Thursday, February 7, 2008

No Country for Old Men

An old man behind us let out a long, low, raspy expletive in response to watching yet another victim find his or her way into the damage path of what may be the most menacing character created in film. I looked to my friend Tim, back to the old man, and saw the same just-passed-a-fatal-car-accident on both their faces. Sitting in plush, comfortable chairs at the theater I was anything but comfortable. For this unique film experience, my face was turned slightly, as if to wince at the action on screen and ready to dodge the blow…and there he was, Chigurh. With black Mamba eyes, ready to strike a fatal blow at the toss of a coin, Anton Chigurh (played by the soon to be Oscar Award winning actor, Javier Bardem) has become film’s newest nightmare born on the arid desert of West Texas in search of stolen drug money. Chigurh’s character is never fully explained, but the audience doesn’t care. Cold, calculating and subtracting anyone in his path, Anton’s weapon of choice is a captive bolt pistol (in layman’s terms: a penetrating cattle gun) which uses compressed air as a deadly weapon. The sound of the weapon only added to its soon to be cult film status, as does: the cinematography (Roger Deakins), the editing (Roderick Jaynes) and the adapted screenplay (Joel & Ethan Coen). With 8 Academy Award Nominations including Best Picture, No Country for Old Men was easily the best picture of the year…that is, for me.

And now, after this true confession, how does a Christian enjoy and find value in a film with such disturbing and violent images. To add insult to injury, my second favorite film was Eastern Promises (Viggo Mortensen’s role as Nikolai should win Best Actor), another hyper-violent concoction of Director David Cronenberg. I guess I should add in my third (P.S. I Love You) for redemption’s sake, but must admit it’s probably because I didn’t see Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. We all need a creative, tender love story now & again, and P.S. fit the bill admirably.

So why the violence? And how do films with dark themes help us better grasp the Light Christ brought to this world? And am I chewing off too much, painting myself into a corner, not enough oil in my lamp? Probably. But here goes anyway, thanks for taking this non-stop (keep your eyes inside the page at all times) thrill-ride, destination (hopefully) Appreciation of the Arts: Finding God in Film.

One thing I’m confident about is my understanding of what makes a good story (creating one is another matter). At the moment, two LA based production companies are reading my screenplay which I’m busy marketing & hoping to option…so I hope my screenplay fits the bill so I can start paying mine. A screenplay usually runs 120 pages (1 minute of screen time per page) and is divided into three Acts. I’ve heard many ways of describing the Acts: Set up, obstacles, resolution – or – 1) put your protagonist in a tree 2) Pelt him with rocks 3) Get him out of the tree. I would add thorns to the limbs on the tree…but you get the idea.

The point is text book: by creating tension with obstacles the writer can develop a complex character who undergoes a dramatic arc that leads to transformation and ultimately the character & audience’s desire (not strong enough) NEED for resolution. The character either attains his desire (a comedy) or doesn’t (a tragedy). And this is usually the structure for screenplays that land on the desks of those in charge of acquisitions…not so for No Country.

When Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) gives the final dialogue in the film with a true blue Texas drawl… Tim & I (and the Old Man) sat shell-shocked. My mind rolled with the credits and I knew I had watched a film of profound beauty and meaning. Random violence and evil is part of the Christian worldview; the carnal man unto himself is capable of doing anything to anyone. I wanted Rambo retaliation; I wanted the hand of good to forever close the lifeless eyes of evil; I wanted a happy ending…but we live in dangerous world. All one has to do is read the New Testament in honest reflection and find an account filled with danger, death, betrayal and sorrow. I think of how alone Christ was in the garden and how His brutal afflictions brought forth atonement & redemption in his blood, “and by His wounds we are healed.” Because He took the brunt of Sin (and paid His life for it) and overcame Death itself… those who profess Christ appreciate the Hope, Peace, Love & Charity He gives us to Light a dark world. Knowing just how dark it really is (not in celebration) only adds to our appreciation of the One who came to save.

Did I really sense all of this watching a film like No Country? Not immediately—I had to think about it and that is the beauty of Art and the lens it provides for us to see our world differently. At times Art can make us uncomfortable or it can give us a fresh glimpse of old surroundings—the familiar seen in a new light. Besides The Passion (criticized for its brutality), Christian films (and by that I mean films designed to entertain Christians) have never hit me as hard as No Country…not nearly as hard.

With no defined character arc across the sky, obstacles left as ragged outcroppings and no sunset of resolution on the horizon…I felt strangely satisfied in this new land. The film had pushed deep into emotional terrain long guarded and not easily given up. Tim and I raised the white flag as we left the theater…and I turned back and the old man hadn’t moved.

Darren Jacobs
(Darren blogs at


Caridad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Caridad said...

I'm glad you wrote about this movie. It definitely scared the crap out of me and I think Javier Bardem has made the list of top movie villains of all time. I'm glad you found a way to see it through Christian eyes that didn't lead you to avoiding secular movies. It was a difficult story to watch, but it was certainly evidence of a broken world and it was portrayed masterfully. We don't always get to see justice or an ending that makes sense.

I'd like to give a shout-out to Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the book the screenplay was based on (I gotta love anyone who names a character Ed Tom Bell), and to the Coen bros for letting a suspense/thriller movie be literary at times.