Saturday, 27 March 2021

The Coen Brothers: Westerns and Greek Tragedies

No Country For Old Men (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)

“[‘No Country for Old Men’] is a reiteration of the old myth that Death stalks the land. That is why West Texas has that desert look, the scorched air, and the heat that leaves brave men listless.”

– David Thomson, Have You Seen...? 

No Country's setting is a classic neo-noir milieu of malevolence and amorality. Moss, like many other Coen heroes before him, is driven by money and vanity, but he lacks the ability to assess the chances against him. The Coens' noir flicks Blood Simple and Fargo are situated outside of the traditional metropolitan atmosphere. They do it again in No Country, but this time they take a more serious approach to the Western themes of civilization vs. the wild, the rule of the gun vs. the rule of law, the morality of violence, and American individualism. 

Moss only comes upon the money when a narrowly missed shot wounds a deer, and he climbs down from his high vantage point to put it to rest. This act of sympathy on the part of the hunter puts his fate in action. Moss returns to the murder site with water to assist a badly injured man, nearly sacrificing his life in the process, as a result of the same impulse. Sheriff Bell's reminiscences of the early days of Texas and clashes between lawmen and outlaws are voice-over narrations performed by Jones in his gravelly Texas accent. He is presented with a heinous deed that he cannot comprehend. The ideals that have shaped Bell and Moss no longer appear to apply. 

Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem epitomises the new west. He kills without remorse and pursues Moss with zeal. He kills with a cattle-slaughtering airgun. The cowboy and the ranch have been replaced by industrial meat production. Chigurh believes that death is unavoidable and that every choice and action leads to it. He is only functioning as Death's tool, not being responsible for his deeds. In this new western terrain, compassion and honour have no place; it's just the hunter and the prey. 

McCarthy's grim picture of reality is well captured by the Coens. McCarthy's neo-Western debunks the romantic vision of the west that the classic Western promotes, omitting the brutality and racism involved in the genocide of aboriginal peoples, westward expansion, and the Manifest Destiny mentality. With some of their greatest filmmaking—exquisitely planned scenes, an incredible eye for the peculiarities of human behaviour, and the ability to cast precisely the right actors—the Coens bring the book vividly to life. 

No Country for Old Men is set in 1980, and returns to the territory of the Coens' first film, Blood Simple (1983), with the windy desolation of the Lone Star state externalising the mindset of a country that is "hard on people" – especially those who go against Reaganite self-sufficiency without thinking things through. 

If Ray (John Getz) of Blood Simple gets caught up in a web of deception and killing when he decides to tidy up a murder scene for which he falsely believes his sweetheart is to blame, Moss puts his head on the block via an ill-advised act of charity. "You're on your own down here," says the opening narration in Blood Simple. 

The Coen brothers have always referenced and parodied previous films and literature, but this is their first direct adaptation. It's easy to understand why they were drawn to Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel, an extravagant found-cash period piece with a heritage that echoes William Faulkner and James M. Cain's grim pulp dramas. 

McCarthy's story is well-suited to the Coen brothers' upheaval of genre, and the film stays remarkably true to the novel's source material, condensing its dark humour and meditations on the depth of evil into a concise vision of grim fate and a relentless sense of the darkness released by criminal money.

In the following extract Richard Gilmore discusses the Coen Brothers western No Country for Old Men, and its relation to Greek tragedy.

The stories that the Coen brothers are interested in telling all seem to be very American stories. Their approach of choice is the genre of film. Their favorite film genre is very American, a genre the French call film noir, but No Country for Old Men is of another classic American genre, the western. Genre is an interesting way to try to say something about something because, as Jacques Derrida has made explicit, the “law of the law of genre” is that every new member of a genre set will deviate from and violate the apparent established principles of that genre. This is how Derrida describes the “law of the law of genre”: “It is precisely a principle of contamination, a law of impurity, a parasitical economy. In the code of set theories, if I may use it at least figuratively, I would speak of a sort of participation without belonging—a taking part in without being part of, without having membership in a set.” This description of each new member of a genre set sounds to me a lot like what it means to be a (new) member of the set of Americans. Just as each new Coen film that has genre elements adds to and transforms the genre it participates in, so too, each new American adds to and transforms what it means to be an American.

