The title of Cormac McCarthy’s novel “No Country for Old Men” is derived from the opening line of the poem “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats, published in 1928. The poem, regarded by critics as one of Yeats’ greatest, is about the hardship of growing old and the futility of yearning to remain young. It describes the toil and effort required in order to try and remain able as one grows old. Cormac McCarthy’s protagonist Ed Tom Bell could have authored that poem, were he a more poetic man. He finds himself at the end of his years, bearing witness to a world that he is unable to comprehend. The Coen brother’s 2008 film of the same name as McCarthy’s novel is at its core about the same themes of the woes of aging. It also contains elements of the cruelty of fate and the eternal war between good and evil. The three main characters are Llewelyn Moss, Anton Chigurh, and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. The film entwines the threads of these characters as Chigurh chases Moss and Bell chases both of them. Ultimately the plot has little significance. Rather the true focus of the film is the characters, their actions and their motivations. As will be discussed in this essay, the themes are illuminated by the three main players and assisted by the cinematic brilliance of the Coen brothers and their crew coupled with eloquent writing from McCarthy.
In 2005 American author Cormac McCarthy published his novel “No Country for Old Men”. McCarthy was already a well established author at the time of this novel’s publication, and had received critical acclaim for some of his prior works. The bulk of his work at that point would fall into the Western genre, a genre that had been partially explored by the Coens in their 1984 thriller “Blood Simple”. Ethan and Joel Coen adapted the novel into a screenplay for a motion picture. The film is incredibly faithful to its source material, at many times quoting word for word from the pages of the book. The Coen brothers have said that one of them would hold the book open while the other wrote the screenplay. This technique of reformatting of the novel for the screen ensures that the themes present in the film were derived directly from McCarthy’s novel.
“No Country for Old Men” is the tenth film written solely by Ethan and Joel Coen. At the time of the movies release, which was in 2007, the Coens were already distinguished film makers, having received numerous award and Oscar nominations. Their 1996 crime drama Fargo received the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Their films are known for commonly containing a colorful cast of characters and an intriguing plot. The Coen brothers are motivated to tell rich stories to their audiences, captivating them with dialogue, cinematic quality and a profound deeper meaning that is often present in their films.
The novel and film take place in Texas in 1980. Both Llewelyn Moss and Carson Wells both mention that they served in the Vietnam war, which ended in 1975. The drug war which is the catalyst that caused Llewelyn to find find the money had been going on in Mexico for some time, since the 1960’s. It wasn’t until 1982 that George HW Bush demanded that the CIA and US Military become involved in the drug war, so it can be assumed that the drug deals happening on the border of Mexico and the US were understaffed, that is that the law enforcement agencies were unable to properly police the dealings. As we see in the film, local sheriff Bell has a difficult time working the case, which involves an exorbitant amount of money, 2.5 million, and a truck bed full of “Mexican brown dope”. He is often working either alone or with his sole deputy.
The intended audience is the movie-going public in America. The film received an R rating, so those in attendance must have been 17 or accompanied by an adult. There is a considerable amount of violence in the film that could be seen as a constraint, as it might turn some viewers off to the film. The Coen brothers in 2008 had already built up a large fan-base of movie-goers that would be willing to see the film simply because it was made by Ethan and Joel Coen. Cormac McCarthy fans would also be excited at the prospect of seeing one of the author’s novels made into a film. The film could hold more appeal for an older generation of adults between the ages of 40 and 60, as well as for Americans living in the southern US.
The exigence that McCarthy and the Coens are trying to portray here is that crime is on the rise in America, and with it come increased levels of bloodshed and murder. The protagonist Sheriff Bell believes that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. The film conveys the idea that American law enforcement members are unable to prevent crimes from happening due to the nature of the crimes being incomprehensible. The film poses the question; how can you fight something that you do not understand? Sheriff Bell asks as much in the opening monologue.
The constraints faced by the Coens here are numerous. The first, as mentioned above, is the film’s R rating and amount of violence may turn some viewers away. The fit is good because the violence is realistic. It’s a tough truth for some to swallow but with crime often comes violence. In order for their film to resonate with audience the Coen brothers wanted to show this violence. Another constraint is that the film makes its exigence seem too formidable of a problem to conquer. In the end Bell retires from the job rather than continue to fight, so perhaps the audience will conclude that crime cannot be stopped.
“No Country for Old Men” was a commercial and box office success. At the time it was the Coen brothers’ most successful film in terms of worldwide gross, raking in over 170 million dollars. It would eventually be surpassed by their third Western, True Grit. It first premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2007 and received positive feedback. The film was nominated for 8 Academy Awards and won 4 of them. It won the Oscar for Best Director (Coen brothers), Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem), Best Adapted Screenplay (Coen brothers) and the most prestigious award, Best Picture (Coen brothers and Scott Rudin, producers). It has received a number of positive reviews, including a four out of four star rating given by Roger Ebert.
