You know, if you’d have told me 20 years ago. I’d see children walking the streets of our Texas towns … with green hair, bones in their noses … I just flat-out wouldn’t have believed you.
—El Paso Sheriff, No Country for Old Men
The Coen Brothers greatest film is No Country for Old Men. In 2008, The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences endorsed it as such. I would go as far as saying that No Country is one of the most important films of recent history. So rare is it that a work of popular art explores the most consequential issues of our time: the spiritual, moral, and demographic crisis facing Americans and Europeans around the world. Even its title loudly proclaims the central subtext of the film.
Two Jews, ostensibly of the purest priestly stock according to their namesakes, and a Celt, who named himself after an Irish King, have given this treasure to us, and it is impossible to believe that either party acted unwittingly in sounding these powerful and disturbing themes.
As is well known, the Coen brothers are virtuosos of directing performances, and satire is bred in their bones. Humanizing their protagonists is often contrary to their goals. And though the Coens’ satires run from the broad (O Brother, Where Art Thou) to the relatively more nuanced (Fargo, most often their characters are caricatures.
In fact, it’s hard not to discern a deep misanthropy in their depictions. Whereas a director like Scorsese is sympathetic towards his protagonists (no matter however reprehensible they might be), the Coen brothers seem largely to have contempt for the characters they bring to the screen (except for the humor they provide). At best, the Coen Brothers’ characters are “lovingly” patronized and demeaned.
There are some exceptions to this rule, of course, most notably Gabriel Bryne (Tom Reagan), the protagonist of Miller’s Crossing. But here, Reagan is a cipher and his performance relatively forgettable, as if the directors, irritated by an attractive personality not their own, insisted on blandness and a sort of silence.
More typically, their subjects are regionally accented philistines, quite lacking in the sentience of the urban centers of non-flyover states; at best, they are bestowed with a sort of corrupt slyness or, alternatively, an innocence owed to their utter vacuity. Even the ostensibly lovable and folksy Marge Gunderson of Fargo, played by Frances McDormand, is a glorified bumpkin; she’s “wise” only in the most politically correct, earth-motherly sense of that term.
Indeed, if it were not for A Serious Man and Barton Fink—in which neurotic Jewish intellectuals are lambasted—one might be inclined to perceive a certain spirit of “anti-Gentilism” in the Coen Brothers’ work.
Whatever the case, I’m sure we can relate to the Coens’ send-ups of our benighted brothers (even if we think it should be we who criticize them, constructively).
The Native and the Alien
No Country for Old Men, a neo-Western based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy and set in the Texas of 1980, represents a major departure for the brothers.
First, both protagonists, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), are patently rural types; yet they are far from venal, buffoonish, or one-dimensional. In fact, they are, in their folksy way, quite charismatic. To be certain, they are flawed, tragically so, but in ways that are instructive and not merely demeaning.
Let us take Moss first. From the onset, he is depicted as a “man’s man”: ruggedly handsome and able to handle a gun. He is far from perfect, of course; at many points, he seems to be a 18-year-old in a 45-year-old’s body; and it is his inability to control his greed that leads to his downfall. Yet Moss is, at his core, “decent.” Indeed, one could say that “decency” is his fatal flaw.
While hunting antelope one day, Moss happens upon the grisly results of a drug-deal gone wrong: bullet-ridden bodies are strewn left and right (including, quite pathetically, that of a dog), and the ground is soaked with blood. Moss discovers a mound of narcotics and a briefcase containing some $2 million in cash. He also comes across a wounded man in a truck, clinging to life.
Moss can’t help himself and takes the bundle of cash. But at great risk, he returns to the crime scene later that night to bring water to the dying man. This is not only a man Moss doesn’t know, but a Mexican drug dealer—a foreigner in race, country, and tongue, who, in all likelihood, has committed crimes even graver than the transport of highly destructive drugs to millions of Moss’ vulnerable countrymen.
This act of kindness, which ends in Moss being shot by some drug dealers seeking to retrieve the treasure, is the first of many studies in contrast between Moss and his non-Anglo opponent—the demonic Anton Chigurh, who is sent after Moss and the money on a bounty.
Here, we should note that the Coen brothers alter the character of Anton Chigurh in important ways in their adaption of McCarthy’s novel, and arguably make this figure both more terrifying and more symbolic. In the novel, Chigurh’s ethnicity is made deliberately opaque: he is described as a dark haired man with eyes “as blue as lapis.” For the role, the Coens cast the then-relatively unknown Javier Bardem, an actor who is masterful in crafting diabolical and inscrutable characters.
