Thursday, January 20, 2011

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: Tell Mother I Love Her

Danger! Blood, Guts, and Spoilers Ahead!

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin): “I’m fixing to do something dumber than hell, but I’m going anyways. If I don’t come back, you tell Mother I love her.”

Carla Jean Moss (Kelly Macdonald): “Your mother’s dead, Llewelyn.”

Llewelyn: “Well, then I’ll tell her myself.”

Those of you who’ve been enjoying my playful natterings about classic movies ranging from the 1930s to the 1970s might be surprised to see a bleak, bloodily violent, gallows-humored 2007 Western noir like No Country for Old Men (NCfOM) here on TotED. But you see, this thriller, written and directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, just happened to be my beloved mother’s absolute favorite film during the final two years of her life. On January 22nd, 2011, this very weekend, it would have been Mom’s 84th  birthday. Now Mom was multifaceted, to say the least. The "Cherry Girl" side of our family affectionately nicknamed her "Auntie Mame" -- oh, and Cherry was Mom’s maiden name. Mom and her sister, my Auntie Joy (who died of pulmonary fibrosis just a few months after Mom did) told us many hilarious anecdotes about the boys’ reactions to the Cherry sisters’ surname in high school.  

Mom in New York City at Auntie Joy's NYC pad in the early Aughties.

Mom and I talked on the phone almost every day, and when she moved to Florida over 20 years ago, we visited her each summer. She was an unfailing champion to all who needed a champion, and a scold to those who richly deserved scolding. She had a great sense of humor and a loving heart, while still providing witty yet no-nonsense advice. She was glamorous, yet down to earth; a talented painter and sculptor and an avid reader as well as an excellent swimmer and tennis player; a lover of all things swanky and soignée. One of Mom’s most endearing quirks was that for all her smarts and sophistication, she was the Mistress of Unwitting Movie-Title Malaprops. For instance, she automatically referred to Roxanne, Steve Martin’s comedic update of Cyrano de Bergerac, as “Pinocchio.” She was also a fan of the Tom Hanks-directed comedy about a 1960s rock band, “That Noise You Make!” as well as Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winner “Slumlord Millionaire.” 


They shoot dogs, don't they?
Hell yeah, when the dogs are trying to kill you!
Mom was a big fan of Mel Brooks, The Marx Brothers, and the Coen Brothersespecially NCfOM. Mom loved the intelligence and offbeat humor of the Coen Brothers’ films as much as I did, whether they were comedies, dramas, or thrillers like Blood Simple, Fargo (our family loves Frances McDormand, too) and, of course, NCfOM. Although Mom and I weren’t able to see NCfOM together in the same theater since we lived in two different states, we did happen to see it on the same day. When we caught up with each other by phone, we talked excitedly about the movie for an hour! Soon Mom and I were recommending it to other friends and loved ones. Each of us saw it at least three times in our respective local theaters, usually taking others who we knew would love it (even I admit that NCfOM isn’t for all tastes, what with its relentless violence and abrupt downbeat ending). I wish I had a dollar for every time Mom called to ask me to explain the complex plot to one of her many admirers. Yes, even in her 70s and early 80s, and even when her health went downhill, Mom had more male admirers than James Bond had hottie honeys, dear little minx that she was!   

Anton Chigurh likes his work a LITTLE too much!
When Mom’s health deteriorated from pulmonary fibrosis to the point that she rarely left the house, I sent her the NCfOM DVD. When my daughter Siobhan and I visited Mom several times over the last 18 months of her life, she had it on more often than not, almost like cinematic wallpaper. I wonder if the Coens would have appreciated Mom cheerfully doing the little chores she was still capable of, sitting in her elegant lounging pajamas and drinking a cup of tea with her oxygen tube on like it was just another of her fashionable accessories, all while watching and commenting on what was going on in the film. (Siobhan, as a then-13-year-old animation fan, preferred to watch her beloved cartoon DVDs until NCfOM was over, or at least had come to a stopping point.) Mom and I had always felt there was a Sam Peckinpah vibe to this gripping thriller, set in 1980.  It’s a morality play and a tense suspense story rolled into one, like the leaner, meaner, more vicious brother of the Coens’ previous thrillers. NCfOM’s protagonist is Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin in a brooding, laconic, star-making performance), who goes hunting near the Rio Grande and finds himself embroiled in nightmarish mayhem and violence, West Texas prairie style. Instead of bagging wild game, Llewelyn bags $2 million in drug money after stumbling across the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, complete with human and canine carcasses.  (It’s chilling to see the bodies in the process of decaying as others happen upon the scene over the course of the movie.) Llewelyn thinks he can just take off with the money, dodge whoever might come after it, and live happily ever after with his sweet young wife Carla Jean, played with a letter-perfect Texas accent by winsome Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald.  Brolin and Macdonald make a wryly endearing couple. The rare times Llewelyn smiles, it’s usually when he’s talking with Carla Jean. 