Although the plot is not of the greatest overall importance in understanding the film, it is still necessary to have at least some knowledge of it. On its surface, the movie is about a chase. Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin) discovers a drug deal gone wrong out in the Texas backcountry, and soon after finds a satchel containing 2.5 million dollars that was part of said drug deal. Now it should be noted here that Llewelyn is an ordinary “everyman”. He served two tours in Vietnam. His profession upon return to the States is a welder. Llewelyn lives in a trailer with his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald). When he discovered the drug deal, he was out hunting. Llewelyn is a simple kind of man that happens to find an extraordinary amount of money. As the tagline of the film says, however, “There are no clean getaways.” Llewelyn’s identity is discovered by the parties involved in the drug deal when he returns to the scene of the crime to offer water to one of the drug cartel’s members that was still alive when he first arrived. It is this attempt at saving the man, this demonstration of the caring and good in Llewelyn, that ultimately cost him his life. Once he learns that the parties involved in the drug deal are on his tail, he sends his wife of two years Carla Jean to stay with her mother in an attempt to protect her.
Now Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) enters the chase. There is an air of mystery surrounding the character, commonly referred to as Chigurh. The first time he is introduced to the audience, in the opening scenes of the film, he is being led to a cop car by a state patrol man in handcuffs. The audience does not learn why he is being arrested, where he came from or where he was going when he was capture. The audience does learn very quickly that this man is extremely dangerous. Chigurh dispatches with the lawman in a quick and brutal fashion, strangling him with his own handcuffs. When it is done, Chigurh releases a deep, contented breath, and the character is now recognized by the audience as being both cunning and terrifying.
Chigurh’s employer has hired him to retrieve the money from Llewelyn by any means necessary. Chigurh soon proves himself again as a capable but ruthless man when he kills two of his associates for seemingly no reason. Chigurh gives chase to Llewelyn, following him from hotel to hotel with the aid of a transponder paired with a receiver hidden in the satchel of money. Bringing up the rear is County Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. The drug deal gone wrong happened inside of his jurisdiction, so he is brought into the chase. Bell has prior knowledge of Llewelyn Moss and hopes to save him from Chigurh and the Mexicans who are also pursuing Llewelyn and the money. Ed Tom has been county sheriff since the age of 25, which is presumably a very long time, judging by the looks of him. Bell is the main protagonist of the film and serves as the narrator. The film opens with a telling monologue delivered by Bell over shots of the expansive Texas prairie.
The film goes on for some time with Llewelyn leading the way, somehow eluding Chigurh, with Ed Tom following along, always one step behind. Llewelyn is one of the few people to have seen Chigurh and live to tell about it. Arrogant bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is another. Carson was hired by the same party that employed Chigurh, and given the same task. Carson attempts to reason with Llewelyn, to convince him that he’s in over his head, but his efforts prove unsuccessful. Llewelyn is a hard-headed, stubborn man. Carla Jean testifies to this at one point in the film. He believes himself to be more than capable of handling Chigurh and the Mexican cartel members. Carson’s path ends up crossing once again with Chigurh’s, but this time he does not live to talk about it.
While the audience expects the film to end with a cliché, some sort of final showdown between Llewelyn and Chigurh or Sheriff Bell and Chigurh, Llewelyn actually meets his demise at the hands of an unlikely party. While at a hotel waiting for his wife to join him the Mexican cartel members finally catch up to him, after learning of his whereabouts from Carla Jean’s mother, who divulged the information unknowingly. This happens about two thirds into the film, and supports the theory that the plot really wasn’t the most important thing, nor was the money. The remaining third of the film primarily concerns itself with Sheriff Bell contemplating his failure to save Llewelyn and attempting to comprehend the nature of the evil men.
The final minutes of the motion picture also wrap up the Chigurh storyline. Chigurh had given Llewelyn a chance to turn himself in with the promise that his wife would not be harmed. Llewelyn, being the tenacious character that he is, declined the offer, opting instead to vow to kill Chigurh himself. The result, with Llewelyn being deceased, is that Chigurh travels to Carla Jeans home. Carla Jean returns home from her mother’s funeral and finds Chigurh waiting for her. Chigurh informs the widow of her situation and Llewelyn’s missed opportunity to save her life. He offers her one final chance, a 50-50 shot of keeping her life. Chigurh instructs Carla Jean to call the flip of a coin, as he did in an earlier scene with a gas station attendant. These scene is very telling of Chigurh’s nature and the “code” that he follows.
