Wednesday, February 27, 2008

No Country For Old Men: My own personal observation

I can't tell you how pleased I was for the Oscar winners this year. Above of them all, of course, was my pride at seeing No Country For Old Men win Best Picture.

When I first saw it, I was really itching to read more about it. I found and read a number of lengthy reviews and essays on the film (thanks to the Sergio Leone blog for their in-depth discussion and links to further more). Yet with all that intensive examination of minutiae, there was one segment of the film of which I had found nothing.

So allow me to remedy that for you (SPOILERS AHEAD).

Amidst the greatness of the three leads, one actor that didn't and doesn't get mentioned much is Woody Harrelson. He plays Carson Wells, who is a hitman of sorts hired to rub out the unstoppable killing machine that is Anton Chigurh.

He has three scenes in the film. The first scene (above) takes place in his employer's office where they discuss what he's been hired for. Interestingly, Carson gives the impression that he knows Anton (it's hard to imagine Anton having friends or even colleagues). Carson tells his employer that while Anton is a truly dangerous man, he's got the skills to take care of him.

The second scene has him speaking to Llewelyn Moss in his hospital bed. One of the things they discuss is Moss's occupation as a welder. Despite being told that Moss is proficient in all kinds, Carson proceeds to ask about each type individually, which irritates Moss. It was a moment of Carson showing off his knowledge, and perhaps an indicator that he talks a bigger game than he can follow through on.

This is confirmed in his third and final scene. As Carson walks up the stairs of his hotel, Chigurh casually emerges into frame and walks up behind him. Carson realizes who it is and that he's been caught. So much for his skills. We then cut to his room where the two men sit facing each other in armchairs with Chigurh's gun pointed at Carson. There they have a brief conversation that they both know will end with Carson being killed.

We have seen countless scenes in movies of people facing their inevitable death. Some actors go a little overboard with it (though that seems impossible when it comes to a character who is about to die). But Harrelson, whose back seems literally glued to the chair, is able to convey through his body language, facial expressions and dialogue a man that truly realizes he's about to die.

The scene draws out the tension so long it's almost unbearable, for both Carson and the audience. Instead of doing the five stages of dying, Carson mostly dwells on number three: bargaining. It's appropriate, since most of Anton's victims end up using the same phrase: "You don't have to do this". This plea, along with all his others, does Carson no good, and we can see in his face that he knows it.

His bargaining eventually gives way to anger as Carson asks Anton, "Do you have any idea how goddamn crazy you are?". In any other film, this might have been a punchline. But it is delivered completely and utterly straight by Harrelson, as Carson realizes he has nothing to lose. He might as well speak the truth to the madman in front of him, while beads of sweat form on his forehead.

And then, with one more offer by Carson to settle this, Anton interrupts him for good.

Looking back, Carson Wells is a subplot that could have been excised entirely. The only thing he does that affects the proceedings was allow Anton to track a course back to the employer so he can kill him too. Otherwise, his role is completely peripheral.

But don't take this to mean that I want it excised. The movie is perfect the way it is, subplot and all. And I would be particularly sad to see him go.


Widgett said...

Well said. Harrelson is a damn fine actor. My favorite part of the film was getting to the end and realizing that we'd been watching Tommy Lee Jones' story and not Josh Brolin's at all. Which makes how his (Brolin's) story ends up make much more sense. I was just amazed that this year so many films were nominated that weren't easy films that you could really get your fingers into on the first try, like this one. And I'm also amazed that the "easiest" good film I saw this year was by David Cronenberg. What a weird damn world.

patrick said...

just watched no country for old men, it was unassumingly unconventional yet (thankfully) it never goes over the top. the Coen bros. deserve to get Best Picture for their work, well done indeed.