American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
A figure in the shadows.
1. I have a competition in me.I want no one else to succeed.
2. I hate most people....I see the worst in people.I don't need to look past seeing them to get all I need.
3. I want to rule and never, ever explain myself.I've built my hatreds up over the years, little by little.
Match the above comments to the character who speaks or writes them:
(Answers at end of post.)
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NOTE: Spoilers lurk sinisterly below.
Daniel Plainview, "There Will Be Blood."
Three of the most admired and fervently debated American films of the year move inexorably toward a climactic confrontation with a killer -- or someone's conception of a killer. Only Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" actually culminates in a eruption of savagery, while David Fincher's "Zodiac" and Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men" gradually steer their attention away from the assaults and into the psyches of the characters who are haunted by the brutality penetrating their lives.
Anton Chigurh, "No Country for Old Men."
The Zodiac, "Zodiac" -- or as close as we ever get to seeing him.
Much has been written about the violence in these movies, the darkness they find in the American landscape, and what some see as their bleak, fatalistic and/or nihilistic attitude. Does this somehow reflect the country's moral ambivalence about being mired in two bloody, confusing guerrilla wars on the other side of the world? A sense of No Exit hopelessness that the Vietnam nightmare is recurring? Mainstream (or art house) torture porn that allows us to vicariously groove on -- as we are simultaneously appalled by -- the crimes at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? Dissatisfaction with the materialistic emphasis on the American Dream? A cynical exploitation of artfully staged killings for our (cathartic?) entertainment?
The popular press likes to talk about violence in movies with a superficiality that assumes all violence and all movies are the same, that blood is blood (and that gore and gunplay are automatically more sensational than depictions of beatings or other forms of physical and psychological abuse). But that Sunday feature-section approach ignores what it's like to watch the movies themselves, and the diverse contexts in which they present acts of cruelty and lethality. To say that "Zodiac," "NCFOM" and "TWBB" are all "violent films" tells you as much about them as saying they all use the color red.¹ I'd like to consider how the violence in these films conveys its own meaning, apart from any op-ed political parallels that can be drawn, however legitimately.
In all three films, somebody gets away with murder: By the end of "Zodiac" and "NCFOM," the Zodiac (played anonymously by several unidentifiable actors, according to varying eyewitness accounts of the assaults) and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in "NCFOM" fade into the landscape as if dispersing into some kind of pervasive fear or threat. These films broaden their focus, while "TWBB" narrows down to a single hard point, like the tip of a drillbit. Its heart of darkness is located in one man, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis), a petty tyrant driven by monomaniacal greed and a hatred for those repugnant little creatures he contemptuously calls "people." Plainview paints himself into a corner -- with blood. Yet he isn't caught red-handed any more than Zodiac or Chigurh. His deeds don't catch up to him; he simply fulfills his character-as-destiny, expressing the essence of who he is, and who he has been since he first appeared on the screen, a demon scratching for treasure in the depths of the earth. That final scene is as unavoidable as the ending of "Oedipus Rex."
The most brutal scene of all: "There Will Be Blood."
"There Will Be Blood," as its title promises, heads directly for its explosive gusher like a locomotive speeding through the California desert, through long, torturous passages of cruelty and sadism. The extended cinematic treatment of its beatings and slappings (in lengthy takes) feels more brutal than the brief, bloody executions in "Zodiac" and "NCFOM." But although "TWBB" is perhaps the most unremittingly harsh of the three films, and displays an inhospitable majesty in some sequences, it may be the thinnest in resonance.² It's dark and viscous, but as Plainfield says: "Just because there's something on the ground doesn't mean there's anything beneath it."
Still, the movie works as a traditional, old-style Hollywood melodrama³ (like a silent film overlaid with a sleek, dissonant, period-appropriate score), an epic morality play illustrating the deadly sins of pride, greed, envy and wrath. "TWBB" has been praised as something "new," but that's a misunderstanding of its classical strength: Its straightforward manner of storytelling is the most conventional of the three movies. Nearly every scene (with a very few brief, transitional exceptions) is structured simply and clearly as a direct confrontation -- between two or more people, or between people and the earth itself -- as befits a movie driven entirely by competition and one man's titanic ego in conflict with the universe. The climactic showdown between Plainview the oil man (commerce) and Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) the preacher (religion) is inevitable because they are competitors, and God is Eli's oil. (I don't think it's quite accurate to say that Plainview metaphorically kills God in the final scene, because Eli -- a sinner, perhaps a charlatan, perhaps a genuine believer -- is a diminutive man, not a symbol of God, and Plainview the unbeliever never sees him as anything more than a rival upstart businessman: "That was a goddamn helluva show" he says after one of Eli's sermons.)
