"The coin don't have no say. It's just you."
Any time someone says that movies haven't been good in 20 years, it's because they forgot that the mid 2000s was such a dogshit time for movies. Like some of the worst years in movie history.
Sure, there were some good movies to come out of that time but look at what was nominated for the Oscars.
The blockbusters of that time period weren't any better!
It felt like torture watching so many bad movies. Almost everything was stale and lifeless. People complain about how everything now is just CGI battles, which is a fair criticism.
But that was true back then and on top of it the CGI was terrible!
After just destroying for a decade with Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and finally rounding out the decade with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it seemed like the Coen Brothers' success was never going to end.
Each one of those movies is an instant classic.
Any one of them could have been argued for being their best and many of them routinely do well on lists of "Greatest Movies Ever Made".
Then the mid-2000s came around to Crash (HA!) everyone's party and the Coens turned in The Man Who Wasn't There which wasn't bad but lacked the passion of their earlier movies. Then Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers both of which were so mind numbingly by the numbers that if Coen Brothers had retired on either of them - they would've been remembered along the lines of Tim Burton (having a great string of movies and then trailing off) instead of the touchstones they truly are.
The Brothers have Cormac McCarthy to thank for their revival.
To call McCarthy cynical is an understatement. His novels are dense with heavy themes from the depravity of men's souls to the almost cruel indifference of nature and chance. No Country For Old Men, the eighth book published by McCarthy back in 2005, distilled and crystalized those themes into a taut four party chase through the deserts of West Texas.
Anyone familiar with the Coen's work can see what drew them to adapt it to film.
When a novel is adapted into a screenplay, it is damn near impossible to do it well. Especially when the book is well loved and widely circulated.
Novels can be however long novels need to be, they often go on tangents that re-enforce themes or help develop characters but do little to advance plot. Depth and world building are things that readers love about novels, whether they know it or not.
One of my favorite passages in any novel is from McCarthy's post-apocalypse thriller, The Road.
At the very end of the novel, after all of the story is over, McCarthy keeps us for just a few more paragraphs after the last of our characters exit the book:
"Once there were brook trouts in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in it is becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery."
No character in the book is saying this. McCarthy ends his novel with this reminder of everything that was lost - the end of the world is not just the end of humanity, it is the end of everything.
How do you adapt a passage like that to film? Well, when given the chance in 2009, director John Hillcoat (Maroon 5: Makes Me Wonder) didn't - he just ended the film with the Boy agreeing to go live with the new family.
By neglecting the final paragraph, the movie forgets that book is about remembering ALL things that are lost. This simple omission changes the story from one about the importance of survival to just a story about a character's survival.
Lost is the message that we have an obligation to survive, because someone must pass down the memories of all the beauty that's been lost and will never be again.
Luckily, the Coen Brothers were the exact right men for the exact right time when they tackled No Country For Old Men - a story so simple that they condensed the entire novel into two hours without sacrificing a single theme or important character arc.
They only accomplished this because they abandoned traditional structure. A move very few filmmakers could or would have the balls to try an pull off.
In case you haven't seen the movie yet, here is a plot: Josh Brolin (Men in Black 3) plays Llewellyn Moss is out hunting and finds money that belongs to a drug cartel, he takes it and runs away from the Mexicans chasing him. Javier Bardem (Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile) plays Anton Chigurh, an assassin hired by the cartel to get their money back. Tommy Lee Jones (Al Gore's College Roommate) plays Ed Tom Bell, an almost retired sheriff that is tasked with trying to make sense of the chaos taking place in his small Texas town. Chigurh eventually catches up with Moss and they have a shoot out in the streets that ends with them both injured and escaping. After recovering, Moss decides to start chasing Chigurh and Mexicans show up and kill Moss offscreen. Chigurh gets the money, kills Moss' wife, gets in a car accident and walks away. Bell doesn't save anyone, never catches Chigurh and retires.
Okay, now that's established.
What's so impressive about this movie is how much of McCarthy's themes and interludes that the Coens are able to convey in such a stripped down story.
Anton Chigurh is often cited by reviewers as "an unstoppable force", but the movie shows you over and over again that he's not a super-human.
In the opening scene, Chigurh has been arrested and handcuffed by a green deputy in the middle of nowhere. While the deputy is on the phone, Chigurh calmly stands up and strangles him with his handcuffs. It is so effortless that for a moment, you assume this is the ultimate villain. The next shot is him throwing the handcuffs in the sink and washing the deep cuts they made in his wrists while he was strangling the deputy.
