Thursday, December 13, 2007

Film review by Wilfredo Alvelo

You Can't Stop What's Coming
An Analytical Review of “No Country for Old Men”
By Wilfredo Alvelo

“No Country for Old Men” is a film laced with heavy topics and troubling thought-provoking issues. One can discuss many of these in details, but for the sake of narrowing down the meat and potatoes of this fine film, I will say that it is a film about greed and the inevitable “second coming”, or the apocalypse stylized cleverly in the form of a violent thriller.

Let us get to the first thing that sets this film apart from the typical thriller - and that is, its narrative. The norm for a Hollywood thriller ends in three ways. It could end with a guy trumping good/evil and walking away with the money and the partner of his/her choice. The protagonist/antagonist then rides off into the sunset, and the film is complete. The other way a thriller usually ends is with a mistake by the antagonist, or the wit of the protagonist leading to the end of the villain's reign of terror. Still the last way would be for the law bringing forth justice and evil is then put to rest. It is evident that the beauty of “No Country” lies within the uneasy feeling we get as viewers that neither of these alternatives occur. Instead, we find a dead protagonist (though Llewellyn Moss is a flawed protagonist by normal standards), a retired Marshall, who is unable or unwilling to set the law straight, and an antagonist who reigns terror over everybody with no sign of slowing even as his body is mangled. In essence, in this film, justice is rendered obsolete, the law is powerless, good is done in by sin and poor judgment, and the evil presence is the executioner who claims the lives of the “impure” while wielding fate as his mighty weapon.

Lets start with Moss and focus on his flaws in character and where he goes wrong. He is simply the second greediest person in the film, and his greed bears no principles whatsoever. He will at any length, try to preserve the money he has found. Starting with the desert sequence, he enters, looks at the devastating aftermath, surveys the premises, finds drugs, figures there's money elsewhere, interrogates the lone survivor rather than helping him survive, then steals his gun so that he could clean his own weaponry of any wrong doing if he has to kill to get the money. It is safe to assume, he planned on killing the “last man standing” if he were alive. Bear in mind the immorality of his desire to help the dying man until perhaps twelve hours later, with his money secure. With “pride” being one of the seven deadly sins, it is stubbornness that also dooms Moss. His lack of let-down in getting away and his sheer optimism that he will kill Chigurh lead him to ultimately sacrifice several innocent lives throughout the film, whether he wanted to by design or by accident, they lost their lives in his presence or as a result of his actions. The examples lie within the clerk at the hotel, the man driving during the car-jack attempt, a well trained dog, the woman and crawling man at the motel, and most importantly of all, his own wife. In the case of his wife, she is sacrificed as a result of pride and the belief that he could kill Chigurh and keep the money all for himself (with his wife as an afterthought). In essence, we have an anti-hero in Moss…a man willing to sacrifice innocence and everything he knows in the name of money. It begs the question if the antagonist is that much worse, morally.

This leads us to one of the best villains we will ever encounter in cinema, Anton Chigurh. A man of little emotion and stone faced through most of the film, with the exception of the choke sequence, the hotel rehabilitation and the occasional sly, yet sinister smile. To sum him up in a sentence, he is a psychopath, who is driven by principled values he has set aside and abides by while at the same time uses fate (the coin toss) as a medium to decide for him when he is unable to choose “life” or “death” for his victims. He justifies all of his potential killings as a result of fate. Notice the gas station attendant who accidentally avoids answering him directly several times, but then wins the coin toss, clearly when Chigurh had the desire to kill him. Notice it is fate that drove him to kill the Woody Harrelson character (Carlson) because he believed the money would eventually be placed at his feet. He also bares no remorse for those that intercede his hunting Llewellyn Moss (he decimates the corporate men at the scene of the drug deal, the head honcho and his accountant in the office, the man willing to give Moss a lift in the pick-up truck, and the hotel clerk…all because his destiny was to kill those in the way of his triumph over Moss). The most interesting kill of all was Llewellyn's wife…the most sympathetic figure in the film, as she is thrust about to and fro, and receives very little information throughout, even information leading to her own death. Chigurh sees her as a poor, victim of circumstance perhaps, and driven by her naïveté, gives her a chance to live with the fated coin toss. When she refuses, however, Chigurh has no choice but to execute her for mocking his valued “fate” (remember she states that the “coin has no say”, an echo of the fact that there was little or no fairness to it), when she dismisses his fate, and puts fate in his hands, he has only to abide by his promise to Moss, and goes on to kill his wife, as it was meant to occur. Chigurh uses his coin, as an executioner uses his instrument of destruction. The only difference is that if you get past the instrument of an executioner, he either has to try again, or lose his kill. If you get past the instrument for Chigurh, you either live beyond certainty, or will not escape the scene alive. The rules that Chigurh sets up for himself is to kill those that need to be killed, and use the coin when there is an element of uncertainty to those that he needs not kill, but infuriate him. He is clearly demonstratively set in his ways.