The more radical linear (analog) construction of "Zodiac" traces a cause-and-effect logic that breaks down and falls apart in the course of time. "TWBB" also adheres to a strict chronology marked by on-screen date-stamps and little or no inter-cutting of parallel action, but does so for the simple reason that it is locked onto one central character.⁴"Zodiac" and "NCFOM" have multiple protagonists, while "TWBB" places a solipsistic monster dead center.⁵
The specter of violence looms over all these movies from beginning to end. There's never a moment when you don't feel something terrible could happen. All three contain bloody, merciless killings. Yet violence, and the threat of violence, is used to dramatically different ends in each:
"Zodiac": Clues and fragments.
* "Zodiac" is a chronicle of professional and amateur detectives piecing together an elusive criminal's identity from crumbs, an epistemological thriller driven by the obsessive need for definitive answers in a world where empirical evidence and eyewitness accounts don't necessarily add up to anything conclusive or complete. In other words, it's not about who the killer is; it's about trying to find out who the killer is. The men who pursue the investigation have only disconnected fragments of information to work with: letters, cyphers, locations, dates and times, forensic scraps. "Zodiac" might have been made without showing the killings at all. As it is, the filmmakers depict only attacks as they could be reconstructed from forensic residue and the memories of those who were present. We never see the Zodiac himself; the movie's strategy is to show how he lives in other people's heads. In that sense he resembles Chigurh, existing not so much as an individual but as a shadow, an indistinct and incomplete pattern of signs and clues. (Sounds a little like "Bob Dylan" in "I'm Not There.")
A killer rises: Our first blurred sight of Chigurh's face in "NCFOM." As he moves forward, into focus, to make his first kill, we still don't get a good look at him because his head rises above the top of the frame. His victim, the deputy, never sees what's coming, and Chigurh, chillingly, doesn't even bother to look at his face while he garrotes him.
* "NCFOM" and its characters aren't even much interested in who the killer is or where he comes from. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) mainly just wants to prevent Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) from getting slaughtered. Chigurh is tracking a satchel of stolen drug money, and that's as much as anybody needs or cares to know, other than that he is unstoppable. He is a presence, not a person like other people. And that's not because he is supernatural but because he is inexplicable, an implacable force, an undeniable fact. Let's put it this way: Nobody who gets in his way and meets him face-to-face survives. Like the chess-playing avatar of Death in Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," to whom he has been compared, Chigurh exhibits the occasional glimmers of personality -- pride, arrogance, annoyance, determination -- as do Zodiac and Plainview, but he never succumbs to the latter's fits of dudgeon. He kills not from anger, or even for money, but because it is his nature. Plainview is a petty bully, his unmanageable fury a sign of weakness that Chigurh would consider frivolous and self-indulgent. (That said, let no one suggest a "Chigurh vs. Plainview" sequel, please.)
Not a "people" person.
* "TWBB" is the one film of these three that is expressly about murder as virulent misanthropy -- not just about the willful annihilation of human life but about the taking of it. Zodiac and Chigurh exhibit no emotion in their killings, because they are indifferent to their victims, some of whom are randomly or opportunistically chosen. For Chigurh, eliminating people is part of his work; he kills as an accountant would crunch numbers. For the Zodiac, it's is a challenge and humans are simply "the most dangerous game"; he gets a kick from the hunt itself, but even more so from getting away with it. For Plainview, it's personal. He assails only those close enough to insult, humiliate or betray him. And when his sense of dignity is offended, he acts out of spite to obliterate the "competi-tor." It's not enough that he should triumph; his victory is complete only when he can deprive others of what is dearest to them -- their very lives: "I want no one else to succeed."
Phoning it in: Phony killer, real psycho.
