Cormac McCarthy is an old crank. He may well be the William Faulkner of the 21st century, but he’s a crank. I read a lot of critics rhapsodise about No Country for Old Men when the hardback hit the stands, but precious few took note the book’s old-man-erisms: the crankiness, the misanthropy, the pessimistic certainty that only comes with old age – or youth. McCarthy’s world view is that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. In the Coen brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men, doom is like a blanky that Javier Bardem’s character trails with him. You can ignore it if you want; talk all you like about the modern Western, but this movie is only, only about death.
Sometimes reputation doesn’t tell you anything. Art-house movies are a classic example of this, especially when they’re old and no-one remembers the movie itself. The Seventh Seal is defined in the popular imagination by a static image of a man playing chess with Death. It’s an iconic image – dark, brooding, fantastical. But while it tells us what the movie is about, it doesn’t tell us what the movie is. After the chess match – what then? The action of The Seventh Seal recedes in the popular imagination, it becomes “a film about death” by Ingmar Bergman. Agonisingly long takes seem inevitable; people imagine a movie that’s austere, cerebral, opaque… I’m not about to say it isn’t. But while those qualities might describe the movie, they really belong to the movie’s reputation. The Seventh Seal is about death, but it doesn’t play out the way you think.