No Country for Old Men: all the right stuff and still not a great movie

Joel Cohen, “No Country for Old Men” (2007)

Is it possible for a movie to have all the “right stuff” – you know, good acting performances, great cinematography that emphasises the desolate mood of the Texan semi-desert landscapes, a tight screenplay, a plot with a steady pace that ratchets the tension up to a tremendous, heart-breaking climax – and still stop short of greatness? In the case of Ethan and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men”, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, the answer is actually “Yes”.  The problem relates to the themes and ideas the film focusses on, in particular the nature of the universe where the film is set: a universe where randomness and unpredictability rule. Good and bad people alike have things done to them for no reason other than that there is a vicious cosmic joker at work, and having good moral principles or ethics is the same as having bad ones or none at all.  It becomes difficult for characters in this world, especially a fragmented one with little sense of community, where hyper-individualism and extreme self-reliance are valued, to understand and learn to deal with the problem of evil if it strikes swiftly and unexpectedly with no logic to it at all. A kind of complacency can result with people becoming resigned to the continuing and increasing level of evil and violence in their lives.

Unemployed welder and former Vietnam war veteran Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) is hunting game when he stumbles upon the aftermath of a shoot-out of a drug deal gone wrong, and he finds a suitcase of money. He takes the money (it happens to be bugged) and leaves the scene; later, feeling guilty that he didn’t help a survivor at that scene, he returns there with aid but is caught by various drug gang members and barely escapes with his life but must abandon his ute. Knowing that the drug gang will have checked the ute for ID papers so they can go after him, Moss bundles his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) off to safety with her mother and himself goes on the run from one motel to the next. Meanwhile two gang leaders hire a professional killer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), to get the money back; Chigurh clinches his side of the deal by killing the leaders. The next day, Bell finds the gang leaders’ bodies and identifies Moss’s ute; he contacts Carla Jean later to offer police protection.

The rest of the film involves Chigurh hounding Moss and leaving mayhem in his wake while Bell becomes ever more perplexed at the level and intensity of the violence Chigurh commits. The tension steadily grows as Chigurh gets ever so close to Moss yet remains ever so far away and Moss comes close to danger but escapes in the nick of time by sheer luck (Chigurh picks the wrong room at one motel, Moss finds the electronic bug in the suitcase just in time in another motel). Ultimately both men fail in their objectives as they move in  a capricious world that’s indifferent to the fate of its inhabitants; a world where people must make sense of their circumstances and create their own rules of morality on the hop simply to survive. Innocent people die and even Chigurh himself, the bringer of death, is felled by a random act of very trite and unintended violence – a commonplace car accident! – that he can’t deal with on his own and which makes his future, even his survival, uncertain. If one assumes that he’s managed to get the money but not Moss – and there are clues in the film that that’s what happened – then the gang that the money “belongs to” will certainly be on his trail.

The grim justice of Chigurh’s fate would be more blackly comic if the Coens had identified the people who caused the accident and kept them alive. Chigurh would be faced with this dilemma: follow his inner logic and kill the persons responsible when he gets the chance; or acknowledge the fortuitous nature of the situation and let the people go. This would be the film’s climax and its best moment: Chigurh in a position to exercise free will by breaking out of old habits and ways of thinking.  If he follows the advice that he gave to a shopowner early in the film – the one where the guy followed a rule all his life and the rule put him into a rut so should he still follow that rule? – he might redeem himself in a small way. In spite of living in an uncaring and even malevolent universe, as long as people can exercise free will, they have the potential to be more than what life, experience and knowledge have made them so far, and can create some order in the universe. If Chigurh could do this, an irony comes into play: he finally becomes a human being, no longer the Grim Reaper’s right-hand man or an angel of death. The universe itself doesn’t change – it stays an amoral place – but one inhabitant makes his own peace with it.

One character likely to appeal to viewers is Carla Jean who, though the ultimate victim through no fault of her own, shows some inner steel. In refusing to stoop to Chigurh’s level by arguing that he has free will and more control over his decisions and fate than he knows (“… the coin don’t have no say …”), she seals her own fate but in a way that diminishes Chigurh. She shows him a way out of his implacable code of “honour” but he fails to seize it.

The other appealing character is Sheriff Bell, invested with warmth and feeling by Jones, who laments at what he believes is the passing of a more civilised world where the good guys and the bad guys alike abided by an unspoken etiquette and a code of honour. I should think a world like that would be a closeted world of bribery, manipulation and corruption if everyone understands the same language and knows one another well, perhaps too well, and it might not be less violent than the one portrayed in the film. Faced with a series of crimes his training, knowledge and experience haven’t prepared him for, Bell feels overwhelmed by their senseless and cruel nature and eventually retires from the police force, admitting defeat. There’s a parallel with Chigurh here: Chigurh sticks to a rigid code of self-reliance and not owing anyone anything, and Bell believes in a different code that implies a certain insularity and insider knowledge. Both men remain diminished as characters by not being able to open up to other possibilities in their world.

The practical viewer might inquire why Bell doesn’t call for police back-up from other parts of Texas or contact the United States Marshals Service for assistance to pursue Chigurh and understand his type of criminality. Even in the period the film is set in (1980), when the FBI hadn’t yet developed methods of serial killer profiling and predicting serial killer behaviour, violent crime of that nature was not common but did occur often enough in the US that law enforcement agencies were devoting resources to studying it so help was available then. It’s significant that the male characters in the film don’t ask for or seek help when they should and this refusal together with extreme self-reliance ends up being the undoing of some characters. In a society like this, it’s possible for people like Chigurh and the people he works for to cut a swathe of destruction without meeting much resistance while those left to pick up the pieces scratch their heads and wonder.

The Coens obviously enjoy creating a world of grim black humour where characters, good, bad and evil ones alike, flail about trying to make sense of everything that happens and to control people and events around them – only for it all to rebound and leave them forlorn, isolated, angry, violent – or stone-cold dead. Unfortunately the Coens’ perspective is likely to leave a lot of viewers, expecting to see Chigurh and Moss confront each other and one of them winning, dumbfounded and feeling cheated. Parts of the narrative are deliberately left opaque at critical points which will infuriate some viewers even more.

Here is a movie that boasts great craftsmanship and good performances but which falls short of saying something unique and significant that would make it a great film. What’s unique about saying that individuals can’t overcome evil when it is vague, lacks sense, logic or intelligence and strikes randomly and without warning, and leaving the message at that? This is a message of hopelessness, one that makes people fearful and likely to hand power over to institutions (government, mercenaries perhaps) that might abuse it. We may not be able to understand evil or combat and defeat it fully but there’s a difference between throwing our hands up in despair and perhaps giving our power over to others, and recognising and resisting evil in ourselves as individuals and as members of groups.

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