No Country for Old Men

By

“You can say it’s my job to fight [evil] but I don’t know what it is anymore. More than that, I don’t want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say, okay, I’ll be part of this world.”

So muses Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) in the opening of No Country for Old Men. I saw the film a week ago and I still can’t stop thinking about it. It does little for me to say that it’s a good movie–anyone knows that by now–but it’s the type of film that divides people and provokes differing interpretations and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts. I’m not going to dance around spoilers here. If you haven’t seen it or don’t want anything spoiled, you might want to skip this post.

Clearly, the film is interested in the nature of evil and interesting to me is that the evil presented in the character of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) isn’t insane, senseless, or random. It is disciplined, calculated, almost moral. Anton is nearly incapable of acting without purpose; if he kills someone it is, to him, necessary. And when his reasons aren’t clear to him, the device of the coin toss relieves him of having to make his own choice. He is only able to do the things he does because he has an inner set of guidelines that not only direct him but allow him to avoid responsibility for his actions and maintain a clear conscience. The scene near the end when he confronts Mrs. Moss is the only time in the film he shows anger, and it’s because she refuses to call the coin toss, refuses to let him place responsibility anywhere other than himself. And having broken his own moral code by killing her, what goes around finally begins to come around when he’s hit by the car.

What is so disturbing about this depiction of evil is that we often comfort ourselves by thinking that evil is dumb or random, when the truth is that evil knows exactly what it’s doing, evil thinks it is righteousness, and evil has been getting away with it for far longer than we’ve been around to figure it out. It’s scary to realize that we might not be the ones that are a step ahead. As Tommy Lee Jones’s character says, trying to understand the evil that’s out there will put your ‘soul at hazard’. Confronting evil, trying to get in its head and master it is dangerous and a man might not come out the winner, not in this life and perhaps not in the next.

This brings me to the hotly debated ending of the movie. Jones’s character, speaking to his wife, tells of a dream in which he and his father are riding horseback through the mountains at night “like in old times” and his father has lit a flame in a horn and rides off ahead of him into the darkness to ready a fire and wait for him. “And then I woke up,” says Jones’s character, and the film cuts to black, it’s over, and we’re the ones in the darkness. After a week of mulling over that ending, I still love it, I think it’s perfect, but I still wonder exactly what it means. Is it hopeful, or hopelessly bleak? I tend to think that somewhere out in all the dark of the world, my Father is preparing a fire and waiting for me gather myself out of the night and rest. The central question of the film is this, I think. Is that fire a dream from which we must all wake, or a prophecy in which we find hope? No matter which way you interpret that, it is a brilliant question to ponder as you leave a theater.

I think for the first time in quite a few years, I actually care who wins the Best Picture Oscar. After finally having seen all the contenders, I think only No Country for Old Men and Michael Clayton are left in the ring and of those two, No Country for Old Men is the one that is a movie for the ages. Film students will still be studying this one when we’re all old men.

I’d love to read some other peoples’ thoughts.

