There was much talk last fall about the box office failure of a handful of films that dealt directly with the Iraq War. In the Valley of Elah, Grace is Gone, Redacted, and Lions for Lambs combined didn’t gross enough to pay for Spider-Man 3‘s catering. Brian de Palma’s Redacted grossed less than $300,000 worldwide, a total the director probably topped back when he was working in 16 mm.
For the most part, critics said the films flopped because they weren’t particularly good (though In The Valley of Elah certainly was). More plausibly, the ticket-buying public wasn’t interested in paying scarce, pre-recession dollars for the privilege of confronting grim reality, regardless of quality.
So what’s a serious filmmaker to do? You want to do work that catches the temper of the times, repellent though they may be, but you’ve also got to sell some tickets.
The answer, if you’re Joel and Ethan Coen, is to point your camera in the other direction, away from Iraq and toward Texas. If you want to show amoral, cold-blooded killing (complete with a car bombing), and if you want to depict the murderous impulse against a desert backdrop, you shoot No Country for Old Men in “Bush country,” as more than one critic has labeled the badlands of Big Bend and the Texas-Mexico border.
The same trick works for Paul Thomas Anderson. If you want to portray the spiritual and physical ravages of pitiless capitalism, and if you intend to argue that the oil business is a depraved way to make a fortune, you can do that in “Bush country,” too, in the slightly higher desert near Marfa, where Anderson shot There Will Be Blood. (Blood is ostensibly set in California, but the phrase “California oilman” doesn’t conjure the same dark thoughts.)
Both films have received extravagant critical praise, and each has been nominated for eight Oscars, including best picture.
In short, if you want to make a serious-as-life-and-death film about the choices America has made (and avoid collateral charges of being anti-American), you’ve got to come to Texas. This is how Hollywood takes its revenge on Texans. They make our state a stand-in for hell.
For now, at least, the charge largely sticks. After all, George W. Bush grew up not too terribly far from where these films were made, at least as distances are reckoned in West Texas. He’s said that his values, such as they are, were forged there.
That may be, but this landscape, and these times, have pushed these filmmakers toward something closer to greatness. No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood aren’t perfect films (No Country comes closer, if you’re keeping score), but they hew more tightly to painful reality, and do so more artfully and ambitiously, than any American film in a long time.
Not that the respective filmmakers have taken similar approaches. Aesthetically, they’ve gone in almost opposite directions, only to wind up close to the same place. Anderson is wilder and weirder than ever here. The Coens seem greatly sobered by the elemental hardness of the landscape and the border life that’s lived there, as well as by Cormac McCarthy’s story of a fatal cat-and-mouse chase between an otherwordly assassin (Javier Bardem’s improbably named Anton Chigurh) and his Texas-tough prey (Josh Brolin’s perfectly realized Llewelyn Moss), an otherwise aimless Vietnam vet who makes off with $2 million of somebody else’s drug money.
Rather than mocking the rubes, as they did in Fargo, or calling attention to their camera placements, as in Raising Arizona, the Coens here finally acknowledge the gnawing sense of emptiness and futility that has shadowed some of their most memorable characters. There are actually several similarities of plot and character between No Country and the Coens’ other desert hit, Raising Arizona. Both films feature assassins who seem to have dropped in from Planet Death. Both deal with the struggle to live decent, “normal” lives. In Raising Arizona, Nicholas Cage’s H.I. and Holly Hunter’s Edwina McDunnough go to touching extremes to acquire a little family of their own, and the story ends on an optimistic note: In H.I.’s dreams, at least, he lives in Norman Rockwell-land.
The Coens have conceded defeat in No Country. Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Tom Bell spends much of the film wondering just when, exactly, everything went to hell. The film is set in 1980, when the “War on Drugs” became more like a real war, complete with border skirmishes. When, according to the Coens and Cormac McCarthy, we as a civilization said to hell with it and let the beast out. Bell yearns for a golden age when some Texas sheriffs “didn’t even carry a gun.” But unlike H.I.’s, Bell’s dreams (which he recounts in the closing scene) lead into a bleak future-death itself. Or rather, nothingness.
