Themes and analysis of No Country for Old Men (film)
The 2007 film No Country for Old Men, written for the screen and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, and based on the 2005 novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, contained many themes such as principle, higher laws and fate. It also covered religious themes linked to McCarthy’s Catholicism, and other topics such as Greek tragedy and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.
The Coen Brothers were influenced by the cinematic style of past directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Sam Peckinpah, in films like Strangers on a Train (1951), Psycho (1960), The Wild Bunch (1969) and The Getaway (1972). The character of Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem, is believed to act according to certain rules and methods. He uses a unique set of weapons, has a distinguished haircut, and personifies such characters as a ghost, the Devil or the Grim Reaper.
The film further highlights cultural perceptions of ethnicity, race and gender roles, and explores the West Texas landscape. Some critics also believe that the film is a metaphor for the entropy of contemporary America, in the post 9/11 and post Iraq War era. A number of critics had elaborated on the style and themes reflected in the ‘coin-toss’ scene, where Anton Chigurh rests the fate of a gas station proprietor on the flip of a coin, and the final scene, where Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones, reminisces with his wife about two dreams he had the night before involving his late father.
- 1 Synopsis
- 2 Principle, higher laws and fate
- 3 Degenerate times, evolving evil, and aging anxieties
- 4 The hunter and the hunted
- 5 Religion and ethics
- 6 Greek tragedy
- 7 Nihilism and philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche
- 8 Cinematic influences
- 9 Anton Chigurh
- 9.1 Rules: Invulnerability and moral consistency
- 9.2 Methods: The violent act of seeing and politics of visibility
- 9.3 Weapons of choice: New type of killer and death of the Old West
- 9.4 Haircut: Intriguing characteristic
- 9.5 Characterization
- 10 The coin-toss scene
- 11 Cultural perceptions: Ethnicity, race and gender roles
- 12 West Texas: Landscape, settings and history
- 13 Metaphor for contemporary America
- 14 Film ending and final scene
- 15 Notes
- 16 References
- 17 Bibliography
The 1980 West Texas borderlands is the bleak setting for a story that weaves the paths of three men: one, an existentially bemused Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) trying to make sense of the mayhem that comes from being square in the path of the cross border drug trade; another, a tough Vietnam Vet, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who skirts between morality and amorality in, first, trying to gain advantage and later in merely trying to survive; the third man, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is a ruthless killer whose actions seem to be motivated by a mix of psychotic fury and probabilistic chance.
While hunting in the desert, Llewellyn Moss finds the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad: bodies of dead men and pit-bulls are strewn between several, apparently abandoned pickup trucks. One of the trucks contains a large pile of what appears to be heroin. One man is still alive begging for 'agua' (Spanish for water). Moss tracks another man, involved in the shootout but who died some distance away, to a satchel that is revealed to contain a lot of money. Moss takes the money.
Disturbed by the thought of the thirsty survivor Moss returns to the scene of the crime with a jug of water. There he is spotted by persons unknown and is chased. He escapes.
What ensues is a chase that tests the moral sense of everybody involved: Moss, in increasingly desperate straits begins to sense that the rugged toughness that saw him through the Vietnam War might not be enough; Moss's wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) is torn between her loyalty and her desire to protect her husband and the vague sense that he might be overmatched, a thought and a stance that is alien to her; Chigurh who, when given the opportunity, either kills indiscriminately or leaves the choice to a coin toss; and Sheriff Bell increasingly appalled at the depravity and beginning to feel a pained helplessness in the face of it. Throughout all of this another gang is after the drugs and the money and another hitman, Carson Wells, (Woody Harrelson) is tasked with 'cleaning up the mess' and also retrieving the money.
Alternately narrating and soliliquizing the story and the themes, Sheriff Bell continually meets circumstances or actions on the part of other characters that either serve to underline or upend his moral sense, without clear construction or pattern... that is to say, randomly: a theme that mirrors the chance happenstance the killer Chigurh embraces.
Both Sheriff Bell and the assassin Chigurh, separately, nearly catch up to Moss. But they are late and Moss is killed in a shootout with the other gang. While Bell visits the morgue and has coffee with the local sheriff, Chigurh visits the hotel room Moss was staying in when Moss was killed, blows out the lock, and takes the money from the air vent, leaving the tell-tale dime behind.
Principle, higher laws and fate
Richard Gillmore states that "each of [the main characters in the film] is expressing a twofold understanding about the world. On the one hand, there is an inevitability, a sense that the world goes on its way and that it does not have much to do with our human desires and concerns. On the other hand there is a sense that we contribute to our own inevitable futures with every decision we make, with every act we commit, that what is perhaps hardest to live with is not the inevitability that is associated with future we are looking at that is the result of what we have done in the past. In biblical language, we reap what we sow." Llewellyn Moss Josh Brolin wavers between amoral behavior such as taking money that doesn't belong to him, refusing to involve the police and placing his family in grave danger, and moral acts of courage such as returning to the scene of the shootout to give a dying man water, separating himself from his family and refusing the advances of a comely woman at a motel demonstrating a flexibility of principle, as well as desire to escape consequences and a fierce will to survive at all costs . Anton Chigurh Javier Bardem is the most amoral, killing those who stand in his way and ruling that a coin toss decides others' fate. The third man, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell believes himself to be moral, but feels overmatched, however stalwart he might personally be, against the depravity that surrounds and threatens to overwhelm him.
Gillmore further states that "I read the sudden and violent crash that occurs right after Chigurh leaves the house where Carla Jean was staying as a sign that there are higher laws yet in the universe than Chigurh's principle. As Chigurh is to Carla Jean, so are the higher laws to Chigurh. What the nature of those higher laws is I am not sure, but Chigurh's principle is no defense against them. Since these laws are higher and counter to Chigurh's principles, there is some reason to hope that they are also more sympathetic to human wishes and desires than Chigurh is, but is a small hope indeed." The fate of the three men at the end of the movie can be read in that way also: Moss is dead at the hands of anonymous gunmen; Chigurh limps away after retrieving the money, a stunted and lone predator; Sheriff Bell is comfortably retired with a loving and supportive wife, dreaming of his long dead father's efforts to go ahead of him and fix a fire.
Enda McCaffrey focuses on the theme of 'fate'. "The absence of an authentic value system in Chigurh is further intimated in the riposte 'You don't have to do this', first used by Carson Wells in his exchange with Chigurh and repeated in the scene between Carla [Jean] and Chigurh at the end of the film," he said. "Both scenes highlight Chigurh's ethical wasteland. In both exchanges, Chigurh does not respond to the moral reproaches implied by the riposte; to do so would be a tacit acknowledgment of the secular morality he opposes ... In requesting Carson and Carla to choose life or death on the toss of a coin, Chigurh is not just deferring choice to the realms of gratuity but he is also handing responsibility over to 'fate' in an act of bad faith that prevents him from taking responsibility for his own ethical choices."
Degenerate times, evolving evil, and aging anxieties
William J. Devlin analyzes the opening narrative of "the traditional western hero portrayed by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Bell relates the following about himself and his life in the West: 'I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty five [years old]. Hard to believe. Grandfather was a lawman. Father too ... You can't help but compare yourself against the old-timers. Can't help but wonder how they would've operated these times.' Here, Bell acknowledges that he is part of a tradition – and not simply that of generations of lawmen in his family ... But it is now 1980, and times have changed in at least three significant ways. First, the western frontier is no longer characterized as the 'Wild West,' where the land is unpopulated and unsettled, power-hungry tycoons dominate the innocent, and legal order is yet to be established. Second, though the 'Wild West' has been 'tamed' in one respect, the modern West has a new breed of lawlessness, [where] Bell explains in his opening narrative '... The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure.' ... Third, the hero of the West has grown old. Bell is no longer a young, twenty-five-years-old sheriff, ready and willing to act accordingly to his moral duties ... Instead, he is now weary and cautious: '... But I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard.' ... Though the western frontier has been tamed so that towns have been settled and cities have developed, a new kind of wildness has now spread and ravaged the world. Bell, part of the tradition of the 'old-timers' ... is confused as to how to handle this new immoral wildfire."
William Luhr focuses on the experiences of the retiring lawman played by Tommy Lee Jones at the beginning of the film. "[He] feels that the evil surrounding him has metastasized beyond his comprehension and that he can no longer even pretend that he can deal productively with it," he said. "On one level, such comments reflect anxieties shared by many older people who feel that their world is passing them by, that the securities upon which they have built their lives are becoming ignored or invalidated. But [David Fincher's 1995 film] Seven, No Country for Old Men and other recent neo-noirs indicate that more is involved, that a new era of evil is emerging. Such films partake of a millennial sensibility, a sense that the world is entering a phase so degenerate that traditional agents of law, stability, and continuity can no longer cope with, or even understand, it. Such films offer no hope for a viable future, only the remote possibility of individual detachment from it all."
The hunter and the hunted
Scott Foundas stresses that "'Hold still' –it's what the hunters say to the hunted in the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men ... [when] Vietnam vet now middle-aged welder on a weekend winter's hunting trip Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) [is] whispering optimistically to the antelope he spies through his rifle sight while perched on the crest of a West Texas ridge ... [and when] the steely assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) instructing the terrified motorist to whose skull he has just placed the lethal end of a pressurized cattle gun." Foundas claims that "in the end, everyone in No Country for Old Men is both hunter and hunted, members of some endangered species trying to forestall their extinction. Even Anton Chigurh, it turns out, bleeds when wounded."
Judie Newman also spoke of the interchangeability of the hunter and the hunted. "The most striking moments in McCarthy's fiction," she says, "are those points where prey suddenly becomes predator, and vice versa, as destiny and evolutionary progress apparently reverse. In No Country for Old Men, Llewelyn Moss is hunting antelope when he makes a fatal error of judgment and becomes a target to Anton Chigurh, the avenger of a drugs cartel, whose weapon of choice, a cattle gun, implies that men are cattle, animals bound for slaughter. Wells, a freelance investigator, is sent to track Moss but ends up himself tracked and killed by Chigurh, as hunter becomes hunted."
Religion and ethics
Theological beliefs and McCarthy's Catholicism
Enda McCaffrey explains that "Moss lives and experiences his alienation in his action, choices and decisions. We are first introduced to him as a nomad in the desert, an eponymous drifter who lives off the land and his own self-acquired skill in shooting pronghorn; his Vietnam blues and trailer lifestyle, coupled with his newfound 'profession' as welder, bear witness to a washed-up life on the fringe. Moss and his actions embody acausality; an 'unsuccessful' rifle shot leads illogically and ironically to blood to reveal the presence of [a limping dog], which in turn leads Moss to a drug bust and the fated loot. Ironically, it is his return to the scene of the drug bust the next day (a move mirrored later in the film in the sheriff's fated return to the scene of the crime – both further demonstrations of the triumph of inconsequentiality over sense and reason) that proves significant in the film's acausal trajectory, in Moss' 'ethical' profile and in his existentialist self-projection." [Author Douglas] McFarland ... explains Moss' return to help the lone survivor as a moral choice, motivated by compassion and an obligation to pre-established values."
Alan Noble finds in Sheriff Bell's dream at the end of the film "a hope for redemption outside of mankind". "By the film's end," he says, "Bell seems to come to the conclusion that the evil that he has witness[ed] is unstoppable, and so he retires from his job as sheriff. This hopelessness concerning man's ability to confront evil leads Bell to comment to his uncle, 'I always thought when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn't.' Quotes like these have caused some critics to mistakenly label the film as nihilistic. The strikingly bleak cinematography, the lack of any music, the unrelenting violence, the absence of a show-down/confrontation between good and evil, and the sheriff's retirement all lead the viewer to conclude that humans are ultimately and unchangeably evil. But the Coens (like McCarthy) leave us with a glimmer of hope in the form of a dream Bell relates to his wife. Going beyond nihilism, No Country 's final scene (if properly understood) gives viewers a hope for redemption outside of mankind. While I would not recommend this film to everyone, for those who are not uncomfortable with violence and profanity, No Country compellingly exposes mankind's profound need for salvation outside of itself."
Jeffrey Overstreet adds that "we've never seen the Coens descend so far into the abyss of human depravity. Their primary endeavor—from Blood Simple to Miller's Crossing, from O Brother Where Art Thou? to The Big Lebowski—has always been to ask if the human heart might discover grace in a world spoiled by greed, murder, and folly. Mining the brittle stone of McCarthy's nihilistic narrative, the Coens can't find any trace of hope ... 'You can't stop what's coming,' a prophetic old man tells Sheriff Bell. And Bell, so proud of his heritage of lawmen, is miserable at his insufficiency. 'It ain't all waitin' on you,' the old man cautions him. 'That's vanity.' And we're left facing questions that haunt so many great works of art: Who is the world waiting on? If God exists, why doesn't he intervene to prevent such apocalyptic violence? Whatever the answers might be, No Country for Old Men suggests that truth, justice, and the American way are not enough to save us from the dark and deadly winds of change."
Tim Cawkwell highlights certain events depicted in the film and more predominantly in the novel that reflect attachment of characters to religious values. "This story set in the southern USA might have been about religious nuttery (end times, rapture and all)," he says, "but it is as much about the absence of religion. Towards the end, Bell muses that he had hoped to find God as he got older but hadn't. Very close to the end (p. 304), his wife Loretta, his moral center and comfort (and who is largely marginalized in the film), is reading the Book of Revelation. 'Any time I got to talking about how things are,' says Bell, 'she'll find something in the bible.' Bell says something quizzical about Revelation (the nuttiest book in the New Testament), and Loretta parries it without McCarthy allowing us to mock her. It is as if he is nostalgic for the possibilities of religious belief, and for the common values religion creates, as for a country before it was occupied by alien forces. All of value that remains is a sense of marital fidelity (Moss declining to go to the brothel because he's married – p. 85), of decency (Bell's campaigning for the position of sheriff was 'hard' because he had to be, but he 'tried to be fair' – p. 90), of manners (Bell removes his hat on his visit to Carla Jean in Odessa – p. 125; he opens the car door for his wife – p. 68), and of respect for religion ('no cussing' – p. 67; no 'making light of the dead' – p. 44)."
