This year was the first time I can remember in which I saw all of the films that were nominated for Best Picture in the Academy Awards. I liked four of them (“Atonement,” “Juno,” “Michael Clayton,” and “There Will Be Blood”). The one I didn’t like, “No Country For Old Men,” won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director. What’s wrong with me?
Or should I ask, “What’s wrong with the voters in the Academy?” Or “What’s wrong with our country?” “No Country For Old Men” is a movie in which the villain wins, in which evil wins, and in which the mumbling hero quits in fear and despair. There is no character in the movie to admire or like, there is no character development, the ending is as unsatisfying as Weight Watchers cookie, and there is not even a smidgen of hope to be found anywhere. Is the message that this is no country for hope?
I asked a good friend who is a successful writer and member of the Academy if she liked the movie and she said, “I hated it, but my 23-year-old son loved it.” I replied, “Strange, my 25-year-old son loved it, too. He said it was the best movie of the year, as did my wife’s 29-year-old son.” I read the reader reviews on The New York Times website and they were, I’d estimate, about 75 percent negative; well, more than just negative, they were witheringly critical: “No there there,” “…non-ending,” “repellant,” “very nicely styled garbage,” “testicle-level rubbish,” “Terminator movie shot in Texas,” and “US film industry has sunk to this very low standard,” among many others in a similar vein.
I guess the comment I agree most with is “very nicely styled garbage.” But what fascinated me most is that young people who I know are Obama supporters, and, thus, most likely embrace a message of hope, loved a film in which there was absolutely no hope. In order to explain this apparent contradiction, I went back to Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales to see if I could find some answers.
Bettelheim writes that children like fairy tales because at a very deep level the stories help them deal with their greatest fears. Certainly “No Country For Old Men” is no redemptive fairy tale, even though it begins with the visual message, “once upon a time, in a place far, far away.” But it is a story about random, horrific, technology-enhanced violent death without death. In his book, Bettelheim refers to J.R.R. Tolkien, who described the facets which are necessary in a good fairy tale: fantasy, recovery, escape, and consolation – recovery from great despair, escape from some great danger, but, most of all, consolation.
“Old Country…” has the bleak fantasy land of Texas in the 80s – a time our current President was living near Marfa, TX, the location for the film – but there in no recovery and absolutely no escape. But what about consolation? Could it be that the greatest fear younger people have is of the random nature of uncontrollable violence and death by pathological foreigners, as horrendously imprinted on their memories by the tragedy of 9/11 and by continuing images of death in Iraq – a fear that is manipulated and given growth hormones by the same Texas president? If so, then perhaps “No Country…” is a film that makes people confront their greatest fears and provides a psychological outlet for them.
However, the movie’s ending in which Sherriff Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) gives up, is as unsatisfying as if Frodo and Sam Gamgee in “The Fellowship of the Ring” had said, “Screw the ring. There’s no hope; let the Dark Lord have it – my big feet hurt.”
I’m sorry, we need heroes, not villains in our modern stories myths. We need hobbits and Jedi Knights, not wimps. We need hope, not despair.