January 19, 2008

Fate and America: history according to the Coen Brothers in No Country for Old Men

Fate or fortune has been at the centre of our understanding of human history for so long that sometimes it is easy to forget. Minds as subtle and interesting as Thucydides, Polybius, Machiavelli and Tolstoy have sought to understand how fortune governs human history. How it elevates the humble and humbles the proud. The Bible in some of its most interesting book is a mere account of the control of fate by Jehovah- for St Augustine fate was a servant in the evangelical mission of Christianity- for Hegel it was the process which drew out synthesis from thesis and antithesis- for Marx it was the turning of the screw of class conflict. Fate or fortune might be explained but humans could never master it- they could never govern it- they might never as a character at the end of this movie complains meet God.

No Country for Old Men is about fate and its workings through history. Symbolised by a remorseless and brutal killer, whose dress cinematically hints at that other remorseless slaughterer Ingmar Bergman's Death in the Seventh Seal, its impact is truly devastating. It rips families apart and confounds the confident in their search for safety in a world where you get what is coming to you. His victims live in the slipstream of history- they live in the tides of events which sweep them off course and belie their confident plans and predictions. He is seemingly invulnerable- even when wounded he can treat himself with ease- he is not a homicidal maniac according to the voice of wisdom, the local sheriff, he is fate itself. And his victims respond with fear to him- the fear that they would award to fate. From the first frames of the movie, where a man in a bar tosses a coin for his life or for his death- the killer moves according to seemingly arbitrary choices made by his victims. Should you get in his way there is no need for him to kill you, but he has to kill you because of your failure to submit to inevitability. Your death in No Country for Old Men is absolutely inevitable- it is fated and almost all the characters accept that template.

Almost all- because one of the characters doesn't. And the key exchange of the film revolves around this character's decision. When she is confronted by the mysterious killer, instead of taking his gamble, instead of agreeing with him that her death would be accidental, she confronts him with the fact that this is his act. No matter whether she lives or dies, she wants to make him feel his moral responsibility. Throughout the film the murderer is reduced- to a madman, to an epitome of modern society where robbers walk in the street naked apart from dog collars to get attention, to a force of history ('things are always the same' says a friend of the sheriff at one point) but at one moment he is confronted with his own moral agency- with the fact that it is his decision not that of fate as to whether she lives or dies. Interestingly that is the only death or possible death that we don't see (we don't know if she lives or dies) because its the conversation before that matters. Whereas with the other deaths, they have become part of the story- the story of fate- in this case moral responsibility is the story and hence the exchange is more important than the event.

The film flips its attention- the Coen brothers are keen to leave motivations out of the film for the most part. Their characters are taciturn and live in a world where an eyebrow moving conveys the fall of the Berlin Wall- perfectly acted though by the end of the film these are not marionettes but human beings. The film starts with a sequence of characters who gradually grow into a story- but the organisation of the film is such that whereas at the beginning one feels the effects of fate, by the end one feels the effects of choice. Choice is of course unpredictable in its effects- and everywhere through the film choice becomes unpredictable. Taking money doesn't often lead to slaughter, taking on your murderer doesn't mean that he will seek out, pointlessly, to kill your wife. Staying in a hotel doesn't always lead to a massacre. As the film begins the murderer is an anonymous expression of the power of chance, by the end he has a moral character, he does things because he wills them not because he has to do them. What the Coen brothers create is a world that depends on lots of people taking different choices- whose set of choices add up to the events we see on the screen. No fate intervenes just the movement together of hundreds of little choices which chart a way to destruction. This story has an explanation.

But its explanation is not based on class nor is it based on some Hegelian progress of ideas but on the action of individuals. A great story develops out of small choices- moments of decision. It recalls C.S. Lewis's perceptive comment that your descendants could include a Hitler or an Aristotle without you intending either by your choice to have children. Randomness is a consequence of the vastness of the world and the way that your choices interfere and interact with other choices. It is not part of any plan- there is no one in control, no God manipulating things, no secret power behind the scenes- there is just human choice and all its unpredictable consequences. There is no way in No Country for Old Men to say that any particular moment leads to the outburst of violence- and we do not know what ultimately the violence stemmed from nor do we know why a large suitcase of money is sitting in a field somewhere in Texas. We don't know why the killer is involved- though we can assume that some debt of honour is involved- all we know is the series of choices which take people into the road in front of the juggernaut and the series of decisions taken by the murderer to murder. Decisions for which he is accountable ultimately.

The world of choice is ultimately more terrifying than a world controlled by even a mystical power. The killings in this film have no meaning as far as we can see- they don't need to happen. None of this film needs to happen. All of it is consequential upon some voluntary act. The Sheriff's depression which leads him to give up his job is precisely because of this. The United States is No Country for Old Men because an old man understands how arbitrary the process is. He understands that there are no guarantees even when shooting cattle- its always possible for the gun to slip, no one is invulnerable, no principle is sacred, no group all powerful. What if is not a purposeless question but is the heart of human history because there always could be another what if. And stories of course which suggest these conclusions to us are lies because they are just good stories (like the story with the bull) they are stories which indicate to us the fragility of telling stories. The stuff of history is too vast to know and appreciate in all its arbitrary glory- all we know is that we are alone, as if on a darkling plain, and we have choices to make- choices whose import we have no idea about.

Film as an art form is most appropriate to do this- to rip away the veil from human freedom and leave us exposed 'naked before the throne of God' (to quote Francis White), naked before our conscience. The Coen brothers in the film show the evolution of a historical understanding- showing how vast impersonal forces can be imagined by the historian as event piles on event. Showing how our search for explanation becomes a search to avoid the arbitrary nature of human freedom, how we attempt to govern anarchy through the imposition of rational ideas like fate. The point is that at the beginning of the film any viewer believes that there is some reason, some rationality behind the moments of savage slaughter. We believe that something could have stopped it, something could have prevented it, that if only we could think it out we could avoid it. The film doesn't imply that there are forces beyond our control- but shows us that there are no such things as certain ways out because ultimately we cannot be certain of the interior of other people's heads. And it is in other people's heads that we find either our salvation or our sorrow. Film, an art which marries together on screen story and characters (in a sense every actor is an author of his own character) is the perfect way to express this truth about the world and the Coen brothers have presented it wonderfully in this film.

The United States may be No Country for Old Men- but its also No Country for those who have watched this film- the view from the heights of experience and understanding is terrifying because it is so arbitrary. Yeats talked of a terrible beauty being born- its our privilege to watch it on screen.


Ashok said...

I haven't seen this yet - other Coen brothers movies put me to sleep, unfortunately. I did stumble it, let me know if it gets any traffic.

I saw your post on taxes at Liberal Conspiracy, which was fine, and then I saw the comments and my eyes nearly rolled into the back of my head. I felt sorry for Matt getting into the midst of that.

G-mail me, we gotta talk promotion. I'm happy with how the site's doing, but wow, I thought I'd at least rule some crappy country like Canada by now.

Gracchi said...

We have to- yes. Sorry been out the last couple of days doing stuff. But yes we ought to- maybe tommorrow- I'm having my wisdom teeth out so will be comotosed!

Ashok said...

Oh boy - hope the operation goes well, hope you recover nicely.

Anonymous said...

hey gracchi i was wondering where did you get C.S. Lewis' quote from? what book/text?

sittah said...

hey Gracchi
could you please let me know where you get the Lewis quote from. Which book/text.

Gracchi said...

I think its from Mere Christianity- but I may be wrong.