No Country For Old Men

no country for old men 3A little while ago I was searching for a title, to a new script I’m working on, in Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium.

I was thinking how the line that draws an equivalence relationship between aged men and paltry things matched up nicely with the theme I’m going for in the new script, so I took a chance and googled the poem. It begins like this…

THAT is no country for old men

Because you are all writers you probably know the feeling I had at that point. Dammit, sums it up adequately while still maintaining the usual PG rating.

Cormac McCarthy, it seems, beat me to the Sailing to Byzantium punch. I figured a review might lessen the disappointment.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character.

Part A) I didn’t make one note about exposition while I was reading. I think that’s impressive for the simple fact that I am such an anti-exposition type of guy. If you’ve read any of my other reviews then you know I prefer the iceberg route when it comes to the expository stuff and the Coen’s certainly practice what I preach. (Of course, writing it like that horribly disfigures the causal arrow. It was reading screenplays that immerse the reader in the elements of the story without bothering to explain them [like No Country for Old Men] that caused me to preach what I preach.)

It really is true that a reader can pick up unwritten volumes from the context clues. As writers, we don’t have to spoonfeed the backstories into the dialogue. When you truly inhabit the world of your characters, you write them as they are and the reader does the heavy lifting for you.

It’s worth mentioning now (we will talk about it more later) but, in opposition to last week’s script Looper, the Coen’s voiceover at the beginning does not fill an expositiory purpose. So, for now, we will just award them all the points.

Part B) As was the case with Blood Simple, I’m somewhat humbled by the idea of assigning a point value for subtext to masterclass dialoguesmiths like the Coen Brothers. The simple idea of me doing that threatens to overtake presumption and make itself plainly ridiculous. I will plow forward and hope that it becomes okay by focusing on my sincere desire to learn from others combined with the knowledge that rating scripts is the point of this website. Perhaps the concientiousness of the effort will vindicate the absurdity of the idea?

That said, there doesn’t seem to be anything else for it other than to quote the PROPRIETOR scene in its entirety. It accounts for pages 18-24 in the script. Normally I would hesitate to quote such a lengthy scene for fear it would destroy the integrity of the review, but this is so easy to read, I don’t see the harm in it.

Chigurh stands at the counter across from the elderly
proprietor. He holds up a bag of cashews.

CHIGURH
How much?

PROPRIETOR
Sixty-nine cent.

CHIGURH
This. And the gas.

PROPRIETOR
Y’all getting any rain up your way?

CHIGURH
What way would that be?

PROPRIETOR
I seen you was from Dallas.

Chigurh tears open the bag of cashews and pours a few into
his hand.

CHIGURH
What business is it of yours where
I’m from, friendo?

PROPRIETOR
I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.
CHIGURH
Didn’t mean nothin’.

PROPRIETOR
I was just passin’ the time.

CHIGURH
I guess that passes for manners in
your cracker view of things.

A beat.

PROPRIETOR
Well sir I apologize. If you don’t
wanna accept that I don’t know what
else I can do for you.

Chigurh stands chewing cashews, staring while the old man
works the register and puts change on the counter.

PROPRIETOR
…Will there be somethin’ else?

CHIGURH
I don’t know. Will there?

Beat.

The proprietor turns and coughs. Chigurh stares.
PROPRIETOR
Is somethin’ wrong?

CHIGURH
With what?

PROPRIETOR
With anything?

CHIGURH
Is that what you’re asking me? Is
there something wrong with anything?

The proprietor looks at him, uncomfortable, looks away.

PROPRIETOR
Will there be anything else?

CHIGURH
You already asked me that.

PROPRIETOR
Well… I need to see about closin’.
CHIGURH
See about closing.

PROPRIETOR
Yessir.

CHIGURH
What time do you close?

PROPRIETOR
Now. We close now.

CHIGURH
Now is not a time. What time do you
close.

PROPRIETOR
Generally around dark. At dark.

Chigurh stares, slowly chewing.

CHIGURH
You don’t know what you’re talking
about, do you?

PROPRIETOR
Sir?
CHIGURH
I said you don’t know what you’re
talking about.

