Seeing Double: No Country For Old Men / The Getaway

by George Hickman on April 15, 2010

in Columns,Seeing Double

Seeing Double is the new Scene-Stealers series that celebrates the only thing better than watching one movie—watching two movies.

Each week we look for a more perfect cinematic union as we view and discuss a pair of movies chosen either for things they have in common or things they don’t. The films may be old or new, obscure or well known, celebrated or reviled. The only rules are that we must justify the pairing up front, and all titles have to be readily viewable at home, as determined by their availability to rent or stream through the most popular home video websites.

When “No Country for Old Men” hit in 2007, I fell in love instantly, “Glass Key” ending and all. It even made leaving the theater, only to find my car had been towed, that much easier to take. A few months later I was exploring some of the Steve McQueen movies I never got around to and was struck by just how much 1972′s “The Getaway” reminded me of “No Country for Old Men.”

They’re both set in mostly the same region of Texas, with one shot towards the beginning of the Seventies, and the other set about eight years later. Aside from a certain amount of similar local color, semi analogous characters and plot developments crop up in each. Both feature a tall, dark, and relentless killer with a history of murdering his colleagues. Both feature a bag full of money that falls into the hands of a bystander. Both also have scenes at a general store with oddly specific purchases, exploding cars used as diversions, and a shootout at an El Paso Motel. Both were also seen as departures for the stylistically distinct filmmakers behind them, though for different reasons.

As an interesting contrast, they were both adapted from books, but the young Walter Hill‘s screenplay for “The Getaway” was significantly less faithful to Jim Thompson‘s pulp novel than Joel and Ethan Coen‘s screenplay for “No Country For Old Men,” which plays more like a condensed version of Cormac McCarthy‘s critically acclaimed prose. Pairing two movies I already know I love should make for a good time regardless, but I have the feeling that how they converge and diverge will also make these two a great double feature.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)

This is probably my fifth time watching “No Country for Old Men,” and it keeps getting better for me. It opens beautifully, with some dusty scenery showing the Texas prarie at sunset… or sunrise… I’m not really sure. Seeing the wide open spaces, it’s hard not to envision cattle drives or cowboys or John Wayne movies. It’s strange how land seemingly untouched by progress still suggests so much history.

Then, the wistful voice of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell starts telling the story of the young killer he caught and sent to Death Row in Huntsville. He is most troubled by the fact that the young man seemed so cold about what he did, that there wasn’t any passion to it. “He said he knew he was going to hell. Be there in about 15 minutes.” But what the sheriff says next actually colors the experience of the rest of the movie, explains his actions, and helps account for some of the more unconventional turns that the film takes.

The crime you see now it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. You have to be willing to die to do this job. But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out to meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say OK. I’ll be part of this world.

And with that, we meet Anton Chigurh. A tall, imposing, emotionless man dressed mostly in black, with a pageboy haircut . Chigurh is THE something that Bell doesn’t understand, doesn’t want to understand, or just can’t understand. The first time I saw the movie, Bell struck me as the most minor of its three leads. But upon examination, even scenes without his physical presence still feel shaped by his voice and his perspective.

“No Country for Old Men” as a movie doesn’t feature a lot of dialog, but it does feature the most in scenes where there are bystanders who survived their encounters. There’s the gas station attendant whose call on a coin toss with Chigurh ends up saving his life, and the officer on the other end of the phone call the deputy was making up until the moment Chigurh strangled him to death. Then there’s the motel clerk Llewelyn Moss confounded by renting two separate rooms based on the floor plan, and the man he bought a tent from, “the one with the most poles.” In addition, the very riveting action scenes all have a bit of a “just the facts” quality to them, as if the action of the characters was recreated by the forensic evidence.

I think there’s a good shot that everything we see plays out not necessarily exactly as it happened, but how Sheriff Bell thinks it happened based on who and what is left or reports from other police, etc. The story opens with him reflecting on what he’s seen and ends with him in retirement, reflecting on dreams of his father. A lot of people were disappointed with the last fourth of the movie, particularly with the exit of Moss from the story, the lack of a confrontation that it seems the story is building to, and the seemingly abrupt way in which the film itself just sort of… retires.