William Deresiewicz of The Nation elaborates on the religious upbringing and practices of author Cormac McCarthy. "Whether McCarthy remains a practicing Catholic is not known, he says, “(he is famously jealous of biographical detail), but he had a Catholic upbringing, and his work is driven by a Catholic sense of sin and evil. This is not to say that his novels articulate an identifiable theology. While they are obsessed with good and evil, sin and suffering, fate and death, their imaginative power and philosophical depth are founded on the agonized perplexity with which they approach such questions. Call it Catholicism minus revelation. McCarthy has a hundred ways of describing a sunset, but this signature image isn't deployed for mere decoration. Darkness is his master metaphor, the nightly reminder of our indefeasible ignorance. Daylight, knowledge and life are alike the briefest of intrusions on an eternal abyss. So while his work is saturated with religious emotion, it asserts no belief in God, redemption, heaven or hell, only in what the world of experience, he suggests, incessantly demonstrates: the wickedness of human nature and the overwhelming power of evil. Goodness exists in McCarthy's world, and it is beautiful, but it is also innocent, fragile and weak. Goodness exists, but only where evil has yet to hunt it out ... [McCarthy's style is] supremely audacious, biblical not only in its rhythms but in the right it claims to speak of the highest things in the highest language. No one since Faulkner has attempted this kind of thing, but McCarthy's daring surpasses even his master's, for his authorial voice seems designed to fill the place of an absent God." 
Crime of theft and variant ethical perceptions
Alison Young states that "in terms of plot, No Country for Old Men centers on one man's theft of two million dollars from a drug deal, and the pursuit that follows on from his theft (and which results in his death). The film is a chase movie, but it is also, unusually, both a crime movie and a detective story. Although ostensibly a criminal, Llewelyn Moss is the film’s hero, an Everyman figure who commits a crime in unusual circumstances, and the spectator is thus able to view his theft as understandable rather than reprehensible."
Stacey Peebles adds that "... later that night [after the theft occurred], he makes the decision to return to the circle of cars to give water to the wounded man who had begged him for it. He admits to Carla Jean that he's about to do something 'dumber'n hell', but that he has to do it anyway. Moss has demonstrated his opportunism as well as his caution, and here he shows himself to be principled, even though putting those principles into action conflicts with his highly developed pragmatism."
Roger D. Hodge of Harper's Magazine believes that leaving the money behind "would be unthinkable". He adds that "it is not only the old people in this novel who have lost their way. Moss takes the money he finds in the desert with the full knowledge that in doing so he will forfeit all that he loves. And yet he cannot leave it. Leaving it would be unthinkable; the world in which he finds himself has foreclosed that possibility. That world, of course, is precisely the world of the thriller, and it could very well be that the impoverished world of the thriller is the one in which we find ourselves as well."
Richard Gilmore explains that the "evil man is of little interest to either Cormac McCarthy, the author of the novel, No Country for Old Men, or to Joel and Ethan Coen, the makers of the movie. What is of interest to McCarthy and the Coens is rather what happens when a good, but flawed, man encounters this force of nature in human guise. In this sense, No Country for Old Men recapitulates the patterns of ancient Greek tragedy. As in ancient Greek tragedy, a good but flawed man will become enmeshed in events that will prove to be his ruin. It will be what is good in him as much as what is flawed that will engage him in these events, and his ruin will be complete. Oedipus is a kind of paradigm of the way the ancient tragedies begin and end. It is because Oedipus is so smart, self-confident, competent, and passionate that he ascends to the throne of Thebes and rules as a good and noble king. It is also because Oedipus is so smart, self-confident, competent, and passionate that he is able to complete the mysterious task sent [to] him by the Oracle of Delphi and to find the murderer of the previous King of Thebes, King Laius. Unfortunately, as it will turn out, it is Oedipus himself who killed the previous king, as predicted by the same Oracle of Delphi long ago ... Llewelyn Moss is similarly smart, self-confident, competent, and passionate. His intelligence and competence lead him to the 'last man standing' (as Moss puts it to the man he finds dying in a truck, saying, 'there must've been one') and to the money. His compassion compels him to return to the site of the drug deal gone bad to bring water to the dying man who asked for it. It is not clear whether or not Chigurh or the Mexicans would have ever picked up the transponder signals if he had not gone back, but it is certainly clear that once they have found Moss and his truck at the scene, they will be on his trail wherever he goes. A fate similar to Oedipus' disastrous ruin awaits Llewelyn Moss: both he and his young wife will be brutally murdered; all that he has will be lost ... the ancient Greek tragedies were meant to serve [the] same function, that is, warning about especially human temptations that would lead to disaster."
Gilmore adds that "a key element of the Greek tragedy is the idea of the protagonist's hamartia, the fatal flaw. Hamartia is a term derived from archery and literally means 'off the mark', signifying that one's aim has been slightly off. The protagonist of a classic Greek tragedy must be essentially a good person, a person whose intentions are good but who does not really or fully know himself or herself. And this lack of self-knowledge is mixed with a bit of hubris, which puts off one's aim. This is quite literally suggested of Llewelyn at the beginning of the movie when he is hunting for antelope and ends up shooting one in the hindquarters. In a sense, the entire movie is prefigured in this scene. It is a scene that shows Llewelyn to be highly competent, an expert in hunting ... but the scene also shows his ultimate hubris, literally and figuratively. Instead of killing the antelope, he only wounds it, the worst possible outcome for a responsible hunter ... His experience is a Greek tragedy in miniature."
Gilmore additionally explains that "there really are no easterners in No Country for Old Men. They are all, basically, westerners: tough, stoical, doers instead of talkers. There is one overarching wisdom that seems to be shared by Llewelyn, the old man Ellis (Barry Corbin), Bell, and even Anton Chigurh. It has to do with a sort of fatalism, which is very characteristic, I might add, of Greek tragedy. This fatalism is not quite a mechanistic inevitability, but it is definitely based on the idea that you are what you do and that what you have done cannot be undone, what decisions you have made cannot be unmade, and, finally, that what you do, what you have decided, will have its natural consequences in the world, and there is no avoiding or evading those consequences."
Philip C. DiMare explains that "in the stories of ancient Greeks, tragedy was marked by the unfolding of fate, brought down on the protagonist because of one tragic flaw, the moral weakness within the hero that allowed the gods to have their way with him. Sometimes the gods acted directly. At other times the Furies would be unleashed to wreak their terrible and implacable vengeance. Set against a hardscrabble landscape, and richly cruel in its depiction of fate, the harsh tragedy of the 2007 film, No Country for Old Men, is like one of those ancient tales brought to life in the American Southwest. As in ancient tragedy, the hero brings his fate on himself, in this case by performing an act of mercy, and as in Greek tragedy his fate is personified by a frighteningly unstoppable personal Fury," while Lewis Beale states that "on one level, No Country for Old Men, although set in the present day, plays like a classic western, one filled with quirky characters (a Coen trademark) and numerous shootouts. But it's also a Greek tragedy of sorts, dealing with issues like greed and the increasing brutalization of social interaction. Thanks to Roger Deakins' fine photography, it's also a portrait of an out-of-the-way corner of the U.S. (southwestern Texas, along the Mexican border) invaded by outside forces it cannot possibly control."
Relating the character of Sheriff Bell to the literature of Greek tragedies, Greg Grooms observes that "the old man of the title is Sherriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who tries in vain to protect Moss and arrest Chigurh, but in the end serves only as a sort of Greek chorus, observing the tragedy as it unfolds and commenting on it. It's tempting to see Sheriff Bell as nothing more than an angry old man unhappy with the world and his place in it," while Gary Carden adds that "Sheriff Bell doesn't have a major role ... He seems to be a mere bystander — a law officer who makes a belated appearance at the crime scene, picks up a few spent shells and makes occasional observations like the Chorus in a Greek tragedy."
Nihilism and philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche
Claude Mangion believes that "the character of Llewelyn Moss reminds us of the frailty and futility of the human will as it struggles to overcome meaninglessness. It was Nietzsche who pointed out, in [On] the Genealogy of Morals . . . that it is not suffering per se that bothers humans, but pointless suffering. Humans are ready to die – as testified by the Christian martyrs – if they believe there is a point to their death, if their death can be re-configured within a larger framework of meaning, a metanarrative. It seems that a necessary feature of the human condition is that the world within which persons live is meaningful, that there is a metanarrative to give coherence [to] the seemingly random sequence of events. But what if this assumption is mistaken? What if, rather than meaning, order and reason, we find the forces of chaos, meaningless-ness and irrationality at work? Llewelyn Moss is confronted with this situation in the form of the capriciousness and ruthlessness of Chigurh."
William J. Devlin notices that "in No Country for Old Men, without the final showdown between the hero and the villain, good cannot triumph. And so we see that the good either is killed (Llewelyn) or runs away (Bell). But does this mean that evil triumphs over good? Not necessarily. Bad guys, such as Wells and Chigurh's boss, are killed, but it takes an even worse person to do it. Though that may seem to suggest that in the end evil wins, the film ultimately suggests something even worse: what is good and what is bad is all a matter of chance. Whether it is the attendant who lives by correctly calling the coin flip, Carla Jean who dies, Bell who ends up not confronting Chigurh, or Chigurh getting into a car accident–all of these events occurred by some degree of chance. This suggests that the question of good versus bad is no longer a significant question since these values can no longer be applied to individuals . . . . This leads to nihilism in the western frontier. As Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) explains, nihilism occurs when one infers 'that there is no meaning at all'; 'everything lacks meaning.' According to nihilism, life and the world are meaningless because there are no inherent structure, stability, order, or framework to them. As such, all the values that were once held to be significant are now seen as empty. Or as Nietzsche puts it, 'the biggest values devalue themselves.'
We can see the sense of nihilism opening up toward the end of No Country for Old Men … Ellis, an old man in a wheelchair (which we can infer was caused by a criminal who shot him as deputy), learns that his shooter died in prison. When Bell asks him, hypothetically, what he would have done if the criminal had been released, Ellis cynically responds, 'Nothin'. Wouldn't be no point to it.' He explains to Bell, 'All the time you spend tryin' to get back what's been took from you, there's more goin' out the door. After a while you just try and get a tourniquet on it.' That is, Ellis suggests that there is no meaning, no value, to our actions in life. Acting according to moral justifications of justice, duty, courage, and so on is pointless. Further, as Bell explains his feelings of being 'overmatched,' he is disturbed by the thought that God hasn't helped him: 'I always thought when I got older God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn't.' For Bell, God's presence in his life would help him to see his life as meaningful; without God, Bell falls into nihilism and is discouraged. Finally, Ellis summarizes the situation to Bell: 'What you got ain't nothing new. This country is hard on people. . . . You can't stop what's comin'.' . . . As such, the West is now a world where there is no rhyme or reason, and those within it are never held accountable. It has become a country without meaning and without any inherent value. The country, in short, has collapsed into nihilism."
Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980)
In his review of the film, Critic Tony Macklin advised that "when you see No Country for Old Men, leave your preconceptions at home. But bring your Alfred Hitchcock lenses. They're useful. Most of No Country for Old Men is fraught with haphazard violence and tension. Some of the suspenseful sequences are excruciating. The master Hitchcock would be proud. I very much admire Alfred Hitchcock, who was able to get audiences to participate, and then he would manipulate them, mislead them, fool them.
No Country for Old Men is like the Coens taking Hitch out into the west. Their film is full of Hitchcockian touches and themes. Major scenes occur in a motel reminiscent of the Bates Motel. There are scenes in a hotel on the stairs and in a room that whisper Hitch. A character looks on the soles of his shoes for traces of blood. Llewelyn Moss – shades of Marion Crane. Is the money a red herring? Birds seem symbolic in both movies."
Dennis Lim of The New York Times states that "there is at least one sequence in No Country for Old Men that could be termed Hitchcockian in its virtuosic deployment of sound. Holed up in a hotel room, Mr. Brolin's character awaits the arrival of his pursuer, Chigurh. He hears a distant noise. He calls the lobby. The rings are audible through the handset and, faintly, from downstairs. No one answers. Footsteps pad down the hall. The beeps of Chigurh's tracking device increase in frequency. Then there is a series of soft squeaks — only when the sliver of light under the door vanishes is it clear that a light bulb has been carefully unscrewed."
Critic James Berardinelli stated that "the Coens know how a thing or two about pacing, and it's relentless here. The story is full of unexpected twists and switchbacks, and opportunities for the audience to gear down and take a breath are few and far between. Like Alfred Hitchcock with Psycho, the filmmakers don't want viewers to become too comfortable with any of the characters – they might not be around for long."
Karel Segers complained that "when the Coen brothers allowed the tragic climax of No Country for Old Men to unfold offscreen, a large part of the audience hated them for it. I was among them. Not only did I feel robbed of a character we had come to love over the course of the movie, I also felt robbed of what could have been a powerful dramatic scene. In Frenzy, Alfred Hitchcock uses a similar technique – but it works a treat. We see the killer and his next victim enter a house, climb the stairs to an apartment on the second floor. Once at the top, instead of staying with them, the camera retreats down the stairs and back onto the street. For a moment, nothing happens and we are left with the merchants and trades people outside. Only later in the film do we get to see the aftermath of the murder."
