Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What makes a satisfying story?

This is the fifth in my Second Chances series, which runs on Tuesdays. For other entries, please see the corresponding label on the right.

I can tell you the exact moment when No Country for Old Men switches from a satisfying story to an unsatisfying story.

It's when the recently introduced character played by Woody Harrelson is snooping around the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, near where the shootout occurred between Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Harrelson's character -- I'm not even going to name him, which is my comment on his narrative usefulness -- happens to walk out on the bridge leading up to the border, and happens to look down into the same grassy area where Moss tossed the case of money a night or two before. He immediately recognizes it for what it is, notes its location, and moves away, in order not to attract additional attention. Five minutes of screen time later, he's dead, and the money never makes an appearance in the movie again, as far as I could tell from my second viewing.


This was my first indication that No Country was going south for me, and they just kept on piling up after that. I've always been a big believer in the idea that your script isn't tight enough unless everything happens for a reason. Harrelson's character is the perfect example of something that happens for no reason. He has one scene where he's hired to find Moss. He has another scene where he finds Moss and talks to him in his hospital bed. He has the scene described above, where he finds the money. And then he has the scene where he's held at gunpoint by Chigurh and ultimately executed.

Even after two viewings, I still can't figure out why his character even needed to be in the movie. He doesn't change the stakes for any character. He doesn't change the trajectory of the plot. He really only exists for a frustrating reason, which is to indicate that good detective work isn't even necessary to find what you're looking for -- sometimes you just stumble across it by dumb luck. Oh, and to provide yet more proof that Chigurh is a cold, heartless bastard, of which we already have ample evidence.

(Note: After finishing this piece I realized that without Harrelson's character, Chigurh and Moss would never get the chance to talk, because Moss calls the room where Harrelson's character is staying, and Chigurh picks up. In this conversation, Chigurh threatens Moss' wife, which has implications later on. However, I'm not sure if having Harrelson's character in the movie was the only way to accomplish these things.)

As you know, the story continues in this vein from there. Moss is killed off screen. Moss' mother-in-law is killed off screen. Moss' wife is killed off screen* (more on that later). Chigurh gets all effed up in a car accident that's so random and sudden that it's sort of like the opposite of a deus ex machina -- it's bad luck descended magically from the gods. And then the movie ends on Tommy Lee Jones talking about his foreboding dream.


No Country for Old Men was never a thumbs down for me -- it was always a thumbs up with an asterisk. That asterisk was because the movie challenged our very idea of what makes a satisfying script. As does the Cormac McCarthy story on which it's based, No Country for Old Men leaves us feeling empty and unsatisfied if we are expecting clean, logical resolutions. The movie's motto, condensed to its most basic form, seems to be "Shit happens." And I don't find that to be a very good motto for a movie.

But is that my problem, or Joel and Ethan Coen's? Or McCarthy's? I'd like to think of myself as someone plenty capable of appreciating a non-traditional narrative. And I think there are numerous examples where I embrace such a narrative with open arms. Don't confuse this with me saying that there are certain people in each movie I think should live, and certain people I think should die, or else I won't be satisfied. That's not it either. I just need the explanations for their deaths to emerge logically from the story, and to be dramatized in some way.

What my second viewing of No Country gave me was a little more of an appreciation of what the Coens were trying to do. What I once thought was just messing around with us -- a theory that I considered confirmed when I witnessed the disdainful way they accepted their Oscars -- was, I'm pretty sure, an intentional artistic choice, not just anarchy.

Let's take Moss' death. It's what most people who don't love the film, including me, describe as its single most frustrating moment. Here you have the movie's protagonist, who you've been following almost from the start, through numerous smart decisions, some not-so-smart ones, and a handful of near misses. Then all the sudden he's just lying there, dead, in a doorway. And it wasn't even Chigurh who killed him. It was a truck of Mexican drug runners who were tipped off to Moss' location by his cranky and oblivious mother-in-law.

