There is an interesting tension in No Country for Old Men, adapted by the Coen brothers from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, between absurdism and fatalism. Fatalism tells us our lives are meaningless because nothing can change what’s going to happen to us, including the fact that we will die. Absurdism tells us our lives are meaningless because the things that happen to us are random and unpredictable, and ultimately there is no one who can take the raw data of our lives and hold it together in a narrative that will make any meaningful sense. So the film tells us that our lives are meaningless, and it mourns this fact. But the ways in which it tells us that our lives are meaningless pull in opposite directions — which might mean that they are working together to make a doubly-effective point about the meaninglessness of our lives, or it might mean that they are working against each other, each theme diluting the other’s full impact. I haven’t quite decided yet.
At any rate, no scene sums this tension up better than the bit near the end, where Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) drives a car and approaches an intersection; you just know that another car is going to ignore the light and run right into the intersection and hit Chigurh’s car, and that Chigurh, who has seemed so “in control” all this time, is suddenly going to lose control in the most unexpected of ways. But the very fact that you just know it means that, within the dramatic structure of the film, it isn’t all that unexpected. The characters might experience this moment as absurdity, but the film is so masterfully made — so ably told as a narrative that makes a meaningful point — that we experience this moment as fatalism, instead.
Side note: I wonder about the decision to keep the deaths of some of the most sympathetic characters (major or minor) offscreen. If the point of the film is the great gaping void that awaits us all — the tragic meaninglessness of a world in which God either doesn’t exist or doesn’t care, and everything we ever were or knew simply ceases to be — then the loss of any person’s life is indeed an enormous loss, and I find myself thinking back to David Cronenberg’s remark that the blood and gore in Eastern Promises are put there precisely because he is an atheist and he believes there is no afterlife awaiting these people and he wants to drive home how bad, how evil, how wrong it is to end a life. The Coens, on the other hand, keep the deaths of some of the most innocent characters completely offscreen, and I can’t decide whether this choice represents a reluctance to underscore their theme as strongly as they could have, or whether it itself makes a nihilistic point, by not even waiting for these characters to die before it drops them from the story. (Reluctance, or haste, for lack of a better word?) So that’s another thing I haven’t quite decided yet.
For a couple of alternate takes on the offscreen deaths, Brett McCracken at The Search compares the film’s treatment of violence — beginning with graphic onscreen deaths and ending with some of the most important deaths taking place offscreen — to “Paul Schrader’s discussion of abundant-to-sparse stylistic trajectories in his concept of transcendental cinema”, while Matt Zoller Seitz at The House Next Door writes: “The Coens’ shift from up-close, graphic violence to obscured or elliptical violence cements the sense that we’ve been privy to a mysterious but fundamental change in the universe. We see bloodied flesh close-up when it’s a new phenomenon; when it ceases to be noteworthy, the filmmakers stop showing it.”
A couple more interesting links: Glenn Kenny at Premiere.com ponders the significance of the film’s final half-hour, and K. Bowen at Anti-dis-arts-and-entertainmentism wonders whether one of the film’s casting decisions might be a subtle wink-and-nod to a real-life crime.
NOV 28 UPDATE: Matthew Leicht has sent yet another interpretation of the increasingly offscreen violence to Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere: “Also at that point, the violence begins to subside (other than the driver of the truck that Moss gets into). We see Carson get shot from the reverse angle; Moss is killed off-screen (and we barely see the body), Carla Jean is killed and we don’t even know how. Hell, Anton may even succumb to his injuries. it becomes clearer and clearer that the dying is less significant, and it’s the living that matters.”
DEC 16 UPDATE: The car crash scene stands out for Andrew Potter at Maclean’s magazine, too, and definitely not in a good way.