This definitely wasn't the kind of room service Llewelyn had in mind!
But to his peril, Llewelyn doesn’t figure on being pursued by merciless bounty hunter Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a mysterious figure with a pneumatic cattle gun, a penchant for using a coin toss to decide whether someone should live or die, and a voice that sounds like it’s coming not from a human being, but from the bowels of Hell itself. Chigurh relentlessly pursues the equally dogged Llewelyn through Texas as the compassionate, sad-eyed Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (the great Tommy Lee Jones as the film’s voice of reason) tries to catch up, but he can't help feeling overmatched by the sheer implacable evil of the “ghost” that is Chigurh.The film’s pacing is deliberate, but for me that simply increased the suspense as I wondered what Chigurh would do next, and whether Llewelyn had a chance in hell of ever eluding him for good, especially with both men’s ever-increasing number of injuries. The suspense scenes are real nail-biters. There’s a thrilling night-into-dawn chase where Llewelyn is pursued first by a monster truck, then into the rapids by dogs. Pit bulls don’t stand a chance against bullets!  One of my favorite scenes finds Llewelyn in his motel room in the dark. The only lights are the glowing tracking transmitter he finds in the satchel of drug money, and the light under the door from the hall outside—until a pair of feet appear on the hall side. All we hear is the transmitter…and the sound of a light bulb in the hall being unscrewed, resulting in more darkness…and I can say no more without ruining a classically terrifying moment! 

In McCarthy’s world as seen through the Coen lens darkly, fate’s gonna catch up with you no matter how smart you think you are. In NCfOM’s particular setting, 1980 seems to be a time in the West when it was easier to victimize people. You get the feeling Chigurh was able to get close to his hapless victims simply because his sheer unnerving strangeness caught them off-guard. It’s a tribute to the power of Bardem’s portrayal of Chigurh that his comically unflattering Beatles moptop-cum-Prince Valiant pageboy haircut doesn’t prevent him from being one of the most horrifying villains in movie history. It got so that every time Chigurh showed up, I’d watch the rest of the scene between the fingers covering my face, because I knew Very Bad Things Were About To Happen. Bardem’s Chigurh is all the scarier because he can seem utterly calm and casual even as he blows people’s brains out with that pneumatic cattle gun of his. The damn thing can blow out locks as well as brains; its versatility certainly makes up for its cumbersomeness. My favorite black-humored sight gag:  after Chigurh launches a protracted, agonizing attack in which a cop is killed, the camera pulls back to show that the floor is completely covered with scuff marks from the dead man’s shoes flailing and scraping against the floor during the struggle. There’s low-key, matter-of-fact humor in the dialogue (taken mostly from the novel). My favorite is this exchange between deputy Wendell (Garret Dillahunt) and Sheriff Bell: 
Wendell: “It’s a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff?” 

Sheriff Bell: “If it ain’t, it’ll do till the mess gets here.” 
Be warned, NCfOM is not for the squeamish or for those who like endings neat, tidy and upbeat, with everyone getting what they deserve. Nevertheless, it haunts and grimly amuses me even now. No wonder this powerful film won 4 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Bardem, and Best Adapted Screenplay for the Coen brothers.  I feel that NCfOM is not only one of the best films the Coens have ever made, but a modern classic all around!

Mom and Baby Siobhan, in late 1996
Dedicated to Jacqueline Tenore Kehoe, with love and laughter
January 22nd, 1927 — December 18th, 2009


  1. I've always liked this tidbit from the IMDb: Apparently Joel and Ethan Coen used a 1979 photo of a brothel patron as a model for the evil Anton Chigurh's neo-pageboy helmet-hair. When Javier Bardem first saw his new haircut, he said, "Oh no, now I won't get laid for the next two months!" The Coens responded by happily high-fiving; Bardem's response meant Chigurh looked as creepy as they'd hoped. Luckily, the effects weren't permanent, as Bardem's current ladylove and fellow Oscar-winner Penelope Cruz can surely attest. :-)

  2. Twitter cohort @chrisyogerst says: "Never thought of a Peckinpah vibe in 'No Country for Old Men,' though I make the connection now. It's total Western deconstruction." Indeed! Our family loved Sam Peckinpah's action thrillers and Westerns (of course, I wasn't allowed to see them until I was a teen :-)).

  3. Great review...and a very heartwarming tribute to your mother. She sounds like a wonderful woman.

  4. Thanks for your praise and your kind words about my mom, Twitch! Having read your bio, I see you've weathered many personal storms like my dear mom did. Best of luck to you in all your endeavors, and thanks again!

  5. Dorian it was a nice dedication. I remember the times it was shown in the home and still cringe of the bounty hunter as the chase continued. The best, as usual, was saved to the end, the picture of Jackie and Siobhan. Both had smiles from ear to ear.

  6. All my life I had read books and stories, and had seen films and programs which featured fictional characters who didn’t simply step through life, but who leaped out and lived it, squeezing every delicious drop along the way. The books would be closed, the lights would come up in the theater, and I’d once again encounter the grey world filled with the simple people who just wandered from birth to death.