Anton Chigurh believes himself to be an agency of fate. He strictly adheres, almost obsessively, to the idea that everything is predetermined, and that no actions taken by any man can change the course of destiny. It is this belief that allows him to present his opposition with the flip of a coin. He does not hold himself responsible for the outcome. Whether its heads or tails, it was already predetermined. He is not the decider, but simply the messenger. Chigurh believes that the choices others have made, such as Llewelyn’s choice not to sacrifice himself in order to save Carla Jean, have brought about their ultimate fates. As Chigurh says to Carla, “I got here the same way that the coin did.”
She finds enough inner strength to stand up to Chigurh, perhaps because she has literally nothing to lose. Carla Jean is the only one to, in a sense, defeat Chigurh because she forces him to make a choice by refusing to call the flip of the coin. This speaks volumes about her character and inner strength. She does not defeat him in the literal sense however because it is assumed that Chigurh kills her when he is seen checking the bottom of his feet as he exits her home. Chigurh demonstrates multiple times prior that he always ensures his feet are clean of any blood after he slaughters. This is symbolic of him ensuring that he leaves no trail behind him.
With how strong Chigurh believes in fate and that he is immune to the results of chance, it is ironic that he is in a savage car accident that leaves him badly injured. The accident was caused by a driver that ran a red light, t-boning Chigurh’s car in the intersection. Chigurh followed the rule of his own code in every way but in the end he could not escape a chance happening like the car accident. While assessing his injuries on the side of the road, Chigurh is approached by two young boys on bicycles. Chigurh, looking for something to fashion a sling with to hold his broken arm, offers one of the boys money for their shirt. The boy responds by giving him the shirt for free just to help out. Chigurh does end up paying them to not tell anyone about seeing him. This interaction between a wounded man and members of a younger generation is contrasted with a similar scene that takes place earlier in the film.
Llewelyn is crossing the border into Mexico badly wounded when he comes across three younger men. Like Chigurh, he offers money to one of them for clothes off his back, in this case it’s a jacket. It is night time and Llewelyn is hurt and cold. The young man is much more reluctant than the young boy to offer it up, and demands to hold the money before finally giving up the jacket. These groups of boys and men are representative of their generation. The young, innocent boys are very willing to help. Age will make a person cynical, and so the men are wary of Llewelyn, distrustful, and will only help if their efforts are reciprocated with money.
In the final two scenes with Ed Tom he partakes in conversations that are very telling of the kind of man he is and also contribute a great deal to understanding the overall meaning of the title “No Country for Old Men”. After Llewelyn’s death, Ed Tom heads home and decides to retire. He pays a visit with his relative Ellis, an even older man than Bell who is confined to a wheelchair due to an injury sustained from a criminal years ago. Ellis does not seem to be upset about his state of confinement, rather he has accepted to it. He says about his feelings toward that criminal dying in prison, “All the time you spend trying to get back what’s took from you more’s goin’ out the door. After a time, you just have to try to get a tourniquet on it.” They then discuss Ed Tom’s reasons for retiring.
“I feel overmatched,” says Ed Tom. “I always figured that when I got older, God would sorta come into my life somehow. He didn’t. I don’t blame him. If I was him I’d have the same opinion of me that he does.” Ed Tom feels that he has failed his duty as a sheriff in that he was unable to save Llewelyn. He is unable to comprehend the violence and evil in the world. He is not afraid of it, but he just does not understand. Ellis shares a tale about Ed Tom’s uncle Mac, who was senselessly murdered by a group of Natives in 1909, over 70 years prior to their conversation. The point of him telling the story is clear. The sort of cruelty associated with a killer like Chigurh is nothing new. Rather it is Ed Tom’s old age that is the root of his difficulty. As Ellis says, “You can’t stop what’s comin’. It ain’t all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.” This conversation punches a hole in Ed Tom’s belief that the world is becoming a darker place, and opens his eyes to the fact that the amount of violence he’s seen has taken its toll. Ed Tom now realizes that he is simply no longer able to keep fighting, and so retires.
The film’s ending is arguably the most powerful scene in the film, due in part to the precision with which Tommy Lee Jones (as Ed Tom) delivers his final monologue and the emotion that he packs into every word. The film closes with a conversation between Ed Tom and his wife Loretta. Loretta inquires about the quality of Ed Tom’s sleep the night before. Ed Tom then shares two dreams that he had. Dreams in films are often representative of the character that dreamt them and can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. Both of his dreams involve his father, who was also a law man. In the opening monologue Bell shares that him and his father were both sheriffs at the same time, and that he was proud of that fact. Ed Tom outlived his father by about 20 years, so in the dream his father is the younger man.