There are even attempted parallels between Moss and Chigurh. Starting with their character introductions in the sense that they both state: “Hold still” (Chigurh to the man on the side road, Moss to the deer he hunts). The most noted are that of the bloody escape attempts upon being seriously injured. Moss encounters three men at the border, and offers money ($500) for a coat. He then takes a beer before being asked twice if he was “in an accident” to which he replies; “yes.” Chigurh, on the other hand IS in an accident, and we have to assume he has the money (or knowledge as to where he will find it) as well, because he also offers money for the boy's shirt in order to make a sling for his broken arm. They both buy themselves out of further trouble in an attempt to disguise their getaway so that they may escape with the money. They both won't let go of their desire to escape with the money.

Now for the starkest theme the film has. It bears a strong allusion to the bible, and in particular, the book of “Revelations”, which talks about the “second coming” and the end of everything when it occurs. It is important to note that while the film as a whole is an allusion to the bible; the characters are the ones that draw the allegory to the concepts embedded within “Revelations.” The best character is obviously Chigurh, who can be seen as the devil reigning over all those who are “unbelievers”. The best example of the “second coming” theme lies within the doppelganger (doubling) elements within the film. Notice how Chigurh always returns to the scene of a crime twice, including two visits to the hotel, two visits to the “Regal Motel”, and two visits to Moss' living quarters (one trailer and the other, his house). Notice that there are two sides to a coin, and two weapons with which Chigurh always uses to kill his victims. This theme of doubling also sees its way in other characters as well. Moss takes two trips to the desert shoot-out, two trips to the underground hiding spot of his home, apprehends two weapons, removes and replaces his hat twice in the beginning desert scene discovery, moves his wife two different times, takes two taxi cabs, visits two motels and is asked if he has been in an accident twice by the three men at the border. He also makes two trips to the clothing store and occupies two different rooms and goes to the vent twice at the “Regal Motel.”

The doppelganger does not stop here. Sheriff Bell (Jones) attends two different crime scenes, has two conversations with his wife, and has two dreams at the end of the movie (which I will get to later). The film also bares the death of two dogs, the use of the coin option twice; two men simultaneously killed twice (both scenes with corporate or “managerial” men), and have two foul and bloody getaways by the protagonist and antagonist, who each bought an article of clothing from passersby. In the case of Chigurh, one of the boys comments on his protruding bone twice. There are also two silhouettes (one of Chigurh, one of Bell) created before Moss' living room television. In essence, there are several elements of the film that occur in pairs, all under the big theme of the “second coming.”