Chigurh chews.

CHIGURH
…What time do you go to bed.

PROPRIETOR
Sir?

CHIGURH
You’re a bit deaf, aren’t you? I
said what time do you go to bed.

PROPRIETOR
Well…

A pause.

PROPRIETOR
…I’d say around nine-thirty.
Somewhere around nine-thirty.
CHIGURH
I could come back then.

PROPRIETOR
Why would you be comin’ back? We’ll
be closed.

CHIGURH
You said that.

He continues to stare, chewing.

PROPRIETOR
Well… I need to close now –

CHIGURH
You live in that house behind the
store?

PROPRIETOR
Yes I do.

CHIGURH
You’ve lived here all your life?

A beat.

PROPRIETOR
This was my wife’s father’s place.
Originally.

CHIGURH
You married into it.

PROPRIETOR
We lived in Temple Texas for many
years. Raised a family there. In
Temple. We come out here about four
years ago.

CHIGURH
You married into it.

PROPRIETOR
…If that’s the way you wanna put
it.

CHIGURH
I don’t have some way to put it.
That’s the way it is.

He finishes the cashews and wads the packet and sets it on
the counter where it begins to slowly unkink. The proprietor’s
eyes have tracked the packet. Chigurh’s eyes stay on the
proprietor.

CHIGURH
…What’s the most you’ve ever lost
on a coin toss?

PROPRIETOR
Sir?

CHIGURH
The most. You ever lost. On a coin
toss.

PROPRIETOR
I don’t know. I couldn’t say.

Chigurh is digging in his pocket. A quarter: he tosses it.
He slaps it onto his forearm but keeps it covered.

CHIGURH
Call it.

no country for old men 3PROPRIETOR
Call it?

CHIGURH
Yes.

PROPRIETOR
For what?

CHIGURH
Just call it.

PROPRIETOR
Well — we need to know what it is
we’re callin’ for here.

CHIGURH
You need to call it. I can’t call it
for you. It wouldn’t be fair. It
wouldn’t even be right.

PROPRIETOR
I didn’t put nothin’ up.

CHIGURH
Yes you did. You been putting it up
your whole life. You just didn’t
know it. You know what date is on
this coin?

PROPRIETOR
No.

CHIGURH
Nineteen fifty-eight. It’s been
traveling twenty-two years to get
here. And now it’s here. And it’s
either heads or tails, and you have
to say. Call it.

A long beat.

PROPRIETOR
Look… I got to know what I stand
to win.

CHIGURH
Everything.

PROPRIETOR
How’s that?

CHIGURH
You stand to win everything. Call
it.

PROPRIETOR
All right. Heads then.

Chigurh takes his hand away from the coin and turns his arm
to look at it.

CHIGURH
Well done.

He hands it across.

CHIGURH
…Don’t put it in your pocket.

PROPRIETOR
Sir?

CHIGURH
Don’t put it in your pocket. It’s
your lucky quarter.

PROPRIETOR
…Where you want me to put it?

CHIGURH
Anywhere not in your pocket. Or it’ll
get mixed in with the others and
become just a coin. Which it is.

He turns and goes.

The proprietor watches him.

On the one hand, this scene is laced with very straightforward violence subtext. We are finding out for sure that Anton Chigurh, the guy who methodically killed the deputy in the first five pages, is the stone cold killer we thought he was after that killing. If that were all this scene were getting across it would be interesting and a worthwhile object of study.

The reason this scene is downright brilliant, however, lies in the other thing we learn about Anton Chigurh in this scene. He is a ridiculously lethal man of principle. Chigurh honors the contract he makes with the proprietor. Just like, at the end of the script, he honors the contract he makes with Moss.

One more example, from page 81:

WELLS
You don’t know to a certainty. Twenty
minutes it could be here.

CHIGURH
I do know to a certainty. And you
know what’s going to happen now. You
should admit your situation. There
would be more dignity in it.

WELLS
You go to hell.

A beat.

CHIGURH
Let me ask you something. If the
rule you followed brought you to
this, of what use was the rule?

