You Stand To Win Everything
No one would ever confuse No Country for Old Men with Slumdog Millionaire—Oscar-winners for Best Picture in 2007 and 2008, respectively. For one thing, the stark barrenness of West Texas is quite exactly the polar opposite of Mumbai's crushing density. (Although, in terms of film "environment," their social geographies do share a similar harshness of experience.)
Then there's the sound of each film. While Slumdog's Grammy-winning soundtrack inventively melds old and new India, No Country is lauded for its effective use of little to no traditional soundtrack.
Then there's No Country's villain extraordinaire, Anton Chigurh. He could not, he would not tolerate or suffer a game-show host like that character in Slumdog. He would end the guy's life merely on principle, strolling out of the joint with the winnings.
For me, however, perhaps the feature most distinguishing each film from the other is its philosophical inquiry. It's the way each film asks (and asks us to ask) pensive questions about the largest forces at work above/behind/within the human story. Within each of our stories.
Call it Destiny. Call it Fate. Call it what you will. Understood with a fatalistic sensibility or imbued with some notion of a Higher Power, It is written is the narrative-driving meditation of Slumdog.
On the other hand, as Anton says to the store owner in one of No Country's most affecting scenes (thoroughly brimming with tension): "Call it. I can't call it for you." The elderly, friendly, unassuming store owner is suddenly in the throes of a coin flip that will have life-or-death consequences. He is making his choice, but also reckoning with chance.
Choice v. Chance. Call it in the air.
Upon introducing our 16-year-old to the Coen Brothers' masterpiece, it was this persistent inquiry—Choice v. Chance—that captured me (again) in its never-ending human web.
For instance, in interrogating the store owner, Anton has no patience for the man's description of how he arrived at this particular place in his life: a Texaco convenience store in god-forsaken West Texas. He married into it, he says, almost without thinking. For Anton, this way of putting it is unforgivable; it's an outright dismissal of the power of Choice. So he proposes the coin flip in order to give the store owner a chance to choose.
Later in the film, in another chilling scene, this time in the isolated confines of a hotel room, Anton interrogates a bounty hunter named Carson Wells. (Anton and Carson both know that Anton will be killing Carson soon enough.) "If the rule you followed brought you to this," Anton muses, "of what use was the rule?" He is obsessing on Carson's choices, of course, emphasizing what Carson had the power to control—until now.
Finally, Anton tracks down Carla Jean, the wife of the man who had made the original choice. It was Llewlyn who set events in motion by taking a briefcase of money that he had happened upon. With Llewlyn dead and the money returned, Anton surely could've allowed Carla Jean to live, to move on.
Sitting in the bedroom of Carla Jean's house, he greets her in shadows. Once again he pits Choice v. Chance by way of a coin flip. But in a provocative twist (of fate?), Carla Jean refuses to "call it," in effect boomeranging the power of Choice back to Anton, who, in the end, knows no other choice but to kill.
Not everyone appreciates the film's conclusion, but I always find it ultra-satisfying. Anton is driving away from Carla Jean's house. For all his ruminations and calculations, he makes the typical and reasonable choice to drive through a green light. Out of nowhere he is rammed from the side by another driver speeding through a red light.
Anton walks away, alive, but severely injured. What are the chances? It's a peculiar kind of poetic justice befitting the intersection of Choice v. Chance.
Watching No Country for maybe the third time, I was reminded for the thousandth time that the power of choosing is something akin to standing on dry land when all around us a veritable sea of chance ripples or rages. Choice is that momentary glimpse of control set within a story of permanent vagaries.
The catch is, we still stand to win everything—come what may.