“Whatcha 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.” –Barry Corbin as Ellis, No Country for Old Men,(2007)
Adapted from a 2005 novel of the same title, No Country for Old Men is an award-winning masterpiece of the Coen
Brothers about drugs, money and violence. This movie, set in 1980 on West Texas, tells the story of Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a welder and Vietnam War veteran, who came across a drug deal gone wrong. He found several dead Mexicans and dogs, a stack of cocaine and $2,000,000 while he was out in the desert hunting pronghorns. He took the money which automatically set off a wild goose chase between him, the local town sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), other Mexican drug dealers and hired killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Moss sent his young wife, Carla Jean, away and tried to evade the people hunting him and instantly put his life and his wife’s life in danger. Another hitman, Carson Wells, offered Moss his help in exchange for some portions of the stolen money and yet both got killed by Chigurh in the end. Chigurh walked away free and Bell retired from his career.
The film, like any other Coen Brothers film, contained a lot of messages and themes that one had to uncover first in order to be able to understand it. All through-out the film, you can see repeated scenes of gore and mayhem all across the town as each one became both the hunter and the hunted. People were unstoppably murdered like animals (including Moss) all for the sake of the $2,000,000 that was taken. The film was full of vivid images of flesh, bones and blood gushing out of every man’s body like an endless crimson river and lives were extinguished one by one until there was nobody left. It also used very minimal musical score which surprisingly added to the tension that the movie was slowly building as the plot progressed. Only gunshots and rapping sounds of heavy metals can be heard as well as footsteps that made the film creepier than ever. It was disturbingly brilliant and will surely make a big impression on any viewer that tries to watch it.
The character development of the film was well-thought out that the viewers are not made to question the reasons behind the actions and attitudes of the main roles in the film. There was no clear delineation between the protagonist and antagonist, good and evil as well as morality and immorality. It was only violence, death and chaos.
The movie revolves around the theme of nihilism. Nihilism is a philosophy that was popularized in the late 19th century and was associated with a loose revolutionary movement in Russia (1860-1917). It emphasizes on the idea that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. A true nihilist believes in nothing, have no loyalties and no mission at all aside from the desire to destroy. This philosophy was mostly associated with Friedrich Nietzsche who argued that “its corrosive effects would eventually destroy all moral, religious, and metaphysical convictions and precipitate the greatest crisis in human history”*.
Nihilism, which was also one of the common themes in most of the films made by the Coen brothers, was very evident in the numerous bloody scenes in the movie. The most prominent thing that can be associated with it is Anton Chigurh, the creepiest character ever created on screen since Hannibal Lectern. Chigurh, who was literally death personified in the movie, is a relentless psychopath armed with a compressed air gun and kills people just for pissing him off or as he terms it “inconveniencing him”. His ridiculous hair cut and witty blunt lines made the film all the more gripping and electrifying as viewers sit breathlessly wondering about the fate of the person who had the misfortune to meet him.
Chigurh symbolized destruction, destruction that may soon take over us given the rate that our society is going right now. With the proliferation of material things like drugs and money, people are starting to lose all sense of morality and are stopping at nothing just to get what they want. It was a critique of the current status quo and a reminder of how alarmingly chaotic our priorities have become due to innovation and scientific discovery. As Sheriff Bell said in the prologue of the movie, he missed the days when policemen and sheriffs didn’t have to wear a gun and crimes were at the minimum. The changing world has brought us a lot of convenience and yet it also brought a lot of ways to hurt and inflict pain to other people.
The movie showed nihilism at its apex, men killing men; it was basically open season for everyone, morals and values set aside and disregarded. It was alarming in a way because if we look at the setting of the story, it happened on a desolate island where people rarely see each other, let alone talk every day. If something as horrible as this can happen in a vast area where people are free not to interact with each other on a daily basis, how much more possible is it in a dense developed city where all people are cramped into small spaces while dealing with the battle for modern survival? It talks about how complex socialization can be and how complicated it is that we are all entangled in these overlapping webs of interaction that results often to conflict and competition.