But I love it, particularly in the contentious way in which it dispatches Moss. It’s real. People die every day, but almost no one dies in front of you. One day that uncle you like but never really see any more is alive and the next you get a phone call telling you he’s gone. And suddenly you feel regret for every phone call you didn’t make, and every story you’ll never hear or be a part of. For Sheriff Bell, one minute Moss is alive and on the run and holding his own, and the next he’s lying on the floor of a motel in a pool of blood. As viewers, we can’t help but feel regret for all the stories Moss could have been a part of that we’ll never get to see. We feel cheated because that’s what death does. It cheats the dead of more living, and cheats the living of the company and the stories of the dead.

I think it’s also important to note that Moss operates best on instinct. Whereas thinking only gets him into trouble, instinct gets him out. His stay in the Mexican hospital gave him the chance to think that he sorely didn’t need. It’s thinking which has him tell his wife Carla Jean what hotel he’d meet her at in El Paso, and it’s the thought that he could stop what’s coming that ultimately sends Chigurh to Carla Jean’s door. As far as the question of whether or not Chigurh kills her, I love the fact that it’s a question at all. The book clearly spells out her fate. The film simply suggests it by having Chigurh check his shoes afterwards, something we saw him do at least once after a murder.

If any other filmmakers had adapted the book, there’s a good chance that the ending would have changed. But aside from some pruning and a slight re-ordering of events, the Coen Brothers’ film is faithful in a way few adaptations are. It’s also their most faithful adaptation ever, as “O Brother Where Art Thou,” “The Lady Killers,” and “Miller’s Crossing” all vaguely resembled their supposed sources at best. It’s apparent that what they loved about the novel is exactly what the people who were disappointed by it didn’t: its subversion of expectations. Its like the events of a Peckinpah movie, recounted by an older man who found himself mostly investigating its aftermath. We get exactly as much of the world as Sheriff Bell was willing to let himself be a part of, before he was no longer willing to put his soul at hazard. “Well, it’s certainly true that it’s a story.”

THE GETAWAY (1972)

In a lot of ways, “The Getaway” is the movie that some people felt “No Country for Old Men” promised but refused to deliver. Much like the Coen Brother’s underrated “Intolerable Cruelty,” “The Getaway” is often viewed as a lesser Peckinpah film, a commercial vehicle made to help bolster his directing career. But he didn’t just show up for a paycheck. His voice is definitely felt throughout, and there’s quite a bit that feels unique to him.

“The Getaway” opens with a shot of deer at a pasture, only to reveal they are actually directly outside a penitentiary in Huntsville. It then segues into a sequence that is probably the best short film ever made about the the prison experience. Technically scoreless but with oppressive mechanical noise overpowering the mix, Steve McQueen’s Doc McCoy shuffles back and forth solemnly, trapped. The noise gets quieter as a parole board decides his fate, but when his parole is rejected, the volume of the noise rises as he’s returned to being a cog in the prison’s machinery.

McCoy’s first words in the film are delivered to his wife Carol, from behind the prison glass. “Get to Benyon. Tell him I’m for sale. His price. Do it now.”

As we see her visit Benyon in a barely buttoned blouse and with the distinct lack of a bra, it’s clear that it won’t just be her husband paying that price. Benyon’s office is occupied by men of ill repute that are all a type of ugly that Hollywood has never been good at capturing. Much like the Coen Brothers, Peckinpah would cast locals and people whose faces were as expressive as their words, giving a certain depth to characters with only seconds of screen time.

Back at the prison we see that Benyon came through, and McCoy is being released. As the prison door opens and he steps out a free man, the mechanical noise finally stops. It’s over. But then the guard says “You’ll be back, Doc,” and the stakes are made very clear. No matter what, he’s not going back.

Of course it’s not a heist movie without a heist, and the next morning Doc goes to meet Benyon and to find out the nature of his debt. There’s a small town bank that needs robbing. Doc is running the job, but Benyon is running the show, and he insists that Doc take on two people he’s never worked with before.

One of them is named Rudy, a man with the bad habit of being the only one who makes it out of his jobs alive. Like Chigurh, He has dark hair and a physically imposing build. It’s clear immediately that he pushes people’s buttons solely for his own amusement. The only thing creepier than his expressionless glare is his smile.

