Friday, December 12, 2008

Better Late Than...No Country For Old Men in Fiction and Film

It has dawned on The Common Man in recent weeks that this blog has morphed far more into a political site than he ever intended, particularly since the election really heated up in the fall. The Common Man's politics are important to him, and he refuses to apologize for that, but after rereading some of his earliest posts, he misses the playfulness of his earlier posts. His cynicism has crept in, and he misses being able to wax nostalgically about culture and life. He also notices that this shift in tone has corresponded to a decrease in posting. Part of that has to do with work heating up, and not being able to find enough hours in the day, but some of that is undoubtedly because blogging sometimes requires The Common Man to get angry, and he doesn't like to be angry. So, this week, even though it would be fun to make all kinds of shoe-throwing jokes about how the Twins or Vikings should snap up a certain right-handed journalist in Iraq, The Common Man is going to strive to focus on not-politics. Maybe he can be more upbeat.

Sometimes, the world is a profoundly dangerous and disturbing place (so far, so good. Very upbeat.), and people do not always comprehend the dangerous paths they are on, even as they move closer and closer to their own deaths. Regardless, you are responsible for those choices, and they ultimately will lead to a reckoning if you show even a moment of weakness or vulnerability. Only through strength can you survive what life throws your way.

That's the primary message The Common Man got from reading No Country for Old Men (2005), the excellent, haunting, and violent novel by Cormac McCarthy, and watching the movie adaptation by the Coen brothers. McCarthy's novel is set along the border of Texas and Mexico, and focuses on the struggles of regular people trying to adapt to a new world with a new set of rules, a world that has been fundamentally altered. The drug trade has begun to wreak havoc on the American southwest, and these men and women, who were part of the old world, have not yet adjusted to this new paradigm.

There is danger in their ignorance. When welder and Vietnam veteran Llewellen Moss stumbles upon a bloodbath in the desert and $2.3 million in drug money, he sees an easy payday. But when his conscience gets the better of him, and he returns to the scene, he becomes the target of a massive manhunt. Chased by an embodiment of death itself, a remorseless, creative, emotionless, and seemingly invincible killbot, Moss makes his way across Texas, trying to outrun his decisions. But, as he tells a hitchiker he picked up along the road, “You dont start over. That’s what it’s about. Ever step you take is forever. You cant make it go away. None of it…. You think when you wake up in the mornin yesterday dont count. But yesterday is all that does count. What else is there? Your life is made out of the days it’s made out of. Nothin else. You might think you could run away and change your name and I dont know what all. Start over. And then one mornin you wake up and look at the ceilin and guess who’s layin there?" (227).

[Spoiler alert] The conclusion of Moss' story is at the same time tragic and inevitable, his unnatural death the natural conclusion of his decisions. His fight against his fate is both heroic and manly, very Cooper-esque, and his stoicism hides his growing desperation and dread of the end that is hunting him.

[End spoiler] The book is both meloncholy and colorful, very readable but also profound. The Common Man appreciates the grimness of its conclusion, and how vividly it draws its characters. McCarthy's novel expands a specific time period into a microcosm of human history, showing the inevitable march of "progress" and its consequences for the people caught up in it. The novel is well worth your time, especially if you're willing to read through grisly murders to get to an ending that is at the same time unresolved and extremely satisfying in its vagueness.

If, however, you're short on time and would rather watch the Cliff's Notes, you won't find a much more faithful adaptation of a book than Joel and Ethan Coen's celebrated film version. Dialogue is often lifted directly from McCarthy's novel, which is important given the importance McCarthy places on the way things are said, the short, measured lines his characters say underscores the culture they live in and their nature. Understanding they could not improve on the dialogue, the Coens largely left it alone. And scenes are recreated lovingly and painstakenly from the novel. While the Coens hide most of the violence behind props, it is still brazen and brutal. And the gore becomes less important than the reactions of those perpetrating the violence.

The acting is excellent. Javier Bardem, of course, received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the central antagonist, the philosophical and terrible killer tracking Moss. He is mesmerizing when he is onscreen, capable of making even an innocent grin feel venomous. Tommy Lee Jones simmers throughout the novel, struggling to control his frustration and his bewilderment at the changing world around him and his inability to stop its momentum. As he says at the start of the film, "I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet somethin’ that I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say 'okay, I’ll be part of this world.'" And when he realizes his ineffectiveness, he is driven out from that world, broken. Josh Brolin is also solid in the film, but his words are mostly irrelevant (in the film, anyway), as he serves mostly as the means to move the plot forward and reveal to the other characters (including his wife, played with remarkable vulnerability by Kelly Macdonald) how royally their lives have been fucked up by his choices.

The Common Man realizes how late he is getting to this film. It is, after all, almot a year since it won the Oscar, and more than a year since its release. But a recent conversation sparked The Common Man into reading the novel, giving him a better understanding of McCarthy's vision, and that of the Coens. Everyone dies, they want you to understand, and that death is ordained by the choices you make, even a heart attack at 84 can be traced back to a burger you ate at 37. As the killer tells Moss' wife, “Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased….A person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning” (259).

And so the ultimate message of the film is that everyone is responsible for the decisions they make. It is the ultimate end to the argument for personal responsibility. But even so, it acknowledges that some things are beyond the control of the individual, and all that ultimately matters is the decisions that you make when dealing with those circumstances. Which is true from both a religious and non-religious standpoint. The only things that matter are what you do, even if they don't change anything all that much. The Common Man thinks Hemingway would approve of that message, and is going to go reread the last ten pages of For Whom the Bell Tolls now to confirm that.


Isis the Scientist said...

I think some of the best posting happens when one is angry.

Then again, I quite like the movies and explosions too.

BikeMonkey said...

hear dat. blogging has a nasty tendency to lead one around by the nose doesn't it? Or, I suppose what we think will be on our minds ends up being different from what actually is on our minds on a daily basis.

Pain Man said...

i took from it:

evil exists for a reason. you can fight it or embrace it but it has a right to exist and an important purpose. evil is not right or wrong. it is.

every other character's life was moved (or set in motion) by Bardem's character. thus they were given life by the evil contained within that quality. thus evil (a natural state) leads and begets good (and God) and not the other way around.

The Common Man said...

@ Isis,

Angry has a place and time. So does cynical. But as Dean Wormer told The Common Man, "fat, dumb, angry, cynical, and stupid is no way to go through life."

@ BikeMonkey

You're right; The Common Man plans, God laughs.

@ Pain Man

Welcome to the neighborhood. Thanks for commenting. The Common Man didn't see that in his viewing/reading, which doesn't mean it's not there. That said, it's hard to see what purpose the evil in the story serves, other than to be destructive. The Common Man would argue that both good and evil exist side-by-side, but once evil taints good, that good is ruined. Both cannot exist in the same place together (Moss takes the money, but his decision to go back with water is what allows the evil to get him; as such, The Common Man believes that it is Moss around whom the story pivots; his actions lead Bardem on.). Good, because of its nature, is always vulnerable to that evil, especially because good people don't carry around bolt guns.

BikeMonkey said...

God laughs

good start Common. You have to get up a little earlier in the morning to successfully bait moi but keep 'em coming.

Kevin (ReturnToManliness) said...

Fantastic movie and of course number one on my list of hitmen. Bardem is fantastic.

You should see him in Vicky Christina Barcelona. It is a chick flick, but Bardem is so freaking cool in this movie, every guy should watch it. It's classic manliness...