Friday, July 3, 2009

No Country for Old Men: Movie Review

chigurhEveryone is after a suitcase full of money, and one long chase plays out with numerous confrontations in between. Many a great crime narrative is based on such a premise. A one line summary might lead you to believe that's exactly what No Country for Old Men is about. That wouldn't be wrong, but the movie is also much more than that.

The movie focuses on three characters, Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin), Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem), and Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones). Llelwelyn is a retired welder who comes across the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad while he is hunting in the desert. He surveys the carnage and hightails it with a suitcase full of two million dollars he finds at the scene. Chigurh is an ethereal, almost mythical killing machine who wants the money back. And Ed Tom Bell is a jaded, worn out, aging sheriff.

Chigurh kills out of perceived necessity. But sometimes he kills to honour his word. Other times he kills based on the flip of a coin. He often kills with a bolt gun (a stainless steel rod blasted with pressure from CO2 canister) similar to those used for slaughtering animals. Other times he employs a shotgun with a silencer. He never shows any overt emotion while performing the deed. Strangely, viewers may not feel any sort of loathing for Chigurh but might instead only experience a dreadful fascination, both for the performance by Javier Bardem and the sinister brutality of the character.

The Power of Silence

Silence plays a big part in the movie. The most gripping scenes where the tension ratchets up are almost completely devoid of dialogue. This isn't an easy task for a film-maker to accomplish successfully, but here it is done with a master's touch.

The Coen brothers, who directed this movie, understand that the unconscious mind is often more powerful than the conscious. This is communicated through the character of Llewelyn, who suddenly awakens on a few occasions with revelations that spur him on to immediate action.

But more than those obvious moments, the directing style of the Coens emphasizes the power of what is left unsaid. Many subtle effects are channeled to the viewer, and taken together, their collective force is impressive. This is one of the rare films I will watch again because there are so many elements at work.

In one scene, as Lllewelyn lets down his guard after a long journey during which he dodged Chigurh a number of times, he rolls into a motel. He moves with weary intent towards his room, and passes the motel swimming pool along the way. A woman calls out to him and they engage in a bit of flirting from a distance as she invites him for drinks. She tucks her legs up before she rises from her pool-side lounge chair. It is one brief fluid motion yet there is somehow more in that shot than a written description of the scene could ever communicate.

Moments later, Ed Tom Bell comes upon the aftermath of a slaughter at that same motel that has left Llewelyn and the woman dead. The viewer can visualize exactly how the showdown occurred and is better off for not having seen it play out frame by frame on the screen.

The Vagaries of Life

Chance is one of the recurring themes in the movie, with the fate of many of Chigurh's victims determined by an accidental meeting or, literally, the flip of a coin. Perhaps the fact that Chigurh became a nasty, ruthless killer is down to the vagaries and turns of life as well. All three of the main characters were in the military (Chigurh and Llewelyn in Vietnam, and Ed Tom Bell in WWII). Similarities between them are drawn in the personal honour codes they adhere to and even in some of their eerily similar gestures, utterances, and interactions with others.

For whatever reason, the violence of the war together with his personal experiences ricocheted around in Chigurh's mind and turned him into a predator. Llewelyn and Bell never embraced violence but are similar to Chigurh in other ways. Had life conspired differently, perhaps they would have wreaked as much destruction as Chigurh.

Throughout the movie, Bell laments the state of the world and how it seems to be getting more violent. Is he really being genuine? Or are his words just clich├ęs that allow him to converse with others? His conversation with a broken down wheelchair-bound older man who knew Bell's father puts the lie to the age old mantra that things were somehow less violent in the past.

All the characters are poets in No Country for Old Men. Lines spoken in movies are written to be memorable, and the perfection, timing, and sometimes absurdity of movie-speak is half the enjoyment. But the characters in No Country for Old Men all speak in a special way that has a distinct cadence and rhythm appropriate for their roles.

The Coen brothers are the masters at crafting a kind of cinematic violence that is jarring and surreal. This is fitting, as anyone who has experienced real-world violence knows that an odd, unreal quality permeates any such occurrence. And just like real violence, No Country for Old Men is likely to have a real effect on viewers.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Book Review: The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout

The Sociopath Next DoorSociopathic behaviour is familiar to anyone with an interest in crime and crime fiction. The cold-blooded, unfeeling monster shows up with regularity in the world of fiction and in stories on the evening news.

Anyone with a modicum of observation skills has likely pegged someone as a sociopath at least once in their lives. Like the chronic liar who is always creating melodrama and wreaking havoc with other people's lives. Many seem inextricably drawn to such human wrecking machines, if only for the bit of excitement they temporarily introduce into their otherwise dreary lives.

In a world where the word "greed" has almost fallen out of our lexicon, where virtually any tactic employed in business is hailed as shrewd and cunning so long as it further enriches people, and where the slaughter of thousands is still a regular occurrence, the world must be teeming with such reptilian, blood thirsty, self-serving freaks.

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, deconstructs the mind of the conscienceless amongst us, offers up some narratives that detail their nastiness, poses some interesting questions on what causes the condition, and provides some insightful and believable theories in response.

