In my Contemporary American Fiction class, we watched “No Country for Old Men” and then read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. NCfOM is based on another McCarthy novel, so we were asked to contrast the two. Although I didn’t like Blood Meridian very much (way too postmodern for me), NCfOM did intrigue me (although 10:30 on a Friday morning is not perhaps the best time to look at scene after scene of violence. I would say senseless violence, except that, of course, the violence was meaningful for some of the characters). I’ve posted my thoughts behind the cut.
The Coens brothers’ 2007 movie No Country for Old Men was a disturbing movie to watch, in many different ways and for many different reasons. However, the crux of what made it so disturbing is fixed in the character of the villain. Where classic Westerns often stage fights between good (in the manner of the quintessential cowboy, lawman, etc), and evil (in the manner of the dishonorable villain), in No Country for Old Men, the battle does not start because of a dishonorable act on the part of the villain. The man the villain pursues throughout the film is hunted down precisely because he, and not the villain, behaved dishonorably (in this case, by taking the case of money that did not belong to him). The villain, Anton Chigurh, while certainly a psychopath, does have rules. He believes the choices people make lead them to their destiny – in some cases, him. The rules Chigurh plays by are extremely rational: Llewelyn Moss took the money and therefore the end of his life is not only inevitable, but something he brought on himself. Chigurh’s universe does not include any feelings of personal responsibility, which makes him especially effective as a killer.
In Javier Bardem’s emotionless portrayal of an efficient, principled, seemingly immortal killer, Chigurh reminds me of nothing so much as of a Greek god, down in the world to play games with the affairs of men, keeping to rules not known to mortals. And, like the Greek gods of yesteryear, he is utterly successful in what he does. In this case, evil trumps good; not only does Chigurh escape the consequences of his murders in a legal sense, he also triumphs in a moral sense. After Llewelyn’s murder, sheriff Ed Bell knows Chigurh is hiding under the bed but decides to walk away, thereby forsaking his belief in law and justice. After that, he retires, and despite his wife’s efforts, sinks deeper and deeper into a nihilistic view of the world. The viewer is left without much hope of his recovery.
The film invokes the spirit of Westerns in a number of ways. Besides the principle, if not the outcome, of the battle between good and evil, the Coens brothers also make use of traditional elements such as geography (the movie opens with prolonged shots of an arid wasteland) and clothing (Stetson hats and cowboy boots), and even have the sheriff and his deputy park their cars and visit the scene of the first murders -the drug deal gone wrong- on horseback. Those characters that belong in the landscape speak with accents that match the desolate geography, while Chigurh’s relatively unaccented English further separates him from those he encounters, marking him as an outsider.
There is a definite sense of division between Chigurh and the rest of the characters. Early on in the movie, Chigurh escapes police custody and drives off in a police car. Of course, he needs to trade this vehicle for an unmarked one, and thus pulls over an unsuspecting man on a lonely road. The passerby transfers the authority of the police car onto Chigurh, getting out of his car as Chigurh requests and doing as he is told in a docile manner, even though Chigurh does not identify himself as a police officer and does not wear any kind of uniform. Chigurh puts the cattle gun to the man’s head, tells him to hold still, and in this manner, is able to make the victim into an accomplice in his own murder. This further demonstrates the division between Chigurh and others. The division is palpable throughout the film, and instrumental in Chigurh’s success. Although it is comforting to think of him as insane, the truth is that Chigurh is the sanest character in the movie. He has examined and rejected society’s rules and instead functions by his own, and he does so scrupulously. This separates him from those that he kills, who are governed by emotions and impulses and often do not act in their best interest, further illustrating the tension between rationality and irrationality apparent in the film.
It is fitting that Chigurh’s weapon of choice is a cattle gun: like older Westerns asserting dominance over the uncivilized west, Chigurh asserts his power over others (in the same manner as a cowboy might declare his control over cattle or sheep) by releasing himself from the obligation to adhere to rules others do follow. What makes Chigurh’s dismissal of the rules so sinister is the realization that those rules that govern society only work if people adhere to them. Faced with an adversary operating within a different framework, on a different playing field, with unknown rules, the institutions of policing and justice break down and are utterly ineffective.
A last element that highlights the film’s disturbing and sinister nature is the relative silence throughout the film. The killings in No Country for Old Men are not accompanied by haunting music that not only heightens suspense, but also forewarns viewers of the atrocities about to take place. The Coens brothers employ an economy of sound that fits the desolate landscape, and fill viewers with a sense of impending and inescapable doom.