No Country for Old Men

Josh Brolin
Flickr Image Courtesy of onejen

My wife, Rainey, doesn’t watch movies with any amount of violence, suspense or surplus of tension. She once walked out of the theater during Jurassic Park. So then, to paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction, that pretty much means that I don’t watch movies with any amount of violence, suspense, etc. Being a huge fan of anything the Coen Brothers do, this put me in an awkward situation when they released a film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men. Ultimately, I ended up watching the DVD on my laptop on my lunch break during two consecutive days at work.

No stranger to the Coen’s ease with over-the-top violence, I nonetheless squirmed a few times during the first bloody minutes of the film. More on this later. Beyond that, the brothers Coen are masters of both the homage and subversion of genre. This film seems to me mostly homage – first to McCarthy’s novel and second to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. The Brothers insert scenes from the movie that directly recall Hitchcock. Llewellyn Moss’ taxi ride midway through the film might as well be Marion Crane‘s flight with her$40,000 in Psycho and reminds us of the morally ambiguous choice both make when they first pick up the suitcase full of cash. The vast desert spaces remind us of the emptiness at the midwestern crossroads in North by Northwest just as the sudden, jarring attack by the crop duster echoes in our minds when Lewellen predictably, but more suddenly than expected meets his demise. Hitchcock was the master of suspense, and the Coen Brothers give us a film that begins and ends as a series of chases, keeping us guessing almost as well as the silhouetted director himself. We know this film will end in ruin. The cues are present, the characters play their roles and we have no choice but to wait anxiously to see how the finale will play out.

Superficially, No Country for Old Men is a movie of suspense, a damned good one to boot. But like all films of any consequence, there is more going on. And here we come the Coen’s fidelity to their source material. And to the violence. Now, Hitchcock was certainly violent – stabbings in the shower, hail of bullets and exploding planes to recall just the movies I mention above. It seems though that the Coens (and McCarthy) would have us believe that there is something altogether more insidious at work here. Anton Chigurh is painted as a relentless killer, remorseless and single-minded in his task of recovering two million dollars of drug money. Within minutes of the film’s opening he strangles a sheriff’s deputy with his own handcuffs and does in an innocent bystander with a pneumatic device whose intended purpose is the slaughter of beef cattle. The message is clear – shit has hit the fan, the world today is not what it used to be.

This is, at least, the message reinforced by the film’s Greek Chorus – sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Tommy Lee Jones plays the sheriff to perfection, giving us equal part hardened Texas lawman and homespun Mayberry wisdom. An early monologue remembers his father, also a sheriff, who “didn’t even wear a gun.” After several scenes with Sheriff Bell, we begin to realize that in addition to everything else, he is in part Bob Dylan’s Mr. Jones who “knows something is happening” but not “what it is.” He competently follows the trail of carnage, and gets right a lot of what’s going on. But he never understands it and ultimately his small role in tracking both the hunter and the hunted leads him to retirement. The West Texas that he knew as a child is no longer a country for old men.

After most of the significant characters have been killed, given up, or (the very lucky) moved on, there is a final twist. Sheriff Bell visits his predecessor who now lives in a wasted shack overrun by cats and ignored by the civilization at large. He comes looking for solace, explanation, sympathy. But he gets none. Instead he hears a story about a sheriff two generations back who was shot and left to die on his front porch while the killers watched for a while before getting bored and riding off. If we have been following this story with sympathy for any of the characters, the rug is pulled out from under us. All this violence is not new, it is not directed solely at you, and to think that this is just about you “is vanity.” This has never been a country for old men.

Cormac McCarthy does not trade in the sentimental view that everything was better in the long ago and far away. To their credit, and we expect no less from this duo, the Coen brothers stay true to this message. Anton Chigurh walks away at the end of the movie battered, bruised, responsible for more deaths than the rest of the cast combined. And at the end, perhaps we realize the inevitability of Anton Chigurh. He is fate. He lives to kill another day. The great works acknowledge the role of fate in human lives though our creative urge violently resists our frailty. Before the fade to black and roll of credits we hear one last story. Sheriff Bell, now retired has time to dream. He dreams of his father, dead a younger man than his son is now, riding alone out into the wilderness. He is wrapped in a blanket, carrying supplies for the fire and, the sheriff says, “I knew he was going on ahead of me” and was waiting for him somewhere out there. We tell ourselves these stories to shore up our courage. We tell ourselves that there is a season for everything, and that all striving is vanity. And we know that we do not travel alone. We strive, we name our fears as well as our hopes. Most days that is all we can do; and most days, that is enough.

2 Responses to “No Country for Old Men”

  1. Rainey Says:

    Wow. That sounds like a really good movie that I will never watch. I may, however, read the book. I like the Ecclesiastes references. I guess the good news is we don’t do any of this alone, as you said. And our stories–our histories–our dreams–help us understand where we came from, who we are, and where we might be going. This is a great “reading.” Paul and Irby would be proud, I would think. :)

  2. walter Says:

    Nice words. You don’t mention the complete lack of soundtrack in the film– completely unnerving. Never have I gripped the arms of my seat for two whole hours, wishing like hell to get out of my giant black box! Pretty impressive on the screen. Perhaps we do travel alone, but thankfully bump into things (people, experiences, etc.) along the way. There is an excellent episode of MASH narrated by the ghost of a dying/dead (?) soldier, watching as the doctors and nurses and chaplain fuss over him futilely. At the end of the episode, he is invited to join a string of soldiers marching into the distance on a dirt road. He asks his companion, “Where are we going?” to which he replies, “I don’t know. Nobody knows.” And they walk.

    Fun stuff! I look forward to more insights. You sure do write purty!

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