Of course, "Zodiac" recounts the case of the infamous series of murders in California during the Age of Aquarius. Yet none of these movies presents its slayer as a classical serial killer. "Zodiac" comes with a built-in critique of the familiar psycho profile just to demonstrate how its namesake does not fit it. An institutionalized impostor calls a live TV morning show to melodramatically complain to Melvin Belli (Brian Cox) on the air that his headaches are compelling him to kill. It's a prank, a phoned-in performance based on tormented characters from movies and television, and it provides no clues about the Zodiac. Later, when Belli theatrically proclaims, "Killing is his compulsion. It's what drives him. It's in his blood," we know he's not only being haughty and self-serving but naïve.
Melvin Belli with a piece of the Zodiac puzzle. It's not what he thinks.
Each killer, however, is uniquely methodical in his madness. (And each is successful at what he does, though there's nothing admirable about him.) After initially focusing on young couples, Zodiac begins not only selecting (and announcing) his targets in a deliberately random manner, so as to spread fear and evade detection. Further, he takes credit for crimes he didn't commit to enhance the power of his myth, and to throw off his pursuers. Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) realizes what's going on after the murder of a taxi driver: "He's breaking the pattern." And once he does, anyone and everyone becomes a potential victim. (If Anton Chigurh were a publicity hound, the people of West Texas might feel the same way about him. Instead, he is internalized by the other characters, transformed into the abstract embodiment of their fear of death. Abstract until he's standing in front of you, that is.)
Chigurh, with careful attention to a cryptic internal logic of process and principle ("You use the one right tool"), operates under a rigid set of rules that no one but he understands. Really, though, it's pretty simple: 1) He eliminates anyone who comes between him and and the completion of his mission; 2) He never makes a threat or a promise that he doesn't intend to fulfill. "You don't have to do this," people keep telling him. They're wrong: He absolutely does. The way Chigurh he sees it, he's just doing what he has to do. The choice is not his, it's the other's: "Call it."
Chigurh in the shadows.
Chigurh and Zodiac intentionally keep to the shadows where they assume extra-human dimensions, while Plainview greedily grabs center stage -- at once all-too-human and less than human. As a man, and as a character, he is no more than the sum of his wants (or his lacks). In some ways he is a model of serial-killer alienation, incapable of intimacy and disdainful of humanity, a malignant shell of a human whose anti-social motivations are rooted in psychopathology. His attacks are rash and impulsive, the acts of a man desperate to satisfy the gnawing feelings of resentment and entitlement that have eaten away his insides (aided, no doubt, by rot-gut whiskey).
Out of the earth.
"NCFOM": Enter Sandman.
Plainview arises out of the earth, nothing if not corporeal, and only thick black oil can fill the cavity within him. (That and a milkshake -- as long as belongs to someone else.) The deadly forces of "Zodiac" and "NCFOM" seem to blow in on the wind and fade away when they're finished. Plainview simply stops in his own tracks. Chigurh enters the Coens' movie the way Plainview leaves Anderson's, with his back to the camera. The first time we see his face, he's an blurry presence in the background of a shot, rising over a man's shoulder to make his first kill. Zodiac appears out the blackness and turns a blinding flashlight on his prey. You might say that Zodiac and Plainview kill to act out their fantasies of omnipotence; that Plainview and Chigurh (because he's ostensibly after a bag of money) are images of predatory capitalism run amok; that Chigurh and Zodiac are portrayed as semi-illusory (they are hauntings), while only Plainview is cast as a psychological personality, strictly limited to flesh and blood. And there's evidence in the films to support all of those interpretations concurrently.
Indeed, Chigurh and the Zodiac linger in the consciousness beyond the last frames of their respective films in ways that Plainview does not. They are not captured; the dangers they pose are not dispelled. When Plainview announces he's finished, he's finished. We don't imagine a life for him after the final cut to black. Swallowed by his own emptiness, spent and sprawled on the floor (the closest he comes to a post-orgasmic moment), he's not going anywhere. He's done. He waves us away with a dismissive gesture, acknowledging that his story is over, no reason to continue. Without bothering to face our gaze with anything more than a glance over his shoulder, he gives up. Nobody else's judgment matters to him, anyway.
Zodiac appears in the wind.