Website TopTenz.net elaborated that the MacGuffin was "originally popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, [and] refers to the object in a movie that drives the action. In most cases, what the MacGuffin actually is [is] irrelevant. It exists solely to get the characters moving and drive the plot forward. The only real requirement is that it must be something people are willing to cheat, lie, steal, kill, or be killed for. As long as it sounds plausible, it'll work. Still, despite the very loose qualifications for a MacGuffin, great films have used some pretty memorable ones." The website ranked "The $2 Million" in No Country for Old Men at No. 5 of the Top 10 McGuffins, just behind the 'military secrets' in Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, where the list was topped with 'Rosebud' from the film Citizen Kane. "You can't have a list of MacGuffins without at least one example from the master, Alfred Hitchcock. Almost all of his films have a MacGuffin of some sort at their core," the Website added. "It's the $2 million MacGuffin that keeps them coming. Suddenly rich and just smart enough to realize how much trouble he's in, Moss flees with the money even though he knows that whoever left it won't give it up that easily. Unfortunately for him, the men who lost the cash hire Anton Chigurh, the most psychotic man ever to get a bad haircut. The money drives Moss to more and more desperate acts, just as it drives Chigurh to kill and creep his way closer and closer. In the end, the movie becomes about how far ahead of Chigurh Moss can stay and the real prize isn't the money, it's the chance to breathe another day. Classic Coen Brothers and classic MacGuffin."
Angelo Restivo believes that "the MacGuffin ... is the object in the Hitchcock universe that has the status of object-a: it is that 'nothing', which could be any object whatever, around which the narrative is constructed and which mobilizes the desires and actions of all the characters (the uranium-filled wine bottles of Notorious, for example). A second type of object – epitomized by the ring in Shadow of a Doubt and the cigarette lighter in Strangers on a Train (1951) – functions differently and with more complexity. It is an object of exchange that binds the characters together into a Symbolic contract."
Ryan P. Doom explains that 'MacGuffins' were previously employed by the Coens in other films. "After all," he says, "the disc [CD containing 'intelligence' found on the gym floor in the Coens' film Burn After Reading (2008)], 'the raw intelligence', echoes the money in both Fargo and No Country for Old Men–the disc is nothing more than a MacGuffin."
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Alan Linic perceives that "the use of the quintessential 'creep character' is the major similarity between both Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train and the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men. In both films, the antagonist is abnormal and bloodthirsty. Strangers on a Train features a psychopathic stalker by the name of Bruno Anthony. His obsession with the tennis-playing protagonist Guy Haines results in a delusion that the two of them are going to commit murders for each other, which is the subject of the movie's conflict. As time goes on, Bruno reaches the conclusion that Guy is going to need a little bit of persuasion to get the job done, so he starts following him while threatening to ruin Guy, (something he eventually almost accomplishes). When he gets his hands around someone's neck, he goes into an almost trancelike state, and the focus of the movie, as portrayed by Hitchcock is concentrated in his eyes (Chandler & Ormonde).
The ghostlike murderer of No Country for Old Men, Anton Chigurh, is an equally (perhaps even more) disturbing character. His goal of obtaining the money from a drug deal gone wrong becomes quickly obscured by his obsession with finding Llewelyn Moss. During a scene where Chigurh strangles a policeman, the focus shifts exclusively to Chigurh's eyes, as he seems to be in some kind of euphoric trance. Another thing to consider is that both characters have a peculiar twisted idea of morality, which allows them to commit the crimes they do. Anton Chigurh kills because of a sense of entitlement, and excuse his actions on chance. Bruno Anthony, only does people wrong when he thinks they need to be 'disposed of,' or when they've 'crossed' him.
Another parallel is the female character removed from the story due to her knowledge of what's going on. In Strangers, that character is Barbara Morton, a close friend of Guy Haines who resembles his murdered wife. In No Country for Old Men, Carla [Jean] Moss, Llewelyn's wife, plays the role of a character who understands that the situation her husband is in is worse than he imagines. Both women are smarter than the men around them give them credit for, and are not the subject of sexual desire within the timeline of their respective films. Barbara's sister is the more attractive of the siblings and she is pursued by men in Strangers; Moss, in spite of loving his wife, appears to show more interest in a woman tanning by a hotel swimming pool than [he] does for his wife at any point in the film.
Another element in common both films have is the characterization of both Sheriff Bell in No Country and Captain Turly of Strangers. Both lawmen follow the protagonists as they dig their way into deeper and deeper dangers; and despite being suspicious of the actions of their respective wards, they try to protect them from situations they openly admit to not fully understanding. Both men have jumpy assistants, and neither one feels adequate as a policeman by the end of his film. Even though both make it to the scene of the showdown between the protagonist and the antagonist, neither is capable of taking sufficient action to save the protagonist.
Finally, the protagonists of the two films also bear a bit of a resemblance in terms of character background and development. They both make interestingly similar, somewhat self-destructive choices; Moss's decision to continue his fight and flee tactics with Chigurh (despite several close calls), his refusal to accept help until it's too late, and his motivation to reap the benefits of his accident while avoiding the consequences are very similar to the lengths Guy Haines goes to in order to try to shake both the police and Bruno off of him.
Both films make excellent use of inanimate plot drivers such as: the lighter and the glasses in Strangers and the suitcase [satchel] and the pneumatic piston-gun of No Country. These props make them just as central to the action as many of the other characters in the movies, turning into 'inanimate characters' so to speak. The glasses and suitcase are central to the plot and work like 'motivators'; they drive the antagonists of either movie to do criminal things. The lighter, represents Bruno's delusional perception of his relationship with Guy. Anton's unusual weapon of choice appears as an omen of bad tidings, presaging the violence which abounds in the movie. By incorporating these props to the most intense moments of the films, both Hitchcock and the Coen brothers make the film as [much] 'about the [objects] as they are about two men'.
Basically, the two films rely on archetypal characters of the same caste to tell their stories, although the circumstances surrounding the characters are different, so that these common archetypal characters are forced to react to their situations in different ways. Despite appearing to be two different types of film, (a western/crime and a thriller/crime) the parallels between the main characters and the antagonist[s] characters are so evident one would conclude Hitchcock and [the Coens] grew their main characters in the same type of garden."
Critic Tony Macklin argues that "the ending of No Country for Old Men may remind one of the end of Psycho, where after the frenzy of violence, we had a sheriff ruminating. That originally was disconcerting to audiences in 1960. Calm after the storm. We want the storm. No Country for Old Men withholds the rain. But there is plenty of disturbing thunder and dangerous lightning."
Website MoviesPlanet.com observes similarities such as "Llewelyn Moss on the lam with stolen money hides in an out of the way motel. Anton Chigurh murders a hotel guest through a shower curtain. The framing of Carson Wells climbing the hotel staircase echoes the shot of Detective Milton Arbogast climbing the stairs of the Bates home just before he is murdered."
Author Alec Nevala-Lee finds similarities between the two films. "Psycho is full of unforgettable images," he says, "but two of the greatest are often overlooked. The first is that oddly melancholy moment when, from over Janet Leigh's shoulder, we see the bathroom door open through the translucent shower curtain, the camera silently holding for a few seconds on the silhouette of the figure beyond, before the curtain is drawn aside and all hell breaks loose. The second, from the great staircase scene, is the shot of the door opening at the top of the steps, also in silence, shortly before Martin Balsam's detective meets his startling end. Neither shot draws attention to itself, but both are utterly essential: for a few agonizing seconds, we know exactly what's going to happen next, and that sense of dread heightens our terror and horror at what immediately follows.
"At their most effective, the tools of dread seem so simple that it's easy to underestimate the craft required. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King observes that the scariest image in the world is that of a closed door. Very true—but only if the pieces of the story have been properly assembled in advance, so that we're afraid to find out what might be on the other side. I've rarely had as hair-raising an experience at the movies as the first time I saw No Country for Old Men, but its greatest image, like those in Psycho, is one of the simplest: a closed hotel room door, seen from inside, with light visible underneath, which is suddenly blocked off by the shadow of a man in the hallway. Nothing could be simpler—except that film has already established the characters of the men both inside and outside the room, and without that essential groundwork, the tension wouldn’t be nearly as unbearable."
Sam Peckinpah (1925–1984)
John Patterson of The Guardian states that "No Country for Old Men proves that the Coens' technical abilities, and their feel for a landscape-based western classicism reminiscent of Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah, are matched by few living directors. Peckinpah is the director whose themes and concerns – masculinity and self-preservation among them – sit foremost in the mind when reading the McCarthy novel and when seeing the movie, which is a faithful, almost verbatim adaptation.
The brothers are amenable to the comparison. Ethan: 'We were aware of the basic link just by virtue of the setting, the south-west, and this very male aspect of the story. Hard men in the south-west shooting each other – that's definitely Sam Peckinpah's thing. We were aware of those similarities, certainly.' Joel: 'Especially in the section of the movie where Woody Harrelson makes an appearance. He reminded us of a Peckinpah character in a certain way.' Ethan: 'Yeah, you show a hard-on guy in a western-cut suit and it already looks like a Peckinpah movie. Same kind of shorthand.'"
Michael Sragow of The Baltimore Sun states that "the keenest observation about the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men came from its ace cinematographer, Roger Deakins. He said from the moment he read the script he saw it as a Sam Peckinpah movie. Today's over-hyped cinematic breakthroughs have become impersonal, like the digitized universe of [the film] Beowulf. But No Country for Old Men renews the legacy of [novelist Norman] Mailer and Peckinpah, who extended the reach and freedom and redefined the positive and negative limits of the male character in American literature and movies."
In the introduction to their book The Philosophy of the Western, editors Jennifer L. McMahon and B. Steve Csaki refer to an essay by William J. Devlin. "As Devlin notes," they state, "whereas classic westerns tend to have easily recognizable heroes and villains, the moral situation depicted in contemporary westerns is rarely so clear. Influenced by figures like Peckinpah, Devlin argues, contemporary westerns not only incorporate moral ambiguity, they are also considerably more cynical than their classic predecessors. Devlin argues that this is nowhere more evident than in No Country for Old Men, a dystopic western that not only offers contemporary audiences a new sort of villain, but utterly confounds audience expectations by failing to have the hero rescue the community from the risk personified by the villain."
Asbjorn Gronstad argues that "some of the pundits who voice the most incendiary opposition tend to use Peckinpah's treatment of violence as an analytical benchmark for an appraisal of the cinema of Tarantino and his contemporaries like Coen, Stone, Roger Avary, and Tony Scott, 'One great difference between [Peckinpah] and his imitators,' [author Paul] Seydor holds, 'lies in how deeply and passionately felt his violence is, and how securely it is tied to character, to milieu, to story – in a word to meaning.'"(Seydor, Paul: 'Sam Peckinpah', Sight and Sound, 1995, p. 20)
Peter Hanson highlighted the Coens' affiliation with Peckinpah's work. "Some would argue Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) is a minor masterpiece of closely observed cowboy morality," he said, "and the picture benefits from interesting performances by Kris Kristofferson (as Billy the Kid) and James Coburn (as his friend-turned-assassin, Pat Garrett). The movie also inspired Bob Dylan's powerful song Knockin' on Heaven's Door, which was created for the soundtrack. However, Pat Garrett went through several editing iterations, to the point that it's murky which currently available version comes closest to Peckinpah's intentions. Why not use his flawed movie as a rough draft for something great? Just think what the Coen brothers could do with this one."
The Wild Bunch (1969)
John Lingan of Slant Magazine assures that Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian changed the western's "visual language" and influenced, among other films, the Coens' No Country for Old Men. "In the late 1960s," Lingan says, "Polish national and California transplant Czeslaw Milosz wrote an insightful little essay called On the Western, where he argued that the most quintessentially American cinematic genre had yet to truly express the full terror of its subject and setting:
'Besides the skillful shot, the hand barely leaving the hip, there is also the wound which might fester for weeks on end, the fever, the stink of the sweat-drenched body, the bed of filthy rags, the urine, the excrement, but this the Western never shows. One is not supposed to think past the colorful costumes to tormenting lice itch, feet rubbed bloody, all the misery of men's and women's bodies thrown together, trying to survive when the rules they had learned no longer counted for much.'
On the Western was published in book form the same year that Sam Peckinpah released The Wild Bunch, thus irreversibly changing the visual language with which westerns address the very horrors that Milosz enumerated ... By 1985, when the cinematic genre seemed all but spent, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian came along to close the coffin lid. [It] represents a kind of western-to-end-all-westerns ... projecting Peckinpah violence on a Biblical scale.
Their influence has been prodigious; nowadays, with few exceptions, the western exists to remind us of the grimness and loss it once ignored. The historical ones (Unforgiven, There Will Be Blood, The Proposition) are awash in blood-matted facial hair and sun-baked sadism, while the contemporary stories (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, No Country for Old Men, the underrated Down in the Valley) show us a landscape of strip malls and fast food restaurants that nevertheless hosts a continuing tradition of lawlessness and existential terror."
Ken Hada observes that "in so-called postmodern westerns that employ antiheroes or intentionally subvert the notion of honor, films such as The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969), Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992), and No Country for Old Men (Ethan and Joel Coen, 2007), the notion of absolute honor is either parodied or reduced to complete ineffectiveness by certain important characters."
Neutral magazine stated that "at the very outset of No Country for Old Men, western inspired imagery is explicitly foregrounded through use of panoramic wide shots of the distinctive landscape of the Texas/Mexico border, a standard generic setting for countless American westerns in the 1950s/60s. The anxious persona of Sheriff Bell however, played by Tommy Lee Jones, links the film with the darker more cynical revisionist westerns of the kind made infamous by Sam Peckinpah with The Wild Bunch (1969), and later popularised by Clint Eastwood with Unforgiven (1992). Bell is very much presented as a man from a time gone by and displays a number of character traits reminiscent of the quintessential western Sheriff. One scene sees him riding on horseback out into the desert with a deputy in tow, despite the 1980s setting of the film."
Graham Fuller observes that "in the Westerns Sam Peckinpah directed in the '60s and '70s, he colonized the southern border states and Mexico, using them as the barren backdrop for his self-conscious meditations on obsolescent masculine codes, the receding of frontier culture with the spread of capitalism, and the violence of the Western itself. Joel and Ethan Coen moved into that territory with their 1984 debut Blood Simple, a venomous Texan noir in which every two-lane blacktop seemed like a road to perdition.