The book employs a few different methods to deliver information. First, the author uses composite characters in fictitious narratives to describe how sociopaths play their twisted games. These scenarios are based on the years that she has spent as a clinical psychologist analyzing people who have suffered at the hands of sociopaths.

Unfortunately, the first two scenarios used in the book are the least effective. The first example is utilized as a way to help the readers get their heads around the idea of conscience. The second example presents a fairly hackneyed rendering of the developmental trajectory of a sociopath, replete with the abuse of animals, the manipulation of family, and successes in the business world. All accomplished using ruthless tactics aided by a complete lack of conscience. Of course, it is contrived, but that's exactly how it feels.

For example, a chapter about a fictional character named "Skip" is intended to demonstrate how deviant and insidious he is but parts of it just come off as odd and slightly amusing:
Then he would hurl the corpses as far out into the lake as he could, yelling at the dead frogs as they flew, "Too bad for you, you little fuck-face froggy!"

However, the attempts at showing the reader just how unfeeling these creeps are get better as the book moves along. A third narrative describes a more nuanced situation in which a vindictive social climber tries to destroy her rivals.

There's also a handful of real-life situations described in the book, gleaned from the hundreds of individuals the author has helped over the years. She tells the story of these damaged individuals and how they were manipulated and used, and in the process we better understand how sociopaths operate. These vignettes have more impact than the other story-telling examples used in the book.

Amongst the fictional and real stories are psychological explanations on how these misfits tick. Stout references numerous studies and findings as she paints a picture of the mindset of the sociopath. Of course, not all these lunatics are the violent sort, and most manage to fly under the radar while manipulating and intimidating their way through life.

However, I found some of the descriptions of sociopaths and their behaviour leaned towards the black and white. Perhaps the mantra, repeated numerous times throughout the book, that "they can do anything at all" (the italics are always added) is used to gin up the fear just a tad so that the prescriptive sections of the book are more effective.

Surely there must be some of us in the rest of the 96% in society who stray into sociopath territory on occasion. And even within that supposedly beast-like minority of four percent, there must be the occasional individual who feels a smidgen of compassion, does something that isn't completely selfish, or even exhibits a pattern of behaviour that casts doubt on all the literature surrounding the topic.

Still, there are plenty of interesting questions raised and compelling information provided. For example, what about the differences between western and Asian countries? Does the collective nature of many Asian countries result in fewer and qualitatively different sociopaths? It appears so, and the related passages are intriguing and seem plausible.

And one of the litmus tests for sociopaths also has a ring of truth to it:
When deciding whom to trust, bear in mind that the combination of consistently bad or egregiously inadequate behavior with frequent plays for your pity is as close to a warning mark on a conscienceless person's forehead as you will ever be given. A person whose behavior includes both of these features is not necessarily a mass murderer, or even violent at all, but is still probably not someone you should closely befriend, take on as your business partner, ask to take care of your children, or marry.


I'd never really considered the possibility that product placements exist in books just as they do in film and television. It makes perfect sense, of course, and you can't blame the author for making a few extra bucks. I may have even read books where advertisers had paid to have their wares mentioned in an ostensibly natural way.

However, this is the first book in which I have ever noticed the phenomenon. It is a jarring and highly distracting aspect of this book, and one that, for me, detracts from its credibility. In films, you may not even notice the product placements simply because of their fleeting nature. Here, however, they are in your face and one effect is to attach an annoying stigma to the products in question.

Another problem was some of the vaguely propagandistic elements. This book was published in 2005 but no doubt much of it was written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. There are more than a few references to the event, and the underlying assumptions attached to many of those passages could be highly annoying to many readers. The author insinuates that anyone who would dare to target the U.S. must be a sociopath, yet never offers any proof.

Odd that the simpering moron who rode the U.S. into the ground never comes under scrutiny, especially in light of numerous sections like this which could raise his image in many readers' minds:
In a confusing irony, conscience can be rendered partially blind because people without conscience use, as weapons against us, many of the fundamentally positive tools we need to hold society together--empathic emotions, sexual bonds, social and professional roles, regard for the compassionate and the creative, our desire to make the world a better place, and the organizing rule of authority.

Later in the passage she mentions Saddam Hussein and a handful of other notable nasties from the history books but the grinning chimp's name is nowhere to be seen. A few pages later, Stout states,
In fact, one of the more striking characteristics of good people is that they are almost never completely sure they are right.

A trademark of George W. Bush is that together with his arrogance, hubris, and incompetence, the fool never doubted himself or dropped that moronic smile for an instant, even as the country came down around him. But alas, such sacrilege wouldn't sit well with most of this book's intended audience. And it surely is aimed at the talk-show crowd who like their books light and the themes simple and reassuring. That is really my main criticism of this book. It really didn't go far enough or offer any alternative or contrary theories. It's simply too short for such a compelling topic and could easily have been twice its current length.

I often ask myself three questions regarding a non-fiction book: was it entertaining, did I learn something, and will I try to impress friends with snippets and factoids from its pages?

The answers here are yes, yes (learning this word alone was worth it), and yes. A decent read, with a few reservations, regarding a fascinating subject matter.