An intense noirish western that deals with substantial moral questions, the Coen brothers’ 2007 No Country for Old Men, with its cynical view of modern America, subverts hero-worshiping in the form of a hideously atypical villain who is indestructible as a superhero.
It seems odd to call No Country for Old Men a western. It certainly looks like one. The story takes place in Texas and several elements of the film – the orange-tinted landscape, the cowboy-type hero, the brutal violence – all point to, arguably, the most American of all genres. However, westerns usually are moral tales with archetypes dealing in honour and personal justice. The Coens’ film is rather more ambiguous.
While hunting in the prairies of Texas, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) comes across the aftermath of a drug deal shootout. Further afield, he finds a suitcase with $ 2 million, and takes it home. The theft sets in motion Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), an apparent hired gun for the organized crime, who in fact, ends up acting independently. Chigurh, an efficient and dispassionate killer, goes after Llewelyn, helped by a tracking device. One step behind both of them is County Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who is smart enough to figure out where they are heading, but never quite catching up with them, until it is too late.
Although the film can be seen as a western-cum-thriller, with conventional elements to the story, it greatly subverts the genre. Sure, Moss, the apparent hero, is smart, methodical and fiercely brave. And so is the lawman Bell, the closest we get to a sympathetic character. However, both characters diverge from tradition in significant ways. Although Moss is undeniably a good guy, he’s also a thief. And Bell is too cynical to be a true hero.
..Roger Deakins’ Favorite Scenes: No Country for Old Men © NPR.
However, it is Chigurh, the genuinely loathsome villain – ‘Compared to what? The Bubonic Plague?’ – who mostly ignores conventions, and follows principles of a distorted logic. His habit of flipping a coin to decide his victims’ fate contradicts a psychopath’s indifference to indiscriminate suffering. A true psychopath would certainly not chat cheerfully to someone, after the coin has decided against murder. ‘Don’t put it in your pocket, sir! It’s your lucky quarter!’ Chance will decide who dies, not the killer’s will. For the psychopath, nothing exists outside of his own perspective: everything is always about himself.
Moreover, he keeps his word of a promise to sacrifice Moss’ wife, even though it might be against his self-interest. At the very end of the film, after everyone involved in the pursuing of the money are dead, we see him in the bedroom of Carla Jean Moss’ (Kelly Macdonald) mother’s house, waiting for her. This absurd, but nonetheless, principled act (Carla Jean: ‘You’ve got no cause to hurt me.’ Chigurh: ‘No. But I gave my word.’) is surely symptomatic of the hero. The decision to kill her arises paradoxically from the same principle that a promise is the utterance of an oral law.
When Carla Jean suggests to Chigurh that he does nor have to do that, his face is all condescending. From a rational point of view, she is right. Like the man who enters a burning building to save a child and becomes a hero, Chigurh gains nothing from Carla Jean’s death. But both him and the traditional hero operate under a noble, and yet irrational code. Nonetheless they both feel compelled to act that way. But Chigurh is not the hero of the story; he only displays traits usually associated with the good guys.
In fact, the real heroine is Carla Jean Moss. It is arguably her distance from the main events that keeps her integrity intact. After hearing Carla Jean’s point, Chigurh reaches at a compromise. His flipping of the coin is “the best [he] can do.” She will call it and her fate will be decided by it. But she rebels against his code. Because she refuses to be part of Chigurh’s game, Carla Jean proves to be morally superior to them all. She will not compromise her dignity. She will not validate her own death. She understands that the only way to win against such apocalyptic ethics is not to engage in the game.
By the end of the film, Carla Jean, the only relevant female character – a true outsider – is arguably the only one to redeem herself. All the others are damned. Even Bell, who narrates the whole tale, and laments a gone-by, more innocent age, does not come out unscathed. His inability to ever catch up with the other two protagonists, to save Moss and capture Chigurh, seems almost to be – at a subconscious level – self-imposed. Not that he has been afraid of death. His fear is of things that he cannot comprehend. Bell, as the audience’s alter-ego, fails to contain evil and thus denies us some sort of closure. The good guys are dead and wickedness prevails in the world.
This bleak, and yet realistic view of human affairs, makes No Country for Old Men a truly subversive western. At the end of it we are left at the same place as Bell’s. Is that the fate reserved for most of us: To observe events without ever being able to influence them?