I now understand that this is the Coens trying to put us in the shoes of the film's real protagonist: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Just as Bell has been a few steps behind with everything else in the plot -- an investigatory deficit that has been good for his health -- he's a few steps behind catching up to Moss. We don't see the shootout that killed Moss because he didn't see it. And in fact, when you come right down to it, we don't see that shootout because it might disappoint us even more than not seeing it. Sometimes in life, the "hero" -- or in this case, the guy who happened across a bag of money, didn't report it, and decided not to give a dying man water in time to help him -- doesn't go down in a heroic gun battle, with the soundtrack swelling to emotionally manipulate us. He just gets gunned down in the doorway of a seedy motel.

The question I'm asking myself now is this: Understanding what the Coens were doing with the benefit of time and distance, do I "forgive" them? Do they even need to be forgiven?

At the time I saw it, I was cursing the film's name on the drive home. Needless to say, I was expecting the resolutions of a film like their masterwork, Fargo, in which some people who didn't deserve to die ended up dying, but the film had a kind of bleak neatness to its resolution. When No Country didn't give me that, I considered it an act of sadism and spite by the writer-directors.

Now I'm not so sure. I still think some different choices in the film's last 30-45 minutes would have made it a stronger film. (Because, I think we can all agree, the first half of the film is near perfection.) But I no longer feel like they made mistakes, per se -- I just feel like their choices were not necessarily the ones I would have made. And even after the second viewing, I still would have done away with Woody Harrelson's character.

I said I'd get back to the death of Moss' wife, played by Kelly MacDonald. On this viewing, I've decided that I'm not 100% sure that Chigurh kills her. We see him leave her house, and we assume, based on the morality he's displayed to this point, that he does in fact kill her in cold blood. But now I'm not so sure. I kind of like that the Coens don't tell you for certain. You don't hear a telltale gunshot, and you don't hear anything about her again. She could have lived. Chigurh could have made some kind of 11th hour appeal to his own remaining shreds of humanity. I like films where certain aspects are left unresolved, for you the viewer to determine what happened.

This is already a long piece, but I can't leave behind my discussion of No Country without sharing a different observation I had during my second viewing.

When I wrote my piece ranking the Coens' movies (check it out here), a regular reader of mine commented regarding No Country: "I just felt like I had seen it all before." At the time I sort of embraced the comment, because it was a snide remark about a film that had bothered me (but bothers me less now). But I guess I didn't completely understand it, because a lack of originality was never a complaint I had about No Country. I thought it was the perfect blend of originality and homage to their own previous work. (Can you make an homage to yourself?)

Upon second viewing, I realized just how much No Country alludes to their own work -- and not even the work you'd think it would. Numerous critics observed that No Country reminded them of the Coens' first film, Blood Simple. And while that's true on a surface level, it actually has a lot more in common with ... Raising Arizona, my favorite Coen movie.

Don't believe me? I started taking notes, so check it out:

1) Anton Chigurh is basically another version of Leonard Smalls, the Harley-riding, cigar-chomping, heavily bearded, highly antisocial bounty hunter from Raising Arizona, played inimitably by Randall "Tex" Cobb. Both characters are highly lethal and operate by their own rules -- though because Arizona is a comedy, we don't see Smalls actually kill anyone. Both have an uneasy relationship with the person who hired them, proceeding to either act on their own agenda, or to appear ready to do so. But what tells me that the Coens intended the comparison is that each fires at innocent creatures by the side of the road while cruising by in their vehicle (a car for Chigurh, the aforementioned Harley for Smalls). This is where Smalls does Chigurh one better -- he blows up a rabbit with a grenade and sharp-shoots a lizard out of existence, whereas Chigurh just shoots at (but does not hit) a crow.

2) When visiting the abandoned Moss residence, Sheriff Bell squats down to investigate the hole that was left in the wall when Chigurh blasted the front door lock out of its casing. This is a visual echo of when Leonard Smalls squats down in the abandoned McDonough household to read the word "FART" written on the wall in crayon.