The first dream is a short, vague one. Its about meeting his father in town somewhere so he can give him some money. Ed Tom thinks he lost it. This could be referring to that idea that Ed Tom feels that he let down his father. Ed Tom feels that he let the crime and violence get out of control in his country. He bases this idea on the fact that some of “old-timers” never even carried a gun, but now it seems that death is all around him. “It’s all about the money. The money and the drugs,” says another county sheriff to Ed Tom earlier in the film. The fact that the crime Ed Tom bears witness to is centered around money could be why his dream involved money.
The second dream is more detailed, and so more open to interpretation. Ed Tom and his father are riding through a mountain pass on a cold and dark night. His father rides past him and is seen to be carrying “fire in a horn the way people used to do”. Ed Tom knows that his father is riding ahead to make a fire, and that when Ed Tom gets there he’ll be waiting. And then he wakes up. This dream could be interpreted as again a yearning for the old times when the world was a simpler and better place to live. His father lived and died in those times, and so still carries with him the light and good in an otherwise cold and scary world. Ed Tom almost found that light in his dream, but it was cut short upon his awakening, and he once again finds himself in an incomprehensible world, a world which is no place for old men.
Each of the three main characters can be seen as a personification of the various levels of morality; good, evil, and somewhere in the middle. Chigurh is obviously representative of evil. He shows no empathy or mercy for any of his victims. He is a ruthless killer through and through. Ed Tom symbolizes good and justice. He has been a sheriff for almost his whole life. Being a member of law enforcement is usually a sign that the person has a good moral compass, but it can be concluded that Ed Tom is a good person based on more than just his profession. This can be seen in his interactions with his wife, with his deputy Wendell, and everyone else that he encounters. Ed Tom dreams of a world in which peace and happiness reign supreme.
Llewelyn then falls somewhere in between Chigurh and Bell. He has elements of both good and bad in him. The right thing to do when finding a crime scene consisting of a number of dead bodies, copious amounts of drugs, and a satchel containing 2.5 million dollars would be to call the authorities and turn in the money. Had Llewelyn done this he probably would have survived and the story would end right there. While the course of action he took in trying to keep the money was not necessarily the right or “good” choice, there are other things he does that are evidence of good in him. He is a loving husband to his wife. He takes steps to assure that she is put out of harms way. Llewelyn also returns to the crime scene to give the wounded Mexican man some water, only to find that he passed away.
Another theme present in the film is that time will always continue to march forward. Ed Tom is the most representative of this theme. The title of the film, “No Country for Old Men” also is referring to this theme of aging. Old men aren’t well suited for handling this environment of brutality and senseless killing. Ed Tom yearns for days gone by, when the older sheriff didn’t even carry weapons because they didn’t need them. The ticking of the clock at the end of the film also emphasizes this theme. There is a strange lack of musical score in the film which allows the audience to hone in on natural sound effects, such as the ticking of a clock, or the constant blowing of the wind that is heard in many scenes. These are representative of truly unstoppable forces, nature and time.
A third theme in the film is the role of fate. Chigurh’s code of ethics is centered around the assumption that a person’s choices and the consequences they face are all predetermined. He considers himself to be an agency of fate. This mindset is exemplified in his dialogue with Carla Jean near the end of the film, when he states “I got here the same way the coin did.” He does allow some of his victims a chance to survive their encounter with him, by commanding them to call the flip of a coin. He seems to believe that if the person was meant to survive, then they will call it correctly. It is important to note however that Chigurh puts their life at risk when he brings out the coin. It is his choice to force them to take a 50-50 shot at survival. Carla Jean demonstrates knowledge of this when she refuses to call the coin. Chigurh then kills her on principle, because he gave his word to Llewelyn.
“No Country for Old Men” is destined to become one of the Coen brothers’ greatest achievements. It has already achieved glowing recognition as being a masterpiece from both film critics and casual movie-goers alike. One of the defining elements of a Coen brothers’ movie is its ability to be watched over and over again. Each viewing can shed light on new theories and ideas about the messages contained therein. Some of the most apparent themes in “No Country for Old Men” are the eternal struggle between good and evil, the idea of fate and destiny, and the inevitability of growing old. Both the major and minor characters, along with the cinematography and soundtrack, support and illuminate these themes. The film brings these unforgettable characters to life through dialogue and remarkable acting ability.
Ellis is a man who understands the nature of the world and the role that fate plays. “You can’t stop what’s comin’,” he says to Ed Tom. Ellis’ character is the most honest one and possesses the closest thing to a “true” perspective on the world. It is this character that provides closure to Ed Tom, and to the audience as well. That is why the conversation between Ed Tom and Ellis is so important to the overall meaning of the film. The universe does not care about any one human in it. It has no stake in the doings of good and evil men. It will continue on at its own pace, marching on forever and ever. “You can’t stop what’s comin’. It ain’t all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.”