not in our stars, but in ourselves
At one point in the late, great, dearly beloved Hannibal, someone asks Dr. Lecter what happened to him to make him the way he is. He replies, “Nothing happened to me. I happened.” If anyone ever had the courage to ask the same question of Anton Chigurh, and if he ever deigned to answer, he might say something similar. No Country for Old Men isn’t a source of easy answers, or clear causation, or anything so comforting. It’s a harsh world of chance, brutality, greed, and predatory behavior. What could make a man like Chigurh happen? This hellscape of a world.
Near the Mexican border in 1980, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is arrested by an unsuspecting Texan cop. While telling his superior on the phone that he’s got the suspect and the situation under control, said suspect quietly steps over his handcuffs and garottes the cop with the chain connecting his hands together. Around the same time, retired welder Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is hunting antelope. After a questionable shot, he inspects the scene, and notices a trail of blood. It’s coming from a wounded pit bull, whom he follows to the scene of a drug deal gone wrong: a dozen or so Mexicans (and their dogs) have all been shot. Whoever did the damage has left behind a truckload of heroin, as well as a briefcase full of cash. Moss finds one man in a truck who’s still alive, begging for agua. Moss takes the money, but decides later that night to bring the man some water. The man is dead by then, and Moss is spotted by men who, presumably, have come to retrieve their drugs and money. They hunt him, and he narrowly escapes. Moss realizes that this is serious business, so he urges his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), to get out of town until he’s safe. Moss isn’t wrong to worry: the men in charge of the drug deal hire Chigurh to track down whomever stole their money. Chigurh kills the two men who bring him to the scene of the massacre – but he decides to track Moss anyway. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), meanwhile, tries to reason with Carla Jean. He knows Moss is in bad trouble, as is Carla Jean, and he figures the only possible way to protect either of them is for them to cooperate with the law. Chigurh pursues Moss, and dispatches him. He pursues Carla Jean, and dispatches her. He gets into a car crash as he leaves Carla Jean’s murder, and limps away – his ulna or his radius poking out of his skin – to heal a bit and create more chaos. Sheriff Bell, for his part, retires. He tells his uncle that he feels “over-matched” – and it’s not hard to see why.
While I will try not to do this every time I watch a new-to-me Coen Brothers movie, I have to say it in this case: dear lord, Fargo the show found a hell of a lot of its DNA in this. There are lots of direct quotes, so to speak, like the part where Ed is garotted; where Hanzee acts weird at an innocent gas station clerk’s register (and eventually kills him); where a motel is the site of a major battle; where Ed and Peggy try to hop a ride with a bystander, who gets got by Hanzee; and so on and so forth. I mean, I’m not telling any of you anything new. More than all of that, however, Fargo the show took the enigmatic killing machine as its key ingredient. When you throw someone like Chigurh, like Lorne Malvo, like Hanzee Dent, like Mike Milligan, into civilian territory – what happens?
That’s not to imply that Moss is just any old civilian. He – like Hanzee and Lou Solverson – is a veteran of the Vietnam War. Even though he’s retired, even though he seems to be just any old Texas hunter, he’s clearly remembered some of the survival methods he picked up when he was knee-deep in the Big Muddy. He also seems to have taken to heart the lesson the Vietnam War taught us Americans: that there are no absolutes; that there’s no good-vs.-evil; that there’s survival, and that’s about it. Should he have tried to keep the money for himself? No, and that’s his fatal mistake. In some more antiquated war zone, could he – the so-called conquering hero – have kept what he found? Probably. But that’s not the world anymore. It’s made clearer in Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, but Bell is a veteran of World War II. I don’t think that particular war was quite as black-and-white as it’s become in the American imagination – but the stakes were clearer, and the enemy was more defined. After Vietnam, the world seemed so much murkier. Was it? No. But it was one of those events that finally managed to pierce through American optimism, exceptionalism, and egotism, even if only in a few cases. (Some of us are still stuck in WWII mode.)
It was a rare feat for No Country for Old Men, a movie that will be recognized as a classic for as long as human history exists, to win the Best Picture Oscar. Usually, the Academy goes for the obvious bait: solemn movies with expensive ad campaigns about Big Issues – in the most aggressively poshlost-y way possible. No Country for Old Men is, on the other hand, about all kinds of genuinely difficult and – dare I say – grownup questions, while also being one hell of a cinematic work of art. Roger Deakins is one of the best cinematographers working, and he’s certainly not wasted here. Carter Burwell is credited with the film’s score, but – for the most part – this is a scoreless film. That’s not to say it’s silent: it makes use of ambient sounds, tones, drones, to contribute to the overall atmosphere of dread and despair. Any time you watch a movie without music, it’s probably going to be an unnerving experience. We’re so used to musical cues to tell us what to feel and when, to let us know when it’s safe, that it creates a huge vacuum in our viewing experience if they’re missing. Burwell, along with the Coens, has done this quite knowingly: we just can’t be sure what’s coming, what’s safe, what’s going to happen next. No one in this movie – except, perhaps, Chigurh – knows what will happen next. We’re right there with them.
The Coen Brothers are popularly associated with funny crime films, I think: even though Fargo and The Big Lebowski, for example, have some pretty painful-looking violence, they’re often incredibly funny. No Country for Old Men has its moments of wry humor, but it’s most impressive as a pitch-black piece of filmmaking. It’s not all gloom and doom, however: the Coens seem to love cherishing their few characters who manage to make it through the chaos alive. At the end, Bell – now retired – tells his wife about some dreams he had the night before. I certainly hope he’s had many more nights with many more dreams since.