But Doc works through his reservations and simply focuses on the job. They plan it in meticulous detail over the course of a very condensed week. Both the recon and the actual heist itself are classic Peckinpah. This is probably the grittiest and bloodiest PG rated movie I’ve ever seen. Predictably, the heist goes wrong, but in somewhat unpredictable ways. Rudy kills the other bagman then tries to first sabotage, then ambush Doc and Carol. Doc reads the situation correctly and shoots Rudy first, but Rudy survives thanks to the bullet proof vest he claimed he didn’t need.

From there the movies shifts to a series of thrilling chases, double crosses, and yes, getaways as Doc and Carol struggle to make their way to Mexico. In the meantime, a wounded Rudy makes his way to El Paso thanks to the coerced aid of a cuckolded veterinarian, and his wife for whom life was a little too boring before this bloody, dangerous man showed up waiving a gun in their faces, demanding they treat his wounds. Rudy’s interest in the vacuous blond is motivated mostly by desire to emasculate her husband, and the dynamic of these scenes is darkly comic and one of the movie’s best and most unique elements.

Equally inspired is a sequence in a train station where a small time con artist charms a locker key out of Carol’s hands. Doc gives chase and follows him onto a train, but loses his trail. Once we see the pure joy expressed by the man as he discovers the contents of the bag, for a moment we’re on his side and we want him to get away with the money, much like with Moss in “No Country for Old Men.” But also like Moss, fate has crueler things in store.

In addition to Rudy hunting them, Benyon’s men are also planning an ambush. The three parties eventually converge as “The Getaway” culminates in a thrilling shootout at an El Paso motel.

Aside from Peckinpah’s trademark ultra violence, both performances by McQueen and Ali MacGraw as Carol are excellent, showing range while never fully abandoning the personas they each became famous for. Their relationship feels authentic, and their humanity and vulnerability is on full display as they struggle to reconcile their love with their betrayals. Interestingly enough, this is probably the biggest spiritual change from the novel, as the characters were sociopaths who killed indiscriminately. The book’s ending was also vastly different. While they both feature the couple escaping to Mexico, the novel follows them from there to El Rey, and a surrealistic descent into madness.

WORTH A DOUBLE FEATURE?

I’m not sure why the critical reputation of “The Getaway” isn’t better. I really struggle to envision a circumstance where it could be dismissed as an empty thrill-ride. Considering that “The Godfather” was released just a few months before it in 1972, this film may have been considered slight by comparison. But that’s a comparison that hurts just about any film. There are elements here that are just as artful as “No Country for Old Men,” which had no shortage of awards or critical acclaim. Regardless, both films are excellent and play remarkably well together. There’s something about comparing a film set in a particular time and place to another film that was actually made during that time and in that place. But the best best part of putting them together is you get to have your cake and eat it too. You get the contemplative, artistic approach of “No Country for Old Men,” with the more immediately gratifying pacing and instantly satisfying conclusion of “The Getaway.”


As always, I can’t watch any double feature without thinking of alternate pairings. Here are a few potential alternatives for each:

For “No Country For Old Men”

Blood Simple (1985) – The Coen Brother’s debut film is a classic neo-noir that shares some elements, including its Texas setting, with this “No Country For Old Men.”

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) – This film also stars and was directed by Tommy Lee Jones and has a similar feel to Cormac McCarthy’s work in general.

All The Pretty Horses (2000) – There’s a lot of great things in the first Cormac McCarthy film adaptation, and it mostly makes up for its miscast leads’ lack of chemistry.

For “The Getaway”

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) – The surrealistic desperation in Mexico that marks the end of the “The Getaway” in novel form has been called unfilmable, but Peckinpah’s cinematic fever dream captures the spirit of that ending perfectly.

The Killing (1956) The screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s excellent but underseen caper film was co-written by Jim Thompson, three years before writing the original novel “The Getaway” was adapted from.

The Getaway (1994) – I have a thing for playing remakes, particularly reviled ones, after the originals. The trailer for this remake is so 90′s it hurts. Who knows though, maybe the director of “Cocktail” pulled off a halfway decent film.

George Hickman

George Hickman is the first child conceived and raised by a sentient television and an anthropomorphic video store. He is a true Texan, in the sense that it is true that he lives in Texas. He spends his days making the Internet work and his nights surviving on the sustenance that only flickering lights and moving pictures can bring. There were no survivors.

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