Some Thoughts on No Country for Old Men


My old pal Cooper and I went to No Country for Old Men last night. He’s a big Cormac McCarthy fan, and I’m not, but I do love the Coen Brothers so I’ve been very curious to see what they do with the book as there aren’t many opportunities to really dissect their screenplays. Their version of No Country for Old Men is a much better expression of the book than McCarthy’s. I find McCarthy’s style torturous, and No Country for Old Men to be a hollow pedantic screed about how the world has gone to Hell which, if it had been written in 1980 (when the film takes place), it would have been more of a prophetic statement of where we were headed than the flaccid retread of thematic material that has been beaten to death in the last two decades. However, after seeing the film a second time, I think the Coen Brothers did a fantastic job of salvaging the material and delivering something that should be considered as a highlight of their oeuvre.

[Significant spoilers ahead. If you’ve not read the book or seen the film, this might be an entry to pass.]

Much of the public displeasure of the film stems from the ending, and on first viewing, I was in that camp. I didn’t care for Sheriff Bell’s final monologue and I felt it was out of place with the rest of the film (hell, the scene with his brother Ellis didn’t help either). But, having read the book and seen the film again, I think the ending works really well. But only if you know that Sheriff Bell is the protagonist.

In the book, you can’t mistake this fact. The Coen Brothers utilize nearly every scene and every line of dialogue from the book (though, they do some very good editing and trimming that corrects some of McCarthy’s tendency to go on and on and on), however they have to do something with the inordinate number of first person monologues that belong to the Sheriff. They work in narrative fiction, but they are death in cinematic storytelling, and the Coens wisely translate the essence of those into the scenes with Ed Tom and his deputy, Wendell. As a result, we have the initial voice-over of Ed Tom setting the scene and the final scene with his wife at breakfast, and they’re easily mistaken as a framing device. As Ed Tom is a secondary character in the body of the film (he is just an observer, as he is in the book where the structure of his commentary makes for an easier link to the thematic thrust of the story), the audience can’t be faulted with seeing this as a cat and mouse story between Chigurh and Moss. And, as Moss is the first character we spend any significant time with, it’s a natural reaction to see him as the protagonist (especially as he is directly in conflict with Chigurh). So, when Moss leaves the story and there’s still twenty more minutes of film to unspool, we can’t help but scramble to figure out what we’re supposed to hang on to.

It’s not that the Coens are fucking with us, it’s that they had some tough decisions to make about how to present the material. It’s not the story of a guy who finds a satchel of cash and tries to run from the Devil. While they do an excellent job of making that story fascinating to watch (more so than McCarthy does, I think), it’s a little noir tale of Bad Decisions and Men Who Think They Know Something About Evil But Don’t. It’s the presence of Ed Tom and his decision to NOT face Chigurh that gives the story its dramatic heft, and while that’s all there in the book, McCarthy bludgeons the reader with so much puritanical nihilism and bankrupt machismo that it gets lost.

I find it fascinating that McCarthy populates his world with characters that are, essentially, the Devil (Chigurh is the Preacher Judge* from Blood Meridian with a different set of killing tools) and doesn’t allow for any sort of mysticism or hopeful idealism that God may still be part of this Universe. I think you can read God as being behind the car full of joyriders who smacks Chigurh as he is leaving Carla Jean’s house, but even then the author’s overwhelming sense of nihilistic fatality only allows the scene to happen so that we can see the Devil turning even God’s effort to move him along as another opportunity to seduce innocents into his game (the kids finding Chigurh’s forgotten gun on the seat of the car).

[Incidentally, the fact that the Coens leave out this detail–the gun on the seat–in the film removes nearly all of the reason to have it there, and I’m not entirely sure why they kept it. Well, maybe as an echo of Moss’ encounter with the young men as he crosses the border into Mexico (both ask for and pay for an article of clothing in their respective scenes), though Cooper pointed out that it is the exchange of blood money (in both instances the bills are clearly marked with blood) that is symbolic of the perpetuation of the Devil’s violence.]

