Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Making Sense of the Dismal Tide

Publius at Obsidian Wings finds incoherence at the heart of No Country for Old Men:

Chigurh's whole coin toss business ... symbolizes how quickly and whimsically amoral Nature can ... come and take your life away.

The problem though is that other parts of No Country read like a morality play. These parts are more structurally similar to older Greek tragedies, in which lead characters make choices that ultimately destroy them ... It's quite the opposite of amoral coin flips.

So that's my complaint -- is No Country a story about choice and consequences, or is it a reflection upon how Nietzschean amoral Nature collides with Man. It seems like it can't be both -- but Chigurh certainly has elements of both. Maybe I'm missing something basic, but these strike me as inconsistent metathemes.
I don't think Publius has missed anything, basic or otherwise. These are inconsistent metathemes but the incoherence belongs to life itself, not to the Coens nor to Cormac McCarthy. Good things happen to rotten people; rotten things happen to good people; good people can be brought down by their choices; bad people can be brought down by their choices; good and bad alike can be brought down by the timing with which a squirrel darts into the path of a moving car. Lightning can strike, hard work and persistence can pay off. A psychopath can show up and stake your life on a coin toss. As in the film's very last scene, you can do a favor for a stranger you later find is a cold-hearted killer.

You can go to work in the morning and find yourself in the very building that a fanatic has decided to destroy for the cameras and the creed. You surely made a choice to enter that building, and the fanatic will give reasons why your having been crushed under burning rubble was a proportionate and merited result of that choice. Your survivors and others will no doubt disagree with those reasons. Perhaps the people who called in sick that day will draw conclusions about providence, or perhaps they'll see blind luck. Which is the truth?

I think No Country is so unsettling because it presents these possibilities -- perhaps life's outcomes come from sheer chance, perhaps life's outcomes come from the choices we make -- presents compelling examples of each possibility, but in the end refuses to decide between them. This radical indeterminacy leaves knots in the gut no less than life itself does.

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