"The Coens return to this unyielding landscape with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. A laconic, carnage-filled followup to the author's Border Trilogy, the novel is so suffused with nostalgic regret for the vanished West—though not John Ford's sentimentalized version—that Peckinpah himself would have coveted it as a movie property, along with McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
"There's no retributive justice at all, just the memories and fears of hardworking good old boys, some of whom come up against [Anton] Chigurh—a neighborly storekeeper, a chatty chicken farmer. Bell spends time with a sympathetic fellow sheriff and his Uncle Ellis, a crippled lawman (Barry Corbin) living in squalor, who quietly reminds him that there's nothing new about the violence that has demoralized Bell, and that the cleaner country he recalls never existed. It's the same mythic West that Peckinpah began to unpeel in Ride the High Country and obliterated in The Wild Bunch."
Mark Busby relates Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch to the literature of Cormac McCarthy. "The most significant Southwestern film at the end of the 1960s was The Wild Bunch," he says, "which draws carefully from a specific historical era. Peckinpah worked with the western genre throughout his tempestuous career. The Wild Bunch foreshadows the novels of Cormac McCarthy by focusing on a specific historical moment along the border between Texas and Mexico. Set in 1913, the film suggests how the older world is about to be irrevocably changed against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution, the legislated morality of Prohibition, the looming World War I conflict, the disappearance of the older world of horses and outlaws, and concomitant imminent industrial transformation of the Southwest."
Andrew Horton assures that the Coens and Sam Peckinpah were both influenced at one point by the literature of Homer, where he states that the Coens adapted O Brother, Where Art Thou? from the Odyssey and Peckinpah adapted The Wild Bunch from the Iliad. "Sam Peckinpah claimed that his much-celebrated 1960s revisionist western, The Wild Bunch (1969)," he said, "was based in part on Homer's The Iliad. At the time almost nobody took him seriously, but the fact is that he was speaking the truth. Although the Coens have more openly acknowledged the ancient poet, Peckinpah's strongly 'American' tale becomes all the richer in theme, content, and development because of influences that a long-dead Greek has provided an American filmmaker."
In March 2012, Stephen Lambrechts of website IGN.com chose the "cat and mouse gun battle between Llewelyn Moss and Anton Chigurh" in No Country for Old Men and the finale of Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch among the "The 20 Greatest Gunfights Ever". He called the Coens' work "cold, brutal and fantastic," while he described The Wild Bunch finale as "a large scale bloodbath that just keeps on giving."
The Getaway (1972)
John Patterson of The Guardian stresses that "the Coen brothers' grim and marvellous No Country for Old Men marries Cormac McCarthy to the pessimistic Peckinpah of The Getaway and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and fills the morally ambiguous Tex-Mex border country with psychopaths, drug money and burnt-out SUVs."
Moreover, The Guardian 's Philip French observes that "the basic plot [of No Country for Old Men] is fairly familiar, having been used in three classic pictures of the Seventies also set in the American south-west – Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway, Don Siegel's Charley Varrick and Karel Reisz's Dog Soldiers – as well as a later one, A Simple Plan, made in Minnesota by an early associate of the Coens, Sam Raimi. This scenario sees a man in sudden, unexpected possession of a case packed with money or drugs that belongs to ruthless gangsters and a lethal cross-country game of cat-and-mouse ensues ... From brutal start to ironic finish the movie's tension is constant. The action sequences – chases, shootouts, killings – are handled with great verve and directness. I recall at a 1972 preview of Peckinpah's The Getaway a studio executive talking about 'fun violence'. The violence here, though exciting, isn't fun. The Coens show us the pain of gunshot wounds and reality of death."
A number of authors have drawn similarities between No Country for Old Men and Peckinpah's The Getaway (1972). George Hickman suggests that both movies can play as a double feature, where "you get the contemplative, artistic approach of No Country for Old Men, with the more immediately gratifying pacing and instantly satisfying conclusion of The Getaway."
"They're both set in mostly the same region of Texas," Hickman says, "with one shot towards the beginning of the Seventies, and the other set about eight years later. Aside from a certain amount of similar local color, semi analogous characters and plot developments crop up in each. Both feature a tall, dark, and relentless killer with a history of murdering his colleagues. Both feature a bag full of money that falls into the hands of a bystander. Both also have scenes at a general store with oddly specific purchases, exploding cars used as diversions, and a shootout at an El Paso Motel. Both were also seen as departures for the stylistically distinct filmmakers behind them, though for different reasons.
As an interesting contrast, they were both adapted from books, but the young Walter Hill's screenplay for The Getaway was significantly less faithful to Jim Thompson's pulp novel than Joel and Ethan Coen's screenplay for No Country for Old Men, which plays more like a condensed version of Cormac McCarthy's critically acclaimed prose. In a lot of ways, The Getaway is the movie that some people felt No Country for Old Men promised but refused to deliver. Much like the Coen Brothers' underrated Intolerable Cruelty, The Getaway is often viewed as a lesser Peckinpah film, a commercial vehicle made to help bolster his directing career.
McCoy's (Steve McQueen) first words in the film are delivered to his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw), from behind the prison glass. 'Get to Benyon. Tell him I'm for sale. His price. Do it now.' As we see her visit Benyon (Ben Johnson) in a barely buttoned blouse and with the distinct lack of a bra, it's clear that it won't just be her husband paying that price. Benyon's office is occupied by men of ill repute that are all a type of ugly that Hollywood has never been good at capturing. Much like the Coen Brothers, Peckinpah would cast locals and people whose faces were as expressive as their words, giving a certain depth to characters with only seconds of screen time.
The next morning Doc (McQueen) goes to meet Benyon and to find out the nature of his debt. There's a small town bank that needs robbing. Doc is running the job, but Benyon is running the show, and he insists that Doc take on two people he's never worked with before. One of them is named Rudy (Al Lettieri), a man with the bad habit of being the only one who makes it out of his jobs alive. Like [Anton] Chigurh, he has dark hair and a physically imposing build. It's clear immediately that he pushes people’s buttons solely for his own amusement. The only thing creepier than his expressionless glare is his smile.
Equally inspired is a sequence in a train station where a small time con artist charms a locker key out of Carol's hands. Doc gives chase and follows him onto a train, but loses his trail. Once we see the pure joy expressed by the man as he discovers the contents of the bag, for a moment we're on his side and we want him to get away with the money, much like with [Llewelyn] Moss in No Country for Old Men. But also like Moss, fate has crueler things in store."
Rules: Invulnerability and moral consistency
Richard Gilmore stresses that "some of the most profound philosophical and, especially, ethical questions, is [in] the moment when Chigurh asks Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), 'If the rule you follow brought you to this, of what use was the rule?' This is the great human question, the great philosophical question ... Is there a rule that we can follow and, in following it, be brought to a place where we can affirm our whole life? Are some rules better than others, and if so, which rules, or, what ultimate rule, is the best? The desideratum is to find a rule that will free us from the fear of death, because, following it, we will feel that we lived our lives in a way that left out nothing important ... Even Sheriff Bell, who has some very specific ethical rules he follows, which have worked for him, seems to be undone by the end of the movie. It is as though Anton Chigurh comes as a kind of avatar of death, a remnant of the ancient Greek gods, and his function is to undo or to make irrelevant everyone's rules.
What rule, then, does Chigurh follow? There are two scenes that mirror each other and reveal something important about the rule that Chigurh follows. The first scene is the very powerful and very creepy one in which Chigurh gets annoyed with a friendly question from the proprietor of the gas station (Gene Jones): 'Y'all getting any rain up your way?' What follows is a tense exchange that subtly escalates into what is clearly a life or death situation for the proprietor. Chigurh demands that the owner call a coin toss. After some resistance he does call it 'Heads.' Heads it is. Chigurh leaves the coin and walks out. The proprietor gets a reprieve. In a similar scene, with Carla Jean, although we do not see the toss, it is pretty clear that she loses the bet and is killed. (As he leaves her house, Chigurh checks his boot soles for blood, an obvious danger in his line of work.)
What is interesting about these two scenes is that in them Chigurh has vaguely human desires. In the first of the scenes, he really wants to kill the gas station proprietor. In the second scene, one feels as though he would really prefer not to kill Carla Jean. In both instances, he subjugates his desires to the flip of a coin, to chance. That is his principle. It is the principle that keeps him from a certain kind of vulnerability. As he tells Carla Jean, in the novel, when she says to him that he does not have to kill her, 'You're asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do. I have only one way to live. It does not allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps.' That is, he recognizes that it is precisely his feelings, his desires, that make him vulnerable. His rule—that chance must trump any desire that he might have—is in the service of maximum invulnerability."
Alison Young states that "when Carla Jean refuses to call the coin toss on the grounds that the decision to kill her is being made by Chigurh rather than by a coin, he dismisses her protest: 'But I got here the same way the coin did'. It is because of this code that he kills Carla Jean."
William J. Devlin provides us with "an insight into Chigurh's twisted moral consistency. First, Chigurh does not appeal to money or power as the greatest end for which one should strive. Second, Chigurh does not appear to be acting purely out of self-interest. By murdering his boss and Carla Jean, he gains nothing for himself. These two points help us to see why the traditional villain couldn't make sense of Chigurh. His actions are not motivated by what normally drives the bad guy; he is not selfish and egotistical. Third, Chigurh's own justification of his actions doesn't appeal to the consequences that are produced; rather like Kant's deontology, he justifies his actions insofar as they are 'good' in themselves. He kills his boss on the principle that his boss made a wrong decision. He did not stick with the one right tool, and so this bad decision entails the act of Chigurh murdering him. Likewise, Chigurh admits that there is nothing he gains from killing Carla Jean. But he must do it because he gave his word."
Methods: The violent act of seeing and politics of visibility
Alison Reed explains that the film is "about seeing and who has the power to see: Chigurh [destroys] everyone who wields the gaze within a country that excludes him on the basis of [the] violent act of seeing ...When Llewelyn calls asking for Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), Chigurh answers the phone and demands: 'You need to come see me'. Chigurh is obsessed with the sight of his victims. Those who threaten to 'see' him (beyond the literal meaning) have little chance of survival. Wells is shocked to hear that Llewelyn has seen Chigurh: 'You've seen him, and you're not dead?'. At a gas station Chigurh buys a bag of cashews, but this transaction quickly goes awry when the gas station proprietor makes friendly conversation: Gas Station Proprietor: Y'all gettin' any rain up your way? / Chigurh: What way would that be? / Gas Station Proprietor: I seen you was from Dallas. / Chigurh: What business is it of yours where I'm from, friendo?
"This man's attempt to pin Chigurh down geographically triggers the chance chain of events that wagers his life on a coin toss. Carla Jean Moss (Kelly Macdonald) thus irreversibly seals her fate when she says: 'I knowed you was crazy when I saw you sitting there. I knowed exactly what was in store for me' ... When the accountant in the businessman's office asks if Chigurh is going to kill him, Chigurh responds: 'That depends. Do you see me?'. The accountant's lack of sight and resulting inability to fix a racialized identity on Chigurh saves his life. Chigurh's desire to control and redirect the gaze also explains the outcome of Sheriff Bell's encounter with Chigurh. After Llewelyn's murder, Bell returns to the crime scene, noting that the door has seemingly been opened using Chigurh's trademark weapon. Suspecting Chigurh, Sheriff Bell draws his gun. Bell and Chigurh see each other's reflections in the shot-out lock, but Chigurh does not murder Bell because Bell does not acknowledge this moment of seeing. Bell's pretending to have not seen Chigurh suggests his own resignation to the force of inexplicable, lawless violence in the film: the force that Chigurh wholly embodies. Yet what goes unsaid in this scene, and the politics of visibility therein—explain Chigurh's motivation for not killing the cowardly, unseeing accountant and for killing Llewelyn's brave, seeing wife—Chigurh murders those who fix meaning on his appearance.
"Chigurh evades the dominant order's gaze by escaping un-interpellated from white suburbia. In Chigurh's final scene, he is hit broadside at a suburban intersection. With one of his eyes bulging from his skull and a bone poking out from his elbow, he sits down on the sidewalk. In addition to the noonday sun, this scene has an under-saturated, bleached-out quality, and Chigurh is momentarily paler due to the impact of the crash. Two boys riding bicycles approach him, at which point Chigurh offers one of the boys money for his shirt to fasten a makeshift sling for his arm. The boy tries to decline, but Chigurh replies: 'Take it. You didn't see me. I was already gone' ... Chigurh ultimately escapes unseen into white suburbia on the nearly corrupted innocence of a kid, who does not identify him as the other. His inability to "see" Chigurh also saves his life. Chigurh quickly leaves the scene of the car accident, and in so doing, remains outside of the law."
Weapons of choice: New type of killer and death of the Old West
Scott Covell explains that "In terms of his weaponry, like all badass Western killers, Chigurh is proficient with any weapon and often with whatever is available: the deputy is strangled with his own handcuffs; the innocent car owner on the freeway is popped in the skull with the cattle gun; the two oil company hit men are jarringly executed with a 9mm picked up off the ground, courtesy of the blown drug-deal shootout victims; the three Mexican killers in the motel are taken out with a silencer-clad shotgun; and as he flees, Moss is winged from the second floor of the hotel with a .45. 'Damn,' thinks Moss at that point in the novel, 'What a shot' (No Country, 114). The silencer on the shotgun is itself fascinating; it looks like a giant spray can painted black. In the novel McCarthy tells us that the gun is 'fitted with a shopmade silencer fully a foot long and big around as a beercan' (103).
