In Alex Garland’s recent science fiction-series Devs (which is in my opinion as good a piece of SF as has ever been filmed) there is a central symbol of randomness—a moment of unpredicted rupture which tears through lives, opening narrative space for a discussion of determinism and free will. The symbol Garland chose is a car accident, taking place at a suburban intersection between residential streets: although it is not shown at the beginning of the series, it is the plot event from which the story proceeds. It is also an overt visual and conceptual homage to the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, in which a similar accident is the final event of the narrative. In a sense, Devs picks up where No Country For Old Men leaves off—not in terms of the story it tells, but as an exploration of the dialectic between fate and randomness as explanatory devices in our ongoing, futile struggle to account for our experience of the world.
Fate is a moral object to Javier Bardem’s implacable hitman, Anton Chigurh. For comprehensible professional reasons, he is determined that any promise he makes is kept, and that any defiance of his will is punished, but that obduracy is couched in terms that make him the embodiment not of determination, but of determinism. He is determined, and so are all the things that he does. His worldview does not admit the possibility of his own failure or obstruction: obstacles will appear, but he meets them with equanimity, performing unanaesthetised surgical procedures on himself when necessary to continue the pursuit of his goals. His function in the narrative is not that of a character, though he is characterised brilliantly (which won Bardem a best supporting actor Oscar), but of a force, a dimension, a boundary of the space in which the drama occurs. He is the ineluctable arrow of time, propelling the narrative to its inevitable terminus.
It would be reductive to assign all the characters similar allegorical functions, although Josh Brolin’s all-American individualist is the obvious embodiment of free will and opportunism. But the film, which is reputed to follow Cormac McCarthy’s book extremely closely, doesn’t come down on one side or other of the free-will/determinism debate. Instead it portrays both randomness and inevitability, two important facets of human experience, and amplifies the stakes for which they are played in our prosaic daily lives. The film is a thriller, a neo-noir neo-Western which presents its audience with a number of indulgent treats: guns, mysteries, tension, stylish dialogue, resourceful heroism, chases, shootouts and all the paraphernalia that has been a part of such movies since the 1930s. But because it is a Coen Brothers movie—and this is presumably why they adapted McCarthy’s book with almost no changes—all of that generic impedimenta is thrown into disarray and strewn across the narrative in ways that are clearly calculated to frustrate the expectations of the audience.
The off-hand, off-screen death of a major character, one who would be expected to ‘prevail’ in a conventional thriller, is one example. I wouldn’t necessarily describe the film as realistic (although it is certainly naturalistic, as more squeamish viewers may attest), but it has a powerful veracity in the ways that its characters experience events: as unpredictable, but seemingly inevitable. We make sense of the crazy shit that happens to us by telling ourselves that it was ‘meant to be’, and as long as it conforms to some reasonably broad definition of normality, we are usually convinced. For Tommy Lee Jones’s ageing sheriff, who has lived long enough to see a lot of changes, that sense is hard to hold onto—although the narrative makes a point of having an older relative tell him that Texas was always a violent place. Still, an important light is cast on the events portrayed by his regretful inability to find the hand of God at work in them.
I’d hesitate to summarise this film’s theses on the topics it encompasses. Indeed, I think it would be fair to say that it doesn’t have any. Like all Coen Brothers movies, it launches a variety of ideas and symbols into the air and lets the audience decide how they stick together—the writer-directors themselves are uninvested in those outcomes. Their interest, as ever, is in the scenes, the styles, the atmospheres and images that are produced in the process. For the audience, these emerge from the charisma and conviction with which the performances are delivered, by the three principals mentioned above, but also by anyone who is given significant screen time. Woody Harrelson is completely convincing as a shady hireling, and Kelly Macdonald, who doesn’t get nearly enough lines, gives a masterful performance as Josh Brolin’s wife.
Although it’s concerned with exciting criminal activities, and features larger-than-life characters, the movie perfectly nails the banal tenor of ordinary life, in which explanations and meanings are rarely forthcoming, and we all just stumble on from happenstance to accident. The feeling of inevitability exuded by certain experiences is usually retrospective, a function of the fact they actually happened, and that’s emphasised in the film’s conclusion, when the embodiment of doom becomes subject to the calamitous indifference of chance: when fate has a car crash.