Another important theme in the story was the concept of free will and destiny. The simple flipping of a coin decides the fate of the life of Chigurh’s victims. His remarkable line “Call it...” can send chills to your bones and makes you realize how important decisions are and how they define one’s life. The contrast between the stories of the gas station owner and Carla Jean emphasized the message more that whatever happens, it is still a choice. The gas station owner’s life was spared because he chose “head over tails”. Carla Jean on the other hand chose not to choose but by sampling opting to not make a decision, she still made a choice and technically, decided for her life. It sends us the message that in this life, we have to pick whichever we want and “call it”; own it. Despite the uncontrollable circumstances that we encounter in our life, it still boils down to the choices that we made.
Lastly, the film tells us at how inevitable changes are and how fast and unstoppable life can be that even if we stop, it wouldn’t hang around the corner and wait for us to grow up. Instead, it will continue to go on and we have the choice whether to go with the waves and stay afloat or give in and drown ourselves in the ocean of challenges that life has to offer.
- Internet Movie Data Base. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0477348/quotes.
- Keough, Peter. Quiet Men. November 6, 2007. http://thephoenix.com/Boston/Movies/50620-NO-COUNTRY-FOR-OLD-MEN/ (accessed February 25, 2010).
- Pratt, Alan. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Nihilism . May 23, 2005. http://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/ (accessed February 25, 2010).
- Tobias, Adam. 'No Country for Old Men' is brilliant filmmaking . November 23, 2007. http://www.wdtimes.com/articles/2007/11/23/screen_scenes/screen1.txt (accessed February 26, 2010).
Garnering four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Joel and Ethan Coen), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem); two Golden Globe Awards for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture (Javier Bardem) and Best Screenplay – Motion Picture; and three British Academy of Film Awards for Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actor, No Country for Old Men is a 2007 American crime thriller film which was adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name. Directed by the Coen brothers, the film begins when Llewelyn Moss stumbles upon a fortune left from a busted drug deal. When he took the money, this stared a series of violent events similar to a cat and mouse chase, with three men hunting and being hunted by each other. No Country for Old Men talks about the ideas of the capriciousness of fate and the pessimistic view on human nature.
“You can’t stop what’s comin’. It ain’t all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.” is one of the more memorable lines from the film and this line encapsulates the idea of the capriciousness of fate. Spoken by one of the characters, it gives the notion that sometimes, the lives of the people can be changed in the blink of an eye and those changes may not necessarily be predictable and fair. This may then lead to the never ending debate on whether destiny or free will guides the course of the lives of the people. The film can be considered to advocate both, that a combination of both fate and the free will of an individual will eventually determine what will happen to him/her. True enough, this was shown from the very start of the film. It was fate which led Moss to discovering the money from the drug deal but it was his own choice to get the money. He could have called the police, reported what he saw and returned the money but instead of doing that, he chose to take the money for himself and this eventually changed not only his life but even the lives of those around him.
The flipping of the coin can also be considered as a symbolism for the idea of destiny vs. free will. As Chigurh was fond of, the decision on whether to kill or let someone live was dependent on how a person will “call” a coin. Although what will appear on the coin (whether it will be heads or tails) is beyond our control, it is up to us to decide on how we will “call it”.
The second theme of the film, on the other hand, has something to do with the line “The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure.” The line fosters the idea that there is a pessimistic view on the human nature, what is emphasized is the evil or the more imperfect side of the humans. This encourages the idea that humans are creatures who are capable of doing evil things and given the freedom to do what they want, they may not choose what is morally right. In the film, we are presented with a character who is willing to kill anyone who gets in his way and another one who is willing to sacrifice a peaceful and comfortable life in order to achieve material gain. These two characters may represent the evil in our society, the first kind of evil is such an extreme one that we may even be surprised on how harsh his acts can be and the second kind of evil is the one that is only developing, an evil which is not really inherent and that there is still a chance for it to be curtailed.