"But his most intriguing weapon (and door-opening unit) is also one of the most perfect McCarthy/Coen brothers postmodern elements to the film and novel: the carbon dioxide–powered captive bolt pistol. Here is a weapon—the signature weapon and utility usage instrument of our twenty-first-century Western killer, Anton Chigurh—which, besides referencing the odd weaponry of the more eccentric Western killer, in itself represents a stunning parody of the classic Western gunslinger with his Colt .45 and Winchester '73, for the air 'gun' offers an inversion or subversion of the usual manly implementia carted about by our Western villains: it suggests a subversion of the ubiquitous cowboy and his use of a rifle to guard the vast herds of steer back in the 'Wild West' days. This gun is used to kill the steer—not guard them—and its usage is promulgated not by its firepower but by its functional simplicity and effectiveness.
"As Bell states to another sheriff in the novel, referring to the old ways of knocking cattle 'in the head with a maul,' 'They don't do it thata way no more. They use an air-powered gun that shoots a steel bolt out of it. Just shoots it out about so far. They put that thing between the beef's eyes and pull the trigger and down she goes. It's that quick' (No Country, 105). Using the gun as a weapon of destruction serves as a rebuff, a spoof, a dissing of conventional manly ordinance. Even Brando's strange cross tomahawk implement in The Missouri Breaks resonates with a strong sense of Native American culture and the wildness of the frontier, but Chigurh's cattle-gun rig is odd, and smacks of the advent of technology and the death of the Old West and its natural and wild sensibility. Just as the onslaught of the drug cartels and their machine gun-prone killers signifies the end of the code of the West that Bell has known and reveres.
"In the film version of No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers and Javier Bardem have combined with Cormac McCarthy to create a new type of killer. He is postmodern . . . . Recent Westerns surprisingly have fashioned some of the best ruminations into these questions, offering new villains with intriguing moral, behavioral, and ontological complexities and nuances. The twenty-first century calls for new villains in our films and literature. The great irony is that the most intriguing twenty-first-century depiction of the Western villain killer is not Brad Pitt's Jesse James, Russell Crowe's Joe Kidd, or Daniel Day-Lewis's Daniel Plainview, but Javier Bardem's and the Coen brothers' Anton Chigurh of the 1980s American West, with his evocations of such great American legends as Palance's Jack Wilson, Brando's Robert E. Lee Clayton, McCarthy's Judge Holden, and yes, even Napoleon Dynamite.
"On the popular cultural landscape and among his Western brethren, Anton Chigurh holds the title for terrors both familiar and new. Before we last see him in No Country for Old Men, there is a scene where Sheriff Ed Tom Bell visits his uncle, who lives alone in a remote western locale. Windmill, cowboy hat, overalls, rocking chair—the synecdoche is in full force to conjure up the Old West. Throw in a story about an Indian attack and reference to old Uncle Mac's shotgun, which was used defensively in said attack circa 1909 and ended up on display in a museum, and you have the perfectly incongruous lead-in to Chigurh roaming the suburbs. He, unlike, the gun, is no relic. He is the new Western villain palimpsest, the volatile and ever-evolving collection of artifacts and guises and identities who rides the range of the self. 'Sonic new kind [of killer] coming down the pike,' Sheriff Bell laments in the novel (No Country, 4). He entertains us, creeps us out, even as he reminds us of where we've been, where we are, and where we might be headed, the horizon reddening as we speak."
Criticism: Weapons inauthenticity
Critic Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post criticized the "inauthenticity" of the weapons used by Chigurh in the film. "The first [weapon]," he said, "is a slaughterhouse mechanism for killing beef cattle by driving a piston through the brain under the power of compressed air. This means -- now follow this -- he has to hang a 20-pound compressed-air tank around his neck, and it is secured to the cattle-killing device by an extremely vulnerable, even fragile, hose, a series of valves and tubes. And what does he do with such an awkward thing? He uses it to blow the locks out of doors that could just as easily be kicked in, and he uses it to terminate the extremely unwary who allow him to get up close and place it against the skull. Hmm, wouldn't the force of the piston knock the victim backward rather than penetrate the skull? And what happens if the victim is unwilling to stand still while this strange man and his contraption approach? And what does such a device offer over and above a simple silenced .22, ubiquitous in any underworld?
"Then, there's [Chigurh's] sawed-off semi-auto shotgun. I don't want to go all gun-nutty on you, but there's a reason there aren't many around: To silence a shotgun you need a very big 'can' (as the actual sound-suppression device screwed to the muzzle is called), which means they're difficult to hide and therefore of limited utility in gangster politics. But the Coen brothers don't care. Chigurh just walks around with this immense weapon that looks like a scattergun on steroids, and nobody seems to notice. And some thriller-consumers will note that when he actually fires the thing, the action doesn't cycle, and an empty shell doesn't eject ... A lot of people in the audience will pick up on the inauthenticity of the weapon even if they don't quite know what's wrong, and it'll ruin the movie's illusion."
Haircut: Intriguing characteristic
Actor Javier Bardem stated that Chigurh's haircut was the idea of the Coen brothers. Joel Coen stated that "the idea for the hair, for Javier's character, was the result of a photograph that we saw of a man sitting at a bar in a bordertown whorehouse in 1979. He had that haircut, and very similar clothes to what Javier wore in the movie. It was sort of patterned on that guy."
Associated Press reported that the haircut "was created by hair stylist Paul LeBlanc. LeBlanc said that he doesn't mind one bit that Javier Bardem calls his creation 'one of the most horrible haircuts in history.' In fact, the New Brunswick stylist is pretty proud. 'It's a very big day,' LeBlanc said from his studio. 'It reminds me of when I won in 1985 for Amadeus.' The stylist shared an Oscar for best makeup for his work on Miloš Forman's movie about Mozart.
LeBlanc created the hairstyle for Bardem's character in No Country for Old Men, drawing on the mop tops of the British warriors in the medieval Crusades as well as the haircuts of the 1960s for inspiration. [Bardem's] haircut for the movie has been roundly mocked by comedians. Oscar telecast host Jon Stewart quipped Sunday night that Bardem's haircut combined 'Hannibal Lecter's murderousness with Dorothy Hamill's wedge-cut.'
Even Bardem acknowledged the quirky mop cut in his acceptance speech. 'This is pretty amazing and I want to thank the Coens for being crazy enough to think that I could do that and put one of the most horrible haircuts in history on my head,' Bardem said. 'It's very good for them and for me,' said LeBlanc, who has worked with Joel and Ethan Coen for many years. 'It's a film that will have a long life and it's nice to know that my art will live on as well ... Bardem told me every morning when I finished the top that it helped him to get into character.'"
Kyle Heizler observed that "what makes the haircut so intriguing as a characteristic for this baddie is how [it] contrasts to the deeds he does. It's a haircut that you'd assume never to find on a cold-blooded killer," while critic Sukhdev Sandhu of The Daily Telegraph wonders: "why do the Coens choose to deck [Chigurh] with a haircut of the kind worn by sexually ambiguous prison wardens on Australian soaps or lower-division goalkeepers of the early 1970s? It's a distraction, a pointless gimmick, an attempt by the Coens to imprint the borrowed material with their own signature daffiness."
In an interview with Charlie Rose, co-director Joel Coen believed that Chigurh "is the one character in the book that actually departs from a certain sense of realism, he's both sort of real in the book and an idea." Questioned about his character in an interview for the Los Angeles Times, Javier Bardem said, "He belongs to somewhere else. I'm not saying from outer space, but [he] belongs mentally to someplace else."
Devil, Antichrist and Grim Reaper
Manuel Broncano describes Chigurh as the 'Antichrist'. "Of the three major branches of Christian eschatology," he says, "No Country for Old Men orchestrates an apocalyptic rhetoric by which drug dealing is described as a devastating and biblical-like plague and Anton Chigurh as a true Antichrist. Furthermore ... the text identifies him as the human agent of the demon Mammon. All this we learn through Sheriff Bell's remembrance, in his attempt at making sense of things that go beyond his understanding ... The opening monologue provides an interesting clue about the religious architecture of the narrative: the unnamed convict is depicted as a man who 'knew he was going to hell', a man who by his own admission has no soul. It is therefore evil at its purest, in close resemblance to Anton Chigurh, 'the true and living prophet of destruction', a being that is 'real' beyond doubt, for the narrator has been witness to his deeds. The sheriff is an individual who does not want to put 'his soul to hazard', a requisite to confront evil."
Don Graham states that "we are introduced to one of Satan's chief subalterns, Anton Chigurh, he of the pneumatic device, an otherworldly psychopath possessed of a philosophical bent ... Chigurh's philosophy doesn't come from Christianity but from a source that's not identified and is therefore sure to intrigue the intrepid McCarthy exegetes on the Internet ... Bell is anti-abortion, anti-drugs, and anti-kids who dye their hair green and put bones in their noses. He thinks the disintegration of civic polity is much advanced. He thinks things begin to fall apart when people stop using ordinary manners ... Bell's forebodings, his absolute certitude that evil, however mysterious, certainly does exist, his very seriousness –all of this deepens and extends the [film] beyond the predictable boundaries of thriller."
Actor Josh Brolin described the character of Anton Chigurh as "the Grim Reaper." He added in a press interview released by Miramax: "He's the devil incarnate ... You don't understand [his violence], you can't pigeonhole it. You can't categorize it. He's very malleable, but not malleable on your terms, malleable on his own terms." Javier Bardem said of his character: "That's his power: You cannot really understand him completely. The good thing about Anton Chigurh is that he can't be described. He's not even described in the book by Cormac McCarthy. He doesn't need to be explained. It's a character that comes out of the land and, at the end, comes back to the land, which means everything ... What Anton Chigurh does is a new kind of violence, and I guess one of the issues that the novel, and the script and the movie, is talking about is the way to understand this huge wave of violence that has taken the world. Chigurh more than represents, he symbolizes the violence. [He] shows that violence doesn't really have an explanation sometimes, or any roots. It just happens, and it's unstoppable."
In her review of the novel, Paula Bomer believes that Chigurh is "an angel sent by God". Chigurh "is called 'evil'", she says, "'the epitome of evil', he's considered to suffer from 'bloodlust'. None of these things are true and in fact, they are the actual meaning of his violence inverted. Anton is an angel, sent by God to destroy all of those who suffer from greed. He is punishing normal, human sinners, which is something the Catholic God does. Anton (after Saint Anthony, renowned for his work against the Devil) kills everyone who in any way took money, drug money, which did not belong to them. He is the opposite of evil. He is divine power. He is fighting the Devil in the shape of drugs and drug money. Bell basically sums up the plot and moral center of this novel during one of his first person italicized parts when saying, 'I think if you were Satan and you were settin around tryin to think up somethin that would just bring the human race to its knees what you would probably come up with is narcotics.' One of the main things God does in the Catholic religion is fight against the Devil, and that fight takes place in our very lives. We are but a battleground for forces much larger than us, and I think that is the best way to read No Country for Old Men. McCarthy’s characters exist to demonstrate his vision of how this universe works.
"Here is Anton talking to the man in the gas station, who just flipped a coin that saved his life: 'Anything can be an instrument...Small things. Things you wouldn't even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People don't pay attention. And then one day there's an accounting. And after that nothing is the same.' Anton is there for the accounting. And nothing else is about to be the same. When he leaves the gas station, the nervous attendant laid the coin on the counter and looked at it. 'He put both hands on the counter and just stood leaning there with his head bowed.' Yes, his head was bowed, in reverence.
"With a seemingly creepy touch, McCarthy employs a strange, animal method with which Anton kills the innocent victims during his all-important fight against the devil. Anton guns down every person directly involved with the drugs and the money, but for those few he must sacrifice who are not culpable, he kills them with a livestock stun gun. This symbolizes how we are the 'sheep' and he is the Shepherd. It is not 'random' or sick or anything but another sign that Anton is doing God's work and that sacrifices must be made in order to obtain His goal.
"One of the final scenes, where Anton kills Carla Jean, wonderfully combines McCarthy's use of chaos theory to bolster his Catholic vision. But prior to Anton’s great speech on destiny, he explains himself as aligned with God’s word to Carla Jean. Carla Jean: 'You give your word to my husband to kill me?' / Chigurh: 'Yes' / Carla Jean: 'He's dead. My husband is dead' / Chigurh: 'Yes. But I'm not' / Carla Jean: 'You don't owe nothin to dead people' / Chigurh (cocked his head slightly): 'No?' / Carla Jean: 'How can you?' / Chigurh: 'How can you not?' / Carla Jean: 'They're dead' / Chigurh: 'Yes. But my word is not dead. Nothing can change that' / Carla Jean: 'You can change it' / Chigurh: 'I don't think so. Even a non-believer might find it useful to model himself after God. Very useful, in fact.' The key points are that his word is not dead—God's word lives. And, in saying that 'even a non-believer might find it useful to model himself after God' Anton is giving Carla Jean advice. Advice too late, but advice nonetheless.
"And so lastly, we get Anton's speech, his explanation how he is just acting out her destiny, God's destiny for her, that her actions, her free will, put into motion: 'Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person's path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning.' I find it hard to miss that her path was visible to Him, to God, and to Anton, God's servant."
Ghost, Terminator and instrument of karmic consequence
Critic David Denby of The New Yorker wonders: "Who is Chigurh? What is he? He slaughters twelve people, and yet somehow manages to be seen by no one. He kills a cop, yet the authorities never get their act together and track him down."
Jim Welsh assures that "there is no ultimate showdown between the professional lawman and the professional assassin, and one wonders if this is by accident or by design. . . . Sheriff Bell is tracking a killer, but there will be no clear, dramatic confrontation, perhaps because Sheriff Bell knows he can't cheat Death or kill the Devil, that the deck may be stacked against him. If not the Devil, then maybe a ghost, as Bell himself suggests? So who said he was chasing an abstraction? . . . The killer, the 'ghost', Anton Chigurh, seems too spooky, too otherworldly to be 'real.' Considering what happens to him in the story, Chigurh ought to be dead, but at the end, after being broadsided by an auto accident, he limps away to continue his never exactly specified mission. The man and his motives are utterly mysterious."
