Sunday, March 28, 2010

'No Country for Old Men' and Postmodernism


No Country for Old Men, written in 2005, is Cormac McCarthy's existential crime thriller and acclaimed ninth novel. In 2007 it was adapted into a screenplay and film by Joel and Ethan Coen, receiving much critical and cultural success since its release, and was awarded with four Oscars (including Best Picture) at the 2007 Academy Awards. In this close critical analysis I will be focusing both on the novel and he film and their application of generic conventions of the western, the film noir and the quest narrative to develop its themes, while also discussing biblical notions of retribution and justice. I will also examine the novels' adaptation to the screen to demonstrate key language choices in the novel and to support the idea of generic intertextuality. I will question the success of the film as opposed to the already established cultural success and significance of McCarthy's novel, and decide whether it can be considered a modernist or postmodernist text or something else altogether.


 No Country for Old Men is set in the American west near the South Texas/American border in the year 1980 in a post-Vietnam War aftermath. McCarthy’s novel references Vietnam a number of times and it is clear throughout the novel that the central characters of Llewellyn Moss, Anton Chigurh and Carson Wells have all honed their murderous skills in the jungles of Vietnam. For Moss, the novel relates that he had been a sniper in Vietnam, and he enters shooting pointlessly at a distant herd of antelope, seemingly standing in for the absence of human targets. Unlike Moss (Josh Brolin), who has married his young wife Carla Jean and re-started his life as a welder, Chigurh (Javier Bardem) and Wells (Woody Harrelson) are now rival ‘killers-for-hire’ with Wells hired half-way through the novel to extinguish the formerly hired, and now out-of-control Chigurh and safely return the money. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) recounts in his opening monologue how he had presided over his small south Texas border county for decades. In all that time he has sent only one criminal to death row and is otherwise secure in his belief that “it takes very little to govern good people,” and has lived a strangely uneventful life following his period of service in World War II. After Moss’ lapse of caution that enables the drug dealers’ bosses to identify him as the man behind the theft of their two million dollars, Moss and his wife find themselves fleeing from both the cartel hit men and the privately hired Chigurh who has been dispatched to recover the satchel. Bell finds himself confronting a surge of violence the likes of his quiet community has never before experienced, transforming the west into a violent expanse of carnage as Moss and Bell are drawn away from their uneventful lives in a search for retribution trapped inside an inescapable chasm of pending death. Cormac McCarthy’s novel creates a world where human violence is reflected in the harshness of the surrounding desert landscape, and where women are relegated to supporting status in a male dominated environment.

No Country for Old Men turns the western idea of redemption and renewal in nature inside and out. The violence in this film and also There Will be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) makes a profound point about the costs of physical and moral survival in a vicious world. As the latter film unfolds, we see how Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) has been warped by the determined individualism between the oil business he has embraced and how he bears the violent consequences of this. Similarly, this can be attributed to Moss, who clumsily and out of greed, must individually bear the consequences of robbing a powerful cartel, finding himself unable to survive against more ruthless and powerful adversaries.

The only event that seems to halt Chigurh’s reign of killing is the happenstance car accident near the conclusion of the novel. Chigurh is seemingly an agent of chance, often leaving the lives of people in the hands of a correctly guessed toss of a coin. In a perfect collision in McCarthy’s nihilistic cosmos, Chigurh meets fate, as a car runs a stop sign and collides with his car, almost as a godly act of justice for the killing of Carla Jean Moss. For the first time in the novel, Chigurh is on the negative side of his own coin toss (a moment of chance), and despite his arm being broken, he remains indestructible. After handing a young man a one hundred dollar bill to use his shirt as a sling, like a ghost he simply disappears into the landscape.

McCarthy’s novel and certainly the Coens’ screen adaptation demonstrate an allegiance to the genre of film noir and the hard-boiled detective mystery. We are quickly assigned a position to relate to Moss (arguably the films’ central protagonist but not the central voice of the novel). Ignoring the advice of the experienced lawman (Sheriff Bell), Moss tries to escape single-handedly, relying purely on his physicality to keep him secure. Bell is the equivalent, but a decisive twist to the noir detective. He is slowly piecing the evidence together and tracking the hunt, but always arriving too late to the scene to make a difference. Drawn into the obvious decay of his world, Bell’s weary persona is not sure how to respond to the evil that has encompassed his existence, failing to understand it and incapable physically to stop it.

