Tuesday, November 20, 2018
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
This winner of the 2007 Best Picture Oscar, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, takes its title from the first line of William Butler Yeats’s poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.” Yeats was rejecting the biological forces in the natural world that cause aging, decay, and death, and instead was seeking refuge in the world of timeless art. This story, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, focuses on the moral corruption pervading modern times that contributes to the decay and death of civilization. “Old men” can remember a time when ethical standards were high, and they bemoan how now, to quote another Yeats’s poem, “Things fall apart.”
The film is difficult to categorize. It has elements of a western, film noir, drama, and comedy. The movie begins with vistas of unpopulated West Texas prairie land in 1980. You get a sense of being on your own here, without much protection from others. There is no music. The opening soundtrack consists of the sound of insects buzzing or the wind blowing through the desolation of the present day. There is a voice-over, which establishes the theme of the film immediately, by Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), whose name may mean he is sounding a warning or that what he has to say rings true. He says how his father and grandfather were lawmen, so his family has been one that not only obeyed, but tried to enforce laws. He says that he liked stories about the old-timers, comparing himself to them, as they were the gold standard, and wonders how they would deal with current times, suggesting that now things have changed, probably for the worse. He notes that some of these past lawmen didn’t even carry guns, implying that respect for the law was that powerful. He provides an example of a current criminal. He arrested a boy, who eventually was executed, who killed a fourteen-year-old girl. The press said it was “a crime of passion.” But, the criminal told Bell it wasn’t, that he had planned on killing someone for a long time, and if set free, would do so again. The boy “said he knew he was going to hell,” but even that was no deterrent to this kind of murderer. Bell says he doesn’t know how to “measure” the horror of what is going on now. He admits he always knew he was putting himself in jeopardy in his job. He just didn’t want to “go out” for something he “didn’t understand,” and that is the kind of unfathomable crimes that he sees taking place today.
As if to give an example of such a crazy criminal in our midst, as Bell talks we have the scene where a lawman takes into custody a man named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, in a Best Supporting Actor performance), whose last name, ironically, sounds like “sugar.” He does not in any way have a sweet disposition. We see that he had with him an air tank with a nozzle, which he uses to break through doors, or kill people. We find out later the contraption shoots out and retracts a metal bolt, and is used to kill cattle. Possibly that is how this killer sees people, as animals to be slaughtered. At the policeman’s small office, the lawman talks to someone on the phone, and says the man in his custody uses an oxygen tank, maybe for emphysema, which shows how unprepared he is to deal with someone who is so evil. Behind him, Chigurh is able, almost supernaturally, to put his arms that are handcuffed behind him, in front of his body. He sneaks up behind the officer, and strangles him with the chain linking the cuffs. They are on the floor as the cop struggles. Chigurh looks like a bug-eyed demon, grimacing as he kills the man. After it’s over he looks totally unemotional, almost inhuman, like the white-haired killer in another film by the Coens, Fargo, or like a shark, whose only purpose is to destroy, as is described in the movie, Jaws. Chigurh gets the keys to remove the cuffs, and his wrists are bleeding, which he rinses off, seeming unfazed by the injury. He steals the officer’s police car, and uses it to pull over another car. The driver is an innocent who stops because he accepts on face value the authority of the police. Chigurh quietly, almost hypnotically, gets the man to stand still as he puts the nozzle to his head and kills him. It is ironic, as it is in Terminator 2, that the criminal is cloaked in the guise of the lawful enforcer, because the world has turned upside-down in terms of morality.
Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), whose relentless forward motion shows he gathers no “moss,” is hunting. He wounds a deer and tracks it after picking up his spent shell, which shows his meticulous nature. He comes across corpses that were the result of a shootout. There are four-wheel-drive vehicles there next to the bodies. A Mexican is still alive in a truck, asking for water, which Moss says he doesn’t have. He discovers one truck loaded with bags of drugs. Moss is smart, realizing there had to be one last man standing. He finds that fellow who made it out of the confrontation, but who died later next to a nearby tree. Close to the dead man is a suitcase filled with hundred-dollar bills. Moss takes the money in defiance of the fact that he knows people will be looking for such a large sum of cash. Moss is not a drug dealer, and is not a murderer, but he also breaks the law by taking the satchel full of money instead of alerting the authorities. He probably sees it as an opportunity to get ahead, since society has not rewarded him and his wife for all their years of hard work.
Some of the comic elements come out in the dialogue between Moss and his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald, who one would never guess from her Texas accent here that she is really Scottish). He goes back to his trailer home, and Carla Jean asks what’s in the satchel. He says money, knowing she will think he’s joking, and she says “That’ll be the day.” He also took the handgun of the man with the money, and she asks where did he “get” the pistol? Without revealing anything he humorously says, “At the gettin’ place.” When she says she won’t ask what he’s been doing all day, he also says comically, “that’ll work.”
Later, Moss can’t sleep, and then says out loud to himself, “Alright.” Carla Jean wants to know where he is going and he says to do something “dumber than hell.” He fills a plastic jug with water to give to the Mexican who asked for it in the truck. He says that if he doesn’t come back (he knows he could be getting himself killed) that Carla Jean should tell his mother that he loves her. She doesn’t understand since his mother is dead. He says, “Then I’ll tell her myself,” since he expects he may meet her in the afterlife. His sense of decency, ironically, is what undoes Moss, because it puts him in the sights of the psychotic killer, Chigurh. He goes back to the scene of the crime, and finds the man dead, so his humanitarian effort is wasted in this topsy-turvy world. He looks back up to where he parked his truck and sees another vehicle there. He is shot at and wounded as the Mexican drug dealers pursue him. Moss dives into a river and, after killing a Mexican attack dog, escapes.
What follows is an increasingly tense scene which reveals what kind of creature Chigurh is. We never learn about his background, which makes him more mysterious, more of a force than a person. He has a foreign accent, and his puffy shag hairstyle and clothes show he is different, alien to the surroundings. He has exotic weapons, including the air pressure tank and later a rifle with a silencer on it. He goes into a convenience store to pay for gas and buy a snack. The shopkeeper makes the mistake of asking him how the weather is from where he came, saying it looked like he was coming from Dallas. Chigurh, not wanting anyone to discover his actions, says menacingly what business is it of his where he came from. The shop guy is surprised because he was just making small talk. He realizes that this customer is dangerous. Chigurh makes fun of his accent, and calls him sarcastically “Friendo.” He also criticizes him for repeating questions. The shopkeeper, looking for a way out of this encounter, says he is closing now, and when asked when is closing time, he answers with “now.” Chigurh, ramping up the confrontation, says “now” is not a time. After the shopkeeper says he goes to sleep around 9:30, Chigurh says he can come back then. It is a threat, which the owner can’t comprehend because there is no need for one. He instead asks the sensible question as to why come back when the store is closed. Chigurh puts down a squished snack wrapper and it crinkles open in a grating way so that even this small action adds to the tension of the scene. Chigurh gives him a chance to live or die through a coin toss. For Chigurh, life and death are ruled arbitrarily by chance, separate from human action. Morality does not factor into one’s fate, nor does logic, reason, or compassion. Chigurh says the man must call heads or tails, or else it wouldn’t be “fair” if Chigurh called it, like there is some rule that one’s fate must not be interfered with by another party, so its power can work freely. When the shopkeeper guesses that it reads heads, allowing him to escape death, Chigurh tells him not to put the lucky quarter into his pocket because then it will be like any other coin, but he adds “Which it is.” There is no logic or meaning in which to ground oneself in this modern world.
