Since the early twentieth century, greed has been a subject to fascinate filmmakers and movie audiences alike. It is a vice that can turn normal men into monsters. Like a plague, it spreads ever so easily to destroy the Host and the Innocent. The most notable starting point of greed on film is in Erich von Stroheim’s silent work Greed (1924). Famous for its original ten-hour length, which was obliterated much to the director’s chagrin by over seven hours worth of cuts, Greed explored in much detail how destructive the abstract can be. In this week’s Reel Rumbles, the wages of greed are examined further by two modern classics, adaptations of the literary works of Upton Sinclair (Oil!) and Cormac McCarthy. Lie to friends, horde your wealth, and steal from family members – it’s time for No Country for Old Men vs. There Will Be Blood.
As film adaptations go, No Country for Old Men stays much truer to the source material than does There Will Be Blood. Scenes in the film mirror those in McCarthy’s prose as the story of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) unfolds. The world of No Country for Old Men is at times very orderly, matter-of-fact, and one-thing-leads-to-another. Death is a specter over all of the film in the form of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). His choice of a coin flip to determine the fates of his fellow cast-mates is eerily similar to Batman’s nemesis, Two-Face, yet strangely original, as it implicates the reliance that even he places on chance. To Chigurh, life is orderly chaos, and he is an instrument of the Fate that it dispels on other characters. He is enigmatic, unstoppable, and beyond human. We are made to believe this almost supernatural quality exists within him throughout most of the film; then something happens in the third act that turns that notion on its head and leaves us wondering what in McCarthy’s world has just happened. At the time of my first viewing, this plot point, which I will not divulge out of respect for McCarthy, the Coens, and crew, infuriated me. How dare they lead me to believe this universe had order! It’s like walking in on the preacher and the prostitute exchanging unholy vows. But then, that is part of the beauty of this film. It angers because it does such a great job capturing your attention as a high-octane thriller, and appealing to the masses on a level of adrenaline and excitement. Then, it strips that sensation, and closes in a way that causes you to actually think about life and the world around you. No wonder so many people hate the ending! The plot first centers on Llewelyn, who through no fault of his own, discovers a fortune in drug money. He then goes to great lengths to hide his find from the bad guys that want it found. Moral compromises ensue within an essentially good man, who makes the mistake of letting his own greed stay too long for dinner. Chigurh works for the bad guys to retrieve this money and silence anyone with intimate knowledge of the transaction – namely, Llewelyn. But as you will see throughout the course of the film, the relationship the employers have with Chigurh is Faustian in nature, uncontrollably destructive even to them. Chigurh’s only real allegiance is to Fate, and he stops at nothing to do its bidding.
There Will Be Blood counters this approach through the character of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). Most of the events are carefully orchestrated by Daniel as if he is God Himself. But if this is true-to-form God, why would you want any part of him? He is a covetous creature, who takes everything that he wants and plays to peoples’ ignorance and sympathy in meeting his goals. At times, he can be likable, but as the film careens towards a somewhat unhinged and delightfully disturbing conclusion, there doesn’t seem to be anything even remotely human, save for the love of money and vengeance, left in his heart. Daniel is a slave to money from the moment he makes his first oil discovery, and he uses that slavery to enslave others: whether it is his own son or his arch-enemy Eli Sunday the evangelist (Paul Dano). But don’t cry for Eli. He is even more despicable than the worst parts of Daniel, using the faith and feeling of others to serve his own causes. Both men represent the worst of humanity, but you feel more sympathy for Daniel because – heinous as he is – what’s beating under the six-inch thick callus on his heart is left to your imagination. Why does he drive away his son? Is the boy really a means to an end, or is Daniel so aware of what he has become that he doesn’t want the one person on earth he truly loves to follow the same path? A deeper knowledge of the relationship presented in Sinclair’s novel between Daniel (called “Dad”) and the boy (“Bunny”) makes you consider the possibilities. But Paul Thomas Anderson, who incorporates only the first 150 pages of Oil! into his adaptation, distills dual possibilities with all the finesse of a skilled craftsman.