The Coens, channeling McCarthy, seem to be asking the same question as Bell: Who are we now, and how did we get to be this way? And something-their accumulated years, the times we live in, the clarity of vision that West Texas affords-has pushed them into hushed classicism. There’s virtually no music or soundtrack, so every noise-the jangling of keys, the ping of a stray bullet-carries weight. And though No Country is a beautifully filmed movie, few shots call attention to themselves.
It’s as if the brothers Coen, faced with McCarthy’s vision and the stark landscape it illuminates, have reinvented themselves.
Likewise, There Will Be Blood is a far cry from Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous work, especially Magnolia and Boogie Nights, which featured L.A. settings, ensemble casts, and interwoven story lines. With Blood, Anderson seems to have gone into the desert and returned a raving prophet (a tendency he exhibited in Magnolia, with its climactic rainstorm of frogs). He has created a work that’s extremely powerful, extremely weird, and epic, almost eternal.
His early 20th-century oil mines (at first the characters go after the “black gold” underground, with hammer and pick) seem like the gates to hell. Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack is self-consciously jarring (one critic compared the music to “hell’s orchestra warming up”) and even demented, as if only such jagged, flinch-inducing sounds could convey the inner life of the film’s protagonist, Daniel Plainview, played with a mostly tamped-down intensity and gleaming intelligence by Daniel Day-Lewis.
Unlike the Coens of No Country, Anderson eagerly refers to other movies-to the whole history of movies, perhaps-to create the eternal feel that suffuses his film. Blood‘s wordless opening, with its brooding hills and piercing score, evokes the equally wordless introduction to 2001: A Space Odyssey. When Plainview climbs out of an oil shaft, bathed in black, he seems to be emerging from an early stage of human development.
Through the course of the film, Plainview evolves; his oil riches, guilty conscience and hatred of humanity open the door to murder and madness. That’s not how he begins. When a man in his crew dies in a work accident, Plainview adopts the man’s son (provocatively named H.W., as in Bush 41) and presents him as his own. In what may be the film’s only truly tender moment, we see Plainview riding in a train, holding the sleeping toddler to his chest in an almost primal gesture of parental love.
But Anderson casts a baleful eye on the effects of greed and unchecked capitalism, and we watch in fascinated horror as Plainview descends from recognizably human hard-dealer to monster who turns finally and brutally against his “son.” Here again, Anderson uses film history to make his points. You’re reminded of Citizen Kane, of Greed (for all its noise, There Will Be Blood has a larger-than-life, silent-film feel), and of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
You might think Anderson is critiquing Bush directly when you see that the oil business and evangelical religion cross paths here. Early in the film, Plainview works with a local boy preacher (Paul Dano) to get the kid’s congregation on his side, even as he buys up their land for a pittance. Such cynical use of religion certainly evokes Bush and his handlers. Then, in one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Plainview agrees to confess his sins and be baptized in the primitive church, though the hard-bitten materialist sneers at the little preacher to his face.
As Plainview submits to the ritual, you can’t help but imagine Anderson’s angle: thoroughly materialistic right-wing politicos bathing themselves in the baptismal waters of simple folk-the better to pick their pockets.
West Texas will outlive its temporary cinematic association with the American dark side. It’s a landscape that doesn’t depend on humanity to give it meaning, a landscape in fact that reduces humans to bite-sized specimens, then consumes them. For that reason, a certain sort of storyteller will keep coming back to Texas’ border country, to see what lessons that dry land is teaching today.
Or rather, to see which variations on the very oldest lessons are being taught today. Near the end of No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Bell visits a crippled, old lawman living in shabby dignity. When Bell tries to explain why he’s retiring and giving up the fight against a seemingly overwhelming dark side, an evil so much more barbaric and pitiless than in days gone by, the old-timer rebukes him.
“What you got ain’t nothing new,” he says from his wheelchair. “It’s a vanity to think so.”
Perhaps those words are aimed at viewers as well. Thanks to human weakness, the end is always near. Or at least that’s the way it looks from the badlands of Big Bend.
David Theis lives in Houston. He is the author of the novel Rio Ganges.