After returning home, Moss tells his wife to leave and go to her mother’s home because he knows that the men who were shooting at him will trace his abandoned truck to their address, and come looking for the two million dollars he took. Moss says once things are set in motion, there’s no stopping what follows, and that is what they now have to deal with. He is describing the domino effect, and in a way, even though events may have been caused by human action, what he describes is an inevitability of outcomes that mirrors what Chigurh believes.
Chigurh shows up at the shootout site and meets two other men with whom he supposedly is working. They work for the organization that was paying the Mexicans for the drugs. Chigurh pries the serial number plate off Moss’s truck, and gets a transponder from one of the men so he can track a homing device hidden in the money. Chigurh politely asks one of the men to hold a flashlight so he can see them better, and then shoots the other two. He’s eliminating anybody who can identify him, not showing allegiance to anyone else, not even to his own employer’s operatives.
Bell’s wife, Loretta (Tess Harper) is very protective of her husband, telling him as he goes to work to be careful, don’t get hurt, and don’t hurt anyone, which are tough restrictions if you’re a cop. Bell describes the sequence of events to his deputy, Wendell (Garret Dillahunt), involving the killing of the local lawman, including taking the patrol car, then killing the man on the road, and then taking his car, followed by torching it. Chigurh leaves a scorched earth trail behind him. He is a sort of devil figure, and fire is associated with hell. Wendell says that Bell has a “linear” way of doing his detective work. Bell offers that old age squashes a man, so in a way it wears him down, so he doesn’t have time to look in tangents. Bell’s logic is straightforward, which is the opposite of Chigurh’s. They come across the drug shootout and Bell recognize Moss’s truck. The drugs are gone, and Bell can tell just from the residue that it was “Mexican brown dope.” Wendell says the couple of guys that we know were killed by Chigurh were “managerial,” criminals as they were dressed in suits, and by the rate of body decompensation, there was more than one killing event. Wendell says what a mess (which echoes the first words Jones spoke in The Fugitive). Bell humorously uttering a sort of Texas witticism, says well if it’s not “it’ll do until the mess gets here,”
Chigurh tracked down where Moss lives from the truck’s serial number and goes to the trailer home. He uses the air tank to blow open the door. Framed in the doorway, he looks around and moves stiffly, expressionless, like a robot, and then calmly drinks milk. Indeed, he is like the android in The Terminator, never stopping in his quest, and not able to be stopped. He picks up a phone bill, so he has lists of people to call to track down where Moss may be. He goes to the trailer residential office and just keeps saying about Moss, “Where does he work?” Each time is more intimidating as the receptionist says she can’t give out the info. He probably would have been more forceful with her, but a toilet flushes, so he knows there are more people about, and he backs off. Is it an example of chance, like the coin toss, saving the woman’s life?
Moss traveled with his wife on a bus, but now gets off, as she is supposed to continue to travel to her mother’s home, while he tries to fight off his pursuers. There is more humor as she says she has a bad feeling about him leaving, but he says he has a good one, so it evens out. Carla Jean is truly worried about her husband. She argues her mom will be saying bad things about him for sending her there, but Moss says she’s used to that. She says she’s used to a lot of things, because she works at Walmart, implying her lot in life has not been too easy (The Coens said referring to Walmart gives the audience something everyone can relate to). Meanwhile, Bell and Wendell show up at the Moss trailer and Bell notes how the door lock was blown inward. When Wendell asks Bell if he thinks Moss has any idea what kind of person is hunting him, Bell, again displaying his quiet, folksy humor, says he ought to, because Moss has seen what Bell has, and “it certainly made an impression on me.”
Moss goes to a motel in Del Rio, and uses the closet bar on which clothes are hung to push and hide the money bag in the air vent. Unlike Chigurh, he must improvise as he goes along, taking weapons at the shootout site, or buying them, and figuring out ways to hide his money. Chigurh calls people listed on the phone bill to track down Moss. While driving, Chigurh takes a shot at a bird sitting on a bridge, which shows how randomly nasty he can be. Moss is cautious when he sees a truck parked at the motel, and makes the cab driver take him away from the motel lot. Wendell says the report concerning the death of the man on the road with a forehead entry, but no exit, wound shows there was no bullet, which baffles Bell. It’s like the world is finding new ways to kill people, which refers back to what Bell already said about not wanting to go out being unable to understand what he was fighting. As a precaution, Moss gets another room at the motel to throw off people looking for him. He invents a new way to push the money satchel around in the vent by buying tent poles and taping hanger ends to them. Chigurh’s detector alerts him to the money’s whereabouts. He stops at the motel, then walks around without boots so he can be quiet. He carries the air tank and the rifle with its attached silencer. He goes into Moss’s previous room, finds three Mexicans there, and kills them. Moss hears the guns of the Mexicans going off, pulls out the money and leaves, hitchhiking along the way. Chigurh again looks robotic, sitting down on the bed in the room with the corpses of the Mexicans around him, and slowly takes off his socks (because there is blood on them?) He is smart enough to check out the air vent and sees the scratches on the vent lining where the satchel was placed.
Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) shows up at the business office of the drug buyers. Wells also has a sense of humor. He takes a seat and the businessman (Stephen Root) says he didn't ask him to sit down. Wells humorously says that the employer didn’t look like a man who would waste a chair. He also makes a joke about validating his parking, and that the thirteenth floor is missing. The businessman says that they are missing their money, and the Mexicans are out their “product.” (It’s possible Chigurh took it). The businessman says Chigurh, (whom he hired), is a loose cannon, so he called in Wells, who knows the killer, to try and control him. When the businessman asks Wells how dangerous is Chigurh, we realize that this man has no concept of how reckless it was to use a man he didn’t understand. Wells says basically that you can’t compare Chigurh to the damage done by humans, but might be better measuring him against the “bubonic plague.”
Moss checks into a hotel and as he rests in his bed, he says there is just no way he could have been followed. He is intelligent enough to realize the money has a tracking device on it. He looks through the bills and finds the signaling beacon. He calls down to the desk, but there is no answer, so he concludes that whoever is after him has arrived. But why doesn’t he just break the transponder or throw it out the window? Instead his overconfidence allows him to take out his sawed-off shotgun and wait for the attack. He sees a shadow under the door and cocks his rifle. It’s possible Chigurh heard the weapon cocking. He proceeds down the hall and the lights go out so Moss can’t see Chigurh near the room. He uses the air tank to blow the lock, and it hits Moss, delivering another shoulder wound. He gets off a shotgun blast and goes out through the window. Moss hitches a ride on a truck, but Chigurh shoots and kills the driver. As Chigurh continues to fire, Moss runs the truck into parked cars and hides behind another vehicle. When Chigurh shows up, Moss starts shooting at him near some parked cars. Chigurh runs off, but Moss sees he hit the man because there is a blood trail.
Chigurh is limping from his leg wound and there are blood stains on his pants. He cuts a piece of cloth, pushes it into a gas-cap opening on a car, and sets the material on fire. (Again, there is the association with hellfire). For him, it doesn’t matter who or what is destroyed as he continues on his path. He walks into a pharmacy without a reaction as the car explodes as a distraction for him to get medical supplies to treat his injury. He cleans the wound, anesthetizes it, and bandages it. His relentless pursuit of Moss is mirrored by Moss’s drive to fight to retain the money. Another way in which the two reflect each other is that they are both seen tending to their wounds in this battle between a sort of anti-hero and the evildoer.
