The other night I went to see No Country for Old Men in hopes of seeing a serious, well-made movie for a change. That I got, a brilliant piece of movie-making from Ethan and Joel Coen, the creators of Fargo (which I've always considered a masterful account of the kinds of evil that lurk on the edges of ordinary life).
A brilliant movie, however, is not necessarily a good movie. Unlike Fargo, No Country for Old Men is driven by an extraordinary psychopathic killer, a foreign hired gun, Anton Chigurh, rather than the unraveling of everyday life that occurs when people give in to the temptations that have led humans astray since time immemorial. What this new movie does instead is depict, in excruciating detail and with slow, quiet, carefully crafted suspense, a series of killings that take place in the wake of a drug deal gone bad when the protagonist, Llewelyn Moss, stumbles upon a suitcase full of cash amidst the carnage in the desert and decides to take it and run, only to find Chigurh one step behind and sometimes in front of him. Chigurh was hired to retrieve the money, but he's on a mission of his own dictated by his own peculiar brand of "principles" -- namely, killing bluntly and coldly anyone and almost everyone in his path.
What is brilliant about the movie is not simply the nuts and bolts of its cinematography, sounds, rhythms, and pace, the fine acting from Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, and others, but the way it upends the conventional Western in which the good guys track the bad guys and eventually prevail, one way or another. It plays with all the conventions but attempts to hide the artfulness in what seems, at first blush, a naturalistic style, which some reviewers have found stark and bare of the kind of acerbic humor and disrespect for "simple folks" found in Fargo and some other Coen movies.
What keeps it from being a great movie is that the distance is still there, there being little art, imagination, or understanding behind the artfulness. Framing the entire story is the perspective of Sheriff Bell, who laments the loss of the Old West in which the Old Men fought the good fight and generally won against the forces of evil. In the contemporary world (depicted as Texas in the 1980's), there is something new and more powerful, epitomized by the story of the fourteen-year-old killer, described in the opening narrative as killing for the sake of killing, and the story of Chigurh's killing spree that unfolds in the movie. Bell and the unblinking locals who are killed on roadways and in gas stations are not sure what that new evil is or where it comes from, but it is real and terrible and won't be stopped. All Bell can offer by way of explanation are lines like: ''It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Any time you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight.''
This might be grimly funny, but it seems that the Coen brothers (and perhaps Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the novel), are playing it straight. They seem to think they are being cleverly existential, staking their vision in the person of Bell who says matter-of-factly that he waited all his life for God to come into his life, but to no avail. So he trails the killings and finally retires, left with no knowledge but that the end is in sight and dreams that when it comes his father, one of the Old Men, will be waiting for him.
The result is a shallow vision of good and evil and, worst of all, history. One doesn't have to look far to another kind of artful upsetting of Western conventions, the HBO series Deadwood, to realize that the Old West (with its virtuous Old Men and no comparable Old Women to speak of) was a figment of the Hollywood imagination. For those who care to look further, one can dig deep into the myths and folklore of the American West, the Turner thesis, and the hagiographies of various figures in American history, and find all the hard work later historians have brought to bear to bring them out into the light of a fuller, more complex historical reality, as best they and we can discern it. What we learn time and time again, once we delve below the surface and try to fathom real lives, is that the evil that comes from greed, betrayal, and love of power is pretty much the same as it has always been, and there is no clear dividing line between the ignorant local folks and the sophisticated, knowing oustiders that sets the boundaries between good and evil. (And what one can sometimes only imagine, because the historical record is sparse, is that it has often been the women, like Trixie and Calamity Jane, who have seen the bigger picture far better than any of the men, old or young.)
Artfulness that pretends otherwise, buys into the good 'ol times as historical reality to make a cinematographic point, strikes me as sorely lacking in imagination. Full-blown myths like The Lord of the Rings come closer to the truth because they unabashedly take the myths as our dreams and aspirations rather than a fundamentalist bygone age that must be recaptured or, at best, lamented while wallowing in the pain and confusion of its loss. Meanwhile, God only knows how many will see No Country for Old Men and simply be entertained by its clever carnage. Straw Dogs did it better, I think, but maybe that's just nostalgia for the good old days.