    But the borderland could be crossed. The barriers breached. To me, Jacqueline Marie Tenore Kehoe was Haggard’s Ayesha made flesh . . . A true Gibson Girl . . . A romantic adventuress in the classic mold. If Dorian had told us Miss Jackie had rescued a busload of Tibetan orphans from an erupting volcano, I would’ve believed it.

    And she was a Woman.

    Bear with me for a moment. There are many females in the world. In fact, I make it a personal point to notice as many as I can, but that’s another story entirely. My belief is that there are only a handful of females who actually understand and appreciate what it means to be a Woman. These fortunate few carry themselves high, shine with an undeniable confidence and serve as a focus for not only attraction, but respect as well. Early on they discover the true beauty that keeps them desirable and utterly feminine years beyond the cosmetic industry’s ability to maintain. They are familiar with the sadly unfashionable practices of Poise, Glamour and Charm. With a glance or a simple pose they accomplish far more than their younger, overpainted sisters. Most women grow old. Become stale.

    Women such as Miss Jackie ripen.

    And, for good or ill, women such as Miss Jackie are all too rare. Dorian assures us that, even in her last days, her mother didn’t lack for admirers. I don’t doubt this for an instant. Such was Miss Jackie’s personality and spirit that she was able to collect the hearts of many with hardly an ounce of effort. But she was never cold, or cynical, and every man fortunate enough to fall within her orbit never felt slighted or denied, and I’m fairly certain more than a few of them felt inspired. Miss Jackie was the sort of woman who could transform whoever she touched. Other females could produce lovers, or friends. Miss Jackie could go the further step and raise up companies of chivalrous knights willing to storm the battlements for the sake of a smile from her.

    A line Lee Marvin delivered in The Professionals keeps running through my head: “Certain women have a way of changing boys into men, and some men back into boys”. It might not serve as a respectable enough epitaph, but I’ve always had a little trouble believing that Miss Jackie is truly dead. Rather, her mortal clay reached the point where it could no longer contain her spirit, and it’s running on free ahead of us. And it was free, my dear friends, even when it was among us. She still burns across the heaven of our hearts. Inspiring all little girls to become Women . . . And all little boys to draw their swords and ride against the dragon.

  7. Barry and Cara, thanks for your kind words about Mom and the movie, and the photo of Mom and Siobhan, too! That picture has always been one of my favorites; no matter how I feel on any given day for any reason, seeing the photo of Mom and Baby Shugie laughing always puts a big smile on my face. Ironically, to this day, none of us can remember what they were laughing about -- but as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words! :-)

  8. Michael, thank you for that beautiful salute to Mom! Your writing is always a joy to read, and this essay was even more so, as it clearly came from the heart. You were spot-on in capturing Mom's essence and the key to her appeal (I especially enjoyed your apt comparisons to Ayesha and Gibson Girls). You're so right that Mom was one to ripen (in the best possible way) rather than become old and stale; the kind of woman every little girl wants to be when she grows up. With Mom, I was lucky enough to have the pleasure and privilege of loving and learning from the best. I'm equally lucky to have a wonderful friend like you, Michael, and Mom felt the same way. And don't forget the hours of delight your book COSIMO'S RAVEN gave her! Thanks from the bottom of my heart, as well as the collective heart of Team Bartilucci and Cherry Girls young, old, and honorary!

  9. Let's all give a warm TotED welcome to our newest Followers, Rick29 and Ann Mauren! Ann's a terrific fiction writer, too; check out her novel MAYNE ATTRACTION on her blog:

  10. This is really wonderful. Your life is officially marked by parent-instilled cine-philia--and aint it swell? I laughed out loud at your mother's malapropisms. From now on, in my head Hanks' movie will officially be "That Noise You Make!" She reminds me of my own parents--both gone now--who grew up in a pre-TV world marked by movies movies movies. My father could watch anything--from "The Terror of Tiny Town" to "Seven Beauties"--and my mother always stay until the end of the movie, no matter how awful, to see how it turned out. Kooky zen masters who taught me well.

    By the way, thanks for the comment on my blog RE "Diva." You've given me a new site to follow. "Keep watching the screens!"

  11. First, I'd like to welcome both Paul J. Marasa and Jack L here as new TotED Followers -- thanks, fellas! // Paul, your response to the funny, happy memories of Mom that I tucked into my NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN review put a big smile on my face! You're right, cinephilia does indeed run in my family, and I'm delighted to hear it runs in yours, too! Our daughter enjoys movies, too; she's into animation, live-action comedies, and the occasional musical. You're most welcome re my response to your fine DIVA review. Paul, I look forward to reading more of your blogs, and vice-versa!

  12. Good review, Dorian, although this film isn't my cup of tea. However, I LOVE the photos of your mom and the loving way you describe her. I'm not surprised she had male admirers; she's a real looker!

    1. Ruth, thanks so much for your sweet words about my wonderful mom and our family photos! Mom was strong and indomitable as she was kind, encouraging, and funny. Judging from your own SILVER SCREENINGS blog posts, your personality is much like Mom's in many ways; you gals would have gotten along great! :-)