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


12 Comments

  1. SillyJoe

    No Country was definitely the best movie I saw last year (Once was my favorite, but without question No Country was the best). All three of the central character performances were nearly flawless, and it’s a shame that they can’t share the award for Best Supporting Actor. The most interesting thing about the film, to me, was the way the three main characters were presented and portrayed, the way that their actions and lives intersected and paralleled. Each character seems to represent some part of the human spirit/experience. Llewelyn Moss seems to be the human center of the film. Doing most of what he does on gut instinct (even when he admits it’s stupid) rather than reason, the game of cat and mouse he’s involved in with Chigurh is riveting. Moss is the guy you identify with. I found myself thinking “If I had happened upon a situation like Moss did, would I take that money? What would I do with it?” He consistently makes decisions that are ethically questionable but that the viewer can completely understand. Anton Chigurh is the evil side of the coin. Everything he does is detestable and the fact that he does it with such calm, with such collection, is more frightening than anything. But the comment you made about Chigurh believing his actions were necessary is spot-on, I think. The most interesting thing to me, is that while Chigurh represents the dark side of humanity, the evil side, he also represents the part of us that needs order. That needs rules. Llewelyn Moss ignores the rule of the law and the rule of logic for the entirety of the film, and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (my favorite character in the film, who I’ll get to in a minute) is an observer outside of the rules, but Anton Chigurh only breaks his code once, and (as you’ve already stated) results in a car accident leaving him broken. I’m sure if the story were to continue, we wouldn’t see Chigurh break his code again. With Sheriff Ed Tom Bell we have experience. And we have observation. Bell has been around, and he’s been watching the times change. He’s been watching the world evolve to the mess that it’s in. And because of his experience, because of his eye and his mind, he seems to always be right behind the action, following Moss and Chigurh down the path to their destruction. Bell seems to know what’s coming, maybe he even knew it the moment he sat down on Llewelyn Moss’s couch and finished his milk. And he tries to stop it, he tries to help. But Sheriff Bell can’t stop the tide, and I think he knows that all along as well. (I especially love the conversation he has with Ellis, the old disabled lawman: “You can’t stop what’s coming. Ain’t all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.” They’re talking about Bell’s retirement, but I’m nearly positive it’s about more than that to Bell…this scene occurs right before Chigurh visits Carla Jean Moss) This is why the ending is so interesting to me. The Mosses is dead, and Chigurh is God knows where, and we end with Bell in retirement at his home with his wife having sad old retired conversation (I used to endure this kind of conversation every time I was at my grandparents’ house). He’s come to the end of all this crazy mess and, I think, he still has hope. I feel Bell represents some of the best that’s in humanity. He couldn’t stop what was coming, and it’s clearly hit him hard. But he’s looking ahead and maybe even looking inside, still hopeful that there is an answer.

  2. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    This film- especially the Sheriff’s monologues- kept making me think of something C.S. Lewis once said:

    “Actually it seems to me that one can hardly say anything good enough or bad enough about life.”

    And has there been a cinematic villian as complex, memorable, devious, cold and terrifying as Anton Chigurh in recent years?

  3. Phillip Johnston

    Excellent thoughts. I see the ending as the momentary flicker of hope in the film. Bell details his dreams with a kind of wayward conviction. He says how his father was going to prepare a fire that would provide warmth in the dark and the cold. It’s a powerful image, made more powerful by Jones’ perfect delivery. The audience is led to see some light amidst the overwhelming darkness of the movie which seems to communicate that there is hope for the world. But it all comes to an abrupt ending. Jones wakes up … hope is a dream.

    I love this film and think it is one of the most perfect to come out in recent years. Considering it’s competition, it is the best choice for best picture (with There Will Be Blood close behind). It is the perfect movie for its time and reflects the worldview of many people. It serves as the perfect challenge for Christians to shine the light of God’s grace to people who have no hope.

  4. SillyJoe

    Another thing I wanted to mention, Tommy Lee Jones’s opening monologue delivered over Roger Deakins’s beautiful cinematography is probably the most perfect bit of filmmaking to come along in years.

    Two of the best movies of the year opened with perfectly delivered monologues. Michael Clayton was the other.

  5. Matt Conner

    I still liked There Will Be Blood a bit more.

    Don’t get me wrong, this was an amazing movie. I absolutely loved the storyline, the brilliance of the dialogue and even the shots were amazing at times.

    I just think this year was a great one for movies. Comedies like Knocked Up and Juno are becoming a bit more intelligent and less “Scary Movie” – even though that series had its own entry this year. Once completely redefined musical, but even Hairspray and others kept the broadway-to-hollywood theme alive. Summer blockbusters (and xmas) were still great popcorn (cmon, didn’t we all love Transformers)…

    But then it comes down to these great Oscar flicks. In a time of amazing arthouse flicks, some of the majors still produced the best. I agree on Michael Clayton, Into the Wild was just awesome as well and I really enjoyed Gone Baby Gone. And that doesn’t even touch Atonement.

    I don’t think it’s the two horse race (as I think Into the Wild and Atonement were Oscar worthy) everyone is making it out to be. BUT if these are the horses, I gotta go with Daniel Day-Lewis and his absolute descent into bloodthirsty greed. Absolutely brilliant plot. Stunning music (second to Atonement for me) and the best acting peformance of the last three years.

