Reflections on "No Country for Old Men"

Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen,

based on the book by Cormac McCarthy

Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

"No Country for Old Men" presents the story of a drug deal gone badly wrong, the opportunist theft of two million dollars intended to be used to pay for the drugs, the pursuit of that money and its thief by several interested parties, and the attempts to make sense of the resultant conflicts and assaults and to save the life of our opportunist thief by the local police.

In the course of the film, we are invited to reflect on the diminishing role of values and morality in modern society, the part that chance can play in our lives, and the disconcerting effect of a perceived deterioration in standards and ethics on ageing and experienced law enforcement officers who may represent traditional values and outlooks.

It appears that traditional societal values and order have been questioned and doubted to such an extent that individuals now indulge their own world views and self-centred ambitions in their desire to survive and thrive and, as traditional values decline, it is increasingly a case of every man or woman for him or herself.

Llewelyn Moss, a down-on-his-luck welder who lives a modest life in a trailer park with his wife Carla Jean, is hunting in the desert of West Texas. Quite by chance, he comes across the aftermath of a deadly shoot-out between two groups involved in a high-volume drug deal. Llewelyn cautiously investigates the crime scene and eventually finds some two million dollars which he removes and stashes under his trailer caravan.

We are given no background about Llewelyn, or, indeed, any of the characters. We join them in the action of the film and we are left to make our own deductions about their character based on their actions, attitude and speech.

We learn that Llewelyn is a man of no great consequence or means. He does what he can to survive and he provides what he can for his wife and family. There is no suggestion of criminality and he appears relatively open and honest. However, in a theme that is revisited at various points in the film, it seems that money corrupts and he does not report what he has seen in the desert to the police or hand in the money he has found, but he does share some details with his wife and he makes plans to travel and protect her as necessary. We see also that he cannot sleep as he recalls finding a dying drug dealer who begged for water but he couldn’t help him at the time. He sets off for the crime scene, carrying a container of water but he encounters danger when he gets there and he must flee.

Llewelyn is a decent and ordinary guy who retains a sense of responsibility and remains devoted to his wife, but he sees a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to better his life and so casts aside the traditional "moral" approach to life to become an opportunist thief, stealing from people he doubtless considers of little or no moral fibre or worth. He understands the potential consequences of his actions but he is willing to take his chances and do what he must to escape the poverty trap in which he and his wife live. He may even be willing to kill those who will seek to kill him as they pursue the money he has appropriated - legality and moral niceties are dismissed as far as defending himself is concerned, though he will not carry the fight to his opponents.

Hitman Chigurh, on the other hand, is more than willing to hurt, damage or kill anyone who gets in his way or whose death will advantage him in his pursuit for the stolen money. We witness him killing, brutally and needlessly, a police officer and a passing motorist who stops to help him out, but their deaths appear to be of no consequence to him, indeed he seems to take pleasure in the act of murder. He is totally committed to his mission of recovering the money procured by Llewelyn so it may be said that he is a professional, but one who achieves his objective at any price and with no consideration or respect for the lives of others.

Entirely amoral, Chigurh survives by indulging his psychopathy, making a living by offering his deadly services for a fee. He seems to hold nothing dear apart from the fulfilment of his task but, amazingly, he is willing to recognise the role of chance in life and he is ready to concede to the way chance (or fate) plays out, indeed he may even have convinced himself that he acts in accordance with fate.

He spares the life of a garage attendant based on the flip of a coin and takes the life of Llewelyn’s wife Carla Jean on the same premise, though Carla Jean tries to reason with him and suggests that ultimately, he must take responsibility for his own actions - no matter how the coin-toss turns out. However, Chigurh takes the easy option and does not doubt himself or his conviction that he must comply with fate.

Chance comes in to play on numerous occasions in the film, including Chigurh's car crash and the very fact that Llewelyn comes across the scene of the drug deal and the money. In every case, the result is decided by the action of the protagonist in response to events, and not by the events themselves. Opportunities may be offered and events may occur but responsibility for their consequences lie with the individuals concerned and the actions they take, reflecting their character and personal circumstances.

Carson Wells is another hitman, but one open to reason and discussion. He may be amoral in that he is willing to commit amoral acts in order to do his job, but he is no psychopath. He is a survivor and a realist. He sees how things lie in society and he is willing to do what he must in order to make his way but he is open to reason and will take drastic action only as a last resort. He retains a certain humanity and feeling for traditional values while Chigurh has taken his existential interpretation of life one step farther than Carson. Chigurh has abandoned all attachments to past values and will cold-heartedly kill Carson.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is the most conservative, traditional and human character on show. The two hitmen and their employers show little or no regard for others and Llewelyn and his wife show concern for one another and their immediate family, but Sheriff Tom is concerned with the welfare of others and the standards of law, order and humanity in society as a whole.

Reflecting a sensation common to many as they get older, Tom is finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile his present experiences of nihilistic amorality in society with his formative years and early experiences in which values and principles were widely recognised, if not always strictly adhered to.

Tom cannot fathom the perceived existential deterioration in humanity. The film starts with him lamenting the passing of the "old ways" and the clarity they lent to life, and he ends the film in retirement and some bewilderment, the events of the story having pushed him farther down the path of no longer belonging and feeling out of sync with the way modern society is developing.

He even shares with us a dream he had involving his father holding up a dim light in the pitch black surrounding them. His highly respected father, representing rectitude and moral certainty, offers no more than a glimmer of hope in the darkness which suggests the moral malaise Tom perceives all around him.

It is suggested on several occasions that money can lead to corruption and greed. At the Mexican border, a badly hurt Llewelyn immediately offers a passer-by a substantial amount of money for his jacket, perhaps reflecting his mercenary expectations of society, and the passer-by demands to see the money before handing over his jacket, apparently happy to make a fast and easy buck from another’s misfortune rather than offer a charitable helping hand.

After his car crash, the wounded Chigurh offers money for a shirt belonging to a young lad accompanied by a friend. The young lad offers it to Chigurh for nothing but Chigurh insists on paying him and this leads to an argument between the two friends on how to split the proceeds of the sale...

Of course, the whole premise of the film is that money is set above the value attached to any number of lives, while morality is reduced to the keeping of one’s word and the completion of a task, regardless of the potential amorality attached to the consequence of keeping that word or completing the task. Modern morality has become an entirely insular and independent concept as opposed to taking into account the lives and feelings of others.

And so, we have a highly effective thriller in which different takes on principle and duty vie with one another to survive and prosper in a society which has analysed and argued its way to a moral no-man’s-land and where chance can still throw everything into disarray. For me, this is the most accessible and successful of the Coen brothers’ films. The script is highly engaging, the direction brisk, exciting but also thought-provoking, and the performances from all involved are beyond reproach.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .

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