You Can't Stop What's Coming: The Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men
When discussing the Coen brothers’ filmography, you will find a myriad of answers when it comes to personal “favorites”. However, when it comes to their “best”, the list becomes much shorter. No Country For Old Men is definitely on that short list. It is undeniably some of their best work, and frankly, it may stack up as some of the best art that film, as a medium, has to offer. For that reason, it becomes to write about. Much like other classics, it can devolve into simple gushing about its greatness without much analysis. We will do our best to avoid that, but hey, no promises, ok?
Upon rewatch, what really stands out is the framing device of Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). It is easy to focus on our terrifying villain and the exciting story of the stolen money, but frankly, all of that is ancillary to the real point of No Country For Old Men. That is not to say that it isn’t important, just that it is in service to the simple story of an aging lawman. It is hard to imagine better casting than Tommy Lee Jones in this role. We can easily see him as an old sheriff taking his last stand or as the old man fading off into the distance. Both his previous film roles, as well as his penchant for embracing the grumpy old man persona off screen in interviews, lend itself to an easy buy-in for the audience. Unlike most westerns, and in many ways No Country For Old Men fits many western archetypes, the ending is constantly in doubt. Which characters will live and die is never a certainty, and much of this is due to the fact that there are no heroes here. Villains certainly, but even the “good guys” either have too many shades of grey or are not at the peak of their abilities. So, we are left with half-heroes and those we cannot depend on in the end.
The ending of the film, as shown through Ed Tom’s discussion of his dreams with his wife, detail this difficult process of aging and feeling unable to succeed regardless of effort. Although he knows that he is wildly outmatched, Ed Tom, at the very least, goes through the motions and takes all of the steps expected of him. But we don’t truly learn about this character through his actions, which is another way this film detours from traditional western fare. In a normal film, we would see who he is through how he affects the plot directly. Instead, we only truly see him when we hear his dreams. In the first of his dreams, he is given money by his father (another old lawman) and loses it. This can be chalked up to a dream of reckless youth or the idea that no matter how careful or talented we are, we will all lose “it” in the end. It’s just a fact of life. Life and time. The second dream has him with his father again, carrying fire to a campsite. The dated reference to carrying this fire in a horn is yet another call back to the old ways and the fact that he, himself, is getting older. It is also in direct response to everything we have seen in the film that doesn’t fit with the old, or expected ways. There is no hero. The villain does not pay for his crimes in the end. People die for seemingly no good reason, and the sheriff doesn’t win in a standoff at high noon. Despite the fact that the rest of the film fits in with a genre action or western film, these closing moments are a bleak treatise on the perceived uselessness of growing older and fighting against a world we no longer understand.
As a matter of fact, Ed Tom ruefully admits to not understanding what is happening in the story, and this leads him to not want to put his life, and soul, on the line. The villain, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) doesn’t quite fit into any of our expectations either. He is truly terrifying and nearly unstoppable, which may lead us to compare him to famous slasher villains in the horror genre. But, he also has a code. Once someone has wronged him, it puts him on the path to a bloody end. Additionally, when he gives his word, it is as good as done. This is true, whether or not he has anything to gain or there is an actual point to the violence; the violence is simply a consequence of making good on his word. This single mindedness leads him to not only be feared by normal people, but those in the underworld as well. And that fear is well-earned, and builds throughout the film, to the point that, when he is injured, it takes the audience by surprise to see him weakened in any real way. It is also interesting that depending on the perspective of the story, Chigurh has some personality traits that are seen in heroes. Namely, his motivation and drive to get the job done, as well as his previously mentioned code. Look at it this way, if you remove the scenes where he is killing innocents, isn’t Chigurh in the right? A man took money that is not his to take, and it is Chigurh’s job to track him down and get the money back. These are honorable traits (especially in the western genre) but turned on its head so expertly that it instills fear, and even disgust at his actions.
Our protagonist (at least on first watch), Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), is, at best, an antihero. He is, after all, a thief who takes advantage of a tragedy in order to take a shortcut to an easy life, all while placing loved ones and innocents in danger. In addition, he does not treat others well. He always has a snide remark at the ready, and refuses to listen to reason, even when there is no other resort. Despite all of this, Llewelyn is still a character to root for, made good by comparison to the unstoppable evil that is Chigurh. In the introduction to Moss, the Coens provide us with a few important pieces of information. First, Moss’s inability to take down his prey with a single shot leads him to the slaughter, the money, and ultimately, his downfall. This is in direct comparison to Chigurh who takes his time, and basically never misses; plus, through most of the film, he is able to dispatch his prey with a single shot. However, as a hunter, Moss tracks his wounded prey and is later able to survive several dangerous situations that a normal person would never have lived through. This makes him seen as, if not true competition, at least a challenge for Chigurh. As the hunter becomes the prey, there is the slightest hope that Moss will wriggle out of each impossible scenario. And in the end, it is his own human weakness and frailty, his shades of grey, that cost him his life, not the unstoppable villain. And this is one more master stroke of the film, that his end is not a glorious standoff with Chigurh, but rather because his location has been given away by his chatty mother-in-law. And this is immediately following a sense of hope, as our “hero” has evaded death and takes a moment for a breath. This continual flippant treatment of expectations is the secret to the greatness of No Country For Old Men and culminates in the aforementioned discussion of dreams. The audience is never given what they desire and it becomes more rewarding, particularly on rewatch. There is so much focus on the stalking of Moss, it is only long after the end of the film that we realized that this particular journey is not the point. The realization that age and death catches us all hits like an anvil as the credits roll.