While discussing shooting techniques in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, cinematographer Roger Deakins wondered whether Chigurh was present in the motel room (where Moss was murdered) when Sheriff Bell returned at night to the crime scene. "I wanted the motel room to be totally black," he said, "because [Javier Bardem's character] Chigurh is hiding in the corner. Or is he? So you wanted this kind of mystery."
Louis Proyect highlights that "[Chigurh's] character is a mixture of a less interesting version of the Samuel Jackson hit-man in Pulp Fiction and the very first Terminator–the unrelenting evil one. Entirely missing is the kind of bent humor found in the kidnappers in Fargo, who despite being creeps were a source of amusement.
"After Moss blasts him with a shotgun, Chigurh retreats to a seedy motel (No Country is replete with some of the scuzziest motels and hotels ever seen in a film) and performs surgery to remove the shotgun pellets from his knee. With the Terminator flicks floating in the back of my mind, I almost expected to see metal rods instead of bones beneath his flesh."
William Ferraiolo states that “Chigurh is the irresistible force pervading every scene of No Country for Old Men. Even when he is not on camera, the viewer feels the weight of his presence and sees the toll it exacts upon every other significant character in the film.
"None of us knows quite what to make of Chigurh. His victims do not understand him, law enforcement officials are baffled by his exploits, the viewer is stunned by his ruthlessness, and yet there remains something about this figure that we cannot quite condemn. Is he, perhaps, beyond condemnation? Is there something, somehow, to admire in this man – even if it is only grudgingly and only at a safe distance that one may experience (or admit) this admiration? Perhaps Chigurh is intended to remain a bit of a cipher – an enigma. Even his name, after all, is awkward to both spell and pronounce. He eludes us. We are told of no childhood trauma, no biochemical imbalance or neurological impairment, no ancient outrage for which he now exacts revenge against society at large.
"We have no idea how he came to be this way – or even how one can become what we behold. There is money involved in the plot, but it becomes clear that this is not his primary motivation, nor is it a sine qua non of the film's evolution. The matter at issue could just as easily have been a package of cashews, a woman, or even an offhand remark. Chigurh kills almost as does a force of nature (albeit a selective one). Ahab was driven by his irrational hatred of the white whale. Chigurh, on the other hand, does not seem to be driven – he just seems to be. Chigurh kills. That is what he does. So . . . why toss the coin?
"He appears to operate in accordance with something like an 'ethical code' (though, again, the term is severely deformed in this context) . . . . Perhaps Chigurh is just a killing machine with a built-in abort system that may be triggered under fortuitous circumstances. . . . As far as Chigurh is concerned, his victims cause their own demise (or secure their survival) through their behaviors. . . . He seems, at some points in the narrative, to behave as an instrument of karmic consequence; he ensures that others reap what, in his estimation, they have sown. . . . Chigurh is something closer to a force of nature – as inexorable and disinterested in human life as a flood, earthquake, or, indeed, a [bubonic] plague.
"Chigurh is something more than a merchant of death, something more implacable than 'the ultimate badass,' as was earlier suggested by the stubborn and ill-fated Llewelyn Moss. Chigurh is the inevitable. He is the embodiment of the darkness that Bell cannot understand. . . . Chigurh is the implement linking karma and consequence – as he is also a product of karma and consequence. Killing machines do not simply fall from the sky. They are, somehow or other, made – and the wheel of life and death goes round and round. Occasionally, a coin is tossed.
"Many other characters just happened to be driving down the wrong road at the wrong time, sitting behind the wrong desk, or drinking beer beside the wrong hotel pool. Even in these instances, however, we might ask what led them to that particular place and time. In fact, and this may be the real point, we may ask what leads any of us to this place, this time, this character, these proclivities, this life unfolding all around and through us. Are any of us, ultimately, authors of the selves into which we evolve? Are any of us in control of the twists and turns our lives take – or are we all simply caught in the turning, grinding wheel of karma (or fate, or destiny, or randomness, or call-it-what-you-like)?"
Still, and opposite such interpretations of Chigurh's character, Jim Welsh quotes "[Co-director] Joel Coen from a bonus DVD feature on the making of the film, 'It's about a good guy, a bad guy, and a guy in between. Moss is the guy in between.' ('The Making of No Country,' 2008) . . . This is a very serviceable genre story for the Coen brothers to transform into an Oscar-worthy motion picture, and a playground of archetypes (from the mythical Celtic to the Bible) and stereotypes raised above the level of cliché and taken beyond the realm of allegory."
The coin-toss scene
"What's the most you've ever lost in a coin toss?" Chigurh asks the owner of a deserted outpost where he is fueling a stolen car and buying snacks. The owner, an older retired gentlemen, who merely thinks he's chatting up a passerby is stopped in his tracks. Chirgurh flips the coin and makes him call it. Then he tells the owner, who has 'won' the coin toss, ' to keep the coin as it's just an ordinary coin' but don't lose it. In other scenes, particularly in the scene in which Chigurh kills the sheriffs deputy, takes his car and in a following scence in which Chigurh kills a random stranger in order to take his car, we see that not every one of Chigurhs killings in the movie is the result of chance. Rather, in some instances, the victim represented a concrete obstacle to Chigurhs progress. Those given the coin toss are not, particularly, an obstacle nor do they represent something threatening, therefore the question is begged: is Chigurh looking for an excuse to kill, or is the coin toss some form of control to prevent him from killing unnecessarily? Or, as is described below, is he trying to evade all responsibility for the outcome of a rule he decides upon? The very tension of the scene implies that leaving the choice to Chigurh is a certain death. The fact that the filmmakers do not show the other coin toss, when Chigurh confronts Carla Jean, leaves these questions wide open.
William J. Devlin believes that Chigurh, in the coin-toss scene, "detaches himself" from "any moral responsibility for his actions." He added that "Chigurh's behavior implicitly suggests two important points about his beliefs. First, at the moment his potential victim calls the coin toss, he believes that his victim has a fifty-fifty chance of living (or dying). Second, Chigurh believes that he himself is not responsible for the outcome. We can infer this from his conversation with the attendant, as he tells him: 'You need to call it. I can't call it for you. It wouldn't be fair. It wouldn't even be right.' With this, Chigurh is acknowledging that since this is a life or death decision, it is only morally right for the person whose life is at stake to roll the dice of chance. Chigurhs ambivalent description of the coin as 'ordinary' but not to be mixed with other coins, suggests ambivalence to taking life.
"Furthermore, Chigurh cannot make the call because he would then be held accountable insofar as he chose what would lead to the attendant's life or death. By abstaining from calling, Chigurh detaches himself from the situation and its results. Carla Jean sees this reasoning in Chigurh and attempts to challenge his move to distance himself, as she tells him, 'The coin don't have no say. It's just you.' But for Chigurh, it is not his say at all, as he tells Carla Jean, 'This is the best I can do . . . [because] I got here the same way the coin did.' As such, Chigurh portrays himself as a disinterested force, free from accountability. Together, these two points suggest a further point about Chigurh's use of the coin flip, namely, he introduces the philosophical issue of moral luck into the equation of evaluating an individual's behavior.
"By offering his potential victims the coin flip, Chigurh sees himself as introducing a chance occurrence into the equation. Their fate is now a matter of luck, and since it is only a matter of luck, he does not see himself as morally accountable for his actions, whether they are to murder the person (because he or she made the wrong call) or to let the person live (because he or she made the right one). Chigurh is thus a disturbing character who twists the notion of the villain in the sense that he utilizes some of the moral justifications traditionally used by the hero, and he introduces the notion of luck and chance occurrences into his decision making, thereby negating, in his own estimation, any moral responsibility for his actions."
Elizabetta Zurru agrees. "The scene is brought to an end," she notes, "when [Chigurh] walks away, (in this way, parallelism is created, for the sound of his slow footsteps closes the conversation as it had opened it), and a speechless [station proprietor] is assigned the 'last' turn in the conversation, represented by attributable silence – he has not been assigned the right to speak at the beginning, he has been deprived of such a right in the end.
"[Chigurh] is depicted as a man who is not ready to accept any kind of intrusion in his life, not even the smallest, and is ready to react instantly, should this happen. A man who is able to translate domination into words and to corner his 'victim' on more than one occasion, until his aim has been reached. He is, in fact, the only character in the exchange who asks personal questions and obtains the relative answers, besides being the only one who performs all the face threatening acts present in the exchange.
"Furthermore, the repetition of the strategies he deploys to obtain his short-term and long-term goals, (e.g., to ask question[s] when he should provide answers, to exploit the repetition of the proprietor's words against him, and so on), is also indicative of how methodical his modus operandi is. It is also important to note his adherence to fate, or, to put it in different terms, his belief to be the 'tool' through which fate operates, which, on the one hand, allows him to think he is right to act the way he does ... and, on the other, to distance himself from his actions, which, being driven by some superior force, always tend to be someone else's fault ('You need to call it. I can't call it for you, or it wouldn't be fair.')"
In their book introduction, Roberta Piazza, Monika Bednarek and Fabio Rossi relate the importance of the coin-toss scene to two reasons: "Firstly, it introduces us to the use of discourse in film as a tool for characterisation, e.g., as way of entering the mind of a character, or his/her 'mind style' (Fowler 1977) - in this case the madman, the assassin, the alienated and feared other. Secondly, [the scene] reveals the importance of discourse in film (and television), where it can fulfill a number of specific functions: beside contributing to characterisation, it defines narrative genres and engages viewers."
Elizabetta Zurru adds that "although the rest of the film has been on more than one occasion precious to support and/or confirm the interpretation of the conversation taken in isolation, the conversation in itself, together with its non-verbal elements and its multimodal rendering, is enough, when subjected to stylistic analysis, to induce the personality of the character."
Critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times commended the coin-toss scene. "Listen to what they say," he said, "how they say it, how they imply the stakes. Listen to their timing. You want to applaud the writing, which comes from the Coen brothers, out of McCarthy." Paste magazine ranked the scene as the best of the Decade (2000–2009), citing that it is "a chilling moment, played out to agonizing lengths, as one helpless man stares into the face of fate."
Flipism: Comparisons to other films
Scott Myers compares the coin-toss scene to another in Martin Scorsese's 1990 film Goodfellas. "It's interesting to compare this scene," Myers says, "where the Bad Guy asks a series of provocative questions with the threat of violence looming in the not so distant future, with the 'What do you mean I'm funny' scene in Good Fellas. Similar rising tension to both scenes, only in Good Fellas, one big difference is that Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) goes at Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) not because of some sense of right or wrong, who should live or who should die." The arbitrary nature of the violence doled out by the character (Tommy Devito) in Goodfellas mirrors the, apparently simple, but undiscernable, chance offered by Chigurh.
Matthew Fotis observes additional similarities between No Country for Old Men and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008). "Like many aspects of folklore," Fotis notes, "coin tossing has made its way into film. Two of the most critically acclaimed films of 2007 and 2008 prominently feature coin tosses. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the cold blooded villain of the Coen Brothers Academy Award winning No Country for Old Men, and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the 'white knight' district attorney in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, both use coin tosses throughout their respective films. The use of Flipism by Chigurh and Dent seemingly suggests a world ordered by fate, destiny and the cosmos.
It is my contention, however, that Flipism is used by the filmmakers to argue for the supremacy of free will in a chaotic world. Rather than leaving things to chance as tossing a coin seemingly suggests, both characters are fully aware of the choices they are making throughout, and the use of coin tosses is a calculated psychological tool implemented by two highly intelligent characters—not as a mean to make decisions."
In "The Dark Knight", the coin is originally a two headed coin, offering no choice whatsoever ("I make my own luck" offers the character, initially). The two headed coin is transformed by the chaotic actions and proddings of the Joker (another character in the film), who initiates the explosion that turns the coin into a two sided coin and 'creates' the character 'two-face' (Dent). In contrast, "No Country For Old Men" leaves the question of whether it is an 'ordinary coin' or a powerful agent of fate, unanswered but suggests that the numerous characters have equally numerous beliefs on the subject. The question of how Anton Chigurh came to decide upon a coin toss as arbiter is never answered.
Cultural perceptions: Ethnicity, race and gender roles
Ethno-racial perceptions and the US-Mexican border
Alison Reed states that "it seems no coincidence that the Coen brothers' filmic reproduction of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men erupts in a xenophobic political era obsessed with national boundaries ... Between U.S. and Mexico border stations lies the Rio Grande River, which disrupts the fixed line between the Spanish-speaking, dark-skinned other and the Western cowboy. In this fluid, ambiguous space on the bridge between Mexican and American land, Llewelyn first confronts the American subject as racialized other. Suffering potentially fatal wounds from Chigurh's semiautomatic machine gun and leaking blood from his boots, Llewelyn stumbles past the U.S. border checkpoint. In this in-between space, Llewelyn meets a group of college-aged men returning to the United States ... When Llewelyn's appearance cannot be explained by a car accident, these white men in turn codify him as the Mexican other ... As the figure of the abject at the border between Mexico and America, life and death, self and other, he decides to throw the rest of the money over the bridge before entering Mexico. His jacket, concealing his blood-stained shirt, and his beer, excusing his sweaty, dirty, damp and otherwise unkempt appearance, carry him safely into Mexican territory without hassle from the uninterested border patrol guard.
Upon entering Mexico, Llewelyn forfeits his markers of whiteness—the cowboy hat, the crisp white work shirt, the stiff denim—and thus all too easily slides into otherness. After his encounter with the three American men, he wakes up in a Mexican hospital with the bounty hunter Carson Wells at his side. The bouquet of flowers that Wells holds out in front of him starkly contrasts the white walls and sterile furniture of the small hospital room. Llewelyn, stripped of the visual cues that mark his whiteness and instead draped in a nondescript hospital gown, appears Mexican only in relation to his environment: his darkly tanned skin, slick black hair, moustache, and four o'clock shadow juxtaposed against the whiteness of the hospital walls and of Carson Wells. Wells, hovering over him with blond hair, blue eyes, and a cowboy hat, replaces Llewelyn as cowboy: without the visual markers of his Texan identity, Llewelyn no longer clearly reads as white. When Llewelyn walks back into Texas, still wearing his white hospital gown, he must convince the Border Patrol agent to admit him back into the United States. Unconvinced and threatening, the border patrol agent admits Llewelyn only at the moment in which Llewelyn secures his status as a Vietnam War veteran. Unable to be pinned racially, Llewelyn proves his whiteness only by virtue of his military service.
