About a year ago, the onlookers of the 80th Academy Awards found themselves stricken with Cohen fever: a dusty, stirrup brandishing, blood soaked tale of moral complexity in the face of greed, woe, and duty (perhaps function serves as a better word) – No Country For Old Men. This film raises daunting questions about the present nature of humanity as the protagonist finds himself facing difficult decisions and inevitably grappling with the consequences. The setting of the “West,” alluding to a simpler way of life in an often rural but requisitely untamed, or unruly, environment, aptly accommodates these studies of human character and emotion.
The protagonist of No Country For Old Men, Llewellyn Moss, stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong during a hunting outing. Overcome by temptation, Moss takes a case full of $2 million dollars left among the bodies. When a mass murderer completely devoid of emotion, Anton Chigurh, begins to pursue him, Moss unsurprisingly regrets his misdeed but, rather than handing the money over to the authorities, he decides to go on the run in order to distance himself from and protect his wife. Amidst the ensuing pursuit, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a man of resolute convictions, attempts to resolve and make sense of the whole situation.
Although this film presents many unique themes, much of its premise prompts a look back at Sam Peckinpah’s controversial film, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Bennie, a wandering piano player, encounters two bounty hunters in the employ of a rich and powerful Mexican landowner, who has recently given a large reward for the head of Alfred Garcia. Discovering that his girlfriend possesses the rare knowledge of Garcia’s resting place, Bennie decides to collect the head and the reward for himself. His and his girlfriend’s journey to do so leads down a wretched, bloody road.
Both films explore the pursuit of a difficult but rewarding goal, which requires the bending, or even breaking, of certain moral standards. Following a somewhat immoral and certainly greedy decision, the protagonist not only places himself in harms way but also those others who might also have benefitted from the success of his goal – mainly his loved ones. Those that would prevent him from achieving his ends do so under motives similar to his own: greed and ambition. The viewer considers these antagonists as such simply because their moral sense appears much more depraved than that of the protagonist’s though both parties represent complex and corrupted moral perspectives.
While Peckinpah’s legacy will forever remain his many dark and complicated Westerns, the Cohen brothers have only recently broached the genre (already old hands when it comes to the dark and complicated). In light of Peckinpah’s films, No Country for Old Men, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, and John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (the screen play of which Anderson evidently read quite often while writing There Will Be Blood) among several others, a subgenre with a focus differing from the standard, gun blazing, saddle slinging, tobacco spitting Western might be in order; it needs a name along the lines of Noir West or the Moody West – West should probably be in the name, that seems important. Blog on it.