The Coen brothers describe their reasons for casting Bardem quite innocently. In the interest of serving the spirit of McCarthy’s narrative, they found an actor who seems as though he could have been from “outer space.” However, it is impossible to believe that these ethnically conscious and detail-oriented filmmakers were unaware of the racial undercurrents of No Country—a tragic story set against a backdrop of Mexican criminality and drug running. Bardem, a heavily accented and darkly featured Spaniard, amplifies this unspoken racial drama.
The name “Chigurh” is of ambiguous origin and possibly invented by McCarthy. (A quick Internet search reveals a few occurrences worldwide.) With the first name Anton and McCarthy’s description, the reader might believe that he’s Eastern European, or Russian. Supportive of this thesis is the novel’s and film’s first “coin flipping” scene, in which Chigurh, quite oddly, begrudges a small-town store clerk owner for having “married into” his property.
Is Chigurh possessed by a Marxist ressentiment? Is Chigurh not only a “foreigner,” but one bringing with him an “Un-American creed?” Might this character be Jewish? Or is the name “Anton Chigurh” a kind of code or pseudo-anagram for “Anti-Christ?”
Much about Chigurh’s symbolic status is revealed in the brief, clipped conversation he has with the guileless clerk. Chigurh flips a coin and then demands that his adversary “call it”:
Proprietor: I didn’t put nothin’ up.
Chigurh: Yes, you did. You’ve been putting it up your whole life. You just didn’t know it. You know what date is on this coin?
Chigurh: 1958. It’s been traveling 22 years to get here. And now it’s here. And it’s either heads or tails, and you have to say. Call it.
Proprietor: Well, look … I need to know what I stand to win.
1958 fell right in the middle of the Civil Rights movement in the South, one year after Little Rock, Arkansas, integrated its school systems and one year after the death of a young Joseph McCarthy, marking the close of “McCarthyism.” It’s difficult to hear that year and not sense that it marked an endpoint of Anglo-White hegemony in America. Does the coin arrive as a form of vengeance for this period of American history? As in: what comes around, goes around? Is this simple clerk, now powerless, being held to account for the sins of his fathers?
The narrative of the film is driven by Chigurh’s hunt for Moss and the money, which Chigurh engages in with a kind of fanaticism and dedication that reveals he’s something more than a mercenary. (As one rival describes him, “He has principles.”) The chase also allows McCarthy and the Coens to paint a study in contrast between the two men.
The first divergence that comes to the fore is Chigurh’s and Moss’s respective resilience, resourcefulness, and ruthlessness. When wounded by gunfire early in the film, Moss is obliged to go to a hospital to have his wounds treated; there he lays in public view, vulnerable, bedridden, and open to discovery by his tormenters. Chigurh, on the other hand, is able to stitch up a more grievous and painful wound himself, secretly, safe from vying criminals and detectives, and with the skill of a surgeon. Throughout the film, the viewer is filled with a sense of gloom and dread: No matter how tough Moss might be, he doesn’t stand a chance in a battle with Chigurh; he is mere prey.
To a degree, Chigurh is a reprisal of the largely mute (and less interesting) Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) from Fargo (who’s famously feeds Steve Buscemi’s character into a wood chipper). But Chigurh is something much bigger than a Terminator for the literati—he is something as invincible and unstoppable as death himself. Moss had hoped to use the stash to build a new life with his wife Karla Jean—that is, to gain riches scot-free and without consequences—Chigurh comes to exact the price.
The Coens also contrast the ways in which Chigurh and Moss are perceived by Americans, in particular the old and the young. Moss is generally respected by older Whites. On the run from Chigurh, Moss ventures into Mexico to get medical care, afterwards returning to America to protect his wife and, he naively believes, to kill Chigurh. When crossing the border into the States, Moss is dressed only in a hospital gown. The border agent, a formidable gatekeeper, is hostile to this seemingly demented man, but then softens and allows him passage when he learns that Moss is a Vietnam veteran. “Wilson,” he calls to his assistant, “Get someone to help this man; he needs to get into town.”
Chigurh, on the other hand, is regarded with fear by older White Americans, who are confused and cowed by his cryptic and rude assertiveness. This is evident in the first “coin-flipping” scene, discussed above, and is perhaps best exemplified by Sheriff Bell, who is quietly terrified.