Moss is suffering as he heads to the Mexican border. He encounters three boys and says he will give one of them five hundred dollars for his coat. Even these young guys are mercenaries, as they want to charge him for a bottle of beer, too. Moss uses the coat to cover his injuries and holds the beer to make it look like his weak appearance is due to drinking. He tosses the money bag over a low bridge to temporarily hide it. He wakes on the street the next day to musicians playing a song that has the lines (according to IMDb) “you wanted too much wealth, you wanted to play with fire.” The words fit in with Moss’s zeal for the cash, and his thinking he was adept enough to overcome attempts to stop him, which led to his confrontation with the fire-wielding devil, Chigurh. Moss winds up in a Mexican hospital. Wells shows up there, being funny by bringing a bunch of flowers. He is impressed that Moss saw Chigurh and is still alive. Wells insightfully tells Moss that he isn’t cut out for this type of life. Moss may see himself as being tough, but he is not naturally mean, which was shown by how he brought water to the shootout victim. Wells says that it only took him three hours to locate Moss, so Chigurh will find him. Wells says Chigurh may be on his way to Odessa to kill Carla Jean. He urges Moss to give him the money, and he may be able to give Moss a cut from it. Moss says he might be able to make a better deal with Chigurh. Wells says he can’t because even if Moss gave him the money, Chigurh would kill him just for inconveniencing him. Wells says Chigurh has some peculiar principles that govern his behavior, that “transcend” drugs or money. He’s says he’s not like either of them. Despite his physical condition, Moss can still be funny when he tells Wells that he has to give Chigurh points for not talking as much as Wells. Wells tells him the hotel he is at and to call him.
Bell goes to Odessa and meets with Moss’s wife, knowing she would go to her mother’s house. She tells him that she hasn’t heard from Moss and doesn’t know where he is right now. Bell says that the men looking for her husband won’t stop and will kill him. She says her husband is a relentless man. What we see is that when these self-righteous types clash, there is little room for reason or compromise. Bell interestingly tells her a story about a rancher who tried to slaughter a steer, and it went wrong, and the rancher was wounded by his own bullet that ricocheted. His point is that even between man and steer, how things will turn out is not certain. But he mentions how the steer was hit in the head first, and that makes him think about how they kill steers with air pressure and a bolt that hits the animal in the head. He begins to realize that is the instrument that the killer uses.
Wells traces Moss’s steps and sees the satchel in the high grass off of the bridge. As Wells goes up the stairs at the hotel to his room, he is followed by Chigurh who smilingly says they’ll go to his room. Wells tells him there is no need to kill him. He knows where the money is, and he can get him $14,000 from an ATM. Chigurh smiles while repeating “An ATM.” It’s like he finds Wells’s talk a curiosity, since what he has to say doesn’t matter to him. Wells tells him that the satchel can be there in twenty minutes. Chigurh wants things to play out the way he sees it should happen, with him as fate’s instrument, and says the money will be brought to him and laid at his feet, presumably by Moss. And, he questions Wells for his way of living, since it brought him here, to this end. Chigurh tells him he should accept his fate, because it would be more dignified, since it is pointless to fight against his destiny. Wells tells him to go to hell and asks him if he knows how crazy he is. The phone rings, and Chigurh shoots Wells, probably for interfering in his mission. He takes the call. It is Moss, maybe ready to make a safe deal with Wells? Chigurh talks to him as Wells’s blood starts to flow toward him. He simply lifts his legs, his only concern being not to stain his shoes, the way he took his socks off after killing the Mexicans, and closing the shower curtain as he shot one of them so as not get splatter on him. Chigurh says he knows the hospital where Moss is, but that he is not going there. Instead, he lets Moss realize that he is going to visit Carla Jean. If Moss brings him the money, he will spare her, but not him. Otherwise, his wife is just as responsible for what has happened, in the world according to Chigurh. Moss says he’s got something for him, and we know it’s not the money.
Deputy Wendell tells Bell that the lock was punched out at the hotel where the Mexicans were killed. Bell is reading the newspaper and says that it seems to be all out war with people these days. He says that there is a story about a couple who kidnapped old people and collected their Social Security checks, but also tortured and killed them, and later buried them in the yard. His dark humor shows when he says, “I don’t know why. Maybe the television set was broke.” Bells says one captive got out wearing a dog collar, and that caught the attention of a neighbor. Bell wonders why then, since seeing the burying of bodies in the yard didn’t seem curious. The deputy laughs at the dark joke. Bell says it’s okay to laugh, because he does so too occasionally. “Ain’t a whole lot else you can do,” he observes. Sometimes this old man uses humor to stop becoming engulfed by the modern world’s pervasive sadness.
Moss leaves the hospital and retrieves the money. He calls his wife who knows him so well that she can tell by his voice that he is hurt. He wants her to meet him in El Paso so Chigurh won’t get to her. Carla Jean’s mother (Beth Grant) in heard in the background. She has a big mouth and always complains. Chigurh shows up at the office of the businessman who hired him, but because he hired Wells and gave the Mexicans a tracking device to find the money, he shoots him. There is an accountant there who is scared. The accountant says that the boss felt that it would be better to have more people looking for the cash, but Chigurh interrupts saying that was a wrong move. “You find the one right tool,” he says, which is him, to do fate’s job. Despite Wells saying that he has no sense of humor, Chigurh does have a sort of scary one. The accountant asks if he is going to shoot him. He tells the accountant it depends. He asks, “Do you see me?” So, the answer is obviously yes, we know he will kill the accountant for just being there and later being able to identify Chigurh as a killer.
Because the Mexicans have also been recruited despite the falling out at the shootout, they follow Carla Jean and her mom as they get ready to go to El Paso. The mother complains about how hot it is, that she doesn’t know anybody in El Paso, and can’t find her medication. One of the Mexicans, looking smartly dressed and acting polite, helps the mother with her bags, and he gets her to say where they are headed. Meanwhile, Carla Jean reconsiders Bell’s help, and calls him, realizing her husband has gotten in over his head. She tells Bell where to locate Moss.
As Chigurh kills another innocent, a nice fellow, to acquire his truck, and has concluded that Moss will want his wife on a plane, he heads to the nearest city that has an airport, which is El Paso. Moss is already at a motel near the airport. There is a woman there who is coming onto him saying that she has beer in her room. He says he’s waiting for his wife, letting her know that he isn’t available. She asks is that who he looks for out of his window. He says partly, but he says he’s looking for “what’s coming.” She rightly says you never can see that, which turns out to be a foreshadowing, as the Mexicans arrive later and kill Moss. The Coens did not want to be predictable, so they made the unorthodox move of killing off the main character, and not letting him confront his pursuer. In the end, it was Moss’s hubris that was his undoing because it made him think he could beat the experienced, immoral criminals.
The next shot is of Bell arriving at the El Paso motel just as the Mexicans are leaving as they shoot up the place. Bell is just a little late which adds to the sorrow of the situation. Carla Jean arrives that night and her cries add weight to the sad situation. Bell meets with the local Sheriff (Rodger Boyce). These are two of the “old men” of the title. The Mexicans found and took the money. The Sheriff says it’s the drugs and greed that is multiplying, and complains it probably has its start with young people’s extreme altering of their appearances. Bell says “once you quit hearing ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am,’ the rest is soon to foller.” For them, it is the downhill road of a decaying society that has no respect for law or civility. “It’s the dismal tide,” says the Sheriff. Bell listens as the other man says how the killer returned to the scene of the crime, as he killed the desk clerk where Moss stayed and then went back and killed Wells. (Moss returned to the shootout scene, but unlike Chigurh, was doing a good deed by bringing a hurt man water). The Sheriff’s observation gives Bell the idea to go back to the motel in case Chigurh is there, having missed his opportunity to look for the cash because of the Mexicans. Back at the motel, Bell hesitates, trying to convince himself that he should risk going there, since it goes against what he said earlier about sacrificing himself dealing with a criminal he can’t comprehend. He sees the door lock was blown open as before. Chigurh is there, listening, but he was able to get out of the room through the unlocked bathroom window. Bell sees that the air vent grate is off, as Chigurh was looking to see if the money was stashed inside.