3) Just as Moss is undone by the tracking device in the bag of money, which leads Chigurh to him, so were Gale (John Goodman) and Evelle (William Forsythe) undone by the blue paint bomb that blows up in the bag of money in Raising Arizona (and sends their car careening out of control).

4) One of the funniest throwaway moments in Raising Arizona is when Gale and Evelle are robbing a convenience store and ask the aged clerk if he has any balloons that make funny shapes ("Not unless round's funny.") There are several moments in No Country that echo this, notably the ominous coin flip scene with the aged gas station owner ("Friend-o"), the scene in which Moss comes to buy clothes in a hospital gown and asks the clerk if he often gets people coming in in his state ("No sir, it's unusual," is the response), and the scene in which Moss requests a second room from the perplexed motel owner ("That room's got two double beds!").

And then a couple similarities to other films:

1) Sheriff Bell and his slowish partner (Garret Dillahunt) have basically the same dynamic as Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and her slowish partner in Fargo.

2) In another Fargo similarity, the Coens pan past the dead hotel clerk that Chigurh killed before confronting Moss the same way they pan past the dead parking lot clerk that Steve Buscemi's character shoots in Fargo.

3) In numerous Coen films, the hotel room is a major point of reckoning in the criminal world (Blood Simple, Fargo) and even in the non-criminal world (Barton Fink). It's clear the Coens see hotels/motels as kind of a waystation where major life events occur. Moss stays in four different hotel/motel rooms here, the last of which is where he's killed.

Okay, I've taken up enough of your time.

Second Chance Verdict, No Country for Old Men: My thumb is still up, and the asterisk is still there, but the asterisk is much smaller. This film has a ton of excellent stylistic details, bold decisions, and ominous moods. But I still would have given best picture to There Will Be Blood that year.


simoncolumb said...

I rewatched the two films only recently and 'There Will Be Blood' is a much stronger film than 'No Country for Old Men'. Something much more unique and unsettling about TWBB, while with NCFOM it seems like an incredibly well-made Coen brothers movie, but ultimately something that - in some shape or form - has been seen before. NOTHING like TWBB was made prior to it.


Vancetastic said...

I totally agree, Simon. Watching No Country again made me think that There Will Be Blood's margin of superiority is slightly less than I thought previously, but There Will Be Blood is, as you said, an absolutely unique cinematic vision with impeccable execution. It's a masterful epic that will one day be appreciated as one of the greatest films of its era.

Vancetastic said...

I should say, There Will Be Blood is a good example to mention here for a reason beyond the fact that both films were contending for best picture in 2007. It too does not have a traditional narrative structure in the sense that there's no obvious resolution to the character that feels traditionally satisfying. Yet I was immensely satisfied by the ending of TWBB.

The Movie Snob said...

I agree that TWBB is a superior film, but I think No COuntry should be considered metaphorically.

I think Moss was killed by whatever violence was closest to him at the moment when he lost his focus (the woman in what I believe was a red bathing suit at the pool). Chigurh represents violence in its most primal form. nothing can stop it or end it (violence), which is where I think the car accident comes into play.

Other than those few points I enjoyed the writeup. Very insightful.

Vancetastic said...

TMS, that's totally true. And I think the reason I didn't get that sooner is that the Coen films it seems obvious to compare No Country to (Fargo, Blood Simple) have fewer metaphorical elements and are more straightforward.

Thanks for the compliment!

Rick "The Hat" Bman said...

No Country For Old Men is my favorite movie from 2007 and possibly even my favorite movie of the decade. I loved it. When the movie ended I seriously sat in the theater completely stunned by what I had just seen. I had never seen anything it, it simply amazed me. The ending was totally frustrating, but that was the point and it worked so well.

By the way, just found your blog and I've been reading through it. Totally digging it. Keep it up.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks for the compliment, Rick!

That is definitely the majority opinion about No Country. I'm not going to say that my initial reaction to it was immature, but I did clearly want more resolution, and I was incapable of appreciating this film's intention to frustrate me -- even though I definitely can and have appreciated that in other films.