The original publication of this post can be found here, on ComicsVerse.com.
In 2005, acclaimed writer Cormac McCarthy released a novel entitled, No Country for Old Men. A mere two years later, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen adapted the work for the big screen.
Upon its release, the film was acclaimed by both audiences and critics and would go onto win an abundance of awards.
Today, the film is often considered one of the greatest films of the 21st century; here is why.
A Cat-And-Mouse Game
Upon the beginning of the film, we find Sheriff Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones, reflecting on the oldtimers who used to be in the police force. Bell ponders the fact that he has been sheriff in Terrell County, Texas, since the age of 25. He remains pensive throughout the film for he seems perplexed by the continuous presence of violence in his town. It is as though he was expecting his role as a sheriff to make more of an impact on humankind.
Thus, if the violence in his community is increasing, what change does Bell truly bring as sheriff?
With this, Tommy Lee Jones’ character is often perceived as one that is on the outside looking in. He never interacts with the primary antagonist, Anton Chigurh, who is played by the phenomenal Javier Bardem. As a result, Bell and his partner, Deputy Wendell, embark on a cat-and-mouse chase with an elusive villain. Their inability to capture Chigurh prompts doubt. How does one capture an enemy that operates like a ghost, a haunting? The task of bringing this killer in begins to lose objective when it becomes increasingly difficult to find this intangible figure.
“Alright. What we circulate? Lookin’ for a man who has recently drunk milk?” – Sheriff Ed Tom Bell
Anton Chigurh has often been perceived as a personification of evil. He lacks any trace of empathy and operates solely to fulfill his personal ambitions. With this, Bell’s role in chasing Chigurh parallels his own struggles in comprehending evil in the modern context. He struggles to understand the motives behind the violence, a struggle that deepens with Chigurh’s unpredictability.
Dollars and Sense
Initially, money seems to motivate Anton Chigurh as he chases Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss to retrieve the two million dollars Moss took after finding it in a truck with a dying man. At that moment, the dying man disregards the significant amount of cash right next to him.
Instead, he begs Moss’ character for water, for he is on the brink of death. Money initially appears to be the crux that holds the plot of the film together. However, as the narrative moves forward, we come to realize that money lacks value to these characters. This motif is exemplified in the final sequence of the film when Bell discusses two dreams he had with his wife.
The first one he relays involves Bell losing some money his father had given him, but he is unsure if he truly lost the money or not. After Bell narrates this dream, he immediately segues into the next one. He brushes off this dream as insignificant for the presence of money lacks importance regarding his second dream, a dream discussed later in this post.
Though Chigurh and Bell embody distinct narratives in the film, they share similar perceptions on money. Though the majority of the first half of the film depicts Chigurh tracking Moss down to retrieve the cash, one sequence between the two exhibits a shift in Chigurh’s motivations. In this sequence, Chigurh relays to Moss over the phone that he intends on killing Moss whether or not he retrieves the money.
The Grim Reaper
Anton Chigurh appears apathetic, never seeking incentive for his crimes. He seemingly operates without an objective and kills without remorse. Chigurh even goes out of his way to shoot and kill a crow for no particular reason. Historically, crows have been known to be symbols of death.
So, to depict Chigurh nonchalantly killing a symbol of death showcases his authority over death. One can argue that Chigurh simply enjoys killing and this bloodlust is what motivates him. However, it is difficult to determine if he enjoys the act since he maintains such a detached character.
In my point of view, I believe Anton Chigurh enjoys the control of holding another man’s life in his hands. Life operates through random events, so no one is capable of controlling their fate or the fate of others. With this, Chigurh manipulates fate by taking the fates of others into his own hands.
He breaks the cycle of randomness by personally determining the end of one’s life. Because of this, money and material things lack value in comparison to this overlying power.
