No Country for Old Mades
05 Jun, 2009
Warning: here may be a few spoilers.
I recently read No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. A few nights later, I thought I should rewatch No Country for Old Men, to compare the book and the movie and re-grasp the plot, which was fuzzy in the book since I always lost track of where Llewellyn had last hidden the $2 million he had filched from dead drug dealers, and who exactly was after him and who was after the people who were after him.
Exactly five minutes and 27 seconds into No Country for Old Men – after the second brutal murder and right about when Llewellyn is ready to murder an innocent deer – I remembered I hated this movie. I do not enjoy seeing people getting holes neatly blown in their heads by a homicidal maniac with a terrible haircut! Reading the book was squirmy enough. Why did I want to relive this experience?
So I switched. To Made of Honor. Five minutes into it, Tom (Patrick Dempsey) – dressed as Bill Clinton – gets maced with perfume by a girl who will subsequently become his BFF and ask him to be her maid of honor, after he discovers he’s madly in love with her. This is more my type of movie. (It stars, after all, not one but two Grey’s Anatomy actors.)
I picked Made of Honor not just for the stunningly witty pun in its title but because I wanted to see an “emotional retard” get severely punished. This is what happens in the original, My Best Friend’s Wedding, when Julia Roberts loses the love of her life because she is a puerile brat. It would be good to see the same happen to the infantile Tom. I reflected – and I should know, because I am a romantic comedy expert – that this actually rarely happens in movies. Most of the time, in the alternative reality romantic comedy world, things work out for the brats and their dreams come true if they can just effect a change of heart.
But about two thirds into it, I got squirmy again. Something was not quite right. I began to remember hearing that Made of Honor didn’t end quite like the original My Best Friend’s Wedding. By the time Tom had filched a Scottish horse and was galloping headlong through the Scottish moor into a church door to tell the love of his life, “I love you” after only having the emotional maturity to say “I love you” to dogs, I was cursing the cruel caprice of the romantic comedy gods. I was outraged. I felt that my sense of justice had been shot like a lamb and minced up like the haggis Patrick Dempsey had served at his best friend’s bridal shower.
I had seen enough. I now felt like watching people get holes blown in their head by a serial killer with a terrible haircut, so I once again turned to No Country for Old Men.
Thirty minutes in, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) has killed four people and would have killed six if not for a toilet flush and coin toss. I had no better grasp of the plot, and the moustaches bothered me very much. I lost track of the murders because I closed my eyes too much. I missed the book’s gentle, troubled inner musings of the sheriff and the way his humanity relieved the brutality.
In the end, Anton shoots his last victim – although, as she notes, he doesn’t have to – steps out on the front porch, checks his boots for her blood, and drives away. There’s a moment where we think that after all this, he’ll get caught. But he walks free.
In the end of Made of Honor, Tom weds his bride atop a skyscraper. In No Country for Old Men, Anton Chigurh gets to waltz off into the sunset with a bone sticking out of his arm. In both our sense of justice is assaulted.
The oddity is that both of them – while Tom’s badness is so much more feeble – are alike in one respect. One character says of Anton, “You might even say he has principles,” just as Tom has untransgressable “rules.” The rules are absurd: Anton thinks that flipping a coin is a fair way to determine whether he will blow someone’s head in and that it would be terribly wrong not to let them call heads or tails on their own. Whereas Tom doesn’t see women two days in a row or say “I love you” to non-canine creatures. “It’s just shocking how you use it as a shield!” exclaims his prescient future love interest. Yes, it is shocking! Shocking that both the serial heartcrusher and serial killer use “rules,” in a twisted way, to justify their sociopathic inability to fathom others’ pain.
But Tom’s happy ending is less realistic than Anton’s. Anton’s ending depends on chance – like the flip of a coin – on forces outside himself. Had he not crashed his car, had the ambulance come just a bit earlier, had the boy not given Anton his shirt for a sling, things might have ended differently. Anton might have come to justice. We can wrap our minds around that: chance can let a guilty man go free.
We can also understand chance thwarting romance. But this isn’t the case with Tom. Tom should have an unhappy ending because his ending doesn’t depend on chance – it depends on his own emotional maturity. His emotional retardation – his too-recent inability to commit to another person for longer than, oh, two days – should make that skyscraper fairytale impossible. Anton’s ending depends on chance, but Tom’s ending should depend on his will – and call me a Calvinist, but his will, which until now has been tyrannized by his childishness, is too feeble to commit.
But the universe is not always just, I suppose. Sometimes the serial killer gets lucky and the serial heart-pulverizer goes free. Sometimes the fat bridesmaid who hubristically squeezed herself into a size 8 receives her due reward when her bridesmaid dress splits. But sometimes all the groomsmen happen to wear kilts and are able to supply massive safety pins to close up the tear. The caprice of the rom com gods causes it to rain on the just and the unjust – and makes the sun shine, too.