No Country For Old Men (2007) Director: Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan Coen)
“What’s the most you ever lost in a coin toss?”
In a highly accurate adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s excellent 2005 novel of the same name, No Country For Old Men is the Coen Brothers’s Best Picture-winning darkly themed high-octane crime and genre-bending Western/Noir thriller. No Country For Old Men turns many of the classic Western tropes on its head. It continues a familiar Coen Brothers theme: the world is misanthropic, cold, calloused, unforgiving, random, and unjust.
The story takes place in the 1980s in West Texas as a drug deal goes awry. The film opens with the world-wearied reflections of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), an old-dog officer straight out of a classic Western film, as he reflects on his career as a Sheriff since the age of 25 just like his father and grandfather. He mentions how back in the day police officers rarely wore their guns a la the friendly neighborhood sheriff in the Andy Griffith Show. He longs for an imagined, false sense of the past, wherein justice once reigned over chaos. This is in contrast to the present-day where violence and crime are rampant, chaotic, and irrational. He says, “I always knew you had to be willin’ to die to even do this job. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet somethin’ I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say: ‘O.K., I’ll be part of this world.'” For Sheriff Bell times have certainly changed, or so his dreams suggest.
Meanwhile a lone opportunistic cowboy named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is out hunting when he accidentally stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong in the middle of the desert. As he slowly walks through a recently vacated scene of bloody bodies and abandoned trucks, he finds a dying man and also the corpse of a man clutching a briefcase carrying $2M of dirty corporate money. Moss takes the money and flees, but he cannot sleep so he returns to the site in the dead of night to give water to the dying man only to be chased by two men in a truck. His altruism proves to be his own downfall. When Moss gets away in a river, a terrifying assassin is sent after Moss, perhaps most fearsome villain in all of cinematic history: Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a coin-flipping agent of chaos who savagely murders almost anyone in his path without reason or remorse. He is wild and unpredictable, yet cold and stone-faced, sometimes deciding whether people live or die by the mere toss of a coin, he believes in some twisted sense of fate or luck, and in other cases he simply shoots people without explanation. There is no rationale or haggling to be had with Anton Chigurh. At one point, he looks a man dead in the eye before blasting his head with a bolt pistol, and this is followed by an utterly intense coin-flip scene in a small remote gas station. Chigurh tracks Moss from his humble trailer to a motel but Moss narrowly escapes as Chigurh slaughters a cohort of Mexican Cartel gang members who are also looking for Moss. Chigurh catches up to Moss but Moss escapes in a shootout. How is Chigurh able to do this? Moss discovers a tracking device hidden within the cash which he then removes. Moss tosses the briefcase with the money inside into a random ravine along the Rio Grande between the U.S.-Mexico border. Reason cannot discover what randomness has hidden.
Next, we meet an expert bounty hunter, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), who promises protection to Moss in exchange for the money, but Moss rejects him. And moments later Chigurh catches up to Wells and thoughtlessly kills him anyway while quietly sitting in Moss’s hotel room attempting to barter for his life. To give a sense of the wild chaotic nature of the West, a new character is introduced –a man who would otherwise be considered the harbinger of security and order– but he is simply killed off without explanation. Chigurh seemingly no longer even cares about recovering the money as Wells had offered it to him. Moss calls his room and Chigurh answers the phone promising to kill Moss’s wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald). Moss then recovers the money he previously hid along the Rio Grande, and he concocts a plan to give it to his wife with the protection of Sheriff Bell, but suddenly Moss is hunted down and killed in a Mexican stand-off with the Cartel at his motel. Thus our hero is unceremoniously killed off about two-thirds of the way through the film, and the anticipated showdown between Chigurh and Moss is anticlimactically brushed aside. The world is random, cold, indifferent and heroes who are selfless ultimately lose in the long run. Sheriff Bell, who imagines himself the gun-slinging hero, never actually sees Chigurh, he just feels the presence of his chaos. All Sheriff Bell sees is a trail of bodies and destruction. He goes to speak with another old timer named Ellis, hoping for some clarity about how much better, easier, simpler, more peaceful things were in the past, but Ellis tells him a story about a man shot and killed in his own home. His message is that things have always been brutal, harsh, anarchistic, and vicious. Despite the fabricated nostalgia we tell ourselves about an idyllic time that once existed, there never truly has been a country for old men. To suggest it hasn’t is just pure vanity:
“What you’ve got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”
No Country For Old Men offers a dark vision of the American West, rife with wanton inexplicable violence. In the end, Sheriff Bell retires from the police force in defeat. The film ends as the shadowy world of the morally ambiguous film noir genre conquers the justice-loving optimism of the classic Western genre. It is an uncomfortable ending as chaos reigns –Chigurh kills Moss’s wife offscreen for no particularly reason, and he gets into a car crash in a brief moment wherein we wonder, will some sort of divine justice finally strike? But alas, despite a bone protruding from his arm, Chigurh endures. He gives some money to nearby suburban schoolboys in exchange for their silence and their shirt which he uses as a sling. The boys then fight over the money and Chigurh hobbles away. Despite the conservative, vain, romantic tone of Sheriff Bell, the world is what it is, and it has always been this way.