It is really kind of hard to deny that Mr. Chigurh has a point here. Except for Chigurh and the owner of the (as yet unremarked on) opening and closing voiceover, each person in the script follows a rule which leads to his/her death.The fact that Chigurh makes his point in a way that suggests the logic of the imperatives of Kant is just bonus for me.

C) I think I said this when I reviewed Blood Simple: if character individuation is something you struggle with you can’t do yourself any harm by reading a Coen Brothers’ script.

Look at this from page 55:

WELLS
Yessir, that’s correct. I know ‘em
when I see ‘em.

MAN
When did you last see him.

WELLS
November the 28th, last year.

MAN
You seem pretty sure of the date.
Did I ask you to sit?

WELLS
No sir but you struck me as a man
who wouldn’t want to waste a chair.
I remember dates. Names. Numbers. I
saw him on November 28th.

I chose this because the Coens are doing something here that is really frowned upon. They’re introducing a brand new character at the midpoint of their story. The reason they get away with it (and it barely even registers they’re doing it) is because of the dialogue that accompanies the introduction.

One more example because it illustrates a technique which was new to me. From page 73:

WELLS
…Don’t worry. I’m not the man that’s
after you.

MOSS
I know, I’ve seen him. Sort of.

Wells is surprised.

WELLS
You’ve seen him. And you’re not dead.

He nods, impressed.

WELLS
…But that won’t last.

If you want the audience to feel an emotion toward one of your characters, you can accomplish this by having another character experience this emotion. In other words, when Wells is impressed with Moss, we the reader are also impressed with him.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out?

It’s necessary to say a few words about the voiceover now, because it runs the length of the first two pages. (I’ll postpone a deeper discussion until later.) In this moment we’re just wondering: were these two pages interesting to read?

To me, only a little more than average.

The thing about this two page voiceover is that it is in here at the beginning as a summing up of the end. But, if you are going into a story as you should (not knowing the ending) then it is very hard to be interested by an explanation of something that hasn’t occurred yet. Especially when it runs on for two pages.

I guess we can charitably interpret the Coens as putting us on warning; you are about to watch one seriously messed up story about some seriously messed up people and when you’re done, this is what we want you to think about what you saw. (It’s not quite as heavy-handed as I’m making it sound, but I do think this is the point of what they’re doing with the voiceover.)

My immediate problem with this is that, objectively speaking, the first two pages are only just barely interesting in themselves. The character giving the voiceover says: the violence in the world has reached the point where it is incomprehensible. When society reaches incomprehensible moments the good can only continue to fight the evil in the world if the good embraces the evil of the world.

These guys are making ethical arguments, I’m a sucker for ethical arguments, even when I am only just barely interested.

We get it wrapped with a nice bow on pg. 3:

VOICE OVER
…He would have to say, okay, I’ll
be part of this world.

On top of my medium-grade interest level in this, it’s hard for me to see how that statement is true. It might be true in Gotham, but it seems plainly false in the real world.

After the voiceover, pages 2-10 introduce us to Chigurh and Moss and the 2 million dollars and it is all very interesting. As an introduction to a movie, however, I think the voiceover only partly does its job.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist and (c) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story.

Part A) The story does not have anywhere near enough reveals and yet it still works remarkably well. Here’s a list of what happens:

1. Guy walks up on a drug deal gone bad and takes 2 million in cash from the scene.
2. A second guy chases him.
3. After almost getting away, the first guy dies.
4. A voiceovered Sheriff tells us this should depress us.

Of course, that is me trying (and failing) to be be funny but, the point is– it’s not far from the truth.

I want to look at a scene from fairly early in the script to see how, with almost no reveals, we still seem to barrel forward. Page 59:

From somewhere, a dull chug. The sound is hard to read-a
compressor going on, a door thud, maybe something else.

The sound has brought Moss’s look up. He sits listening. No
further sound.

Moss reaches to uncradle the rotary phone by the bed. He
dials 0.

We hear ringing filtered through the handset. Also, faintly,
offset, we hear the ring direct from downstairs.

After five rings Moss cradles the phone.
He goes to the door, reaches for the knob, but hesitates.

He gets down on his hands and knees and listens at the crack
under the door.