Both films offer terrific characterizations. While There Will Be Blood plods along at a more leisurely pace than the kinetic, breathless No Country for Old Men, it reaches a conclusion that is a great deal more satisfying on a visceral level, and offers a world view that relies much more on choice than fate. On a personal level, I find its truths more accessible and less deus ex machina.
It’s for this reason I have to side with There Will Be Blood, 10-9.
Both of these films are captivating on every level, but none more so than in the area of their actual scripts. While There Will Be Blood clocks in at a hefty runtime of about two hours and forty five minutes, it’s likely the script was about fifteen pages shorter than the standard 165 you would expect from a movie of said length. Still, Anderson, who scribed the film in addition to directing it, deserves the utmost credit for being able to keep those first fifteen minutes of silence interesting with a steady build of characterization and plot development. By the time the first word is uttered, Daniel Plainview has gone literally from rags to riches, and you get a pretty good idea of his tragic flaws. However, No Country for Old Men isn’t about to take this matter lying down. From the opening, there is never a dull moment. Chigurh has one great scene after another. From killing a man with his cattle gun to sparing a lowly store owner’s life, there are lines and moments you cannot forget. But what impressed me the most out of these two screenplays is how well Anderson’s is able to hold things together despite his refrain from the heavy use of action sequences, blood, and gore. There is a little violence in There Will Be Blood, and when it comes it can be somewhat shocking, but it’s those long periods of silence and the interplay between characters, particularly the final confrontation between Daniel and Eli, that make the film something special. Seeing as how There Will Be Blood bares little resemblance to its source material, while No Country for Old Men takes most of its content from the excellent McCarthy novel, Anderson deserves the edge for originality, 10-9.
It is always tough to compete with a Coen Brothers film in the area of performances. Yes, they attract some of the best talent in Hollywood, but by the same token, few can hold a candle to the work of Daniel Day-Lewis. The other performances in There Will Be Blood, particularly Paul Dano’s, are above average, but Day-Lewis is what keeps Anderson’s pacing and script so enthralling. Without him, this would be a lesser film, so No Country for Old Men obviously needs more than star power to beat it. And in typical Coen Brothers fashion, they get it on the backs of their supporting players. Before this, few had heard of Javier Bardem, but after his performance as Chigurh, he became one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood. Even so, the real success comes in the smaller performances. Who would have thought that a man billed as “Gas Station Proprietor” could evoke such unforgettable sympathy? But character actor Gene Jones does just that in his interaction with Chigurh. In addition to this, there is “Carla Jean’s Mother” (Beth Grant); Loretta Bell (Tess Harper); Ellis (Barry Corbin); and “Del Rio Motel Clerk” (Margaret Bowman). Through these actors the Coen Brothers succeed yet again at what they have always been good at: knowing how to cast the small parts for realism in locale, setting, and character. And this doesn’t even speak for the stellar performances of Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, and Kelly Macdonald.
Advantage goes to No Country for Old Men, 10-8.
As mentioned above, the Coen Brothers deserve ample credit for knowing how to pick a cast to get the effect that they want. They clearly establish themselves as masters of suspense, building on a resume that includes Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, and Fargo. You can even find a little of that quirky trademark humor in there for good measure. But most of what is on the screen was effectively created as a textual storyboard by the book’s author. As a result, it is hard to know where McCarthy’s brilliance ends and the Coen Brothers’ begins. With There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson effectively detours from the source material into a true realm of originality and pacing that catapults his film to the top of the heap. He uses dialog carefully and casts an ominous mood with a droning use of sound that harks back to the opening sequence of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West to reward the patient viewer and capture this final round, 10-9 – There Will Be Blood.
The 2008 Oscars got it wrong, but not by much. No Country for Old Men claimed Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem), Best Adapted Screenplay / Best Director (Joel and Ethan Coen), and the ultimate prize of Best Picture. But in this Reel Rumbles rematch, director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson and his one-man army Daniel Day-Lewis dig deep into the depths of their talents and strike it rich with an achievement as precious as the subject of Daniel Plainview’s greed.
Winner by SPLIT DECISION – There Will Be Blood