Monday, July 21, 2008
WHY CAN'T THE BAD GUYS LOSE or HOW TO TALK PAST ONE ANOTHER IN THREE STEPS
In this post, I'm going to attempt to do two things: 1) discuss two seemingly dissimilar movies (No Country for Old Men and The Dark Knight, and 2) offer up a theory of why in both of these movies, the bad guys keep getting away. Here's a hint: it has nothing to do with the bad guys being really slippery or the good guys being inept.
The Dark Knight, by the way, was freaking awesome, and I'll try to talk about the movie without actually talking about it, for the sake of the three readers of this blog who still haven't seen it.
In No Country, you have the story of Anton Chigur, an unstoppable force of evil who takes delight in being the purveyor of death, as evidenced by the near-orgasmic look on his face in his first kill. It's no small stretch to see Heath Ledger's take on the Joker in a similar vein; he gleefully describes the difference between using knives and guns, noting that the knives are just more exquisite. Two films, two villans who have looked over the edge of the abyss and found only their only reflection looking back. Both villans are described as living by their own internal code of right and wrong, and as such, find absolute joy in living out that chaos and destruction.
This is the genius of these characters: it's not that they have chosen to live out the 'bad' end of society's spectrums, embracing the illegal end of the law; for both Joker and Anton Chigur, there is no law. All that is left, having broken past the bounds of right and wrong, lawful and unlawful, is sheer aesthetics: the delicious and exquisite embrace of pleasure for its own sake. At one point, the Joker remarks to Batman that he could never kill him. Why?
"You're just too much fun."
The problem that both Batman and the sheriff of No Country suffer from is the same: they operate within a framework of good and evil that their villans simply do not recognize. Seeing it in the chaos wrought by the Joker is easy: Batman's heroics are characterized as stretching the limits of what constitutes pursuing the 'good'. As he taps citizens cell phones and risks the lives of the innocent, Batman strains the limits of being a good guy, doing what he does for the sake of the city; the Joker's crimes, however, have no logic of right and wrong and so for all Batman's straining the limits of moral behavior, the Joker moves along unphased. In No Country, we see the same behavior, as the sheriff and his crew struggle to make sense of why Chigur is chasing after the money, when for Chigur, it isn't really even about the money; in the closing monologue, the sheriff describes a dream of his father, and how in it, he loses money, but experiences no real remorse over this loss: for him, the money central to the narrative of No Country bears no meaning for the sheriff, a man of the land and of family. This, of course, is where the sheriff fundamentally misunderstands Chigur: Chigur doesn't care about the cash either, but about pursuing his own internal code, which demands blood at every turn, from the innocent and guilty alike.
And so, two heroes, and two complete lacks of understanding. In both cases, it is not that the hero tries to overcome evil and lacks the will to do it; evil is simply playing a game that good knows nothing about, and so, the good guys come off looking befuddled and helpless, grasping at straws, making heroic gestures that completely miss the point. Because for Chigur and the Joker, the hero's willingness to go beyond the normalcy of good is not what is required; for either to be stopped, good and evil have to be discarded altogether, and they must be defeated by being more beautiful than their opponent, by performing an act so altogether haunting that their opponent respects them, not as a moral superior, but as a true artist.
It does no good extending our own definitions of good to match the excesses of evil, for evil plays by a logic that has no respect for the rules; it goes up chutes and turns over ladders, examining lines on the board as no more solid than light beams streaming through the dust. And so, approaches to evil must not seek to match their excesses, but operate from within the core strength of goodness--exercising virtue and true justice-- and in doing so, goodness bears the scourges of evil in order to overcome it--not by force, but by suffering.