Bringing the ethno-racially ambiguous Llewelyn into relief is the Mexican other—unspoken, unspeakable, dangerous. The Mexican actors in this film, all extras, are the butt of racist jokes. For instance, Bell notes that 'Supposedly, a coyote won't eat a Mexican' and Carla Jean’s mother exclaims that 'It's not often you see a Mexican in a suit'. The film's sensationalist depiction of Mexicans as drug trafficking criminals goes unrecognized because they are depoliticized, nameless faces. Llewelyn's and Chigurh's visual ambiguity points to the ease with which categories of race and ethnicity slide into indeterminacy."
The role of women
Ryan P. Doom claims that "the women in No Country for Old Men serve no purpose other than to offer support. They do not influence the story's action or the decisions that the men make. It's as if the setting were indeed in the Old West, as if the women lacked the right to vote. Tough minded and independent they might be, but both Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) and Loretta Bell (Tess Harper) mainly just complement their husbands and care for them. They exist outside the men's world and cannot understand the unrelenting violence the men face until faced with it themselves." This, however, does not take into account the fact that it is Carla Jean, riven by conflicting feelings of loyalty and a desire to help, ultimately is the one who tells Sheriff Bell where Llewellyn Moss is to be found, albeit too late. Carla Jean knows that her husband would not see this as support but rather betrayal. In addition, the filmmakers do not shirk from the consequences of 'offering support' as Carla Jean, at the end, is visited also by Chigurh. The outcome of this meeting is left unshown, as is the coin toss in it.
Manohla Dargis of The New York Times believes this issue is observed in many Hollywood pictures. "Iron Man, Batman, Big Angry Green Man [The Incredible Hulk] — to judge from the new popcorn season," she says, "it seems as if Hollywood has realized that the best way to deal with its female troubles is to not have any, women, that is ... That's as true for the dumbest and smartest of comedies as for the most critically revered dramas, from No Country for Old Men (but especially for women) to There Will Be Blood (but no women). Welcome to the new, post-female American cinema."
Monica Hesse of The Washington Post further complains that "[Awards committees] decide that No Country for Old Men – dark, stark, violent – is better than Juno, a comedy about a pregnant teen. They nominate Cate Blanchett for playing a man, but judge her against women. (This was really a mind-trap.)" [Blanchett played Jude Quinn, a portrayal of Bob Dylan in the 1965–1966 era, in the 2007 film I'm Not There].
Erin K. Johns, however, disagrees. "First portrayed as an obedient and subservient wife," she says, "Carla Jean gains agency as the film progresses; she becomes a woman at odds not only with her husband, Llewelyn, but also with Anton Chigurh, the systematic and cold psychopathic killer who relies on the system of fate ... Carla Jean Moss and Loretta Bell, Ed Tom’s wife, recognize and work with and against all of the different and constantly adapting masculine systems. The two major women in the film offer the only places of resistance to the ultimate masculine system: the justified fate that Chigurh inflicts through death.
In the scenes involving Ed Tom and Loretta, Loretta always functions as the voice of reason and common sense; her attitude is one of great confidence and mockery in her position as responsible wife and homemaker. As Ed Tom loads the horse and attempts to placate his wife, Loretta responds by laying out the "law" he should be following at work: [Loretta: 'Be careful' / Ed Tom: 'Always am' / Loretta: 'Don't get hurt' / Ed Tom: 'Never do' / Loretta: 'Don't hurt no one' / Ed Tom: 'If you say so']
Codes, whether original or new, are thus inscribed in the masculine gender throughout No Country for Old Men regardless of whether Chigurh is a psychopath or not. The real psychopathic system is the drug trade, which demands as violent a response from the patriarchal system of law that demanded subjects, objects, and no resistance–a system that both Loretta and Carla Jean recognize and struggle with in different ways.
West Texas: Landscape, settings and history
In an interview with The Guardian, Joel Coen emphasized the importance of landscape in his films. "There's a very direct relationship of character and story to landscape, or location," he said. "It's hard for us to come up with a story unless we establish that pretty early. It's hard for us to write a story that can take place just as easily here or there. It has to be specific. The 'here' is where you start."
Co-director Ethan Coen explains that "the setting is actually part of the reason that we wanted to do this film. We'd done our first movie (Blood Simple) in Texas, although that was in Austin, but we'd also traveled through West Texas, and were attracted to it even before we read the book. The setting is so integral to the book, to the story — it's about where it takes place as much as anything else. It is a very beautiful landscape, but in a bleak rather than picturesque way. It's not an easy place to live in, and that's important to what the story is about — the human confrontation with this harsh environment." Joel Coen concurs that "it's a place with a history of violence and of being inhospitable in a way. As with all of Cormac McCarthy's novels, the location is a character itself — and it can't be separated from the story."
Ryan P. Doom refers to the effect of landscape in the Coens' films. "In the Coen world, characters and settings always remain fused," he says. "Both Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men 's Texas landscape evoke clichéd tough-Texas-cowboy characteristics while Fargo and Intolerable Cruelty embody the eccentrics of the North and West."
Richard A. Blake states that "a Coen film looks 'real,' yet the landscape plays an eloquent mythic role in the dramatic action. In their earlier masterpiece, Fargo (1996), the barren North Dakota countryside provided a menacing counterpoint to Marge Gundersen's (Frances McDormand) hugely pregnant body: cold and warmth, evil and goodness, death and life. In their current film, the Coens lead us through the desert of the Texas border country. This is not the vast ennobling desert of John Ford's Monument Valley that our heroic ancestors crossed as they built a nation. This is a land of scorpions, rattlers and flies ... The skies over the desert press down over the characters as though the vast landscape of Texas can provide no hiding place from the monster that dwells within. Neither the glorious colors of sunset nor the bleaching light of noonday can mask the horror."
Nathan Kosub calls No Country for Old Men "a great Texas film." He adds that "it is great unequivocally, but Lone Star pride is a rare opportunity in Hollywood. Texas has always been a popular myth for directors, from the Texas-in-Utah of John Ford's The Searchers to the Texas-in-Canada of Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven. Joel and Ethan Coen made their first film in Austin (Blood Simple) and cast Lubbock musician Jimmie Dale Gilmore as Smokey in The Big Lebowski ('Mark it eight, Dude'). But No Country for Old Men is a whole other state entirely. In West Texas, there is no purer indication of the landscape's isolation than the silhouette of a pair of boots on a man sitting alone beneath a single tree. Llewelyn even calls him 'el último hombre [the last man],' and waits until he dies to approach him. Here, too, is the horror film's essential nature: one frame of a truck parked on a ridge at night, followed by a second frame of a second truck parked beside it. When the lights on the second truck go bright, we're running with Llewelyn towards the river."
Jim Emerson describes the landscape and settings as reflected in the film's opening scene. "The land is black, swallowed in the shadows," he says. "The sky is beginning to glow orange and blue. This is Genesis, the primordial landscape of No Country for Old Men. We may think we're looking at a sunset at first, but the next few shots show a progression: The sky lightens, the sun rises above the horizon to illuminate a vast Western expanse. No signs of humanity are evident. And then, a distant windmill – a mythic Once Upon a Time in the West kind of windmill. So, mankind figures into the geography after all. A barbed-wire fence cuts through a field. The camera, previously stationary, stirs to life, and pans (ostensibly down the length of the fence) to find a police car pulled over on the shoulder of a highway. There's law out here, too ... The movie intensifies and heightens your senses. Light is tangible, whether it's sunlight or fluorescent. Blades of grass sing in the wind. Ceiling fans whir (not so literally or symbolically as in Apocalypse Now). Milk bottles sweat in the heat. Ventilation ducts, air conditioners and deadbolt housings rumble, hiss and roar."
Richard Gaughran states that "we visually encounter the bleak, endlessly flat terrain of west Texas. The published screenplay refers to the landscape as 'broad, bare, and lifeless' ... In No Country for Old Men (2007) the filmmakers return to west Texas, with much of that film's action playing out against ... a desolate landscape ... the setting becomes a character at least as important as any of the human characters ... Paul Schrader says of typical noir settings, 'When the environment is given an equal or greater weight that the actor, it, of course, creates a fatalistic, hopeless mood. There is nothing the protagonists can do; the city will outlast and negate even their best efforts.'"
Alison Young also observes that "a strong sense of place is evoked: In No Country, rural West Texas is made palpable in the characters’ accents, the widescreen shots of the harsh landscape, and the buzzing of flies around the bloated corpses found by Llewelyn Moss as they lie rotting in the desert sun," while Richard Schickel of Time magazine adds that "the landscape is as bleak as the moon's dark side and its relatively few inhabitants lead lives that are scrubbed down to the basics. That is to say, it is pretty much kill or be killed."
Douglas McFarland quotes Joel Coen on how the character of Anton Chigurh relates to the landscape depicted in the film. "In an interview published in The New York Times upon the release of No Country for Old Men, Joel Coen describes his conception of Chigurh: 'He's like the man who fell to earth. ... He's the thing that doesn't grow out of the landscape.' This rings true as far as it goes. Chigurh does seem to be some alien menace who operates outside categories of human understanding, certainly ethical categories."
Roger D. Hodge of Harper's Magazine presents a brief history of the West Texas region where the events in the novel took place, and describes its effect on McCarthy's literature. "The stories I have heard of Indians and outlaws and Mexican revolutionaries," he says, "cattle drives and gunfights, droughts and floods and other frontier hardships, may be the products of a world that in large part is already extinct, but they are not figments of a merely literary imagination. McCarthy's novels are the works of an artist who has excavated the tailings of that dying world."
Hodge further investigates how the author may have chosen the West Texas region as a setting for his novel. "Why [did McCarthy] not set his novel farther south and west, in the Big Bend," he wonders, "where volcanism and mountain building produced the most graphically violent landscape in the state? Perhaps because the area near Langtry remained wilder longer than any other part of the state. Because it was, and is, a place of outlaws and smugglers and rustlers. It is also the site of a lost culture whose traces are still visible in the ancient rock shelters along its canyon walls.
In No Country for Old Men, as in every other novel he has written, McCarthy insists on the relics of ancient, vanished peoples in his landscapes. And he makes no secret of his view that those whose lives he describes are no less ephemeral. Indeed, what the landscape of West Texas suggests is that the ranchers who have peopled [his] last four novels [Cities of the Plain, The Crossing, All the Pretty Horses, and Blood Meridian] are a good deal more likely to vanish without a trace than were the Indians, whose art, exposed to the elements for thousands of years, still bears witness to their lifeways. The metal implements used by the ranchers to make horseshoes and axes and elaborate irrigation systems have rusted and are crumbling into dust, together with concrete water troughs and cedar picket stock pens. Some of these artifacts may survive to be puzzled over by future generations, though perhaps it will be the opium tins and pipes and iron woks of the Chinese workers who populated railroad camps for a year or two along the Rio Grande in the 1880s. Or other nameless implements that were used to chisel passages and tunnels for the railroad. Or the clever wire swivels used by Mexican goat herders to stake kids under rock lean-tos in kidding camps. This landscape, which appears almost empty today, is a palimpsest of cultures. All of them lost, undone."
Metaphor for contemporary America
Douglas Kellner states that "often, Oscar-winning films reflect the mood and zeitgeist of an era. As when during the relatively peaceful and prosperous 1990s feel-good years affirmative films like Forest Gump (1994), Titanic (1997), and Shakespeare in Love (1998) won Oscars. By contrast, films like the Academy Award winning productions of the last three years of the Bush-Cheney administration – Crash (2005), The Departed (2006), and No Country for Old Men (2007) – reflect a more anxiety ridden era, when events appear out of control, violence is rampant, and socioeconomic insecurities and crises are intensifying."
Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, Jim Emerson focuses on "three of the most admired and fervently debated American films of the year , [which] move inexorably toward a climactic confrontation with a killer – or someone's conception of a killer. Only Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood actually culminates in an eruption of savagery, while David Fincher's Zodiac and Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men gradually steer their attention away from the assaults and into the psyches of the characters who are haunted by the brutality penetrating their lives.
Much has been written about the violence in these movies, the darkness they find in the American landscape, and what some see as their bleak, fatalistic and/or nihilistic attitude. Does this somehow reflect the country's moral ambivalence about being mired in two bloody, confusing guerrilla wars on the other side of the world? A sense of No Exit hopelessness that the Vietnam nightmare is recurring? Mainstream (or art house) torture porn that allows us to vicariously groove on – as we are simultaneously appalled by – the crimes at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? Dissatisfaction with the materialistic emphasis on the American Dream? A cynical exploitation of artfully staged killings for our (cathartic?) entertainment?"
"The highly trained soldiers and former soldiers in In the Valley of Elah and No Country for Old Men," she says, "formidably skilled in violence and tactics for survival under unspeakable conditions, returned home as deformed human beings, tormented by their experience and a danger to others and to themselves. This harrowing conjunction of professionalism at war and personal brutalization may be read as a metaphor for the entropy of contemporary America.
Cormac McCarthy's uncompromising novel upon which the Coen brothers based their film references Vietnam specifically a number of times. With a nod to the exigencies of commercial cinema, the Coens' film does so only twice. First, Lieutenant Colonel Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) asks Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), 'Were you in Nam?' / 'Yeah, I was in Nam,' Moss says. At this, Wells removes his hat in homage, adding, 'So was I.' Later at the Mexican border Moss gains re-entry to the U.S. only after the guard learns, to his satisfaction, that Moss served two tours in Vietnam.