Anton Chigurh is only a man. He's not the grim reaper. He's not a demon. He's just a sociopathic guy, willing to go further than the rest.
Without a single line of dialogue telling you, the entire point of the film is right there in the opening scene. It's very similar to another film that came out the same year, but I'll talk about There Will Be Blood some other time.
Anton Chigurh is the embodiment of nihilism. True nihilism. For Chigurh, there is no such thing as "justice" - only chance. Introduced around a third of the way into the movie, Anton strolls into a gas station and, frustrated by the attendant's small town kindness disposition, Anton flips a coin, smashed it on the counter and demands the attendant "call it". The filmmakers never explicitly TELL the audience the stakes, but we are given enough screaming subtext to know that if the gas station owner calls it wrong, Anton will murder him.
We are just as relieved as the owner when Anton reveals he called it right and Anton leaves him be. This is the set-up. We know it is going to come back later.
After Moss is dead and Anton has the money, he shows up to kill Moss' wife Carla Jean. He has what he wanted but he promised Moss that he'd kill Carla Jean if Moss didn't give him the money. Carla Jean isn't the brightest woman in the world, but because of her simple upbringing she calls Anton out that he doesn't have to do any of this: he's just crazy.
Anton offers her the same out we saw earlier. He pulls a coin out of his pocket and tells her to call it. But she refuses. She refuses to play his game and says "The coin don't have no say, it's just you." It's a cathartic moment of defiance that for the first time in this movie, someone has stood up to Anton Chigurh and won. If she doesn't call it, he can't kill her.
That's how movies work, right? Carla Jean has bested him at his own game - he's defeated.
Actually, he just kills her anyway, lol.
Because he's not a movie monster. The coin was just a game. He didn't have to follow the outcome. He never did. He just happened to follow it with the gas station owner earlier.
Just when we think all hope is lost, Chigurh gets t-boned by a car that runs a red light - whew! Okay, so there is karmic justice in the world!
Actually, no - Anton survives with a broken arm and limps away before the cops arrive. He gets away because of random chance and circumstance. He got the money because he was the one who knew where Moss would hide it even if the Mexicans were the ones who killed him.
All our heroes are dead. Anton wins and gets to keep the money. This is the darkest ending possible.
Right before Llewellyn Moss is gunned down by the cartel, there's a random woman by the pool of the motel that he's at that's flirting with him. He's maybe receptive, maybe not. If he has an affair, then film morals dictate it is okay that he dies. If he doesn't have an affair then he doesn't deserve to die. But the movie doesn't tell you one way or the other. Because it doesn't matter. He dies either way.
That's nihilism. Sometimes the good guys win. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes the bad guys get away with it, sometimes they get hit by a car. The universe doesn't work by the rules of screenwriting or storytelling.
Things happen and it is what it is.
At least, that's what Anton Chigurh wants you to think. Nihilism is a tricky philosophy because its so seductive. "Nothing matters" sounds so profoundly true that one can't help but be intrigued by accepting it. "systems only have meaning because we put meaning in them" is evocative and provides an easy answer to complex questions of "Why are we here?"
Watching and reading McCarthy, you don't walk away thinking he's an optimist. Far from it. But even though his work is oft described as nihilistic, I have to disagree. Going back to The Road, he spells out in no uncertain terms the meaning of life.
Nihilism posits that life has no meaning. That's just not true and No Country for Old Men isn't saying that either.
The reason Anton is the embodiment of nihilism is because he's a shallow villain. He seems seductive and provocative, but skin deep. He doesn't actually believe in random chance. For all his bluster, he's just a killer because he wants to be.
This film is a warning. Nihilism is all too contagious. It goes hand in hand with pessimism and human beings are addicted to misery.
Sheriff Ed Tom Bell's journey meets an end when he retires because he succumbs to the nihilism that Anton projects out into the world. But as the film showed over and over, Anton is human. He feels pain like every one else.
It's not a coincidence that the book and film take place in the early 80s but were made in the mid-2000s. The world has only gotten safer since then. The Anton Chigurhs of the world are slowly fading away. We will never be rid of them, but the only way they win is if the heroes give in to the temptation of their worldview.
They only win when we give up and say "Nothing Matters."