The homicidal/suicidal finish of "TWBB" is a narrative, philosophical and existential dead end, the terminal raving of a drunken, impotent lunatic against god, man and the universe.³ He's not Lear (Plainview is incapable of recognizing his own sins, or seeing his place in the world as anywhere but the center of it); he's not Ahab (Plainview's greed doesn't assume the tragic metaphorical grandeur of Ahab's quest for the Great White Whale); he's more like Yosemite Sam.... doing a John Huston impression -- a drooling, blustery blowhard.
A damaged man: The final shot of "Zodiac."
"Zodiac" and "NCFOM" also terminate abruptly with a plunge into blackness, but in their last moments they contemplate the faces of men who have been damaged by the violence they've seen. Mike Mageau (Jimmi Simpson) is nearly a ghost, a deeply wounded soul who is 80 percent certain of his own certainty but, like everyone else, wishes he could be sure. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), sitting in the fragile peace and security of his kitchen in the wasteland, has given up, yet also attained a measure of experiential wisdom, an old man's acceptance that there's no hiding from the grim reaper. He recounts a dream of his father, who died younger than Ed Tom is now. (It points forward to Cormac McCarthy's "The Road.") The dream -- like all dreams, all films -- is open to interpretation, but Ed Tom no longer seems to see his long-dead father as a giant "old timer" of romanticized stature, beside whom he will always fall short, but as a guide and a pioneer, carrying a light for him on a path into all that cold and all that dark that lies ahead for all of us.
An overmatched man: The final shot of "No Country for Old Men."
So, are "Zodiac," "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" entertaining movies, and dark, and violent? Absolutely. Which is not the same as saying, for all their commonalities and contrasts, that they're the same movie, with identical views of cruelty or indistinguishable depictions of death. In a movie, a kill is never just a kill.
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¹ Jean-Luc Godard on "Pierrot Le Fou": "It's not blood but red."
² "TWBB" is set up as a high-concept battle between God and Greed (there's a magnificent overhead shot of a man and his baby son [who grows up to be HW] on the rim of a blacker-than-black crater: oil pit as hellmouth), but neither the characters nor the movie quite support the metaphorical weight. The film comes down to a struggle between two egos locked in conflict: Plainview and Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). One is a bigger-than-life oil man and the other a punier-than-life man of the cloth. Eli's diminutive presence makes his conflict with Plainview all the more striking: physically and charismatically it's an uneven match. But these nemeses share two things: a killer instinct and a deadness at the core of their beings.
While this description applies to all three films, only "TWBB" is built exclusively around the singleminded goals of its protagonist, if only because it's the only one with a single character that dominates every frame.
I’ve long argued, along with Kristin [Thompson], that mainstream US filmmaking, dubbed long ago "classical Hollywood cinema," has cultivated a sturdy and pervasive tradition of storytelling. (1) That tradition depends on clearly defined characters pursuing well-defined goals. This commitment in turn creates a plot that displays linear cause and effect: In pursuing goals, the protagonist makes one thing happen, and that makes something else happen, which in turn triggers something else. Moreover, the mainstream tradition lays these actions and reactions along a fairly rigid structural layout. And this tradition depends on a system of narration that constantly reiterates the characters’ traits, their goals, important motifs, and the overall circumstances of the action.
⁴ I can think of only one scene in the theatrical release cut of "There Will Be Blood" in which Daniel Plainview is not present: a confrontation at the Sunday family dinner-table in which the mud-caked Eli (having been thrashed by Plainview in the scene previous) denounces and physically attacks his father, Abel. Note biblical references.
⁵ "There Will Be Blood" is a movie I admire without thinking it's particularly successful (or even ambitious) -- a less-than-the-sum-of-its-parts kind of film. It also feels curiously bloodless to me, dry and diagrammatic, while still reasonably compelling to watch, even if you watch from a distance. For the simple reason that I haven't written much about it previously (I was waiting until I'd been able to see it a second time), it probably gets more than its fair share of attention here -- especially in these footnotes.
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ANSWERS: All three quotations above are from the same speech by c) Daniel Plainview in "There Will Be Blood." He's the only one of the three who explicitly spells out his own motives in dialogue. But I could almost imagine Chigurh saying 2 and Zodiac writing 3.
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