Western Wednesday With Blake Howard: “I’ll be a part of this world.”

September 13, 2017
We dive into the Coen Brothers' masterful modern Western noir, No Country for Old Men.

In a Texas Gas station, psychopathic bounty hunter Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem in his Oscar winning performance) takes an interest in its proprietor. After a series of exchanges with innocent passers-by in his pursuit for Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), the cordiality and sheer banality of his existence gives offence. He begins to coil his words, never letting any passive time-killing expression pass, until he decides that he’s going to let this man’s life ride on a coin toss.

Anton Chigurh: You need to call it. I can’t call it for you. It wouldn’t be fair.

Gas Station Proprietor: I didn’t put nothin’ up.

Chigurh: Yes, you did. You’ve been putting it up your whole life, you just didn’t know it. You know what date is on this coin?

Proprietor: No.

Chigurh: 1958. It’s been travelling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And it’s either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.

Proprietor: Look, I need to know what I stand to win.

Chigurh: Everything.

This week, we’re taking a journey into a Neo-Western, the ‘80s-set, No Country For Old Men, adapted and directed by the Coen Brothers from the novel by Cormac McCarthy.

Llewelyn (Brolin) discovers $2 million in cash as a result of a cartel shoot out while out hunting and decides to keep it. The cartel bosses dispatch Chigurh (Bardem) to find and return the funds, while Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) follows the carnage, and attempts to protect Moss from the hurricane on his tail.

There was something in the air toward the end of 2007. A half a decade of jingoistic reinforcement that the West (read the U.S.A) is good and the East (the Muslim World) is bad and this period piece contextualises that the U.S Conservative ideal of the world that’s being propagated has been jeopardised is in fact, a myth. The Tex-Mex borderlands have been a domestic battleground for the better part of 30 years. The third of four incredible and enduring Westerns to emerge in this period – No Country for Old Men – received Hollywood’s highest accolade and was bestowed with the Oscar for Best Picture.

In the last Western Wednesday column I described No Country as a “post-morality” Western, largely due to the film’s iconic and terrifying force, Chigurh. There’s even a warning. As Llewelyn (Brolin) stumbles upon the cartel’s bounty in the beginning of the film, there’s a lone survivor. He’s parched and begging for “aqua.” As Llewelyn says that he cannot speak the language, he asks for the location of the “ultimo hombre” or last man standing from the fracas; there’s a croaky warning. The parched man says “Lobos,” which means wolves. One can’t help but think he knows the wolf that he’s referring to is Chigurh. He’s not a man that can be reasoned with and the film positions him as a terrifying alpha wolf. He spends the duration of the film demonising lesser predators and either confusing the sheep-like populace with his “bob” disguise or paralysing them with fear.

I’m fixin’ to do something dumber than hell, but I’m going anyways.

Llewelyn Moss is a Vietnam veteran, a hunter and an unassuming tough guy. He’s already been part of a losing war and lives in a trailer park. The bounty is a change in fortune. The discovery of the money sparks an aptitude in Llewelyn to become a formidable foe for Chigurh. The Coens continually show the men echoing one another’s activities. Assembling customisable weapons, conducting DIY surgery, both men even share similar dialogue. Once they interact it’s that same perverse certainty – he warns Llewelyn that his insolence will cost him beyond his death, threatening the life of his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald). Once Carla Jean is safely beyond his reach, we assume that we’re preparing for a face off between these two epic foes.

A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, “O.K., I’ll be part of this world.”

The melancholy of No Country for Old Men is that even while Ed Tom Bell (Jones) feels overmatched we see that he is only a fraction of a step behind this chaotic wraith. Without Ed, Chigurh continues to be a ghost. Chigurh is a war jackal, leaving carcasses disguised by the chaos in the borderlands war zone. Chigurh is an unstoppable force; he’s an imposing physical creature. When he’s introduced he’s a passive co-operator, strolling with a leisurely gait toward a police car. With the same calm, he steps in front of his handcuffs and stalks toward the deputy. Once he wraps his hands around the deputy’s neck the camera stares blankly from a powerful but impotent view. In the thrashing, we see that Chigurh is ravenous. Even the slick swagger of opposing bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson at his most delicious) cannot predict the moves of Chigurh’s unstoppable force.

No Country For Old Men is an unparalleled masterpiece, adapted with grace and perfection. It flows with the storytelling tempo of the best of Shakespeare; opening in a full, realised world and committed to realising its conceit. It unashamedly hammers home its philosophy in a soliloquy from Ed Tom Bell (Jones) as he describes a dream he had about his father.

“I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do… And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.”

As the credits roll, I can’t be sure if Carla Jean (Macdonald) is alive, nor can I be sure that Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s (Jones) retirement is going to stick. Although this implacable injustice leaves ordinary people pitifully outmatched, we must be willing to carry the light in the cold dark.

A Michael Mann fanatic all the time, Blake Howard is an Aussie film writer, editor and member of the Online Film Critics Society. Co-founder of the acclaimed Australian film website Graffiti with Punctuation, he offers articulate analysis across the gamut of cinema from blockbusters to indies galore.

A former co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, he’s also behind the top-rating film podcasts such as Pod Save Our Screen and The Debrief, a freelance contributor to outlets from Penthouse to ABC News 24, and a co-host of the weekly ‘Gaggle of Geeks’ on 2SER radio.

 

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