Bell visits an old lawman, Ellis (Barry Corbin), who is the male version of a cat woman, with kitties all over the place. His house is falling apart, symbolic of the man, maybe the country. They talk about how Bell is ready to retire. Ellis was shot and is in a wheelchair. Bell asks what would have happened if the guy who shot Ellis hadn’t died in prison and was released. Ellis says that if you spend too much time trying to get back what you lost, you miss how much more is going out the door. After a while you have to put a “tourniquet” on it, he says. This old man is philosophical, and has reconciled himself to the way things are or else he will lose all sense of well-being. Bell says he wants to retire because he feels “overmatched,” and that’s why he’s quitting. Ellis says that what Bell is seeing really isn’t new. But, Bell says he thought that God would come into his life as he got older, but He didn’t.” Ellis says, “This country is hard on people.” He says, “You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t waiting on you. That’s vanity,” to think that one has that much of an impact on things in the bigger picture.
Carla Jean’s mother passed away, and after the funeral, she goes back to her mother’s house, sees the window open, and finds Chigurh there. She says she doesn’t have the money, only bills. With his deadly humor, he says “I wouldn’t worry about it,” implying she won’t be living long enough to have to deal with money problems. He gave his word to Moss that she would die if he didn’t give him the cash, so he must follow through with his vow. He says that Moss had the opportunity to save her, but didn’t, and tried to save himself. She says that’s not the way it was, since she knows that he wanted to save both of them. But, in the end, her husband’s refusal to at least go to the police led to his demise, and now hers. Chigurh only sees things from his perspective, that he is the inevitability that should have been respected. He has no cause to kill her, but he must because of his code, warped as it is, which gives him meaning. He gives her the coin toss option, but she will not surrender to arbitrary chance, even though it means she will die. She feels as if she at least is making the choice. He says people always say, “You don’t have to do this,” but he laughs because he feels that it is out of his hands. She says, “The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.” He is upset that she won’t “call it,” because she is refuting his belief system. He says, “I got here the same way the coin did,” which associates himself with fate, not his own free will.
He leaves the house, looking at his shoes, which means he is probably seeing, as he did before, if blood has stained them. He drives off looking at two boys on bikes close to his car. He is then T-boned by another vehicle, which adds stress to the motel woman’s words about not seeing what’s coming. He, too, is subject to outside forces. But, he survives, again showing to be like fate’s Terminator. He asks for a kid’s shirt to use as a sling for his broken arm. He pays for clothing to deal with his wound, just as Moss did, linking them as stubbornly persistent men on a mission no matter the consequences. He gives one of the boys money, and says “you didn't see me.” The boys quibble over the money, showing here, too, the next generation is carrying forward the country’s corruption with its wallowing in greed.
Bell is retired now. He tells his wife that he had two dreams about his dad, who was younger than Bell is now. It was in past times, though. He says that he and his father were riding in the darkness and the air was cold. His dad rode on ahead of him, ready to make a fire for his son when he reached him. These appear to be nostalgic thoughts about how his father gave him protection from danger, but also possibly about how he will see him again when he dies, which is another form of comfort that helps one escape the hardness of this life.
The next film, after a break for the Thanksgiving holiday, is The Conversation.
Sunday, November 11, 2018
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
After seeing this film (winner of the 2017 Best Picture Oscar) in the theater, I walked out with two couples. The women liked its romantic story. The men said they didn’t get it. They asked me what I thought. I told them I enjoyed the movie and said it had a little of Beauty and the Beast, a bit of Splash, and there was an element of Moby Dick. I’ll get into these points, as well as others.
The opening voice-over by the character Giles (Richard Jenkins, great as usual) lets us know the story he is telling is a sort of fairy tale, but as it turns out, it is an adult one, and talks about a love that is almost destroyed by a monster. Fairy tales are fantasy works, as is this film, and the director and writer, Guillermo del Toro (Oscar winner for Best Direction), reminds us of the power of imagination through the visual arts. Giles is an illustrator, so he creates images, reminding us of what movies do. The fact that the main character, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) lives above a movie theater and in which she later finds the missing Creature, also stresses the moviemaking experience. After Elisa fills her bathroom and turns it into a romantic aquarium for herself and the Creature (Doug Jones), the water spills into the theater below, and it’s as if our world outside the movie house and the story we are watching flow together, pointing to how stories told through imagination permeate our lives. The later dance sequence that Elisa creates in her dream looks like a Hollywood musical (except for the addition of the dancing Amphibian Man) and reminds us of the magic of the movies.
The story takes place in Baltimore in 1962, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as we hear President John F. Kennedy addressing the nation about that incident. The United States in this time period is paranoid concerning the threat of a foreign enemy, and the movie underscores how something as alien as the Creature can be perceived as dangerous. A large capsule filled with water and which contains the Amphibian Man arrives at the Occam Aerospace Research Center. The scientists there want to conduct experiments on the sea Creature. The movie is awash in aquatic imagery. Water is relevant since the Creature lives in it. Rain can fill the city’s canal, thus becoming a liberating force that eventually allows the creature to escape. It also can symbolize tears, as we feel sorrow for how badly others treat the Creature, Elisa, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), and Giles. Elisa masturbates in her bath each day, so water is associated with sexuality. Elisa and Zelda work as cleaning women at the research center. They wash away the filth and blood left by those working at the facility, men who soil the world with their cruel experiments on the Creature. The scientists miss the urinals and pee on the floors, as Zelda says, and despite their academic abilities, are ignorant of the fallout of what they do. So, the water used by the cleaning women is used as a purifier. Elisa was abandoned, found near a river, showing her very being is connected to water. Perhaps that is why she has an affinity with the Creature and secretly feeds him eggs (a life-giving symbol) and comforts him with music and communicates with sign language, instead of treating him like a monster. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the security man, only washes his hands before urinating (crudely doing so in front of Elisa and Zelda, showing no signs of decency towards what he considers lowly, defective workers) saying that cleaning both before and after would be a weakness of character. His statement shows him to be at odds with the purpose of water, which is also shown by how he abuses the Creature, and when he drinks only to take his pain pills. Strickland “fishhooks” the Russian scientist toward the end of the film, grabbing him by the wound in the man’s mouth, treating him like a caught fish, in a particularly sadistic act, displaying his evil nature. The dream sequence which involves Elisa and the Creature is suggestive of a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film entitled Follow the Fleet, the reference merging the imagination of the movies with the magical symbolism of water in the movie. At the end of the film, when Giles recites a poem, the words say that the lover can’t describe the shape of his lover, since her worth is boundless. The “shape of water” fits in with this romantic notion, as it is a sort of contradiction, since water has no shape, is mutable, and can be boundless, like love. The conclusion of the film shows that for Elisa, water is almost a symbol of her life-force, and her eventual salvation.
