain events and “end” when we stop paying attention. The same is true of any story.
Like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, No Country for Old Men is a little too real, which raises another question: Why do we need art that mirrors reality? Most artists seem to aspire to rectify reality, not represent it, while most viewers seem to want to escape it. This turns out to be a rather convenient symbiosis, particularly in Hollywood.
An even deeper issue concerns our society’s concept of poetic justice. The audience I sat with waited on the edge of their seats for two hours and didn’t get any. Americans like to believe that there is a cosmic justice that—eventually, at least—redeems or punishes every deed.
But is there truly any justice in this universe, or does it only exist in our stories? Judging from television, for one example, an ordinary viewer might assume that the cops always catch the bad guys, yet Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics show that about six thousand murders per year go unsolved in the United States. We like to think “Cheaters never prosper,” yet most white-collar crimes are never reported.
These seem to me biblical notions. So it should come as no surprise to see Bible Belt residents become annoyed by a movie that suggests their basic view of reality is probably flawed, that most if not all events happen for no good reason, that most of us are in constant danger (not from murderers or terrorists, but from cars running red lights), and that the old cliché “Might makes right” is a fact of life. Their cognitive dissonance seems to boil down to a struggle between accepting that most things happen for no reason at all and the belief that everything is under some sort of cosmic control. Most seem to have a childlike need to believe that some father figure or some omnipotent spirit is in charge—and watching out for them.
Apparently, the mere suggestion that violence, often random, rules this world—and that evil people easily triumph over good—comes as a challenge to the American notion that if we are good, we have a right to expect God to protect us. Again, this is a biblical notion.
Most people—not just Americans and not just religious folks—simply can’t stomach the idea that we may be careening through space in a gigantic bus with no driver. Or, if there is a driver, he or she is asleep at the wheel. As the brothers Coen show, we may be as good as gold or as tough as nails, but there are times when this God of Cosmic Justice doesn’t seem to be protecting us (or maybe the stars aren’t with us). There are only so many conclusions we can infer. I list them below.
The Top Ten Reasons Why Bad Things Happen to Good People—and to Movie Protagonists
- God works in mysterious if not perverse ways, which we can never understand.
- He isn’t listening because we aren’t good enough.
- He didn’t hear us because we didn’t pray hard enough.
- He is calling us home so that we can be with all the good people in heaven.
- He is a psychopath, just like my enemies.
- He, She, or It isn’t there.
- This talisman is defective or fake.
- Beware the Ides of March.
- Today just isn’t my day.
- There ain’t no reason.
No Country for Old Men pulls back scabs most of us don’t want to look under. It makes us squirm and think thoughts we don’t want to think. I would agree that it is probably not healthy to dwell too much on such thoughts. Denial isn’t always a bad thing.
In his book, Suber mentions that movies play much the same role in our culture as religion. “Like religion, people go to the movies not to see the world as it really is, but to see a world that compensates for the one they know.” But some people still occasionally create art for art’s sake. And yes, some people do need art that reflects reality.