It’s been ten years since the release of what some might refer to as Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterpiece. Released in 2007 amidst numerous politically-minded, morally serious parables about U.S.’s intervention in the Middle East, No Country for Old Men was a black sheep in an industry being overtaken by conscious and collective morality. With No Country for Old Men the Coens decided to take the degeneration of America’s morality a step further by focusing not on the blatant dishonesty of the Bush administration, but to the rotting core of American exceptionalism itself.
In an era where everyday Americans had everyone to blame for their sins but themselves No Country for Old Men represented a scary and unpopular notion, that America—despite currently being embroiled in backhanded deception—is and always had been a place where so long as the people ruled so did dishonesty and immorality.
The film takes place during 1980, in the very birthplace of American cinema—the Wild West. But this isn’t the Wild West our grandparents grew up watching, No Country for Old Men is set in a time after decades of interventions, unjust wars and political scandals have corrupted America’s national character. No longer do the wide-open plains denote America’s “quest for independence.” In Joel and Ethan Coen’s dark and pervasive vision the frontier is a vacuum, where men are chewed and spat out like tobacco and where morality, justice and ethos dry as quickly in the desert sand as blood.
Our two heroes in No Country for Old Men are two world-weary veterans of war—one a veteran of “the last good war” and the other of a war branded unlawful, a “quagmire.” Ed Tom Bell is the aging sheriff who recounts, in an opening monologue how “some of the old time sheriffs never even wore a gun.” Llewelyn Moss is a welder living in a destitute trailer park with his younger wife, hunting pronghorn when he comes across the grisly aftermath of a drug-deal-gone-bad.
Ed’s service in the Second World War compared to the younger Moss’s service in Vietnam poses a striking polarity in how quickly ideas of “war” have shifted in the American consciousness. Ed’s war was an idealistic one, where America was viewed as a community fighting overarching tyranny, Llewellyn’s war however was a fractured, spurned chapter of American history—where America had suddenly became a villain.
Despite the historical background pertinent to the context of Coens’ and McCarthy’s story, No Country for Old Men is a vision divorced from war, realpolitik and history. Violence—whether justified or unjustified, determined or random—doesn’t characterize one event or another but represents in No Country for Old Men a continuum that stretches through past, present and future.
Perhaps illustrative of this violent continuum is the Coens most fully conceived character in the film—Anton Chigurh. A psychotic and nightmarish figure with a hideous bowl-cut and a cattle gun. “It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And it’s either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it,” Chigurh says to a gas station proprietor, suggesting that from a cosmic perspective life and death come as simply to a person as heads or tails when flipping a coin.
A little more than halfway through No Country for Old Men Woody Harrelson, playing a low-rent bounty hunter, is asked “just how dangerous” Chigurh is, to which he sardonically replies, “Compared to what? The bubonic plague?”
Chigurh is among the Coens’ most curious on-screen presences. Shorn from Cormac McCarthy’s source novel, the character himself is a great subject of debate. Is he a supernatural entity, an agent of fate, or perhaps the very incarnation of death itself? It’d be hard to argue against any theory as the character’s warpath leaves a trail of bodies so long one would feel right to suggest Chigurh embodies a “force of nature” persona, freed from the rules of ordinary men. As Harrelson’s bounty hunter describes, “He’s a peculiar man. You could even say that he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that. He’s not like you. He’s not even like me.”
For the majority of the film Chigurh is on Moss’s tail after the latter discovers a briefcase with 20 million dollars stashed inside. “You know how this is going to turn out, don’t you?” Anton Chigurh asks Llewellyn Moss in one peculiar phone conversation. Moss replies with a spurning, “Nope.” An unnerving little bit of self-deception—of course Llewellyn knows. He carries the 20 million, despite attracting hordes of drug dealers to his doorstep. Chigurh, however, is less interested in the money. He moves with the determination of a machine set on its target, more philosophically drawn to Moss’s path of destruction.
Though the Coens’ film is heavily characterized as an action-thriller (as it should be) there are certain points of interest which distinguish it away mindless body counts and outside of its tenuous moral vacuums. One scene happens in the end when the Coens (heavily) emphasize that Chigurh had just murdered Llewellyn’s recently bereaved Widow Carla Jean Moss (a wonderfully understated performance by Kelly MacDonald). It happens after she refuses to abide by his “coin toss” principle, saying to Chigurh, “The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.”
What does Carla Jean’s line mean to Anton Chigurh? Nothing, perhaps. Carla Jean dies and Chigurh leaves. However we see Chigurh’s cold isolated stare break briefly as he takes a pointed look at the rear-view. Some have suggested he was distracted by the kids on bicycles, which seems too paltry for a film so fixed on details. We can’t immediately assume Chigurh showed any trace of humanity or remorse for what he did to Carla Jean, the occasion was far too fleeting, but an emphasis on Chigurh’s wounds show us he is nothing more than flesh-and-bone. It doesn’t come as a revelation, but in the end violence—as prevalent and widespread as it is—is as symptomatically human as it is inhuman.
As of writing this it’s been less than a week since the Sutherland Springs church shooting, now referred to as “the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in Texas.” Perhaps the reason why the Texas-based No Country for Old Men still manages to shake people to their core today is how pervasive its take on violence proves to be.
And despite its Best Picture win at the Oscars No Country for Old Men is actually pretty great, both as an art-thing and as pure entertainment. Joel and Ethan Coen’s emphasis on nightmare logic and nail-biting suspense haven’t so primal since Blood Simple. Roger Deakins, as always, proves equally important to the film’s accomplishments. He was nominated twice this year, once for No Country for Old Men and the other for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Instead of the emphasized color grading and abstraction of Assassination of Jesse James, Roger Deakins is in full service of the Coens’ story. He gives West Texas an off-white plainness in daylight but his photography really comes alive at night, when flashes of gunfire blind the screen and light and shadow become deadly players in a border-town shootout.
No Country for Old perhaps Joel and Ethan Coen’s most accomplished film to date. It doesn’t fall into any of the pitfalls of some of the Coens’ most accomplished films; its black humor perhaps doesn’t feel as invasive to the seriousness, its spontaneity not as abrupt or jarring, and its irony not as viciously cruel. Perhaps the Coens’ found a perfect pairing with the stark American lyricist Cormac McCarthy—perhaps an adaptation of Blood Meridian is in order? Just please don’t give it to James Franco.