An open airy sound like a seashell put to your ear.

Moss rises and turns to the bed. He piles money back into
the document case but freezes suddenly-for no reason we can
see.

A long beat on his motionless back. We gradually become aware
of a faint high-frequency beeping, barely audible. Its source
is indeterminate.

Moss clasps the document case, picks up his shotgun and eases
himself to a sitting position on the bed, facing the door.

He looks at the line of light under it.

The beeps approach, though still not loud. A long wait.

At length a soft shadow appears in the line of light below
the door. It lingers there. The beeping-stops.
A beat. Now the soft shadow becomes more focused. It resolves
into two columns of dark: feet planted before the door.

Moss raises his shotgun toward the door.

A long beat.

Moss adjusts his grip on the shotgun and his finger tightens
on the trigger.

The shadow moves, unhurriedly, rightward. The band of light
beneath the door is once again unshadowed.

It’s hard to distill exactly what they’re doing here, but if forced to categorize it, I would say they are manipulating our expectations in really primal ways. Watching the light move under a door crack is a brilliant way to produce fear. People fear what they can’t see clearly (but have some information about) way more than they fear the most dangerous and obviously present of monsters.

And the thing is, the Coen’s do this over and over throughout this script– to the point where the technique itself becomes a suitable substitute for real reveals.

Part B) Does the engine match the protagonist?

In this case, I think we should ask first, who the hell is the protagonist? There are three possibilities.

1. Moss
2. Bell
3. Chigurh

You might want to discount Chigurh right away. He’s just the antagonist, right? My problem with putting Chigurh into that role is that the damn voiceover makes it hard not to conclude that this country which isn’t for old men, is Anton Chigurh’s Country. From there, it seems to me to be a necessarily tautologous proposition that the protagonist of Anton Chigurh’s Country is Anton Chigurh.

It’s pretty easy to conclude that, since we went straight to the possibility that Chigurh might be the protagonist, Moss clearly isn’t. I agree with this.

Still, Moss does have an engine driving him. He wants to get away with stealing the money. He even makes a thematic statement which would serve to give him resonance if he were the protagonist. From page 25:

MOSS
Things happened. I can’t take ‘em
back.

But, in spite of having a clearly defined engine and a thematic underpinning, he is not the protagonist of this story, in my opinion.

So, what about Bell?

I haven’t read anywhere who the Coen’s intend as the protagonist but the structure of the story demands that Bell fill that role. I don’t think this is true because it’s him giving the voiceover (Visser gives the vo in Blood Simple and Visser is not the protagonist of Blood Simple). I think it’s true because the Coen’s knew that the story was too dark, far too despressing, as Chigurh’s story, so they settled on Bell because Moss wouldn’t do.

If Bell is the protagonist, then not being contaminated by Anton Chigurh’s Country is his engine. Whatever else happens, Bell will succeed as a protagonist if he doesn’t…

VOICE OVER
…have to say, okay, I’ll
be part of this world.

Part C) I’ll do this part twice. Once for Anton Chigurh and once for Bell. I’ll start with Bell.

You might think Bell’s thematic purpose would be summed up in one of his numerous voiceovers (either at the beginning or the end). For me, though, his summation came in his next to last scene. Interestingly, Bell doesn’t even deliver it. From page 110:

ELLIS
…What you got ain’t nothin’ new.
This country is hard on people. Hard
and crazy. Got the devil in it yet
folks never seem to hold it to
account.

BELL
Most don’t.

ELLIS
You’re discouraged.

BELL
I’m… discouraged.

ELLIS
You can’t stop what’s comin. Ain’t
all waitin’ on you.

The two men look at each other. Ellis shakes his head.

ELLIS
…That’s vanity.

After a beat, a fast fade.

Ellis’ line indicates that Bell’s stand against the Evil in the world is pointless. Even more than that, Ellis tells Bell that trying to make his stand is not an act of moral strength but, instead, a symptom of moral sickness. Ellis says that standing in the way of the Evil in the world is vain.