In a way, this is somehow related to the idea of nihilism (which can also be considered as another theme of the film). Nihilism is the belief that nothing is worthwhile, that life is pointless and human values are worthless. It also refers to the total rejection of the social mores, rejecting the established social conventions and beliefs, especially of morality and religion. True enough, Chigurh is someone who does not care about whatever rules and laws may exist in the country. He is content with following his own rules, although those rules are clear to him alone and to no one else. He is also someone who does not put importance on the lives of other people, not thinking twice about killing anyone who might come his way (although in some rare occasions, he decided to let the coin choose whether he will kill someone or not). Also, we are presented with a country wherein crimes are committed left and right, with the citizens of the country breaking the rules that were agreed upon in their society.
Another example of a pessimistic view on the human nature is the scene wherein Chigurh bought the shirt of the kid. Initially, the kid was willing to give the shirt to Chigurh for free, seeing that he was badly hurt but he eventually accepted the money that was offered to him. In a way this can be interpreted as a sign of how easily corrupted humans can be. At the same time, it implies how humans do not necessarily always understand each other. Chigurh was oblivious of the fact that the child wanted to help him out and he insulted the kid’s act of charity by offering him some money.
After focusing on the themes of the film, it is also important to discuss its technical aspects, and to explain how each of these technical aspects has been effective in furthering the message that the film wants to convey. The first thing that can be noticed about the film is its characters. Although we are presented with a psychopath, the characters are shown in such a way that we would not think of questioning why they were acting in a certain way. The viewers are made to accept the characters simply as the way they are and to focus on what the characters are representing. Chigurh, in the movie, can be said to represent evil, chaos and even death. He represents how evil may sometimes prevail over good in the society and how this may lead to death, not just literally, but also the death and the destruction of the values and the norms of the society. In an extreme, it can also result to nihilism.
Another noticeable element of the film is the lack of the musical score and sound. Minimal sounds were used in the movie and most of the time, large sections of the film were devoid of music, something which the directors had carefully planned. By providing “silence” to the viewers, the viewers are given the chance to focus on the story itself. At the same time, it gives the audience the chance to have more room for interpretation. The audience is given the time to reflect on their own and to think about what will happen next and what their possible implications might be. Furthermore, by leaving something out, the unspoken gives the idea that there is a deeper meaning to what is really happening.
After all has been said, it is important to consider why the film is given the title “No Country for Old Men”. If we consider the sheriff to be the “main” character of the story, or simply to take his perspective, then it really makes sense. From the very start of the film, the sheriff has already compared the events in the past and in the present. For him, the past was much simpler when people did things simply because it was the right thing to do. The sheriffs at that time did not even have to carry guns but in the present times, crimes are committed everywhere. In a way it is implied that the country is not really a safe place to live in for the people, let alone for the old men. The world is such a rough place to be in and survival is something that is hard to achieve, especially for the old.
The ending of the film though, is something that has been subject to many interpretations. At the end of the film, the sheriff is shown to be recounting his dreams to his wife. The first dream has something to do with lost money while the second dream was about the sheriff’s dad who was at the end of a tunnel, waiting for him while holding a torch in his hand. The first dream can be symbolic to the retirement of the sheriff. The lost money can signify the hope that he had lost. “I always thought that when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t.” was a line that the sheriff himself said. In his line of work, it is important that one believes that there is still a good side in the people. Unfortunately, the sheriff felt that he was unmatched by those around him and eventually gave up. The lost money can then signify the hope that he had lost, his hope that there is still a good side in the human nature. His retirement can then symbolize not just the retirement from his work, but also his withdrawal from certain positive ideas.
No Country for Old Men can be considered to be effective in trying to convey its message to the viewers. Unlike other films with similar themes, the movie is not preachy. Instead of presenting the viewers with the ideas of what they should do, the film showed the viewers what can possibly happen when one is tricked by Lady Luck and if one makes the wrong moral choices. By presenting a quite exaggerated version of a man who thinks that killing other people is a routine and that the lives of others are dependent on the flip of a coin, the viewers are shown the possibility that men may become merciless creatures someday, creatures with nihilistic characteristics.
The film is an important way of showing that although fate can sometimes control our lives, we still have the freedom to choose how we will let fate dictate our actions. At the same time, it emphasizes the idea that whatever horrors we might be experiencing are really because of our own doing. The challenge is then not to let the negative side of human nature take over, and to avoid nihilism before it actually gets worse.