But, mysticism. Todd Alcott wisely notes that every Coen Brothers’ film has a moment where magic intercedes, where you can’t explain what happens without resorting to an extraordinary explanation. It happens in No Country for Old Men when Ed Tom goes back to the hotel room at the Desert Sands. There’s a close-up shot of the lock on the room, and the cylinder has been removed by the air gun. If you look closely, you can see a wisp of white smoke hiding out of the hole much like a serpent waiting to strike. And Ed Tom hesitates. And Chigurh waits inside, his silenced shotgun ready. The Sheriff enters, steps out of the lighted half of the room and into darkness, looks in the bathroom, and sits down on the bed. Where he decides to NOT look in the closet. That wisp of smoke is part of the Other World, and as Ed Tom crosses the threshold, he steps into an In-Between place where his next choice will be to either play with the Devil (to look upon him, essentially, and everyone who does dies; remember the guy in the office building who Chigurh asks: “Do you see me?”) or not. Chigurh is clearly in the room, and Ed Tom clearly doesn’t find him. And there isn’t anywhere to hide. Unless . . .

There are three people who are able to walk away from the Devil’s enticement to play: the gas station owner, Carla Jean, and the Sheriff. The gas station owner who has been “putting it up his entire life” is just a guy who “inconvenieces” the Devil and is asked to pay for it. But, because there isn’t any overt reason for him to come into contact with Evil, the Devil allows him the coin toss. Eventually, the guy realizes what is at stake (and it’s a lovely bit of minimalism where the realization is nothing more than an extra flutter in his voice and a hesitation in his mannerism). The Coens cut Chigurh’s big speech at the end of the scene, replacing it with a great line about the lucky coin (“Don’t put it in your pocket where it will mix with the others and become just a coin”), and while the speech (“Anything can be an instrument . . . And then one day there’s an accounting. And after that nothing is the same . . .”) is a solid piece of exposition, it’s too obviously the author speaking through his character, and it’s really only there to support the second coin toss later.

The one with Carla Jean. Cooper and I split on this one. I think the scene is much better because she doesn’t choose, and he disagrees with me. And, actually, now that I’m thinking about it, this also supports why the Coens cut the section with the hitchhiker. Cooper argues that the hitchhiker is the flaw that brings Moss down–it is the moment of weakness where Moss reveals that he doesn’t have the fortitude to play with the Devil (as Wells tells him: “You think you’re cut out for this, but you’re not.”). No one really does in McCarthy’s world, after all. Moss is tempted by the girl, and transgresses with her (this is the “you fuck, you die” moment, if you will). I think this just confuses the story, and with the decision to make Carla Jean as strong as she is, as resolute as she is to NOT be tainted by the Devil, we have to believe that she knows that the Devil is lying to her about Moss. We can’t know that Moss is an asshole who stepped out on her, we have to know that her belief in her man is completely warranted, that her man is as honest and true and completely dedicated to her as she thinks he is, and that the only reason he didn’t take Chigurh’s deal to save her is because he meant to kill the Devil first. We have to be party to this belief in order for her refusal to call the coin toss to work. And for the Devil to be shaken by the fact that he has to kill a true innocent. He has to kill her because he gave his word, but he takes no joy in that. None at all. That’s not part of the game. So, even though she doesn’t make it, I think she survives her encounter with Evil.

And then there is Ed Tom Bell, the erstewhile narrator and protagonist of the story. After his decision to not stand up to Evil, he visits Ellis, his only remaining family who might understand the crisis he just went through. Ellis tells him that he can’t change what is coming and to think otherwise is nothing but vanity. Ed Tom is caught up by a sense of failure, a sense that, by not standing up to Chigurh, he is less of a man (“I always thought when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t. I don’t blame him. If I was him, I’d have the same opinion about me that he does.”). He is a Lawman, after all, like his daddy and granddaddy, and I can guess that both died in the line of duty, trying to preserve the Old Ways. Ed Tom says, in the beginning, that he never fails to like hearing the stories about the old timers and I’m sure they’re all heroic stories about when men were MEN and they stood up to the Tides of Darkness. Ellis knows the score (“All the time you spend trying to get back what’s been took from you, there’s more going out the door. After a while, you just try and get a tourniquet on it.”), and ultimately Ed Tom realizes that it is going to be okay. Not for the world. But for him.

And the final scene, where he tells his wife about the dream of his father? That’s when he realizes that, in the end, when he dies a quiet death in his bed of natural causes, his father will be waiting for him, out there in the darkness, with the fire–the light that goes on forever. Ed Tom still gets to go to Heaven, and the only way to get there in McCarthy’s world is to refuse the Devil’s lure, to give up on the nihilistic world and its violence and walk away. Is it peace? Is a life worth having lived? I don’t know. Neither does Ed Tom. But his daddy is waiting for him, and that’s good enough.


*I got it wrong, and an anonymous poster was kind enough to set me straight.