Strickland is the true “monster” mentioned in the prologue. His last name tells us that he follows and enforces the rules of society, and in his case, he does so with cruelty. The film is inspired by the movie The Creature from the Black Lagoon, only the monster here is to be admired and the human is the evil creature. Strickland’s rigidity was forged in the military where General Hoyt (Nick Searcy) tutored him in identifying an enemy and being merciless with it. He shocks the creature with a high voltage cattle prod, a sort of phallic symbol, symbolizing his twisted idea of what masculinity should be. When he has sex with his wife, he covers her mouth, silencing her, not wanting to hear any voice but his own. This scene fits in with why he makes sexual advances toward Elisa, she being mute. When he talks to the two cleaning women, he says he liked the conversation, but he did all the talking. He is not on the receiving end of any communication that may alter his narrow-minded ways. He is also sort of an Ahab character, who was driven by anger and not open to really understanding Moby Dick’s nature. The White Whale chewed off Ahab’s leg, setting off a quest to quench Ahab’s vengeance. Likewise, Strickland has some appendages, a few fingers, bitten off by the Creature he torments, which enrages Strickland. He says he hates the color green, and the Creature is greenish. But, he is persuaded to buy a teal Cadillac. It has fins in the back as part of its design and becomes symbolic of how Strickland is showing his desire for power over the water-based entity he has captured. However, his car is damaged when Giles drives the van which contains the freed Creature into the Cadillac, pointing to Strickland’s inability to hold onto his prize catch. Strickland is driven by his revulsion for anything that does not fit in with his understanding of the world order, with its standards based on superficiality, like the appearance of the Creature, or the color of an African American’s skin. When he talks about how the Creature is not made in God’s image, but that the deity appears more like Strickland than Zelda, he reveals his bigotry.
The story is set at a time when there was a great deal of intolerance toward those who are different (some may say similar to today). The movie has a great deal to do with bigotry and rejection of the outsider who does not adhere to the standards of an artificial norm. Eliza can’t speak, Giles is gay, and Zelda is an African American woman. (Zelda complains about how her husband doesn’t speak much, seeing this characteristic as a flaw, but when he does talk, he betrays her, Elisa and the Creature, showing that Elisa’s silence can be golden). The film subverts conventional thinking. The scientist, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is a Russian spy, and we would expect him to be the bad guy by following his superior’s orders to kill the Creature to thwart the American scientists. Instead, he follows his conscience and turns into a hero, helping Elisa save the creature while sacrificing himself in the process.
Giles, because he is an outsider, is Elisa’s best friend. He wants to get his job as an illustrator back, but we get the feeling that he was let go because of his sexual orientation. He wants to be romantic with the seemingly accepting Pie Guy (Morgan Kelley) at the restaurant where he continues to buy pies so he can see the man. When Giles touches the man’s hand, the Pie Guy pulls back in revulsion, and tells Giles it’s a “family” eatery, as if Giles is not fit to be around so-called “normal” people. He also refuses to serve an African American couple, showing the damage he inflicts on others who he rejects for being different from himself. Giles scolds him for his prejudicial action, and it is after this scene that his indignation concerning intolerance gives Giles the courage to help Elisa.
The Creature is a magical figure. Just like the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, despite his initially scary appearance, we discover that he is capable of love and caring, and Elisa turns out to be his Beauty. (Yes, he does attack Giles’s cat, and since I am a cat lover, that was tough to get over. The scene is sort of a flashback to the alien on the TV show Alf, who ate cats. But, the Creature here probably does so out of fear after the animal hisses and growls at him. He does make nice with the other cats after he realizes they will not harm him). After Elisa frees the Creature, who is becoming sick, she nurses him back to health in her bathtub, and follows Hoffstetler’s instructions on how to care for him. The two consummate their love for each other in the watery scene mentioned above. The Creature has healing and lethal abilities. He represents the rewarding of those who are accepting of diversity and who do not swim in the mainstream of society (pun intended here), and the punishing of those who practice hate. At the end, he kills the sadistic and murderous Strickland after the man repeatedly tortured him and shot Elisa. He heals the accidental wound that he inflicts on Giles and touches his head and grows hair, the man’s baldness being an element that undermined his self-confidence. He not only is capable of resurrection (like Christ), after Strickland shoots him, but brings Elisa back to life, transforming her neck scars (possibly inflicted in an early abusive episode? Or, was she an undeveloped sea creature already?) into gills (as opposed to what he did to Strickland’s throat, inflicting a deadly neck injury). His kiss makes Elisa a sea creature, too, and reminds us of Daryl Hannah’s mermaid kiss that transforms Tom Hanks’s character in the movie Splash. The Creature allows Elisa to live in another world where she can be free from the society that marginalizes her because she can’t speak. She can now live in the seemingly limitless vastness of the sea, free to express her individuality, and love and be loved.
The next film is No Country for Old Men.
Sunday, November 4, 2018
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Director Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film that is set during WWI is his first great work, and points to the techniques and themes he would later use in satiric masterpieces on men and war.
The film is shot in black and white which helps to stress the grim state of warfare and the fate of the soldiers made to fight for the questionable honor of their countries. The opening of the movie has the French national anthem playing in the background, but the drum pounding sounds are loud, almost brash, which suggests a patriotism that has been distorted. There is a voice-over narration which sets the scene. The action takes place in France in 1916, which is two years after the start of hostilities between France and Germany. The “battered” French pushed the Germans back from the Marne River after their quick advancement against the French Army. The front was stabilized and turned into trench warfare for “two grisly years,” with little change in the positions of the two military forces. The narrator says, “Successful attacks were measured in hundreds of yards, and paid for in lives, by hundreds of thousands.” From this statement, we see the futility and lethal nature of warfare, as large numbers of soldiers are sacrificed to gain small patches of land for their countries.
General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) arrives to meet with the local commander, General Paul Mireau (George Macready), who set up his headquarters in a sumptuous French chateau. Broulard comments on the lovely accommodations and Mireau says he tries to create a pleasant atmosphere in which to work. An ironic statement, considering his “work” involves sacrificing his men to kill others. Broulard’s statement about how he wishes he had Mireau’s taste in carpets adds to this feeling of a disconnect between the military brass and the men fighting the war. Broulard says they want to break through the German lines by capturing “the Anthill,” a German stronghold, which is key to the German defenses in the area. The insect name of the hill implies that it is something insignificant when measured against the loss of human life to capture it. Mireau says it’s out of the question and thinks trying to do it in a couple of days is absurd. He says that his division is in pieces now. Broulard tempts him by saying he would get another star and a promotion to a better assignment. Mireau says his reputation and commitment to his men are more important than his ambition. But this is all surface nobility, what he’s supposed to say as a father figure to his men. Once Broulard says maybe Mireau’s men aren’t capable of accomplishing the objective, it seems like a challenge and a questioning of Mireau’s leadership abilities. Mireau changes his stance that the mission is impossible and now says, “We just might do it.” As they speak, they walk around the large room, which emphasizes its majesty, but also shows how small these men are that have the power to send hundreds of thousands to their deaths.
We then get a shot through an opening in the earthen trenches, a far cry from the luxury of the chateau. Mireau walks among the men and his phony patriotic words about being “ready to kill more Germans,” and saying to a soldier that his mother must be “proud” of him, give little comfort to the serviceman whose face and voice appear and sound defeated from enduring the carnage. Mireau repeats the same lines as shells explode close by, the sounds of the death-dealing weapons deflating his presenting war as glorious and heroic. (IMDb points out that the title of the film comes from the line, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”). Mireau then comes to a soldier who doesn’t respond right away and seems confused about whether he has a wife. He then breaks down and says he won’t see his wife because he is going to get killed. Another soldier says he suffers from shell shock. Mireau, who has a scar on his face and at least once was in battle, shows how he has forgotten what war does to a man as he rose through the ranks when he says there’s “no such thing.” Mireau slaps the soldier and says the man is acting like a coward. He wants the man transferred out before he “infects” the others, characterizing the man’s suffering as a type of communicable disease that must be stopped, instead of understanding the nature of his condition. (This episode is echoed later in a similar scene in Patton). From a stylistic perspective, Kubrick uses the first of several narrow tracking shots as Mireau moves through the trench. The effect is claustrophobic, compared to the large, airy chateau room. Kubrick’s style here seems fresh, new, pointing to the future of experimentation in filmmaking.
