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Only Half of the Story?

I went to see No Country for Old Men again yesterday. It was just as brilliant the second time, and the rest of the audience was just as clueless. An elderly woman behind me expressed loud and horrified shock everytime Chigurh killed someone. I expected her to walk out two minutes in, after the second killing. She should have. She didn’t. When the credits started crawling up, one of the guys sitting in front of me loudly exclaimed, “That was the stupidest g–d–n ending I’ve ever seen. S–t, was that it?” An equally loud guy off to my right let out a sustained “Boooooooo” as he waddled towards the exit. Once again I was the only person who stayed through the credits (nothing unique there, of course). Maybe it’s just that I’ve never managed to see a movie this good in the theater, but the disconnect between the critical response and the response of on-the-ground moviegoers I’m watching with is kind of blowing my mind.

In any case, one of the things I had a chance to admire and appreciate more the second time around was just how carefully constructed the whole thing is. Every shot communicates something with an economy and an artfulness that is a pleasure to witness. That goes for the movie’s thematic composition, as well. After seeing No Country a second time, I was inspired to rewatch The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada today. I was struck by how neatly they segue together, linked in a very obvious way by the West Texas border locale and the central roles played by Tommy Lee Jones. It isn’t much of a stretch to say Three Burials is a sort of spiritual sequel to No Country (very mild spoilers to follow). Maybe that’s why so many people are left unsatisfied by the ending.

No Country for Old Men is about a “dismal tide” of evil that consumes the world, and the inability of the characters as mere flawed human beings to stand in its way, alone and unarmed as they are by anything more than a vague sense of how things should be. What drives the story along is the cliche device of a satchel filled with money, and its most exciting moments involve the cat-and-mouse game between Chigurh and Moss. However, the real spirit of the thing lies in the journey of Jones’s character Ed Tom Bell, even though he actually never comes into contact with either of the other main characters. He follows sorrowfully and reluctantly behind the other men trying to make sense of what he sees, both for himself and for us, the audience.

What he sees, as I’ve briefly discussed, is a wickedness that he cannot fully take in and which he feels helpless in the face of. In his opening monologue, he says, “You can say it’s my job to fight it, but I don’t know what ‘it’ is anymore. More than that, I don’t want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say, ‘Okay, I’ll be part of this world.'” And so, in the end, he simply walks away from “it,” impotent and demoralized and left with only a vague, dreamlike impression of something that may or may not represent hope.

I am reminded of Jake Gittes, the upright private eye of Chinatown, who spends over 2 movie hours digging through layer after layer of human deceit and iniquity. But instead of reaching bottom, an abyss of inky darkness opens beneath his feet and threatens to swallow him whole unless he simply walks away in defeat. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” These men who represent law and order are haunted by a vision of evil that consumes mens’ souls with a limitless appetite and scoffs at the frail systems and institutions that are put in place to protect and defend the weak and the righteous.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, despite the two surface similarities I mentioned above, is actually a different sort of movie entirely. Where No Country is linear to the point of rigidity, Three Burials seems almost Faulkner-esque at times in its storytelling. Only upon a second viewing could I really begin to assemble the movie’s chronology in any sort of coherent order. Furthermore, those who left the theater in disgust at the unconventional ending of No Country will find very little to enjoy here. Much of what goes on seems to be of greater metaphorical than literal significance, even when it advances the story.

All that aside, however, the movie is about a vengeful and possibly crazy Texas rancher who forces a violent redemption upon a selfish, immature young border guard who has killed an innocent Mexican transient, seemingly without remorse. The story is shocking and often grotesque, very much what you could expect if, say, a Flannery O’Connor story were brought to life on a movie screen. This comparison is not accidental, of course. Tommy Lee Jones, who directed this film in addition to starring in it, is certainly very familiar with O’Connor’s work, and one of the producers of the film, Michael Fitzgerald, is the son of O’Connor’s literary executors.

The redemption of Three Burials arrives unlooked for, from an unlikely source, and in an unexpected way. Jones has intriguingly called it a study of “the mechanics of faith.” His character, Pete, kidnaps the border guard, Mike, and makes him dig up the rotting corpse of Melquiades Estrada before the two embark on a grueling journey to Mexico to deliver the dead man to his home. And, through a long and painful process, Mike’s life is turned completely around. His trials include snakebites, sunstroke, beatings, and the most unconventional baptism you’ll ever see as he is dragged across a river via a rope around his neck, struggling and screaming obscenities . . . to say nothing of having to travel in close quarters with a putrid dead body. It is all rather shocking, but as O’Connor herself said, “[W]hen you have to assume that [your audience] does not [hold the same beliefs you do], then you have to make your vision apparent by shock–to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Three Burials is basically about a man who receives grace against his will and despite everything he can do to reject it. After all, that’s how grace operates, breaking out suddenly, even violently, in the midst of seemingly irredeemable circumstances and unconscionable evil. It may not seem like much in the face of “the dismal tide,” but redemption does work its mysterious change on humanity, one soul at a time.

I have a lot more thinking (and possibly writing) to do about both No Country for Old Men and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, but I need to spend some more time on the former in a few months when I can examine it at my leisure in my living room (although I will be seeing it at least once more in the theater). As for the latter, I’ll hopefully be digging much deeper into it over the next few days as I prepare to write a paper discussing it’s redemptive themes and their relation to the stories of Flannery O’Connor. I’ve had a number of helpful ideas as I discussed the film here, but many of them are still being turned over in my mind. In any case, these two movies will probably always occupy a double bill in the theater of my mind hereafter. I treasure them both for their artful beauty and their meaningful insights.

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~ by Jared on December 4, 2007.

3 Responses to “Only Half of the Story?”

  1. You’ve reminded me why I hate Texas audiences — particularly the ones in movies that good country people go see expecting to enjoy. Well done.

  2. Jared, I liked the ending too, but I had a different interpretation. I think they switched up the chronology at the end. The last scene, chronologically speaking, is when Jones sits down in the bedroom, with “Sugar” hiding behind the door. What we don’t see is that “Sugar” kills Jones. The scene of Jones telling his dreams to his wife actually occurrs days before – but she convinces him to come out of retirment. Thus, the next day he is back at it, driving on patrol, and sees the Mexicans fleeing the shoot-out at the motel.

    What do you think of that theory?

  3. I dunno. I’m not sure it fits, but there’s enough room and enough left unsaid that perhaps it could. I think that might be one of the things that makes this movie so great. To me the film seemed almost slavishly chronological. Everything is, in the words of Deputy Wendell, “very linear,” and each scene occurs temporally after the scene before it. No flashbacks or anything of that sort.

    The scene in the hotel room, however, is perhaps the most open-ended in the whole movie. I’ve seen lots of interpretations of it, none fully satisfying. I’m intrigued by your suggestion, though. A lot of people have said the movie is very faithful to the book, but I haven’t read it. Perhaps the answer lies there . . . I wonder how that final hotel room scenes plays out in McCarthy’s original novel?

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