'Vietnam was the icing on the cake,' McCarthy writes ... The Coens omit this line, along with Deputy Wendell's remark as he and Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) survey the bloody death scene of Mexicans in their dope-laden trucks: 'It must of sounded like Vietnam out here.' / 'Vietnam,' Sheriff Bell repeats somberly, as if the word itself expressed the depths of bloody suffering."
Mellen also compares Anton Chigurh and war veterans in No Country for Old Men and In the Valley of Elah to Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, portrayed by Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) about the Vietnam War and adapted from Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness.
"Chigurh is a direct descendant of Joseph Conrad's Kurtz," she says. "Once the emissary of 'pity, science and progress,' as Conrad puts it, Kurtz ends up a murderous madman, answerable to no one. He decorated his Congo [in the novella] encampment with the shrunken heads of his victims, and only, at the moment of his death, could he pass judgment on the entire imperialist enterprise, of which he was a part: 'The horror, the horror.'
These men, having returned from Vietnam and from Iraq, have grown, in varying degrees, into instinctual killers. The soldiers and former soldiers in No Country for Old Men and In the Valley of Elah surpass Kurtz in one respect: they have brought their atrocities home. Both films depict a precipitous decline in the moral tenor of American society where the safety of its citizens has become, as never before, a virtual anachronism.
What defines the 'new kind,' the new America, and the evil that Sheriff Bell 'doesn't understand,' are the similarities, not the differences between Moss and Chigurh ... Both have absorbed the lessons crucial to their survival. Both reveal a professional knowledge of all types of guns ... 'Hold still please, sir,' Chigurh urges his second victim. 'You hold still,' Moss whispers to a distant antelope as he takes aim. Later Chigurh, out of the same reflexive impulse to kill anything that moves, shoots at a random innocent black bird (he misses). Both veterans have become involved in the drug trade ... Shot, they tend to their own wounds, neither expecting help. Both buy clothing from bewildered passers-by using hundred-dollar bills from the drug money.
Vietnam and Iraq have become interchangeable, why No Country and Valley of Elah seems so similar thematically. In No Country for Old Men it is Vietnam that symbolizes the historical crime, so that in McCarthy's novel, at the moment of his death, Carson Wells remembers suddenly, 'the body of a child dead in a roadside ravine in another country.' The Iraq analogue is the photograph [director] Paul Haggis intercuts several times: the corpse of a child in Iraq, run over by Mike [Specialist Mike 'Doc' Deerfield played by Jonathan Tucker] and his comrades and then left abandoned by the side of a dusty road.
Abrupt endings work best for these historical meditations on a country close to hitting moral bottom ... Sheriff Bell, now a broken, idle man, sits at his kitchen table, empty of occupation and usefulness to the community he had served since he was a twenty-five-year-old lawman. Defeated, he recounts his dreams to his wife, ending with the line, 'And then I woke up,' which is also Cormac McCarthy's final sentence. So the Coens, and the novelist, urge us all to do."
Kyle Smith of Commentary magazine states that "it's obvious why the story takes place in 1980. The reason is Vietnam. Most of the characters served there; it's where they learned about the value of human life, or lack thereof ... But if you measure McCarthy's ironic tone in the book, you might come to another conclusion. Possibly McCarthy is taking the extreme, Catholic stance that all killing is wrong, from capital punishment to war to abortion.
The book takes place seven years after Roe v. Wade, five years after the fall of Saigon, four years after the restoration of the death penalty by the Supreme Court. It's a year when the idea that state could sanction killing has begun to take root. The sheriff, in the book as in the film the voice of wisdom and restraint, expresses a sad resignation toward the death penalty from page one on, and a portion of the book that isn't referred to in the movie might be the key to understanding McCarthy's moral.[nb 1]
McCarthy has a vision of an America that fosters what Pope John Paul II called a 'culture of death'; these men come back from Vietnam, where they learned to kill, then apply their killing skills on a country that is killing fetuses and condemned prisoners and will soon give the okay to killing old people and the weak. The remorseless assassin Anton Chigurh is the natural consequence of a culture of death: A harbinger of unchecked killing."
A number of critics and authors have expressed that the film is an "allegory" for "the growing dehumanization infecting our world" and portrays a "dark-soul" America which is "eating its sons like Saturn". They added:
No Country for Old Men, along with its 2007 Oscar-winning adaptation directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, has been understood as an allegory for the dilemmas recently facing the United States during the Iraq War.
–Susan Kollin in the book Cormac McCarthy: All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, The Road 
Recent movies about Iraq have pushed hard to show the growing dehumanization infecting our world. No Country doesn't have to preach or wave a flag — it carries in its bones the virus of what we've become. The Coens squeeze us without mercy in a vise of tension and suspense, but only to force us to look into an abyss of our own making.
– Peter Travers of Rolling Stone
Tommy Lee Jones and the actor Barry Corbin have a wonderfully modulated scene, in which Ed Tom calls on his old Uncle Ellis, another retired police officer, who has seen enough of the unequal struggle against evil to have even fewer illusions than his nephew. But he tells him that America has always been like this, that it is a tough country, cruel and harsh, eating its sons like Saturn. Watching this film has something of the elemental thrill of watching a cloud-shadow spread with miraculous speed over a vast, empty landscape: it has a chilly, portentous intuition of what America is.
– Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian
As [the film] cuts between three main protagonists, it builds a mythic, sometimes operatic, picture of America's dark soul. Always one step behind the action, Bell eventually resigns himself to the inevitable play of fate, violence and death that America was built on. A throwaway story about an Indian raid in  hints at the dark truth of the title: America is no country for old men, pacifists or moralists. It's a land for those immune to the pricks of conscience and willing to be pushed around by the hand of fate.
–Film review by British Film4 channel
On the face of it, No Country for Old Men doesn't need to be set in 1980 ... It could be taking place anytime in the past 40 years, really. By locating the action in the year of Ronald Reagan's ascension to the presidency, though, "No Country" stands at the pivot of the Old West and the New Avarice, a point in time when the last vestiges of frontier morality have been washed away by a pitiless modern crime wave fueled by drug profits ... In the end, the film's central image is Ed Tom's expression of bottomless sorrow. It's the grief of a man for a land his fathers tamed and in which he now walks as a stranger.
–Ty Burr of The Boston Globe
Coen artistry heightens our level of perception. They reveal the first murder with an astonishing image of shoe sole scuff marks on a jail floor that looks as avant-garde as a Jackson Pollock painting—a harbinger of modern chaos that puts post-9/11 terror in artistic focus. But not sentimentally. When Sheriff Bell expresses existential fatigue, the sorrow he vouchsafes to his [uncle] is actually spoken to himself (thus to us in the audience). And still, the Coens contextualize: Bell is brought to reality when his [uncle] tells him, "What you got ain't [nothing] new. [You] can't stop what's coming. Ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity." The Coens make that wisdom mythical and all encompassing—from Vietnam to 9/11 to Iraq and to the Texas homeland.
–Armond White of the New York Press
The Vatican daily L'Osservatore Romano stated in an opinion column that "the most awarded movies [in 2007] portray the image of a hopeless America. The article, written by Gaetano Vallini, says that the awards night was dominated by two visions of evil, two instances of using images to portray evil. "On one side, the story of perdition, described by Paul Thomas Anderson in There Will Be Blood, on the other, a contemporary Western, with a modern incarnation of evil, No Country for Old Men, produced by Joel and Ethan Coen,' each one of them receiving eight nominations.
L'Osservatore says that, aside from the awards given to these two films, Hollywood has been dominated this year 'by dark films, filled with violence but mainly with hopelessness.' ... Vallini found the Cohen [sic] brothers' story 'marked by absurd and mindless acts of violence, a world in which there is no place for old values ... [where] moral conscience is lacking.
In this way, L'Osservatore says, 'the American dream is obliterated, described by the directors in bold strokes, without offering any anchor for hope, no hope for the future'; unlike the original novel, 'in which the author leaves some room open for hope ... This clearly pessimistic view that the United States offers of itself through the movies seems to be shared by the jury of the Academy Awards, which has awarded a film that leaves no doubts about its goal, which is to show the decline of modern society, the decay of values.'"
Writing in The Huffington Post, actor Alec Baldwin urged viewers to "go see No Country for Old Men. It's a metaphor for Iraq and the post 9/11 world." He added that "in all of my adult life, I have rarely seen Americans so in need of a vacation, a break, a place to go that is safe and comfortable. I have rarely seen Americans rush toward the Thanksgiving weekend with such need and commitment. This country is coming apart. And people are in a lot of pain about that. Eight years of these lunatics [The George W. Bush Presidency] raping everything they see has been exhausting. Americans are exhausted. Our system is breaking down, slowly, and people are, when they get honest about it, frightened about what that means, short and long term. Iraq is a mess and they botched that so badly. Now, some say Iran is next. How can that be? The American military is staffed by brave, highly trained, competent people. But it's run by idiots. Idiots who are going to kill a lot of innocent people and get some of us killed along the way."
Film ending and final scene
Co-director Joel Coen stated that "the ending of the movie is taken verbatim from the end of the novel. That was one of the things that interested us when we first read the novel, just as a story, the way that Cormac set up an expectation of a genre piece in a way, and sort of pulled the rug out from under you as you read it."
Dana Stevens of Slate criticized the film's ending. "Even in their best films", she said, "the Coens have trouble with endings (witness the mood-destroying Sam Elliot speech that weighs down the final minutes of the otherwise delightful The Big Lebowski). The last scene of No Country for Old Men, in which [Sheriff] Bell recounts his dreams to his wife Loretta (Tess Harper) is a tacked-on chunk of Meaning that seems to bear no relation to the tragically futile bloodbath we've just witnessed."
Curt Holman of CL Atlanta also argues that "there's something deflating about the film's final scenes. McCarthy raises the ancient problem of human evil: Is it an inherent flaw of human nature, or the net result of random fate? McCarthy seems to conclude that it's a generational thing. 'Anytime you quit hearing 'Sir' and 'Ma'am', the end is pretty much in sight,' says [Sheriff] Bell, and you suspect he's only half-kidding."
Actor Josh Brolin, however, defended the ending of the film. "I love that people are talking about this movie. I love that people leave the movie saying, 'I hate the ending. I was so pissed.' Good, it was supposed to piss you off," the 39-year-old star told MTV News. "You completely lend yourself to [my] character and then you're completely raped of this character. I don't find it manipulative at all. I find it to be a great homage to that kind of violence." After being chased by Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh the entire movie, Brolin meets his violent end off-screen. Soon after, his wife is brutally murdered off-screen as well. After all that build-up, all that destruction, the film ends, not with an orgasmic culmination of violence, but with a quiet monologue from Sheriff Tom Bell Tommy Lee Jones. If you were expecting something different, Brolin argues, that says more about you than about the movie. "You wanted to see his death, why? Because you're used to it. Aren't you so pleased to see a different take on the same cat and mouse game?" he asked.
Ciro Discepolo emphasizes that "the key to understand the whole film ... is the two dreams that Tommy Lee Jones relates to his wife in the final scene," he said. "In his first dream, the sheriff sees his own father handing over some money that he would lose: old generations handed over to us values we have lost. The other dream shows the sheriff and his father riding a horse. They have to pass through a narrow and dark mountain pass. His father overtakes him and lights a natural torch; he then settles down and lights a fire that gives light and warmth, then he waits for his son. This is the hope that the country – that country and every country – could eventually find out the right way to a place with a warm fire and much more light."
David Edelstein of New York magazine commended the film's ending. "You wait to see the sheriff, the venerable rock of decency," he said, "confront the newfangled evil in a showdown as cathartic as Carl Franklin's B-movie classic One False Move. But the Coens are true to their source, if not their strengths. I'm told that McCarthy liked the last part of the picture best, and he would.
Something about the ending bodes well, though. In Miller's Crossing, the protagonist has a recurring anxiety dream of a hat blowing away in a forest—an image that puzzled a lot of viewers but struck me as the perfect representation of the character's fear of losing control. The filmmakers', too. Film is a medium for control freaks, of whom the Coens are among the control-freakiest. The flat, unironic, nondisjunctive stoicism of the final scenes of No Country for Old Men must have been hard for these jokers. This might be the start of something thrilling: Joel and Ethan Coen learning how to let go."
Arne De Boever believes that the second dream "featured [Bell's] father riding ahead of him on a mountain pass into the cold, dark night, shielding a light and fixing a fire up ahead to receive the sheriff whenever he would get there. This light and fire can easily be read as the light and fire of justice: as the dream of final control that is projected up ahead, with the sheriff's long-dead father protecting it until the sheriff will get there himself, in other words: until the sheriff himself will have died. One does not have to be a psychoanalyst to understand the dream's significance: only in death will the sheriff's work of justice be completed. Final justice is not a part of this world."
Lucia Bozzola explains the meaning of the "dream" in the final scene. "Considering that [Sheriff] Bell opened the film by musing that his law enforcement progenitors wouldn't know what to make of the violence nowadays", she said, "not to mention all of the references to Chigurh as a ghost, it's not that tough to figure out why Bell's dream matters, or why he's chosen this path. He's never going to be able to do what his father did as far as law and order because there's always going to be a specter that's ahead of him. Or a Terminator. If he's going to survive in this country, a good man has to give up. I suppose this is how the West was lost."
- "Remembering a conference in Corpus Christi, the sheriff thinks, 'Me and Loretta...got set next to this woman, she was the wife of somebody or other. And she kept talkin about the right wing this and the right wing that. I ain't even sure what she meant by it. The people I know are mostly just common people. Common as dirt, as the sayin' goes. I told her that and she looked at me funny. She thought I was sayin' somethin' bad about 'em, but of course that's a high compliment in my part of the world. She kept on, kept on. Finally told me, said: I don't like the way this country is headed. I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion. And I said well mam I don't think you got any worries about the way the country is headed. The way I see it goin' I don't have much doubt but what she'll be able to have an abortion. I'm goin' to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she'll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation.'"
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