One of the most important images in the Coens’ film is one of Bell near the conclusion as he contemplates entering the motel room where Moss was shot, after discovering that the lock has been freshly removed. The light from the exterior of the motel casts a perfect silhouette of Bell onto the wall inside the room matching the earlier silhouette of Bell in the television at Moss’ trailer. Chigurh is represented in a similar way, but not as an insignificant figure (a shadow), almost as a spectre patrolling the American landscape. The dark interior locations supported by the absent score creates nail-biting tension in the film, while the punchy dialogue in the novel is reminiscent of classic hard-boiled detective novels like Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939). While much of the sizzling dialogue in the latter is between the male protagonist and the saucy femme fatale, in No Country much of the masculine flirting is between the male characters, challenging one another. The most obvious case is the conversation between Wells and Moss at the hospital, where they quickly assess each other and establish that they are both very alike.

McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men is also a demonstration of the quest narrative and it is important, to undertake a close analysis of this novel, to differentiate yet at the same time formally link the three separate quests of Moss, Bell and Chigurh. This includes not only the physical damage experienced by the body, but also their spiritual enlightenment and the motivation between their actions (lawlessness vs. justice). Joan Mellen argues in ‘Spiraling Downward: America in Days of Heaven, In the Valley of Elah and No Country for Old Men’, “what defines the ‘new kind’ of American evil that Bell doesn’t understand are the similarities that Moss and Chigurh share.” Both men have been fashioned out of imperial war, and both have absorbed the lessons necessary for survival. They both reveal a professional knowledge of all types of guns; although in the film Moss never kills anyone (even failing to kill a stationary antelope in the opening sequence). Chigurh murders an innocent man as if he were an animal with an air gun commonly used in abattoirs to dispatch cattle, and later shoots meaninglessly at a crow sitting by the side of the road.

Unrelenting and unflinching, Chigurh is a paragon of military discipline, who seems to have extinguished all compassion. In its place is a chilling rationality and an absolute commitment to self-assigned objectives. When shot, both men tend to their own wounds and buy clothing from bewildered passers-by to cover themselves using bloody hundred-dollar bills taken from the drug money.
As for Bell in the film; whose less-than-heroic World War II experiences is only recounted in the novel and fails to match those of the younger men, he drinks from the same bottle of milk Chigurh had removed from the refrigerator and drunk from only moments earlier. Also in the trailer Chigurh sits reflected in the television set, with Bell later sitting the same spot seeing exactly what this man has seen. To take this idea further, Bell says of Moss, “he’s seen the same things I’ve seen, and they’ve certainly made an impression on me.” The dispiriting role of violence in human history and the inability of good people to stop the seemingly rising ‘dismal tide’ is reflected in the three men: a killer, whose unrepentant evil is passionless, and embedded in his nature, a man who has dedicated his life to pursuing and apprehending minor criminals, and the simple man in the middle, compelled to grab money that doesn’t belong to him despite the inevitable risk behind his actions. Ultimately the moral gestures of these men win them nothing but a few steps closer to their own inevitable graves, and the degradation of the American West. They are each asked a question: how does a man decide in what order to abandon his life?