No Country for Old Men, then, is and is not a classic western. It takes place in the West and its main protagonists are what you might call westerners. On the other hand, the plot revolves around a drug deal that has gone bad; it involves four-wheel-drive vehicles, semiautomatic weapons, and executives in high-rise buildings, none of which would seem to belong in a western. There is a beautiful moment when Sheriff Ed Tom Bell and his sidekick, Deputy Wendell, are riding along, following a trail, and Deputy Wendell remarks on the tracks they are following in a way that recalls for me a moment in John Ford’s great classic (and revisionist) western, The Searchers (1956), when Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) are following some tracks that will be similarly fateful for everyone involved. It is an interesting connection (I won’t claim it is a reference) because in The Searchers, Ethan says, “We’ll find ’em. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth”—and they do. They find ’em, sure enough; but in an odd, somewhat inexplicable twist, there is no final confrontation between Ethan and Scar (Henry Brandon), the hated Comanche chief he has been seeking for seven years. Instead, it is Martin who kills Scar, and he appears to have done it while Scar was asleep in his tepee. Sheriff Bell is pretty dogged for a while, but he will give up the search altogether before he finds his adversary, Anton Chigurh.

Anton Chigurh might as well be Melville’s Moby Dick for all of the human compassion, or even human motivation, that can be found in him. It makes as little sense to speak of him as evil as it does to say that raw nature, a blizzard or a flood, is evil. He has principles, the equivalent in a man to the laws of nature. Given his principles, he does not act irrationally or from passion; he is more of an inexorable force. He is not a rampaging killer on the loose; he has been summoned by a human will, a human desire, to achieve a desired end. He appears only because he was summoned. The recognizable and clear evil lies with the one (or those, since there may be others involved; the film is not explicit on this point) who summoned him. He was summoned because of greed, lust for power, an indifference to the suffering of others, and personal gratification. He who summoned him will learn, too late, that, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, he has summoned a power that he cannot control, that it was pure hubris to think that he could control it.

That evil man is of little interest to either Cormac McCarthy, the author of the novel, No Country for Old Men, or to Joel and Ethan Coen, the makers of the movie. What is of interest to McCarthy and the Coens is rather what happens when a good, but flawed, man encounters this force of nature in human guise. In this sense, No Country for Old Men recapitulates the patterns of ancient Greek tragedy. As in ancient Greek tragedy, a good but flawed man will become enmeshed in events that will prove to be his ruin. It will be what is good in him as much as what is flawed that will engage him in these events, and his ruin will be complete. Oedipus is a kind of paradigm of the way the ancient tragedies begin and end. It is because Oedipus is so smart, self-confident, competent, and passionate that he ascends to the throne of Thebes and rules as a good and noble king. It is also because Oedipus is so smart, self-confident, competent, and passionate that he is able to complete the mysterious task sent him by the Oracle of Delphi and to find the murderer of the previous king of Thebes, King Laius.

Unfortunately, as it will turn out, it is Oedipus himself who killed the previous king, as predicted by the same Oracle of Delphi long ago. He has also married his mother and fathered his children/siblings. As a consequence, Oedipus’s wife/mother commits suicide, he blinds and exiles himself, his incest-produced children will fight and be responsible for each others’ deaths. Llewelyn Moss is similarly smart, self-confident, competent, and passionate. His intelligence and competence lead him to the “last man standing” (as Moss puts it to the man he finds dying in a truck, saying, “there must’ve been one”) and to the money. His compassion compels him to return to the site of the drug deal gone bad to bring water to the dying man who asked for it. It is not at all clear whether or not Chigurh or the Mexicans would have ever picked up the transponder signals if he had not gone back, but it is certainly clear that once they have found Moss and his truck at the scene, they will be on his trail wherever he goes. A fate similar to Oedipus’s disastrous ruin awaits Llewelyn Moss: both he and his young wife will be brutally murdered; all that he has will be lost.

Power, Hubris, and the Fatal Flaw

Anton Chigurh is a monster, in the sense that Emerson uses the word in his essay “The American Scholar,” that is, in association with “monitory” and “admonition,” drawing on its Latin derivation meaning a warning or an omen.The ancient Greek tragedies were meant to serve that same function, that is, warning about especially human temptations that would lead to disaster. Tragedy was considered a source of wisdom as well as of entertainment, and the primary wisdom that the ancient Greek tragedies taught was also written on the wall at the famous and perhaps most holy of Greek temples, the Oracle of Delphi: “Avoid hubris.” Hubris is a difficult word to recover from the Greek, but it means something like arrogant ignorance, thinking that you are better or more powerful than you really are. The Greek gods hated hubris, and one of their primary occupations as gods was punishing humans for their hubris.

Hubris was such a problem for the Greeks not because they valued timidity or even humility but because they loved power, and they loved powerful, proud people. As Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics, “The man is thought to be proud who thinks himself worthy of great things, being worthy of them.” The Greek ideal was to manifest all of your true power, and to be very powerful, without overstepping your own limits, without presuming to have more power than you really have. This is a very difficult ideal to achieve because one does not know what one is capable of until one tries to do things beyond what one has done before. And yet, the Greeks (Aristotle, for one) assumed that one could know what one is capable of and thereby avoid the calamities of hubris. The above quotation from Aristotle concludes, “for he who does so beyond his deserts is a fool, but no virtuous man is foolish or silly.” This Greek ideal, this wisdom, is, too, exhorted upon the wall at Delphi: “Know thyself.” Llewelyn Moss is a man of considerable resources, but his powers have been lying more or less dormant. He has innate powers of intelligence and determination as well as some acquired abilities learned while serving in Vietnam. Virtually all of these powers are banked, the way one banks a fire, because there is no way to exercise them in his day-to-day life. He has a good job as a welder that does not require all of either his intelligence or determination. He has a lovely young wife and a comfortable trailer home but no obvious way of improving his situation beyond this level of comfort. In many ways he seems to be happy and successful, but it is a difficult thing to have powers that you have no opportunities to use. Doing pretty well in America has never been the happiest of options if there is some chance that you could be doing better. Of course, that possibility of doing better becomes real for Llewelyn when he comes upon the briefcase full of cash. He barely seems to hesitate before he decides to go for it.

A key element of Greek tragedy is the idea of the protagonist’s hamartia, the fatal flaw. Hamartia is a term derived from archery and literally means “off the mark,” signifying that one’s aim has been slightly off. The protagonist of a classic Greek tragedy must be essentially a good person, a person whose intentions are good but who does not really or fully know himself or herself, and this lack of self-knowledge is mixed with a bit of hubris, which puts off one’s aim. This is quite literally suggested of Llewelyn at the beginning of the movie when he is hunting for antelope and ends up shooting one in the hindquarters. In a sense, the entire movie is prefigured in this scene. It is a scene that shows Llewelyn to be highly competent, an expert at hunting: the way he uses his boot for a barrel rest, the way he adjusts the sight for the distance of the shot, his patience in taking the shot, his picking up his shell after he takes the shot are all signs of his expertise. All are signs of his knowledge, his ability, his power, but the scene also shows his ultimate hubris, literally and figuratively. Instead of killing the antelope, he only wounds it, the worst possible outcome for a responsible hunter. He is clearly frustrated and annoyed with himself, and he heads out after the wounded antelope to try to finish what he has started.

It is a long shot that he thinks he can make. It is not a shot that he will make, but he is just good enough to actually hit the antelope at the distance of almost a mile. All of the elements of the movie are here, Llewelyn’s talents as well as his misjudgments, as well as certain implacable facts of nature; distance, heat, the movement of the antelope are the facts of nature that will undo his best intentions. His aim is good but not quite good enough, and the worst possible consequences eventuate because he was willing to try the difficult shot. His experience is a Greek tragedy in miniature.

– No Country for Old Men. The Coens’ Tragic Western by Richard Gilmore in The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers. Edited by Mark T. Conard.

1 comment:

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