After this talk with Ellis, Bell retires from law enforcement. His discouragement has congealed into acceptance. I suppose it is (as a symbolic parallel) a symptom of his acceptance that the last images in the film are from a dream of Bell’s. They are of a different, (grammar and text can’t demonstrate enough the importance of the next word) older world. Just him and his father receding into the Metaphorical Sunset.

As a died in the wool Kantian, it’s beyond obvious that I can’t stand thematic chicanery of this sort no matter how much I idolize the Coen’s writing ability.

Let’s look at Chigurh’s character to see if his thematic statement is better completed. From page 112:

CARLA JEAN
…You got no cause to hurt me.

CHIGURH
No. But I gave my word.

CARLA JEAN
You gave your word?

CHIGURH
To your husband.

CARLA JEAN
That don’t make sense. You gave your
word to my husband to kill me?

This is thematic fulfillment. It began with the proprietor, gained verbalized expression in the conversation with Wells, and runs its plot point course with Carla Jean:

CHIGURH
Let me ask you something. If the
rule you followed brought you to
this, of what use was the rule?

Anton Chigurh’s rule is of tremendous use in Anton Chigurh’s world.

I maintain, in spite of the completeness of Chigurh that the Coen’s (and most likely, although I haven’t read it, McCarthy’s source material works the same way) intend for the eye on this story to be Bell’s. That strikes me as a mistake.

In other words, I think the script can’t follow its own rule.


4. Is there anything unique in what the writer presents? Basically, do I have to hire THIS writer in order to get her/his original take on things? Are the rest of the writer’s ideas, based on this sample, likely to be original?

No mystery here. This script from the Coens deserves to be read, not for its masterclass dialogue and suspense, but for telling a compelling story 118 pages long in which next to nothing happens. That comment is sincere too. I’m amazed that the story moves as fluidly as it does considering the plot point density is as low as it is.

Rating: Recommended

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2 responses to “No Country For Old Men

  1. I never thought a modern movie would be able to replace my childhood Mount Rushmore of Bladerunner, Aliens, Terminator 2 and Star Wars…then No Country came along and leap-frogged them all to become my (current) favorite movie of all time. I watch it about once a month as both a comfort and also, hopefully, as a way to sort of absorb the aesthetics of it like a sponge.

    Because it was first a screenplay, then a book, then a screenplay again, there is something distilled and pure about the action in this movie. To me it’s like a movie that passed through a filter a few times, and all that is left behind is everything that is pure cinema. I do not think many movies have filmed simple actions in a more energetic way then No Country…no matter what is happening, I always feel like every step, every look, every basic mechanism has momentum behind it.

    And the dialogue — oh my. This is one of my favorite analyses of dialogue regarding the scene above, from the perspective of a linguist: http://www.goodreasonblog.com/2010/01/no-country-for-old-men-coin-toss-scene.html
    What this boils down to is ‘bidding’ to take dialogues into a particular direction, and the power games that ensure from accepting or rejecting such bids. It is an extremely interesting and useful approach, and I recommend it very much as an addition to the writer’s toolbox.

    Even thematically, I love it. This movie is more of a diagnosis then a cure, there is no doubt. But there is hope to be found in it. Glimpses of regular folk resisting or standing up to the evil. Moss’ wife shedding light on the broken nature of Chigurh’s rule — and him visibly and angrily realizing she may be right. The boys at the end offering some measure of humanity to Chigurh, even as he attempts to corrupt them. While it may be no country for old men, it may be a country for young ones.

    • That is an excellent article; thanks for sharing it. I wasn’t familiar with that approach to dialogue. You’ve given me an opportunity for research! I would love to be able to understand subtext in its component forms. This idea of “adjacency pairs” is outstanding. I will definitely be thinking about this some more.

      As for the script, I agree about its merits. I stripped the review of the scoring because it was an archaic rubric, but I had it as a 90. The thematic argument is close to perfect– even though I do not, personally, like the message. I will guess this is more owed to Mr. McCarthy then the Coens.

      I published this review because I just read Blood Meridian. I wanted to give that upcoming review some context.

      Mr. McCarthy’s thoughts on human beings are almost diametrically opposed to mine. Back to back, I thought the reviews might be more useful.

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