Cinematic Soulmates: Up and No Country for Old Men
Okay, I know you probably read the headline above and thought to yourself, “What the hell is this guy smoking?”, but hear me out. I can explain. See, when I started writing this column, one of the things I wanted to do was to try and find connections between movies that didn’t seem all that similar on the surface, but upon closer inspection actually shared some of the same themes and explored the same ideas. Most of the films I’ve focused on thus far have rather obvious similarities, but as I wrote in my article comparing Ran and Once Upon a Time in the West, “Sometimes, the connections between two films are obvious, but there are other times when a little digging is required to find a common thread that links them. This can often yield even greater rewards, as it can open up entirely new ways of looking at both films, and can unlock things that you didn’t even realize were there.” To that end, I deliberately set out to challenge myself by looking at two films that were so radically different from one another, the connections wouldn’t seem immediately obvious, but nonetheless ended up sharing a number of themes and ideas in common. Which brings us to this month’s article, in which I try to find some sort of connection between Up (2009) and No Country for Old Men (2007).
Because I’m feeling a bit lazy, I’m just going to go ahead and recycle the plot description for Up that I used when I wrote about it for my Great Moments in Cinema column. It goes a little something like this: Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Petersen, Up tells the story of Carl Fredericksen (Ed Asner), a crotchety and lonely old man who lost his wife, Ellie, and now lives by himself in the home they built together the day they got married. While Carl prefers to live in the past, the rest of the world is moving on without him, and all around him the city continues to grow and change. A wealthy land developer wants to buy Carl’s house so he can bulldoze it and put a shiny new skyscraper in its place, but Carl refuses to sell. However, when Carl accidentally runs afoul of the law, he is ordered to vacate the premises and move into a nursing home. Unwilling to accept his fate, Carl hatches a plan to relocate the entire house to Paradise Falls, the idyllic, untamed plateau in South America his beloved Ellie always dreamed of visiting. Thus, Carl attaches thousands of colorful balloons to the old house, and floats it high into the sky. Having pulled off his crazy scheme, Carl settles back into his favorite easy chair, content to sit back and relax while the house drifts lazily toward Paradise Falls. But then there is a knock on the door, and Carl is dismayed to learn that a young wilderness explorer named Russell (Jordan Nagai) has inadvertently stowed away, and now Carl has to end his trip prematurely and get the boy home safely. Unfortunately, they are blown off course by a wicked storm, and soon find themselves stranded just on the other side of Paradise Falls. Now, the mismatched pair must work together to get the house over to the other side, all while staying one step ahead of the crazy and suspicious Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), an adventurer who has been living in isolation on Paradise Falls for decades, and his army of talking dogs.
On the other side of the coin, we have Joel and Ethan Coen’s epic masterpiece, No Country for Old Men. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the film follows Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who is called in to investigate a series of murders perpetrated by the cold, calculating, and altogether evil Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a vicious hit man for hire who won’t stop until his target is stone cold dead. Chigurh’s latest target is Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a good ol’ boy who is simply trying to get by along with his loving young wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald). While out hunting one day, Llewelyn stumbles across the scene of a bloodbath in the middle of the desert, and finds a bag stuffed with over two million dollars in cash. Despite some initial wariness, Llewelyn feels like maybe his life has taken a turn for the better, at least until he realizes that the money belongs to a Mexican drug cartel, and they will do anything to get it back. Sending Carla Jean off to live with her overbearing mother, Llewelyn goes on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of both the drug runners, and the seemingly unstoppable and wholly deranged Chigurh, who also has his sights set on the money. All the while, Sheriff Bell oversees the investigation, and tries to come to terms with the sheer evil of the crimes he is now dealing with.
So what could these two very disparate films possibly have in common? Well, they each share a central theme, which basically boils down to the notion that the elderly feel there is no place for them in the world. In Up, Carl feels utterly lost and alone without his darling Ellie, and he believes that the world has passed him by. He simply cannot relate to the young people these days with their rap music and flash dancing, and rather than try to reach out and make a connection, he would simply rather tie a bunch of balloons to his house and fly it off to some mythical paradise that represents the dreams of his youth. Meanwhile, Sherriff Ed Tom Bell feels the world has become a much more violent and despicable place, and he just doesn’t understand it anymore. More to the point, he doesn’t want to understand it, and he pines for a day when people were nicer to one another, a world in which violent crimes didn’t happen on a disturbingly regular basis. Never mind that his scruffy but sage uncle sort of disabuses Bell of this pie-eyed notion, relating a tale from his youth in which a man was shot and left to die outside his own door. Bell still feels that the world around him is spiraling ever downward into a cesspool of disgusting brutality, and he feels so out of touch with it that he eventually retires from the police force and spends his days puttering around his wife’s horse ranch, haunted by symbolic dreams of his dead father. In his own way, Sheriff Bell has retreated to his own personal Paradise Falls, but learns that it is not a haven from his problems or his fears. Carl learns a similar lesson, but rather than resign himself to his fate as Ed Tom seems to, Carl instead chooses to make a new connection with Russell and Dug the talking dog, who become his new family and help to renew his faith in the world. This choice to focus on the good things that exist in the world is the one thing that truly separates the two men, who would no doubt otherwise find much to talk about if they ever wound up in the same coffeehouse.
In addition to the central theme, there are a handful of other similarities that exists between both films. For instance, by choosing to take the $2 million, Llewelyn attracts the attention of Chigurh, who pursues him with a single minded intensity. This is similar to the way in which Russell attracts the attention of Charles Muntz when he stumbles across the exotic bird that Muntz has been searching for his entire adult life. Muntz turns his attention to Carl and Russell, and will stop at nothing until he gets his hands on them and the bird (which Russell names Kevin). This brings us to another thread that runs through both films: the unrelenting nature of the villains. Chigurh is portrayed as an unstoppable engine of death and destruction, leaving a trail of blood and bodies in his wake as he hunts down Llewelyn and the cash. He kills anyone who gets in his way, including his own employers. Meanwhile, Muntz has spent decades searching for the legendary beast of Paradise Falls, and has sacrificed everything else in his life to find it. Furthermore, he has also done his share of killing, if the scene in which he shows Carl and Russell his collection of human skulls is any indication.
Finally, and this one is a admittedly a bit silly, but there is a bit of similarity between the characters of Dug, the excitable and adorable talking dog who is in search of a new master and ends up latching on to Carl, and Deputy Wendell, Sheriff Bell’s eager but less than intelligent sidekick portrayed by the great Garrett Dillahunt. They are both somewhat dim characters who are nevertheless utterly loyal to their masters (for lack of a better term). They may not solve the crime or save the day (though Dug comes closer to doing that on occasion), but they both manage to provide a bit of relief from the bleak lives of their put-upon partners, and that counts for something.
So, while it may be a bit of stretch to say that Up and No Country for Old Men are true cinematic soul mates, they nevertheless share a handful of similar themes and recurring motifs that at least provide something of a connection between the two of them. They are both exploring a similar idea, though they do so in decidedly different ways. Despite their aesthetic differences, though, the films do still manage to complement one another, and at the very least make for an interesting double feature.