Mireau visits Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas). The general acts like he doesn’t want to sit, saying he’s not comfortable behind a desk. He’s trying to come off as if he’s not a bureaucrat, but is still an active fighting man, which is just posing. Mireau says a soldier behind a desk is only worried about small things, like a mouse running up a soldier’s leg. Dax, preferring the mundane over the self-destructive nature of men who thirst for the deluded glory of war, and showing he is capable of wordplay, says, “If I had the choice between mice and Mausers, I think I’d take the mice every time.” They look through a scope to see the Anthill, and Mireau says has encountered more formidable objectives. His downplaying is invalidated by more shells exploding right next to them. He calls the objective “pregnable.” Mireau makes it sound as if a battle to take over a spot of land is similar to having a romantic conquest. Dax says Mireau’s speech is like saying something about “giving birth,” which is usually about producing life, but here war is the midwife delivering death. (Kubrick will brilliantly draw connections between the sexual urges of men and their desire to wage war in Dr. Strangelove). Mireau says Dax is clever, and we learn that Dax was a respected lawyer before entering the military, and this bit of information sets the stage for the trial to come later.
Dax had several casualties in a previous battle, but Mireau’s executive officer, Major Saint-Auban (Richard Anderson), says, with a condescending tone, their defeat was “a kind of animal thing,” because they acted like less evolved animals, subject to the herd instinct, bunching together, and making themselves vulnerable. Dax, understanding what a soldier experiences, counters by saying it was “kind of a human sort of thing,” to do, as their lives were threatened, and they sought protection. As characters speak, there is machine-gun fire in the background constantly, implying that there is no escape from danger here. Mireau, despite the extreme probability of defeat, says that Dax’s men will storm the Anthill the next day. The general coolly provides the percentages of men who will get killed by friendly fire, going through “No-Man’s-Land,” (the area between the two military forces), and as they approach the barbed wire defense lines. He acts like it’s their job to “absorb” shrapnel and gunfire so others can get to the goal. He sounds like an accountant spouting statistics involving numbers, not people. Dax says that half of his men will die. Mireau, not showing any empathy, says the losses are “regrettable,” but they will have obtained their objective, which is their duty. Dax quietly objects to not needing to have the French flag waved in front of him to make him charge into battle like a patriotic bull. Mireau says he doesn’t like the French Flag equated with a bullfighter’s cape. Dax says that Samuel Johnson had a different view of patriotism, calling it, “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” emphasizing how some put on a disguise and drape themselves in patriotic fervor to get what they want. Mireau threatens Dax, saying he needs his enthusiastic support, or else he must relieve him of his command. Dax, not wanting to abandon his men in the inevitable battle to come, says his soldiers can take the Anthill.
Three men are assigned to do reconnaissance in preparation for the assault. The men are weary and the leader, Lt. Roget (Wayne Morris) has drunk too much to adequately deal with the mission. He and the other men, Cpl. Phillipe Paris (Ralph Meeker) and Pvt. Lejeune (Kem Dibbs) look like ants, insects ruled by the hive, as they crawl toward the appropriately named Anthill. Drums in the background again reinforce the rhythm of troops marching into war. Dead bodies litter the battlefield, which looks like an open grave cemetery. Roget is a coward, and incompetent. He breaks up the night patrol, which is not a good idea, since it’s difficult to see comrades at night. Roget gets scared and runs off. Paris discovers Lejeune’s body which has steaming smoke emanating from it like he was burned in hellfire, which backs up the saying that “war is hell.” Back at the camp, Paris accuses Roget of cowardice which resulted in Lejeune’s death. Roget, only thinking of saving his own skin, threatens Paris with charges of insubordination and threatening a superior officer. Col. Dax shows up and Roget lies, saying that Lejeune started coughing, thus drawing the attention of the enemy and almost getting the other two killed.
Dax tells his men about the assault on the Anthill the next day. The fact that the weather prediction is for sun all day, making it easier to be seen by the enemy, shows how even the weather adds to the odds of success being against them. We never see any enemy soldiers, which implies that the French soldiers don’t really know who the enemy is, only that they are told by their superiors that they must kill these “others.” After we see how their own commanders treat them, the audience may well question if leaders such as Mireau and Broulard are just as lethal to soldiers as those shooting at them from the other side. Dax informs his men that they won’t receive backup until the end of the day, which demonstrates how the military is not concerned about its infantrymen and will not waste its artillery shells until after the task is accomplished to capture the Anthill. The men begin to accept that they will die in the battle and what’s left to talk about is whether it’s better to be killed by a bayonet, or a machine gun, the latter being quicker. One soldier argues that one must die, so people are more afraid of getting hurt and suffering rather than dying; it’s the manner of demise that we are afraid of. The other soldier says it doesn’t matter how one dies, everyone is afraid of dying. In the face of such a dire situation, all hope is lost, and morbid conversations are all that remain.
On the morning of the battle, the commanders drink cognac, toasting themselves as they hope for victory, but their lives are not at risk. The cut to the trenches shows a different atmosphere, one of dread, as explosions bombard the ears of the soldiers. They huddle against the sides of the trenches as Dax grimly walks among them. The wide-angle tracking shots suggest being caught in a hellish, inescapable maze. The infernal vision of the trenches contrasts with the opulence of the general’s chateau. There is a countdown as to when they will charge, like a countdown to death. Dax leads the assault. As he moves forward with his rallying whistle, men die all around him. Back at command headquarters, Mireau yells that the men are not advancing, and that they are cowards. He orders artillery fire on his own positions to spur his men forward, but which makes him the real enemy, a traitor to his own soldiers. The Battery Commander, Capt. Rousseau (John Stein), says he can’t carry out such a command unless the general takes official responsibility by writing and signing the order. Mireau relieves Rousseau of his command. Dax tries to get his men who sought refuge in the trenches to try again, but a dead body falls on him as he tries to climb out. It becomes clear to him that any further attempt is futile. Mireau rants and wants the soldiers to receive the death penalty for falling back into their own trenches. He says if the men “won’t face German bullets, they’ll face French ones.” So, the soldiers are in a deadly no-win situation, as they are just as threatened by their own side as they are by that of the enemy.
Back at the chateau, Mireau tells Broulard that he will have ten men from each company in his regiment tried for cowardice and they will receive the death penalty. Dax argues that the men were pinned down, and it wasn’t that they were refusing orders. Mireau says they have “skimmed milk” in their veins, not blood. Dax counters with, “it’s the reddist milk I’ve ever seen. My trenches are soaked with that red skimmed milk.” Dax is angry and says he’s not going to mince words. The outraged Mireau says he’ll place him under arrest. Broulard, who sounds reasonable and calm on the surface, but underneath is just as cruel as Mireau, tries to avoid giving Dax the opportunity to present a negative case against command orders. He says if brought to trial, Dax would be granted all sorts of latitude in presenting his case. Dax does say he didn’t mean to be insubordinate. However, he presses his argument that the men didn’t advance because they couldn’t. The verbally combative Mireau (it’s the only way he allows himself to fight) says that all of Dax’s men are “scum,” and the only way that it could be proven that they couldn’t advance would be if they were killed in the assault. That is quite a lethal argument, not allowing for any survivors. Mireau’s argument is one that most military backers make which is that individual soldiers can’t make any decisions, but must only follow orders, no matter how absurd those orders may be, to avoid chaos in the ranks.
