27 January 2008

Evil is Alive and Well

No Country for Old Men (2007)
There Will Be Blood (2007)

Again, this is not a blog entry you want to read if you haven't yet seen these movies and think you might like to. So, stop reading now if you hope to preserve the mystery.

Two of the best movies of 2007 are about evil, or you could even call it "sin," if that's more your idiom. And I don't mean the kind of evil that is conquered by the good guys in the final reel. I mean the kind of evil that's so deeply embedded in human nature that it can't be eradicated. These movies are dark but profound, and they are deeply disturbing in a way that is both visceral and philosophical.

image from the official website: http://www.nocountryforoldmen.com/

No Country for Old Men

As they often do, the Coen brothers turn a Hollywood genre on its head in their latest work. What looks, at times, like an action movie (hit man subgenre) turns out to be something quite different. We've all seen plenty of movies where the seemingly unstoppable bad guy eventually meets his match in the person of a bad-ass good guy who uses violence "for the right reasons." In No Country for Old Men, our hopes for a happy ending flit desperately from one potential hero to another--from Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) to the unlikely (and therefore promising) heroic hit man Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) to the laconic Western sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). When the movie ends with two heroes dead and the last one retired and somewhat demoralized and the killer (Anton Chigurh, played chillingly by Javier Bardem) still on the loose, lots of people in the theater had a "what the..." moment and left feeling cheated. I guess I felt cheated, too--after all, I was just as frantically hoping for a hero as everyone else. And I kept thinking I could see a "happy" ending just around the corner.

But, in the end, we're left with the truly terrifying thought that all that hero stuff is just movie fodder. In real life, evil persists. The movie seems to be a direct affront to the cult of heroic masculinity that pervades Hollywood history--from Westerns to war films to the modern action flick--that idea that when things look bleakest, the real man's true self emerges to bettle with the forces of evil. Ed Tom Bell's haunting emptiness at the end of the movie seems to match that of the audience, as we all realize that the tripe we've been raised on just doesn't seem to reflect reality. Evil lives on. And although the good guys can fight it, evil persists.

image from: http://www.toxicshock.tv/news/2007/10/21/there-will-be-blood-movie-poster/

There Will Be Blood

If possible, P.T. Anderson aims higher and hits harder than the Coens. Where the Coens seem to question our hero stories--our movies and our adventure tales--Anderson (following in the footsteps of Upton Sinclair, on whose novel the movie is loosely based) sets his sights on the core mythology of America. Again and again in the movie, we are reminded in word and image that the roots of America's power are nourished by mud, fire, blood, hatefulness, corruption, and, yes, sin. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis, who will win the Oscar for Best Performance by a Male Actor--that's not even a prediction, it's just plain fact) is the rugged capitalist, the man who appears in many American stories as the hero--he paid his dues with solitary toil and grave injuries of the body, but he "succeeds" in the end. That is, he utterly destroys his competition and ends up a very wealthy man with a very expensive house. Most of all, Plainview is a salesman, a huckster who uses his adopted son (Dillon Freasier) as a cute face to help him buy up land so that he can sink oil wells. Plainview, for all of his folksy, straight-shooting charm, freely admits that he hates people, for the most part, and he can't stand the idea of a competitor doing well. This might sound harsh, but it's the American way. For all our talk of competition, the "free market" really means that the biggest, baddest capitalist on the block is free to bully everyone else into submission (see Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Halliburton, etc.).

There Will Be Blood is an evil epic. If an epic is supposed to show the birth of a new nation, There Will Be Blood depicts the birth of America as a superpower--an industrial giant made possible by oil. But instead of glorifying those origins, as most epics do, There Will Be Blood reveals that our 20th century power had its roots in evil and corruption, hatred and violence, hypocrisy and absolute avarice. And the movie is honest enough to show that when a man's roots are in blood, his end will be in blood as well. The obvious implication is that a nation whose roots are in evil will result in evil.

So much for our historical narratives that, time and time again, either whitewash the evils that were done in our past (slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, etc.) or try to make us believe that a heroic individual can redeem us from that "original sin" and sanctify our nation's present and future.

Some will say that There Will Be Blood ridicules Christianity. I can see their argument, and it's probably valid. But, from one perspective, I think it's actually a movie that's perfectly aligned with even the most fundamentalist Christian theology. Above all, the movie recognizes the existence of sin--without grace, all of our actions turn to evil, and there is no grace in this movie. Even the preacher (a scary performance by Paul Dano) ends up confusing divinely granted authority with earthly power, becoming absorbed in his own lust for fame and money. It's not that God is not present, but that the people we see in this movie do not seek God's presence, because they know that their deeds are evil and they do not wish to repent.

These are not date movies. These are not satisfying movies, in the simple sense. They are deeply troubling, even apocalyptic, in a sense. I can't help wondering if these movies have emerged this year out of a sense that the world has gone past the point of no return, out of a realization that there is no heroic individual who can reverse the greed-fueled downfall of the American Empire, or the likelihood that we will take the rest of the planet down with us when we fall.

Yikes. That's depressing.

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