It’s time to get my mind around No Country for Old Men, which of these three films remains for me the slipperiest. I’m a long-time admirer of the Coens’ work, Raising Arizona excepted (note adoption subtheme! interesting!).
No Country feels materially different from all their preceding films, a result of the filmmakers’ easing off their previously aggressively mannered style. Despite this major shift in approach the film retains themes and moods from three precursors in particular: Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, and Fargo.
Blood Simple, the Coens’ first commercial feature, shares the Texas setting and the sense of unsavory doins coexisting with an everyday sunlit world of small towns and big spaces. Miller’s Crossing, possibly the filmmakers’ first attempt at a major work, is focused on a power struggle between 1920s gangsters in which the gangsters’ nighttime world of firefights and speakeasies actually completely trumps the day-to-day world. Fargo, of course, presents a Minnesota sherriff struggling to disentangle a botched and ill-starred kidnapping plot.
All three films share with No Country (as well as the majority of all the other films by the team) a deeply misanthropic view of the world, which endears them mightily to me. However, all three present a traditional resolution to their events even as the films clearly present a disturbing and amoral outcome of the plots they convey. In No Country, the assassin’s unexpected wreck fills the role of the moral resolution, even as it remains ambiguous. Tommy Lee Jones’ retiring sheriff sits at his table and recounts a dream of his father leading the way to the underworld over a mountain pass, and the string of killings remains unresolved by the lawman, who has come to feel that he cannot bring justice to a world he believes he cannot understand.
Of course, the sheriff’s loss of faith is tragic precisely because we are shown that he does grasp the task he faces, even as he fails to protect his charges. He just doesn’t realize that he sees the pieces to the puzzle even as he tells others about them. In particular, when he muses out loud, distractedly, about the cattle hammer, we can see that his mind has assembled the parts of a puzzle we know he’s been thinking about, yet he never proceeds to an ‘aha!’ moment.
This aspect of the sherriff’s character is reflected in the way the film sits in my mind. When I try to work out what I think of it, it slides around in my head, and I can’t quite grasp it. Specific technical elements of the film were very impressive and effective indeed, notably the nighttime duel in the streets of Eagle Pass and Jones’ sympathetic performance.
I’m kind of trying to figure out what this means with regard to my affection for the Coens’ earlier work. It would seem to imply that nihilism as an aesthetic philosophy is most easily enjoyed when presented in a stylized manner, and that the less visible style overlain upon the viewpoint the more difficult it is for me to analyze and describe how or why the film was effective for me as a viewer.
Clearly I missed giggling in delirious approval over this or that outrageous and unexpected filip of irony or improbable stylization, and the lack of that endorphin has paralyzed a part of my critical faculties. Perhaps this is how the Coens have chosen to show me something of a life of the mind.