[I continue to post minor things over the holiday break, like my reviews of movies long after such reviews are timely, or useful. I saw No Country for Old Men last night and wanted to add a few thoughts. Spoilers.]
This is what Tim Callahan wrote in his review of No Country for Old Men on this blog:
No Country for Old Men is, ultimately, the perfect western for this new century. It subverts clichés of the genre (the sheriff is no hero, there is no showdown, justice will not necessarily be served) while treating the characters with dignity. It doesn’t mock the conventions of the western, but, rather, it shows that our romanticism has always been flawed—Entropy is the only constant.
The film is thematically bleak, but, as in classical tragedies like Oedipus Rex, catharsis comes from the perfection of the dramatic form. No Country for Old Men is a great movie because it knows how to be a great movie—its artistry is vividly alive and engaging, even when its characters are doomed.
This is exactly right, and I want to expand on it a little.
A long time ago I posted about a Gnostic fable of Kafka's. No Country for Old Men seems like a similar kind of dark gnostic anecdote. The sort of friendly Merle Haggard old guy thing about kids with green hair walking the streets of nice towns is really just a folksy way of expressing a total moral and spiritual degeneration. The thing about green hair is that it is unnatural, and modern Westerns have often been about the clash of boundless nature and its dark opposite, for example the massive machine gun with which the Wild Bunch ends. From that weird haircut on down, Chigurh is a totally unnatural force -- so unnatural he makes us think of gnostic Archons, which gives this film about money in a Texas town an almost cosmic significance. Chigurh is alien in his detachment and his tools, weirdly principled (the reason for going after the wife), cruel and arbitrary (the coin), casual and methodical, and just WRONG, cosmically wrong. When we see him appear behind a character out of a cop car, or on the stairs we cringe -- even though we know almost nothing about him -- so forceful is his total evil.
In one of my first college courses Robert Gurland introduced me to the Christ-pattern in literature and popular culture: everything is peaceful; evil enters; the local forces that should deal with it either won't because the are corrupt or can't because they are weak; someone comes from the outside, fixes it, and leaves. This pattern covers the bible, Jaws, much of Batman, the Lone Ranger, and so on. (Gurland even argued it covered Playboy magazine as well: the nice girl suddenly finds herself wanting sex -- the reader, in fantasy, is to satisfy her and leave, rather than say, marry her). No Country for Old Men subverts that wildly -- evil enters, and you cannot get rid of it. Neither the local forces (the sheriff) NOR someone from the outside (Harrelson) can deal with it, because evil is eternal. Make this point in a horror movie, or even a genre splice, no problem -- but in a Western, especially one with Tommy Lee Jones in the lead, a man who gets things done, this becomes quite an impressive little shock.
I have not read the book, although I adore McCarthy -- the Judge is one of the perfect villains in literature, similar to Chigurh in a lot of ways. I would be interested in hearing from people who have read the book about how the Yeats poem from which the book gets its title fits in. The poem is about how Yeats wants to get away from this country for the young -- with its health, and sex, and life cycle -- and go to a place that is eternal, a city of art. "Out of nature I shall never take my bodily form from any natural thing" he says -- he wants to be made into a kind of eternal clockwork bird of prophecy and poetry. My initial thought is that the movie and the poem are on the same page, and that art and artistry of film and poetry are the saving grace -- not for the characters, but for the viewer. For the characters the film and the poem are tonally so out of whack the allusion to Yeats is brutally ironic -- this may be no country for old men, but you are not going anywhere.
This is a powerful, strange film, and I would put it with the best of the Coen brothers have made: Lebowski, Fargo, Barton Fink.