At first Mireau wants a hundred soldiers tried. Dax says why not execute all of them, if they are all to blame. Broulard, always looking to avoid any bad publicity, rejects that idea as extreme. So, Dax is willing to sacrifice himself for his men, and says place the blame with the officer in charge, him. But Broulard doesn’t want to put any blame on officers, he being one in the command hierarchy, and says that would exacerbate the problem. He offers that twelve soldiers can be the scapegoats to take the symbolic blame for the failure to take the Anthill, making sure the General Staff is free from responsibility. When Mireau quibbles, Broulard says they shouldn’t haggle, which is exactly what they are doing, only it isn’t over the price of fruit, but men’s lives. Mireau dwindles the number to three soldiers, who will be picked by the troops. He sheds the blame for singling out specific men by forcing the soldiers to betray their own comrades. The soldiers are made into killers of their own colleagues. In essence they are doing the job of the enemy for them. Of course, it is ridiculous given how many retreated to zero in on only three, but for Dax that’s better than condemning many others. Dax requests that he be able to defend the men, which Broulard accepts, despite Mireau’s disappointment.
Mireau, while with Broulard, runs into Battery Commander Rousseau, and now tries to cover up his order to shell his own men. He says that Rousseau’s shells fell short in the fight, and instead of charging him with disobeying an order, Mireau says Rousseau should report back to his post for further orders. Broulard says the man should be disciplined for his miscalculations, but Mireau doesn’t want an inquiry that might reveal his twisted order, so he tells Broulard that he’ll just reassign the man. Afterwards, in private, behind Broulard’s back, Mireau says he’ll break Dax if he doesn’t drop his defense of the accused three men.
Dax tells three officers to pick one man each for trial. Dax meets with the men chosen. One, Pvt. Pierre Arnaud (Joe Turkel), was picked by a lottery, so arbitrary is the way of determining who might be executed. Paris was chosen by Roget because he confronted the lieutenant about his cowardice and getting Lejeune killed. So, the real coward is not put on trial. Another, Pvt. Ferol (Timothy Carey) who says he was marked as “socially undesirable,” so he was picked simply because others did not find him likable. Dax tells Paris that accusing Roget, an officer, of retribution will only get him in more hot water, and that despite the reasons for how they became defendants, they must deal with the accusations against them. Dax is a bit naive to believe he has a case as he advises the defendants to give simple statements, stick to the facts involving the battle, don’t argue or complain, and look the judges in the eyes.
The trial takes place in the chateau, a civilized, grand place, which is far removed from the cruel reality of the war, and which makes the soldiers who were caught up in the battle seem out of place in comparison. Dax complains that the full charges were not read, but the judges dismiss his complaint, saying they are simply accused of cowardly action. Already, it seems that the proper rules of a fair proceeding are dispensed with. The prosecutor, Saint-Auban, asks Ferol what he did, and will not hear his description of the situation, what he saw, or anything about the bullets zinging around him, thus not allowing for any true picture of the circumstances. Ferol said he advanced to “No-Man’s-Land,” and then retreated. The court isn’t even ready to give Dax a chance to question Ferol, and he must ask for permission. Dax says Ferol was with another private, so why did they not try to capture the Anthill. Ferol says he must be kidding, which is the point that Dax is making, that it was absurd for them to continue to attack. The chief magistrate (Peter Capell), however, doesn’t see the point, because he believes a soldier follows orders, no matter the circumstances.
Arnaud is next and testifies that he advanced until ordered to stop. He made it only to his own wire defenses. The prosecution gets him to say that he did not advance “many” meters before stopping. He is also asked if he urged others to move forward, to which Arnaud says everyone around him was either dead or wounded. Yet, the prosecutor again asks the absurd question in order to get his negative answer. Dax asks if his action was any different than the others, and Arnaud says no. Dax is trying to show how the choosing of these men to stand trial is unfair, saying that Arnaud was singled out based on a lottery, not because he was a coward. The judge says Arnaud had as much chance as any other to not be accused, which dispenses with the questionable point of having the lottery to start with, and zeroes in only on the fairness of the steps following the acceptance of the method of choosing who was tried. Dax wants to read into the record how Arnaud has no record of cowardice in his past, and in fact that he distinguished himself in battle. The judge says it’s irrelevant, that only his current behavior is on trial, which dispenses with the question as to whether it is valid to accuse this one man of cowardice out of all the others who retreated without considering what may distinguish him from the others not accused. It would be as if five men allegedly robbed a bank, and the prosecutor picked only one name out of a hat to determine who should stand trial, and then the judge threw out all the evidence that could show him as less guilty than the others.
When questioned, Paris says he never left the trenches. Dax asks him why he didn’t leave, and he says a man who was shot dead fell on him and knocked Paris out during the attack. The judge, presuming the man is guilty instead of innocent, takes over the prosecutor’s job, showing the court’s prejudice, by saying Paris has no witnesses to back him up, and the large scar on his forehead could have been self-inflicted afterwards, and not incurred from the falling man.
In his summation, the prosecutor says the attack on the Anthill was a “stain” on the nation’s honor, and there must be atonement by executing the guilty. Dax does not hold back, saying, “There are times that I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one such occasion.” He says he protests the authenticity of the court by not allowing him to present witnesses to support his arguments, and yet the prosecution offered no hard evidence or witnesses to support its case. He also complains that there were no written charges, and there was no recording of the proceedings. Dax reverses the prosecutor’s charge as to where dishonor really exists, and says not the battle, but the trial is a “stain” on the nation’s honor.
We don’t even hear a verdict. It is a foregone conclusion. Instead, we have a scene where the soldier in charge of the execution squad tells the men that they must carry out their orders, or they will be held responsible. Basically, there is the threat of putting guns to the heads of the men in the firing squad if they don’t shoot their weapons. Thus, there is no room for free choice in the military. The story presents the different reactions of the sentenced men in order to be realistic in depicting how soldiers might truly respond to such a situation. The condemned are given a last meal (like one really has an appetite before one’s own execution), but Ferol, after first taking some bites of roast duck, spits out the food, thinking they are being drugged into being docile for the firing squad. He still says Dax will think of something to get them freed. He is still in denial. Arnaud is angry and desperate. Paris wants to escape, but eventually realizes it’s hopeless.
The chaplain, Father Dupree (Emile Myer) comes to the cell and says that Dax sent him. The priest says that Dax found no men in charge wanted to be involved in the case, washing their hands, like Pontius Pilate, trying to absolve themselves of responsibility. Ferol, the reality crashing in on him, cries. Paris asks that the priest send his letter to his spouse, in which he says he tried to tell what happened, but concedes that there is no way to really explain the absurdity of what has occurred. Even though not religious, the priest gets Paris to make his confession. However, Arnaud says the priest’s line about how “Death comes to us all,” is a sanctimonious cliché. Arnuad says his religion is the wine he drinks, and mocks confession as he prays to the bottle. For him right now, religion is equated with the numbing effects of alcohol, both providing an escape from reality. The priest says God has the power to save, but Arnaud says there is no saving here. He hits the priest, and is ready to attack Paris, who hits him hard, causing a skull fracture. He is unconscious, and the priest says they wouldn’t execute him in this state. But, the doctor (Halder Hanson), who says the man might not last the night, and is supposed to care about the well-being of patients, says the execution will occur, so they should make sure that Arnaud is vertical for the firing squad. He adds that the general will want Arnaud conscious, so he can experience his execution. In other words, God forbid he should die before the military gets its scapegoat blood spilled, or that the commanders don’t get a chance to see the man face the horror of his own death.
