Sunday, January 17, 2010

No Country for Old Psychos

Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is No Country for Old Men's 'Arbogast': the smart, tough guy who enters half-way through the film, who quickly basically figures everything out.... and look where it gets him! ('If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?'). The prototype for this sort of character is Psycho's detective, Milton Arbogast, brilliantly played by Martin Balsam.

The original Arbogast meets his end on the stairs in one of the great deaths/scares in movie history. Carson Wells doesn't die on the stairs, but he's as good as dead once Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) meets him there. In the following video, I show that these two scenes have the same timing overall, and that they share visual organization once on the stairs:

The Coens know their stuff: Hitchcock backwards for sure, but also, more generally, how to structure and edit important moments to find, for example, the inner music of (and dramatic possibilities contained within) the physical geometry of someone walking up a flight of stairs.

To get a sense of how the Coens developed their scene so that it clicks so satisfyingly into place, consider how the same scene plays out in Cormac McCarthy's novel. McCarthy follows Chigurh (not Wells) for a page while he scopes out the hotel and room where Wells is staying. (And before that, whereas the Coens are still with Wells, McCarthy follows Sheriff Bell, Tommy Lee Jones's character in the film, for a page or two.) Now Chigurh goes down to the Lobby:

And there he waited for Wells. No one would do that. He sat in a leather armchair pushed back into the corner where he could see both the front door and the hallway to the rear. Wells came in at eleven-thirteen and Chigurh rose and followed him up the stairs, the shotgun wrapped loosely in the newspaper he'd been reading. Halfway up the stairs Wells turned and looked back and Chigurh let the paper fall and raised the shotgun to his waist. Hello, Carson, he said. They sat in Wells' room, Wells on the bed and Chigurh in the chair by the window. You dont have to do this, Wells said. I'm a daytrader. I could just go home....

Thus, it was the Coens who gave the film's Wells-stairs-Chigurh scene its Wells-through-line and perspective, thereby making it hew closely to how things unfold for Arbogast in Psycho.[1]

Of course, the scene's specific beats and timing and geometry, e.g., Chigurh entering from the bottom right of the frame, are the Coens' invention entirely, even when they map abstractly to something in Psycho. Here's the Coens' November 2005 screenplay draft of the scene:


Carson Wells enters frame and recedes down the walkway. When he draws even with the next stanchion he looks through the fence:
Cane on the riverbank, and one gnarled tree.


Twilight. Carson Wells enters the hotel and crosses the lobby.


Carson Wells appears around the corner and we pull him as he mounts the stairs. When he is about halfway up a figure - focus does not hold him - rounds the corner behind and silently follows, holding a fatbarreled shotgun loosely at his side.
After a few steps Carson Wells stops, frowning, cued by we don't know what. Focus drops back as he turns. Chigurh raises the shotgun.

Hello Carson. Let's go to your room.


Chigurh sits into a chair drawn up....

That's the film alright, and what a beautiful thing it is. Just add perfect casting of and acting by Bardem and Harrelson, and start rehearsing your Oscars or Palme d'Or speeches. An intriguing question: Do we credit the Coens or Harrelson for Wells' taking his hat off just when he does, thereby perfecting the visual parallel with Arbogast/Balsam? A painful observation: The level of cinematic detail in the Coens' screenplay, amounting to pre-direction, is the privilege/prerogative of established writer-directors. Don't write like this at home!

The conventional wisdom is that the Coens only lightly adapted McCarthy's novel. But insofar as that wisdom is correct, to that extent it underscores just how daunting adaptation normally is, since close study confirms that the Coens changed and innovated plenty. In particular, whereas the novel is ultimately episodic, the filmed screenplay develops a visually- and driving-inspired logic of characters as continuous trajectories: interacting, near missing, diverging forever, and so on. As we've observed around the stairwell scene, the Coens achieve this largely by simplifying and smoothing out who we're with and really following at any given time. This development from the novel responds to a basic property of a specifically visual medium: that it can (and by default will) continuously apprehend the flow of a point of view through a landscape. This basic adaptation decision, while very astute in our view, does impose a cost at the end of the film. Let's explain.

Once Chigurh recovers the money (and Bell just misses him), the character trajectories we've been keeping track of either end or start diverging forever. The film's remaining business then naturally has the more episodic character of the novel. The Coens try to engineer a fast down-shift into a more novelistic mode by dissolving directly from Bell's near miss with Chigurh to Bell visiting his ex-lawman, Uncle Ellis for a long quasi-philosophical discussion (which has 'You can't stop what's comin. Ain't all waitin on you. That's vanity.' as its memorable punchline ).[2] Unfortunately, No Country's momentum is so great by this point that viewers miss the down-shift. That is, particularly first time through, many viewers assume - wrongly - that Bell visits Ellis the day after the near miss, that Chigurh finds and kills Carla Jean at most the day after that, and so on. We're quibbling about a near perfect film here, but No Country probably did need an insert title, e.g., 'Four weeks later', over the cross-fade to Bell arriving at Ellis's.

Still, insert titles are ugly, and Hitchcock, who purposefully stocked his own films with what he called 'ice-box moments' (puzzles that viewers will only be bugged by later: canonically, when they're fixing themselves sandwiches from the fridge), wouldn't be averse to leaving audiences scrambling a bit at the end. If much of No Country's audience only figures out that its final scenes are more vignette-ish and temporally abstract than what came before, as it were, at the icebox, then perhaps they'll buy another ticket. That slightly fiendish business strategy assumes that one's film was otherwise engaging, but that's a very safe assumption about Coens and Hitchcock pictures alike.

[1] Joseph Stefano wrote Psycho's ace script from Robert Bloch's novel, with lots of input from Hitchcock and, indirectly, from Hitchcock's 'secret weapon' collaborator: his wife, Alma Reville.

[2] In the novel, Chigurh's returning the money, killing Carla Jean, being in a car accident, etc. separates Bell's scene with Ellis from his near miss with Chigurh. Ellis's 'You can't stop what's comin...' punch-line is original to the Coens' screenplay.


Orphic Doorman said...

Yes - Even though I read the book 'Old Country' before seeing the film...I was still very sorry to see Harrelson go. Both that character and Arbogast have the cutting-through-the-hysteria, forward moving persona, so much so that seeing them getting taken out in a matter of fact fashion is very disturbing.

plague said...

@Orphic Doorman. Thanks for your comment. Yep, both Arbogast and Wells are very good at their jobs and this means that notwithstanding their occasional abrasiveness, we trust them and like them. When they die quickly and pitilessly in each case, it's genuinely shocking.