Bell finds himself incapable of surviving in a post-Vietnam America. For only the second time (the first is recounted in the opening pages of narration) he has met his match, this ‘new breed’ of evil. Bell says in the novel: ‘we’re looking at something we ain’t never seen before,” echoing Marlowe in Heart of Darkness, when he says “I had to deal with a being to whom I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low.” At the conclusion of the novel (and the film), Sherriff Bell recounts to his wife a dream of his father riding on ahead on a cold night with a fire in a horn to make camp up ahead. Whether it is a dream of Heaven or Hell, the certainty is that it’s a dream of death, and in this world, there’s nothing left t hope for but the dead faith that men of fiber can hold against the evils of the pending tide. Over the course of the novel Moss transforms into a representation of a ‘new breed’ of good, a man that has to choose between morals and life itself. His quest combines both instinct and luck to make up for his lack of experience, as his troubles ultimately originate when he returns to the scene of the crime in the middle of the night to give water to a wounded survivor. Following his involvement, Moss must adapt into survival mode not just to keep the money but also to stay alive. The ensuing hunt has only two possible conclusions; the success or failure of the hunter.

As Bell tracks Moss and Chigurh in his quest, he comes to realize that the world around him has changed and he is unable to adapt. In acknowledging this he admits that he’s not part of the current world, questioning as to what he’s supposed to do given his fondness for the ways of the past. The world that Bell once knew is long gone, instead replaced with a lawless stampede. Ryan Cracknell comments on No Country for Old Men, arguing that it spins the traditions of the Western genre on its head. He says: “it seems as though Bell is ready to ride off into the sunset, not as a hero but rather as a limping dog heading out in the desert to die in solitude and let the land evolve.”

To argue the film’s constituency to postmodernism, No Country suggests that the modern ideas of the declaration of cinematic viability within the Western genre are so different for modern audiences that the film industry no longer presents the same sensibilities that made John Wayne a legend within the genre. In our regimented, postmodern society, audiences are more often fascinated by evil characters who dominate others by force, most recently Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood and Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.

What are interesting are the sequences that precede Bell’s recount of his dream at the conclusion. In the Coens’ re-imagining and restructuring, Bell does not so much accept defeat, but admit defeat. Bell returns to the motel room of Moss’ death and finds the lock blown-out, and the money removed from the air conditioning vent where Moss had previously stored it. Exhausted, after thoroughly searching the room, Bell sits down on the bed, his attention suddenly focused towards screws on the carpet and the lone dime used to open the vent. The violence breaking out around him forces Sheriff Bell to re-examine his own ability and willingness to deal with this new form of criminal brutality. The elderly lawman, product of an informal code of honor that belongs to generations past, comes to doubt whether he is any longer suited to his work. This new era demands an equally brutal response of a kind he is unwilling to muster lest he “set his soul at hazard.” Following this realization, the camera chooses not to focus back on Bell’s reaction to the removed vent, but slowly dissolves out and fades into a single house on the horizon. The next sequence sees Bell discussing his pending retirement, and his incapacity to maintain order in a world dominated by the lawless human products of imperial war, to an old friend he calls ‘Uncle Ellis’. The last quarter of the novel is shortened for the screen, but remains no less ambiguous. Bell’s quest for Chigurh is lengthened in the novel, as he questions the young boys who assist Chigurh following the collision, in an attempt to find the man and bring him to justice. In the film, following his discovery of Chigurh’s escape with the money from Moss’ hotel room, he admits defeat, and the last images of the film show the confrontation between Chigurh and Carla Jean Moss, whom we presume he kills, followed by the accident which sees Chigurh escape, before concluding with a broken and now idle Bell recounting his dreams to his wife at the kitchen table. The abrupt ending works well in this historical meditation on a country close to hitting rock bottom. In McCarthy’s novel Bell thoughtfully recounts his dreams, ending with the line: “and then I woke up”, also used by the Coen Brothers to conclude their film.

Drawing from these intertextual narrative devices a significant question can be asked: Can No Country for Old Men be considered a modernist text, a postmodernist text or something else altogether. Does the ‘cinematic’ language of McCarthy play a role in destabilizing our perception of the novel? It is my reading that the use of the cinematic language is a feature of the novel’s postmodern appeal. The novel’s language takes the reader into an absorbing, dream-like state; with the release from this world working simultaneously with Bell’s awakening from his own dream. Ira Boudway in her article on Salon.com comments on McCarthy, describing him as a “thoroughly cinematic novelist in many of his texts, but never more so than in No Country, leaving intact the precise description of action and movement for which he is justly renowned.” Here are two such examples of this language, Moss dining in a restaurant:

‘He ate in a restaurant with white tablecloths and waiters in white jackets. He ordered a glass of red wine and a porterhouse steak. It was early and the restaurant was empty save for him. He sipped his wine and when the steak came out he cut into it and chewed slowly and thought about his life.” (p. 85)

And Moss in a hotel room customizing his gun:

He “unwrapped the shotgun and wedged it in an open drawer and held it and sawed the barrel of just in front of the magazine. He squared up the cut with the file and smoothed it and wiped out the muzzle of the barrel with a damp facecloth and set it aside.” (pp. 88-9)

The novel reads almost like a screenplay, like McCarthy has described in detail a scene he has witnessed. It creates an enjoyable experience for a reader capable of visualizing the incredible imagery that McCarthy develops with his language. These images are transferred beautifully into the Coens’ film as they remain faithful to the novel but make minor plot changes to suit their formal and aesthetic choices. The use of sound (or the absence of sound in many scenes) adds to the tension, in particular the early sequences as Moss strolls through the barren landscape and discovers the massacre, and the wonderful sequence where Moss waits in the dark of his hotel room after discovering that Chigurh has killed the doorman and tracked the money to his door. Much of McCarthy’s dialogue is recreated word-for-word in the film, in particular the conversation between Moss and Carson Wells at the hospital. The exchange of witty one-line responses is absorbing in its simplicity, but also complex in its attention to character detail. We discover that both served in Vietnam, and both share a quality of over-confidence in their abilities to track and kill Chigurh. An understanding of how No Country for Old Men reinstates a centered aesthetics to privilege the cinematic, leads to an understanding of how McCarthy is exploring evil in his novel. It appears to be an illustration of the contemporary face of evil and exhibits an author who has shifted his aesthetic codes to favor cinematic signification practices. One argument about postmodernism is that film and video have begun to replace the written word, due to a fracturing and continuing unreliability of written language.

It is very likely that when people here about No Country for Old Men they will think of the Coen Bros’ film adaptation based on its praise and cultural prestige than they will the original McCarthy novel. According to Frederick Jameson, “film and video have become the choice for the postmodern individual.” This theory and the blurring of the boundaries between different media can be applied directly to McCarthy’s postmodern novel, a work of near-cinematic conception. McCarthy is aware that the popular trend is now directed toward the visual mediums and he has altered his work to adhere closer to these trends.

In a further examination of the novel’s adherence to postmodernism, Robert L. Jarret concludes, “McCarthy’s novels express a postmodern sentiment, because to the postmodern mind, nothing is knowable with certainty.” McCarthy’s late modernism is distinguished by a capacity to recognize the postmodern limitations on language and narrative, while nevertheless using the academic ideologies of his writing period in order to recover a productive modernist opposition. David Holloway, in his article The Late Modernization of Cormac McCarthy refers in particular to the way his language performs on the levels of aesthetics what his characters fail to accomplish on the level of plot. He argues, “McCarthy’s self-reflexive style effects a change in the realm of aesthetics that his tragic characters cannot achieve in their own endeavors.” This applies directly to the quests on Moss and Chigurh. Even the seemingly banal activity is actively described in such a way by McCarthy to enhance the depth of the characters, give further meaning to important plot elements and provide extra vitality to the ‘cinematic’ image.

Murphy’s Law reigns supreme in No Country for Old Men, just as life itself is filled with dark irony and ill-matched confrontation. There is greed and loss, echoed in the film’s taglines: “There are no clean getaways…there are no laws left…you can’t stop what’s coming.” From my reading of the novel and my critique of the film adaptation, the complex works exhibit clear elements of postmodernity, including the texts’ bleak existence within a post-Vietnam America, the challenging intersection and manipulation of multiple genres, McCarthy’s cinematic language, the Coens’ formal aesthetics, and the ambiguous ending that leaves key themes of death and retribution open for interpretation. McCarthy’s original and harrowing novel, exhibiting resonating imagery and sinister characters, is a flawless example of the postmodern narrative.

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