The coward, Roget, is with Dax, saying how unfortunate the executions will be, and how no one is happy about them. Dax repeats his words, mocking Roget’s watered-down sense of being upset. Dax asks why he picked Paris? Roget responds with the explanation that somebody had to be picked. Dax knows that Roget did it to get rid of Paris and his accusations against Roget. As retribution, Dax says he needs to pick someone to head up the firing squad, so it will be Roget. He tells him that he has to tie the men to the posts, offer blindfolds, give the order to shoot the men, and then use his revolver to put a bullet in each man’s brain to ensure the execution. He wants the weak-willed Roget to feel the weight of his guilt for sending an innocent man accused of being a coward to his death, when it was Roget who was the one who was truly guilty of the charge. Rousseau enters saying he has information that bears on the trial. We know he is going to tell Dax about Mireau’s order to fire on his own troops, which shows that there are still honorable men in the military.
The next scene has a tracking shot, though in contrast to the horrific one in the trench, showing dancers at a military ball amid elegant surroundings and music as those present enjoy themselves while others suffer their fates at the hands of the privileged men in attendance. Broulard’s dance is interrupted because Dax wants to speak with him. The general admits that the number of casualties shows that Dax’s men may have made a good attempt to take the Anthill. Dax says if so, how can the execution of the men take place. Broulard admits that the General Staff may have known how the attack had a zero chance of success, but the commanders are subject to criticism from the press and elsewhere, and they have to put up a show of strength in the waging of the war. So, he says, “why should we have to bear any more criticism for failure than we have to.” Instead those in charge delegate the blame for being unsuccessful onto the almost anonymous innocent soldiers who have no power to fight the injustice they must endure. Broulard goes on to say that the executions boost morale because seeing someone else die is “fundamentally encouraging and stimulating,” motivational, one might say. He uses “morale” in a strange way here, because it is supposed to be a positive stimulant, not the negative reaction to fear of punishment invoked by lethal means. Broulard condescendingly says that the troops are “like children.” They crave discipline like from a father. Kubrick’s satiric voice is now heard, one to be sounded loudly in Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket, when Broulard says “one way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then,” hardly the equivalent of a parent’s grounding a child or issuing a stern reprimand. Not being able to believe his own ears, Dax asks, “Do you sincerely believe all the things you’ve just said?” Broulard looks at Dax askance, as if to say this is no time to be honest, because he must maintain this front to justify the despicable actions of turning the pursuit of victory into a public relations show. Dax then drops the bomb about Mireau ordering the firing on his own men. Dax gives him sworn statements attesting to Mireau’s orders. Dax says it will be a publicity nightmare (talking Broulard’s language). He argues that if the three soldiers are not executed, then it will show that the General Staff was acting justly in blaming Mireau for his failure to take the Anthill and recklessly endangering his own men as he desperately tried to deal with his failure. He then tried to shift his blame onto innocent soldiers by putting them on trial. Broulard excuses himself, making no promises.
The next day, the detail of men to carry out the execution show up where the prisoners are confined, so we know Broulard is not stopping the executions. Paris engages ironically in small talk with the sergeant in charge, but then breaks down, and says that he doesn’t want to die. The sergeant tells him to act like a man in his moment of death since he is not alone as many of them will, sadly, be joining him soon. The ceremony of execution is formal and staged in front of the large chateau. They carry Arnaud in a stretcher, making the scene even more pathetic. Ferol walks with the priest, but cries, saying he fought on the battlefield with the others, so why is he being singled out? He is scared, and the film tries to show how men might really feel and act at this moment, not in the John Wayne stoicism that men are told to exhibit, which is not authentic and allows them not to be genuine about their feelings. The priest tells Ferol he can’t question the ways of God, but it is like admitting to the man there is no reasonable explanation to resolve what is happening to Ferol and the other two. The sergeant pinches the cheek of Arnaud so he can be alert to be killed, conjuring up the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment.” Roget is there offering blindfolds, and apologizing to Paris, which is too little, too late. This scene somewhat resembles the three men at Christ’s crucifixion, since Jesus, like these soldiers, made a sacrifice so others would be spared condemnation. The drums sound like exaggerated heartbeats, that then cease as the weapons are fired.
The next scene ironically offsets the horror of the previous scene, as Broulard and Mireau eat in the chateau, with Mireau thanking Broulard for being there at the execution, supposedly to lend him support at such a grim scene. Mireau says, however, there was “splendor” in the scene, and Broulard says he had never seen this type of “affair” (a euphemism, like it was an entertainment event) handled better. Mireau says one worries that the condemned might spoil it with an unsightly display, again showing how appearances are more important than the awful truth of what is happening. Today we call it “optics.” Broulard had summoned Dax. Mireau tells Dax his men “died very well,” as he stuffs his mouth, still able to enjoy the pleasures of being a living general, who can easily dispense with those down the chain of command. Then Broulard casually brings up the order to attack Mireau’s own troops. Of course, Mireau denies it despite the evidence. Broulard says then he will be able to clear his name in an inquiry, since he doesn’t want this to become a public smear. Broulard did not stop the executions, not wanting Dax to think he could control him. But, he doesn’t want a scandal, so he makes Mireau a scapegoat, ironically just as Mireau made his men play the same part. Mireau tells Broulard that he was the only “innocent” man being harmed here, which is the opposite of what happened, the true innocent men having been put to death. Mireau is a murderer, (but so is his accomplice, Broulard), but he gets away without being executed. Mireau says that Broulard’s treachery was inflicted on “a soldier,” which is what he calls himself, but Mireau himself brought harm to the real soldiers in his command. After Mireau leaves, Broulard says to Dax it had to be done, because they can’t have fools running the show. What he’s really saying is Mirerau wasn’t smart in playing his role in the planned massacre. Broulard then offers Dax Mireau’s job. Dax bluntly asks if he wants him to tell Broulard where to shove the promotion. Broulard angrily says he better apologize. Dax, really apologizing to himself, says he apologizes for not “being entirely honest with you. I apologize for not revealing my true feelings. I apologize, sir (a sarcastic use of the title), for not telling you sooner that you’re a degenerate, sadistic old man, and you can go to hell before I apologize to you now or ever again.” Broulard smiles and says Dax is a disappointment. He thought he was like himself, just angling for himself to get Mireau’s command. Broulard now realizes that Dax is an idealist, and was sincere in his defense of the men, and was not after personal ambition. He sees Dax as naive as “the village idiot.” He tells him he “spoiled the keenness of your mind by wallowing in sentimentality.” Broulard says they have to win a war, and the men were shot because they didn’t fight to reach that objective. He insisted that Mireau be made to answer for the charges against him, and then asks where has he done anything wrong? Dax says if he doesn’t know the answer, then he pities him, for Broulard has no empathy or compassion for others.
The story ends with a scene at a tavern, where the host brings out a German woman. The French soldiers at first boo, then jeer, and objectify her sexually. But then she sings a melancholy song, as tears appear on her face. The soldiers listen, and then the men sing along, some joining her with their own tears. The German woman, supposedly representing the enemy, becomes a maternal symbol, singing to them a lullaby, as if trying to soothe the frightened children inside these men. They join in the desire for release from the anger and hatred that rips people apart. Outside, away from the womb-like comfort of the tavern, Dax is told that that they have been ordered back to the front. He says the men should be given a few more minutes of escape from the realities of war.
The next film is The Shape of Water.