Edizioni Ricerca ’90 | Neither our country is No Country for Old Men


Neither our country is No Country for Old Men

by Ciro Discepolo

This is the first remark I can make after watching some times the Coen brothers' (for me) wonderful film.
What is the subject of this film? In my opinion they could have titled it 'America Today', which corresponds to the title given here in Italy to Robert Altman's 'Short Cuts' (USA, 1993), but I believe that Ethan and Joel Coen's interest is not particularly focused on their own country. Or perhaps it is, but only because they know their country very well - in fact they live there; but what they depict would probably refer also to Italy, to France, to Germany…
To begin with, why that location? Texas and surrounding areas, I think, may mean the place where America actually was born, in the meaning that we Westerners give to this notion. It's there where the pioneers settled down; there, with a very hard work, they started from scratch producing job and wealth, mainly through very honest activities such as agriculture, cattle-breeding and similar tasks.
The America of huge cities is, I believe, less representative for the two filmmakers, since the phenomena mafia, organized crime, illegal trade was preponderant hardly at the beginning, and I believe that no one would claim that that's America!
Then here it comes the money: money utterly dominates over everything and everybody. The briefcase that the protagonist finds in the middle of the desert, containing two millions dollars of a drug exchange gone violently wrong (leaving several victims on the round) is the other fundamental subject of the film of the Coen brothers. At the beginning money seemed immaculate, spotless, as if it were newly printed by the State. Later on it is being handed over and over again, always by bleeding hands so that it is shown bloodstained, spattered with mud or even worse (for example, with pieces of human bowels).

There are also three protagonists of the film, whom we may well define as the Good (the aged sheriff starred by great Tommy Lee Jones), the Evil (the serial killer charged to find out the briefcase: Javier Bardem, awarded with the Oscar in the best supporting actor category) and the Semi-Dood or the Semi-Evil (the honest man who's tempted by the briefcase, who would subsequently commit crimes himself: Josh Brolin).

Also in the Coens' parable we can find the common topic of almost all the American films: travel. In fact this film is on the road for it develops along the geographical distance (from desert towards the city) and the temporal distance (from the protagonist's first stumble to his committing crimes, killing and being killed) of the trip.
Moving on is, I believe, in the winners of four Oscars, pluriawarded brothers' mind, the travel of America itself from its origins to our days.

And there is pulp fiction, so much pulp fiction that even Tarantino could learn from this movie film each time he watches it.

Let us proceed in order.

The Good. The sheriff is a son and a grandson of sheriffs. He has always done his duty. He's still riding horse in the desert and the piece of news that he reads on the newspaper surprises him like a child: “A young couple attracted old people into their house and killed them to take over their money, but first of all they tortured them. I don't understand it: perhaps they didn't have a TV set. They had been burying old people in the garden for years and nobody noticed. Only when they saw a naked old man running on the road with a necktie, did somebody give an alarm.” This man might put the inattentive public off the scent (this happened to me as I first watched the film) because it repeats his speech about crime, saying that one cannot know who will be the winner of the struggle between mankind and cattle, and about the relentless decay of civilization. He regrets the times when sheriffs could still stroll around without a gun, and he seems to be a conservative and depressed guy, but he's the once who will reveals, I believe, the real meaning of this film with the two dreams described in the final scene.

The Evil, a well-deserved Oscar award as best supporting actor. If you pay attention, you will notice that the fixity of his facial mask (probably supported by an extremely skilled make-up) leaves you appalled. I reckoned, I believe, that he blinked only three or four times along the whole film. He kills with calmness and a repetition close to a psychotic behaviour. The Evil kills, it kills always, even when there's no need to kill (the motionless raven by the edge of the road). What did Ethan Coen and Joel Coen want to tell us with this character? I believe that the closest movie reference links to the replicants of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner: artificial machines built by man to perform the most dirty and dangerous tasks. A sort of genetic mutation that slowly, in the States but also elsewhere, is gradually transforming evil individuals into impersonal beings (hence the reference to the robot). In a word: the robotization of Evil at its utmost level. It is also interesting to notice the incapability of communication between the 'normal Terrestrians' and the Evil: the latter is forced to repeat continually his questions because his listeners keep asking him: “Pardon? What did you say? What? What do you mean?”.

The Semi-Good might be the parable that makes us understand which could have been the path that led honest and virtuous Americans to become what they are today - in their great majority, birds of prey that follow only Mammon. It is not by chance that he's a pronghorn-and-similar-beast hunter in the area between the prairies and the desert of Texas, just like the first pioneers who formed that country. He's not a fool, he's strong and he shots very well. He equips himself with the best excuse for a massacring hardware, and goes to the city to massacring whomsoever places himself between him and 'his' money. Here it is the travel of the Americans from the deserts of Texas to the city, as an icon of the utmost deviation towards Evil.

Nonetheless - I don't think that they made it for the mere sake of filling a void - they wanted to insert another character (remember that the script has been rewritten and it clearly shows the imprinting of the famous and awarded filmmaker brothers): it is the character (starred by Woody Harrelson) who also represents the Evil almost as equally as Chigurh, but being not so ruthless and evil as him, is eventually killed by Chigurh. It's understood that despite the galore pulp, in parallel with (almost) every scene you can perceive the Coen brothers' fantastic irony: this character, the protagonist of Natural Born Killers, has got a higher brain - he remembers everything, he observes and reasons like nobody else. Yet, when he goes to the place where he would be paid for hunting the Evil and the briefcase, he says: “I counted the floors of this building since here.”. His hirer:What then?”. “One's missing.”. “We'll investigate”.

Pulp fiction. Somebody wrote that it's exaggerated, repulsing. Some of my friends wanted to run out of the cinema. I believe that this is exactly what Joel and Ethan Coen wanted to provoke: in order to carry on a story on the abysmal decay of contemporary society, it was necessary to represent pulp in such a measure that leaves Tarantino behind by many lengths. Perhaps they succeeded, outstripping even Hostel (a production of Quentin Tarantino, 2005), which compared to the Coens' film, is a graphic novel.

The most enigmatic scene for me is the one in which, almost at the end of the film, the Good (the sheriff) and the Evil find themselves at a few inches' distance in the same room, fully aware of each other's presence: incredibly nothing at all happens, there's no fight, no bloodshed, and the sheriff simply goes away. What do the two authors, of Israelite origin, wanted to suggest with that? Probably, they wanted to express the notion that Good and Evil are unable to face each other directly, being so polar; they need mediation instead to be able to create a mutual contact - even if it's the contact between their guns.

At the end the Evil wins - the sheriff retires. This appears as the final hit of a moralist film, planned and built by moralist men. It is not so. The key to understand the whole film, in my opinion, is the two dreams that Tommy Lee Jones relates to his mate in the final scene.
In his first dream, the sheriff sees his own father handing over some money that he would lose: old generations handed over to us values that we have lost.

The other dream shows the sheriff and his father riding a horse. They have to pass through a narrow and dark mountain pass. His father overtakes him and lights a natural torch; he then settle down and light a fire that gives light and warmth, then he waits for his son. This is the hope that the country - that country and every country - could eventually find out the right way to a place with a warm fire and much more light.


Altri personaggi | No Country for Old Men