“He’s a psychopathic killer, but so what? There’s plenty of them around.” – Deputy Wendell
Penny For Your Thoughts
If money is not the crux that holds the film together, then one can argue that the crux is death. The deaths portrayed in No Country for Old Men are random and, at times, anticlimactic. The death of Llewelyn Moss, by Chigurh’s hand, occurs off-screen.
The only way the audience becomes aware of his murder is within the depiction of his dead body. It is intriguing that a primary character has such an insignificant send-off. However, this may be a way to further the desensitization to violence in Sheriff Bell’s town.
In another sequence, Bell relays to Deputy Wendell a story about a crime he had previously
investigated. Wendell begins to laugh in response to the absurdity of the crime, to which Bell responds that he too has found humor in past horrific events. This sequence seems to imply that laughter is a response to a lack of understanding. Throughout his career, Bell has struggled to understand the motives of violence, despite the fact that he has been obligated to face violence for most of his career.
“I always figured when I got older, God would sorta come into my life somehow.” – Sheriff Ed Tom Bell
He struggles to come to terms with the fact that his life’s work has failed to reveal any insight into evil.
Along with this, he struggles to realize that his career has failed to inspire change in
humankind. People are still evil and continue to do evil things. Because of this, he ultimately
wonders if he served any purpose as a sheriff. This perspective is certainly a nihilistic one,
particularly when you consider the randomness by which Chigurh operates and the anticlimactic nature of Moss’ death.
Your Lucky Coin
The first half of the film features an intriguing, albeit uncomfortable, interaction between Chigurh and the owner of a gas station. In the scene, Chigurh offers the gas station owner a chance to control his fate by allowing him to call a coin toss. The gas station owner calls the correct side of the coin, which prompts Chigurh to spare his life.
Chigurh then informs the man to put the coin in any other place besides his pocket, for the coin is his lucky coin. By putting the coin back in his pocket, it will get lost in the other coins, losing its significance. However, Chigurh goes on to contradict himself when he says,
“…It’ll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. Which it is.”
In this scene, Chigurh permits the randomness of life to exhibit its authoritative nature. The gas station owner may perceive the coin as the object that dictated his fate when in reality it was mere chance, which is what Chigurh reminds the gas station owner of when he remarks that the coin is not that special.
Throughout the film, randomness appears to be a confidant of Chigurh, operating in his favor. This relationship abruptly changes in the final moments of the film, when a car rams into Chigurh’s own vehicle. Upon my first viewing of No Country for Old Men, I thought Sheriff Bell was the one responsible for the accident, expecting him to lock Chigurh up and end the cat-and-mouse game.
I was wrong.
Back In Older Times
A few young boys serve as witnesses to Chigurh’s accident. He pays the boys off, telling them to inform others that he was not present at the scene of the accident. He then stumbles off, most likely continuing his dark path. No one captures the heartless, murdering Anton Chigurh. There is no climactic fight between him and the hero of the film. Rather, he escapes, slightly inconvenienced by the idiocy of a random driver. No justice, no closure.
Sheriff Bell’s second dream seems to reference the film’s overlying lack of closure.
In the dream, Bell follows his father, who is holding onto an illuminated horn, through the dark. Since No Country for Old Men's release, there have been a variety of interpretations of this final monologue.
Perhaps it exemplifies the infinite nature of evil and crime, which people such as Bell and his father will continue attempting to alleviate. Maybe it showcases a justification of Bell’s retirement, exemplified at the moment where he abruptly awakes from his dream. The dream may imply that Bell should no longer uphold his duty, for his work has proved only to be futile.
“I could see the horn from the light inside of it – about the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold. And I knew that whenever I got there, he’d be there. Then I woke up.”
– Sheriff Ed Tom Bell
One can discuss the facets of No Country for Old Men for ages. It is a rich, multi-faceted film that audiences should continue to discuss because ultimately, there is no way to truly know what the film is attempting to convey to us. All we know is what we derive from the characters and the narrative. So, I suppose this begs the question of why we bother to interpret a film such as this in the first place.