Monday, January 7, 2008

No Country for Old Men

All the reports of disturbing violence in this film are keeping me away, but I couldn't resist when Randy brought home the book. I plunged in and emerged a couple of days later, not uplifted, but glad my head was full of words rather than visions of cruelty. By the fifth page McCarthy creates horror and by the twentieth, almost unbearable tension. The two qualities are not unrelated, of course. Every scene, even the peaceful one here and there, is haunted by the menace of hitman-serial killer Chigurh, an unstoppable force and a strangely compelling monster.

I have a Coen brothers story. When I was a film school, I met a guy with thick black-framed glasses and spiky hair named Don Skahill, who made and worked on some interesting student films. A couple of years later, I heard through a friend that Skahill got a job as a script flunky on the Coen brothers film Fargo. The brothers had started production, but they hadn't yet cast a tiny speaking role. So Don asked if he could try out, but one of the Coen's told him, "I don't want to do a conventional audition for this. Surprise me."

So Skahill watched and waited and one day saw his opportunity. He burst into a room where the bros were working and called out in earnest and energetic Minnesotan: "May I have your ticket, please!?" It was the character's single line and his reading won him the role. It's actually an important moment of the film - the sight of his corpse is what William Macy, as Jerry Lundegaard, is reacting to in this often-shown still.

The McCarthy book did remind me of the earlier film. They both show us the tender relationship between a law officer (Fargo's Officer Marge Gunderson, the novel's Sheriff Bell) and spouse and contrast that rockbed safety and comfort with grotesquely meaningless violence.

And Fargo and No Country for Old Men both collide worlds. Innocence meets guile for the first time and approaches with a small confused smile, sniffing the sulfur. A gas station clerk asks Chigurh, "You all getting any rain up your way?" The antelope hunter Moss returns to the desert crime scene - where he recovered a million dollars in blood money! With a jug of water! Too good or too stupid to live? Discuss. Look at Lundegaard's face. He's tasting the bile of panic and the juice of the serpent's apple.

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