Aside from this, when Christ returns in the book of “Revelations”, it is to take the believers with him to salvation and signal for an end to everything else when the devil roams the earth. Chigurh is this devil, who roams very beastial after his accident. Never apprehended and never put down. Even the line mentioned in the film: “You can't stop what's coming” is fitting in the sense that when the time comes for the apocalypse, nobody will be able to stop it and everyone will be at its mercy. The film in this allegory serves as a microcosm for troubling times in society, especially when it comes to run-down, over the hill lawmen, unable to prevent the future darkness from unfolding. While the future is bleak for old-timers, the film shows us that evil and good (in the form of youth) can co-exist with an element of promise by the end of the film, as the boy shows good nature in giving the shirt off his back and hesitated to take money. The same cannot be said for all youth however, as we have the other boy, who only commented negatively and then expected a share of the money that Chigurh gave to the good-natured boy.

The end sequence of the film (Bell's final speech) is the most haunting part of the film, and what solidifies this film as a masterpiece. He has two dreams, both of which represent the breakdown of the “American dream.” In his first dream, Bell states that he doesn't remember much about it, but that he had to go and meet his father in town to receive some money, but he believes he “lost” that money. This dream cleverly points out what has happened in the film with the money to this point. It is vague as to who gets it, the Mexicans, or Chigurh, but what is important to note is that in America, where one goes to pursue prosperity and life and liberty, one can “lose” one of those liberties easily. It can be taken away by force, by accident, or by fate. Those who encounter Chigurh in the pursuit for his money, will find this very true. Those who believe that the apocalypse is coming, have no choice but to enjoy themselves while they can, and money would be that medium of enjoyment. Should they lose it, the future is nothing but ill fated, with no promise of enjoyment. Bell's losing the money can also represent his shortcomings in the film. The fact that he didn't save Moss, he didn't shield his wife (Mrs. Moss) and that he never apprehended Chigurh. He is in essence, a failure, perhaps what his father didn't want him to be, as no parent gives his or her kid money in hopes of doing something stupid with it.

The second dream is the most telling. It was a dream in which Bell is a boy alone in a dark desert with his horse. His father rides up along side him with a glowing horn of fire and nothing more. The father does not stop for his son, but keeps riding forth, leaving his son in darkness. Bell suggests that his father died much earlier than him, and that he would be waiting at the eventual campsite for his son's arrival. Let me first start with interpretation of the “glowing horn”. In essence, it is the only light, and thus, life and hope left in the scene. It is symbolic of the fact that the promise and glimmer of hope is riding off into the darkness, and cannot be seen. It leaves Bell in the dark, signifying a gloomy outlook.

Still another interpretation falls under literal meaning. The fact that there is a horse, a horn, and still yet, fire within the horn could mean the riding of the devil on horseback (the horsemen of the apocalypse from the “Book of Revelations”). It is symbolic in that he is on earth and while he runs away from Bell, it means that it might not be his time yet as a boy, but that when he grows older, he will get closer to that inevitable destination, and reach the fires of hell that the devil has set at the campsite. There, he will be re-united with his father, the physical figure that carried that glowing horn. If we buy into this, it means that evil has prevailed over good, the end of everything is coming, and nobody can “stop what's coming”, especially Bell, since Chigurh is on the loose, Bell failed to stop him, and the world will be left to suffer as the devil roams the earth. It is the most precise ending for this film, as an old man is providing the monologue, and he feels that fate has won, and this world is no longer a world that adheres to him (remember, he feels “over-matched”). This ending is depressing, haunting and lasting to the cinephile. Who would have thought that in a seemingly simple violent thriller, one could find the greatness beneath the surface, making this one of the best films of 2007.

Author bio:

Wilfredo Alvelo is a high school teacher, currently taking a year off to finish his masters. He graduated from Hunter College in 2004 with a BA in Film and a minor in English. His first passion in life was cinema and he tried his hand at filmmaking, successfully collaborating with cast and crew on three separate short films during his college years. However, after attempting to make a living through cinema, he found it too challenging, and resorted to his back-up, education. Alvelo was born in New York, but his parents are both from Puerto Rico. He currently resides in a studio apartment in Elmhurst, Queens and in his spare time, he enjoys Yankee games, museum trips and theater going. He won 2 PAL awards for writing when he was a young teenager in 1994 and '95.

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