  6. Tony Heringer

    I gave the Coehens a shot many moons ago with a similar flick called “Fargo.” So, far nothing compels me to see this one. However, based on your comments, I’d say this caps off a triology of sorts with “Blood Simple” being the first and most simplistic of the bunch, “Fargo” next and sounds like this is likely the best of the three. But after the wood-chipper scene in “Fargo” I’ll pass on any further gore from the Brothers Cohen.

    The ending sounds like classic Cohen (see Blood Simple and Raising Arizona for formative examples). For the nature of evil, the best film I’ve seen on that subject in the past year is “Breach.” Chris Cooper gives a great performance as the baddie in that film.

  7. Brad Johnson

    Here is something I wrote on my blog last week…

    What do you think of the Josh Brolin character? I thought he was more of the average American man. I couldn’t help about how many people I know that would just walk away with drug money in hopes of making a better life for themselves. I was reminded of Boramir in Lord of the Rings. He thought that he had what it takes to control the ring. He wanted to make a better life for his country and his kinsmen. Boramir is one of my favorite characters in the whole trilogy because I see a lot of myself in him. It’s a false hope that we hold onto. The lottery for instance, we see the house that we could have, being able to provide for our family, and the amount of money that we could give to charity. All good things but we don’t see the perversion and how it gives false hope to the poor and teaches bad money habits. Jesus was tempted by the devil. He was told all of this earth could be His. He didn’t do it. He saw past the perversion, the half truths, and mirage of something good. I don’t think I could look past all of those things and it reminds of what kind of sacrifice God actually gave.

  8. SillyJoe

    Brad, that’s EXACTLY what I was getting at about Llewelyn Moss (though you may have said it better). And I definitely see the Boromir comparison.

  9. Chris Slaten

    Pete, I think you are dead on about the scene where he breaks his own code. Not only did he just have it coming, for the car wreck, but the car wreck seems to have happened because it was the first time in the movie where he drove away from a killing, confused, distracted and unsure of himself, perhaps why he didn’t see the car coming.

    Chigurh reminded me of the motorcycle bounty hunter guy from Raising Arizona that would do things like toss handgrenades at bunny rabbits, particularly when he shot at the bird while crossing the bridge. Now that I think of it, the motif of being chased, hunted by a mad-dark figure seems to be a pretty common thread in most of their movies (particularly in Oh, Brother, Big Lebowski, Fargo, the man who wasn’t there, raising arizona, barton fink, and wasn’t there someone who shased him to the top of the building in the hudsucker proxy?). I finally saw this tonight so its pretty fresh but I would still botch anything I could quote from it. I really liked how there seemed to be opposing and equally true insinuations about the nature of evil. On the one hand the evil we experience today is unlike anything we have dealt with. Sheriff Bell related it even to the decline in manners and formalities. At the same time the old timers in the movie tell stories showing that that is how it has always been; always new, terrifying, baffling.
    While not everything goes back to Walker Percy, I can only speak from my own reading experiences: The search for the understanding of evil in this reminded me a lot of Lancelot by Walker Percy. A story of a man who goes on a quest for evil in an age where evil supposedly does not exist. He yearns for a time when the lines were so clear that men would fight to the death to hold to cultural codes. What he ends up finding is that he and the people around him all seem to be operating by their own moral parameters. He finds evil but finds it a step ahead; not only a step ahead in the heedless culture that he scoffs at around him but also it is a step ahead in himself and he cannot stop his own evil. I think it also reminded me of this just because Bell’s character reminded me so much of Percy himself with his mixture of resignment and hope facing a culture completely different than the one he was raised in.

  10. Patrick Roberts

    just saw no country for old men, it’s unassumingly unconventional yet (thankfully) never over-the-top. the Coen bros. deserve their Oscars;

    the movie is dumbfounding form a moral angle, especially that ending. it seems to communicate the simple truth of the matter, the reality of evil in the world we inhabit. the ending seems to communicate “yeah, it’s like that and it will continue to be like that.”

If you have a Rabbit Room account, log in here to comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *