In the future, when movie theaters are demolished and new films are directly uploaded to the “Netflix Presents The Visual Cortex!” parts of our brains, I’ll look back fondly on the truly indelible cinematic experiences of my life. Seeing Return Of The Jedi at age 5 while seated on my father’s lap. Running out of the theater the following year when that guy got his heart ripped out in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. My mom dragging me to When Harry Met Sally … at age 11 and then laughing hysterically as I winced during the fake orgasm scene. The time the manager had to admonish the audience for rowdiness during a drunken opening-night screening of Beavis & Butt-head Do America. Feeling so exhilarated by Kill Bill Vol. 1 that I had to go to back and see it three more times in the same week.
And then there was the unforgettable thrill, in the fall and early winter of 2007, of seeing two of the greatest films of the 21st century, No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, in quick succession. It’s rare to see a movie that you immediately feel is one of the most brilliant films you’ve ever encountered; this is the only instance where it occurred for me twice in the same moviegoing season. (Perhaps if I had been lucky enough to be alive in the early ’70s I’d have a higher batting average in this regard.) These films aren’t just masterpieces, they feel like they were made to be important, generation-defining masterpieces. They are stark, stern, handsome pictures filled with philosophical monologues about man’s brutality to man. And I refer specifically to men here — women are virtually absent from both movies, save for Kelly Macdonald’s impossibly warm performance in No Country For Old Men. But they endure as statements about supremely ambitious bad dudes, made by supremely ambitious sensitive dudes. In his review for the Village Voice, critic Scott Foundas called No Country For Old Men “a film of great, enveloping gravitas,” and that can certainly also be applied to There Will Be Blood. They demand, and earn, reverence.
It might have been a coincidence, but this release-date synchronicity has conspired to make No Country Old Men and There Will Be Blood seem like one long movie, a revisionist Western about a man who finds great riches in the desert, and spends the rest of his life paying for it. Like an epic riff on The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, a direct influence on Paul Thomas Anderson and an implicit one on the Coen Brothers, they form a mournful, darkly comic elegy for the death of the American dream and a doom-laden warning about the unavoidable degradations of late capitalism. If you want to know how the West of No Country For Old Men became an amoral, hollowed-out wasteland lacking in all meaning and vitality, watch There Will Be Blood. If you’re curious about where the sociopathic greed and mirthless competition depicted in There Will Be Blood ultimately leads, watch No Country For Old Men. They are two sides of the same coin, tossed by a spiteful drunk who wants to drink your milkshake, friendo.
In my memory, it feels like I saw them for the first time within a few weeks of each other. In reality, they came out about two months apart. No Country For Old Men arrived in theaters a few weeks before Thanksgiving, and There Will Be Blood went into wide release the day after Christmas. But I trust my memory anyway. They will forever belong on the same double-feature. (I did see them both at the same theater — shout-out to The Oriental on Milwaukee’s east side.)
Almost immediately, they were compared. In his review of There Will Be Blood, Roger Ebert went out of his way to say that he was unsure of its greatness, due in part to its proximity to No Country For Old Men, a “perfect” film in his estimation. “There Will Be Blood is not perfect,” Ebert concluded, “and in its imperfections (its unbending characters, its lack of women or any reflection of ordinary society, its ending, its relentlessness) we may see its reach exceeding its grasp.”
At the time, No Country For Old Men seemed to be held in slightly better esteem, beating There Will Be Blood at the Oscars in the Best Picture category and winning out in Film Comment’s annual critics poll. (Over at Metacritic, There Will Be Blood ranks a few points higher than No Country For Old Men, though both films trail Ratatouille.) But in retrospect, There Will Be Blood has come out on top. When the BBC asked 177 critics from around the world to pick the best films of the 21st century, There Will Be Blood came in third (behind David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. and Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love) while No Country For Old Men landed at number 10.
The following year, There Will Be Blood topped the New York Times‘ list of the 21st century’s greatest films, while No Country For Old Men didn’t even make the cut. Whereas Ebert had once praised No Country‘s perfection, Times critic Manohla Dargis’ noted the film’s “dexterity” while admitting that she was “more moved and intrigued” by two other Coen brothers films released this century, A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis. As for There Will Be Blood, she praised it as a “21st century masterpiece” that “offers a profound and deeply unsettling vision of the country.” The No Country For Old Men vs. There Will Be Blood debate had now come full-circle — the terse discipline of the former had been replaced as an ideal by the expansive messiness of the latter.
So, which one is better? Will I be accused of wishy-washiness if I argue that this is the wrong way to watch these two particular films? That it might, in fact, be better to inquire why they still feel linked a decade later?
From the beginning, viewers projected allegorical meaning on to both films. Critic Jim Emerson suggested that the resonance of No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood — along with another 2007 classic, Zodiac — reflected “the country’s moral ambivalence about being mired in two bloody, confusing guerrilla wars on the other side of the world.” Much like the disillusioned “New Hollywood” films of the ’70s that arrived in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood were perceived by some as nihilistic statements about the corruption, selfishness, and detached violence of the George W. Bush years. Perhaps that’s why No Country For Old Men — in which the bad guy is less a flesh-and-blood man that an existential, free-floating evil spirit who cannot be stopped — rang a bit truer for people in 2007, even if the film’s nostalgia for “old-timers” who presided over a simpler, safer world years ago is dispelled by Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), the monstrous turn-of-the-century Old West pioneer at the center of There Will Be Blood.
Ten years later, many of us look back on 2007 with our sense of misplaced nostalgia. The failings of the Bush years surely were profound, but at least they were grounded in some sense of “normal” political dishonesty and malfeasance. What we’re dealing with now seems so much frightening and unpredictable — the whims of a wealthy narcissist with an insatiable hunger for power and revenge, a man who has “built up his hatreds over the years, little by little,” and as a result wants no one else to succeed, not even his own countrymen.
There Will Be Blood satisfies as a dispiriting portrait of a mean, petty bastard who finally gets his comeuppance in quintessentially American fashion — it ends for him in a Nixonian bowling alley, while in the midst of an Elvis-like chemical stupor, his mental and emotional disintegration accelerated by his vast wealth and profound isolation, a spiritual death by over-consumption. The ending of There Will Be Blood presumes the existence of karma, or some other innate sense of right and wrong, in which a lifetime of cruelty and arrogance eventually leads to something resembling punishment. It’s more comforting than the conclusion of No Country For Old Men, in which Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) probably murders Carla Jean (Macdonald), and then walks away from a car accident — his apparent karmic retribution thwarted — to go off and commit more bad acts. And yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, Anton’s fate is more reminiscent of political and cultural reality as it stands in 2017 for the truly treacherous.
After revisiting both films this week, I’m even less inclined to pick one over the other. But I was able to glean some hope from these otherwise pitch-black parables. It helps if you view these films not as stories about Plainview and Chigurh, but rather Plainview’s son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), and Sheriff Bell, Chigurh’s reluctant pursuer played by Tommy Lee Jones. Viewed like that, No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood are no longer movies about violent alpha-males who unrepentantly cause destruction, but rather films about learning to accept the departure of larger-than-life patriarchs, either by death (for Bell) or estrangement (for H.W.). What is the story of 2017 if not the struggle to reckon with our own beloved, if deeply flawed, father figures? On this note, the movies once again are in harmony. They might be apocalyptic, but they don’t rule out the possibility of a morning after.