Death, Cashews, and “No Country for Old Men”

by George Bilgere

Feature image: John Clerk of Eldin. Sheriff Hall, n.d. The Art Institute of Chicago.

I saw No Country for Old Men (Academy Award winner,  2008) ten times  on the big screen at close to twenty bucks a pop (including popcorn by the bushel and cola by the quart). If that ain’t obsession, to paraphrase Tommy Lee Jones’s oracular Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, it’ll do till the obsession gits here.

When the movie left the theaters I bought the DVD and raised my madness to a new level by slipping the disk into my stereo and listening to it. Cormac McCarthy’s dialogue, as adapted to the screen by the Coen brothers, has an understated lyricism and humor, thrillingly true to the laconic rhythms of the southwest (I lived in Oklahoma for a few years and I know my laconic rhythms). In fact, the soundtrack is one of the film’s most striking features, which is odd, given that there is no music whatsoever. Just the pitch-perfect dialogue and the silence of the plains, where the smallest sounds—the squeaking of a hinge, the unscrewing of a light bulb—acquire an ominous eloquence.

God, as they say, is in the details, and I’ll mention a couple of details of sound and image that might help explain why I’ve squandered a small fortune watching this film. In one of the early scenes the killer, Chigurh (the Old Testament unpronounceability of his name is as eerie as the spectral forces he embodies), strangles a deputy sheriff. In his death throes the deputy kicks helplessly at the floor, his heels streaking the linoleum with a grotesque calligraphy. The camera barely pauses on the swollen rictus of his face, focusing instead on the magnetically horrifying tap dance of his boots. Now I’ve watched plenty of people die in the movies. Even death, after awhile, gets ho-hum. But this scene did for me what the best poems do; it showed me something in a vividly new (and, in this case, shocking) way. I was startled out of my usual filmgoer’s passivity into a new alertness.

This image has hardly faded from the mind when, some ten minutes later, we come to the famous “coin toss” scene. Chigurh, following the obscure but inviolable dictates of his private code, has determined that an amiable old gas station owner has to die. Munching calmly from a cellophane bag of cashews, he explains to his prey, with the serene logic of the mad, that his only chance of winning “everything”—that is, his life—is to make the right call when the coin falls. As the horror of his situation dawns on the old man (fan belts framing his head like gallows nooses), Chigurh crushes the empty cashew bag and drops it on the counter.

The camera moves in, and we watch the bag slowly try to uncrumple itself. We hear the insect-like clicks and crackles of the plastic. As this twisted thing struggles spastically on the countertop, our retinal memory recalls the herky-jerky movements of the deputy’s death dance on the linoleum floor. As the old man stares at this tiny rehearsal of his own impending fate, the spasms of the plastic bag, crushed in Chigurh’s palm, suddenly become a motif of McCarthy’s bleak and pitiless vision. Again, I’d never seen anything quite like this: so weird and unexpected, yet somehow precisely right. Nothing excites me in art so much as encountering a fresh vision that reawakens me to just how strange the world is.

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,” says Gloucester in King Lear, whose atmosphere of random, amoral savagery haunts this film. “They kill us for their sport.” But it’s not exactly a sport for the implacable Chigurh. He has no more freedom of choice than his victims. Like a shark cruising the ocean, he moves fatalistically across the desert, compelled by forces he never questions. But unlike everyone else in the broken West of No Country for Old Men, including the tattered coat upon a stick to which Sheriff Bell has been reduced, he’s entirely at home in this brutal and chaotic landscape. And if that ain’t nihilist absurdity, it’ll do till the nihilist absurdity gits here.

Now please excuse me while I go watch it again.

George Bilgere’s most recent book of poems is The White Museum, chosen by Alicia Ostriker for the 2010 Autumn House Poetry Series. He received a Pushcart Prize in 2009 and won the May Swenson Poetry Award in 2006 for Haywire (Utah State University Press). He teaches at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio.

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