*Spoiler Alert* If you haven't seen this movie, don't read the post yet. Put your coat on and go see the movie. I've seen it three times now, and I need to discuss it.
I am fascinated with this movie. When it first came out, acclaim for the movie was more or less universal. But once the buzz factor started to ebb, voices of dissent started to rise up. Screenwriters' sites and discussion groups are full of conflict over the film. Writers either love it or hate it. What side of the debate you fall on says a lot about how you approach writing.
Those who hate it are almost universally dissatisfied with the ending. It simply isn't the big Hollywood thriller ending that they're looking for. The script very carefully lays out a kind of cat and mouse game between the protagonist, Llewelyn Moss, and the grim reaper figure, Anton Chigurh. And then, well, somebody else kills Moss. There's no final showdown between the good guy and the bad guy. There's no victory. To some viewers this feels like a betrayal. To others, it's deeply affecting.
There's a great deal to talk about in this movie, but in this post I'm going to focus on the one big lesson I think writers can take from this movie:
All rules on how to build story elements, from plot structure to characters, are tools. They don't magically tell you what the story is. They help you find it.
No Country For Old Men is adapted from a novel by Cormac McCarthy. The book is not a thriller. It doesn't have a neat three act structure like a screenplay. Ninety percent of writers and studios adapting the book would turn it into a thriller. The Coen Brothers knew better.
This is a movie about old men. For me, the Ed Tom Bell character, played by Tommy Lee Jones, provides the unity and the true three-act structure to the piece. But, like the rest of us, he's watching this fascinating cat and mouse game. And he knows he's outgunned. This is no country for old men. In the words of his father, "You can't stop what's coming. It's not all about you. That's vanity." It's a horrifying message delivered without flinching.
There's a thriller inside No Country For Old Men. But the movie's not a thriller in itself. It uses and plays with our expectations to take us somewhere deeper. How do they do this?
From the standpoint of structure, there's a carefully laid out, very Coen Brothers kind of cat and mouse game being played. I think it climaxes in the scene where Moss wounds Chigurh in El Paso. That's your big chase scene if you're looking for it. There's still forty minutes of film to go, of course.
At that point, the Coen Brothers systematically start to deny your expectations. The Woody Harrelson character, who came in incredibly late, is killed incredibly early. Even more emphatic is the way we cease to actually see the murders. Chigurh keeps killing, but there's no need. It's not about that. Humor starts bubbling up through the cracks. Llewelyn Moss tells Chigurh he's coming after him, but well... he doesn't.
Before he can even get started, he's killed by Mexican gangsters. We don't see this murder either -- just the result. The murder comes out of left field -- basically the result of a comic scene with his mother-in-law. Chigurh himself is late to the scene.
When we see Moss dead, it's a huge shock to the system. My heart just crumbles each time. The reason, I think, is good screenwriting on the level of character. Every screenwriter knows that you have to engage a very clear, simple strategy for maintaining audience engagement in your main character. The Coen Brothers are masters of this, of course. And they do a tremendous job with Moss. In his first series of scenes, he shows us how to watch the movie -- how to enjoy it. Follow the blood tracks on the ground. Read the clues. He's not a good character or a bad character. He's ambivalent. As Ed Tom Bell puts it, he could be involved in drug running, but it doesn't sound like him. He's just a human being -- good and bad rolled up into one. This makes his role as the underdog uncommonly affecting.
He's us. And while the real main character here is Ed Tom Bell. The Coens know we're watching Moss. The decision to take him away from the viewer, to force us to reevaluate the whole story through different eyes right at the end, is deeply dislocating. And it's incredibly effective for 90% of viewers. As you search for the thread -- for the meaning of the story -- Ed Tom Bell steps to the foreground and delivers his carefully laid out message straight to your undefended heart.
There's true passion here. A true need to communicate. Listen for this when you write. You don't always feel it in yourself, but it's there.