In the film’s Second Act, Moss arranges to meet his wife in a motel in El Paso, where he hopes to give the money over to her and send her out of harm’s way. But Chigurh catches up to Moss before his wife arrives… Cryptically, this final confrontation occurs off camera. All the viewer sees is Sheriff Bell driving up to the motel, as a Mexican drug gang flees the scene in a pickup truck. The viewer is left to imagine what exactly happened in this violent standoff between Moss, Chigurh, and the gang. All is known is that Moss lies dead in his room.
After this denouement, Sheriff Bell decides (much like Moss at the beginning of the film) to return to the scene of the crime. He walks slowly, deliberately, towards Moss’s motel room… and the viewer sees that Chigurh is crouched, patiently waiting, ready to make Sheriff Bell his next victim. But when Bell opens the door, Chigurh has vanished, and all that remains in the room is Bell’s shadow against the wall. What has just happened? Did Chigurh, inexplicably, decide to spare Bell and slip out of the room? Or was this actually one of Bell’s dreams, or nightmares, in which he glimpses something that he is not quite willing to confront?
Whatever the case, shortly after Moss’s death, Bell opts for retirement rather than taking his chances against such a fearsome opponent. Bell is, in his words, “overmatched.”
The younger generation of Americans reacts quite differently to both Moss and Chigurh. After Moss is wounded by Chigurh, and is staggering across the Mexican border in seek of a hospital, he crosses the path of a group of twenty-somethings, who are, apparently, returning from Mexico where they were bar-hopping. Moss asks one of the kids if he could purchase his coat; the young men are repelled and distrustful, insistent on seeing the money before they proffer the coat, even though Moss is obviously wounded and in need: “OK, give me the money,” the twenty-somethings insist. “It’s right here. Give me the clothes.” “Let him hold the money,” the young man insists. After the exchange is made, Moss asks for the beer that one of them is holding. “How much?” is the insolent reply.
This pathetic scene is contrasted, quite deliberately, with a parallel scene at the end of the film. Chigurh has just tracked down Moss’s wife, Carla Jean, who is living at the house of her recently deceased mother. There, Chigurh engages in another round of existential coin-flipping with a terrified and helpless woman:
Carla Jean Moss: You don’t have to do this.
Anton Chigurh: People always say the same thing.
Carla Jean Moss: What do they say?
Anton Chigurh: They say, “You don’t have to do this.”
The fates again are not kind.
After leaving the house and driving off, Chigurh’s car is struck by another when he runs a red light (perhaps killing the other driver). Having pulled himself from the totaled car, Chigurh rests on the roadside with a gruesome compound fracture in his arm. The crash has attracts the attention of concerned Anglo-American teenagers. Like Moss, Chigurh needs to dress his terrible wound.
Anton Chigurh: What will you take for the shirt?”
Boy: Well hell Mister I’ll give you my shirt.
The boy then helps Chirguh tie a sling for his arm. Chirguh extends to him a $100.
Teenager: Well hell mister, I don’t mind helping someone out.
Chigurh: Take it. Take it. You didn’t see me. I was already gone.
The earnest boy nods indicating that he will do as instructed.
The contrast between the two rivals is drawn sharply. Chigurh is the stronger, more ruthless man, seemingly devoid of any hint of empathy or remorse. Yet he is pitied and pampered by xenophiles, who will literally give him the shirts off their backs (and who are not above taking a bribe to cover for him). Moss, on the other hand, is a vet, self-sacrificing and with a sense of duty toward his fellow human beings. Yet he is distrusted and disrespected by the youth of his own country. Chigurh survives. Moss dies.
Sailing to Byzantium
The death of Llewelyn Moss could be chalked up as another good man brought low by greed, or as a victim (though not an altogether innocent one) of the drug craze. But for Sheriff Bell, Moss’s death begins to take on the significance of the end of era, the end of his people and folkways. Bell touches on this feeling when he shares a coffee with the local sheriff of El Paso (Roscoe Boyce):
Roscoe Boyce: If you’d a told me twenty years ago I’d see children walkin’ the streets of our Texas towns with green hair and bones in their noses … I just flat out wouldn’t of believed you.
Ed Tom Bell: Signs and wonders. But I think once you stop hearin’ sir and madam, the rest is soon to foller.
Roscoe Boyce: It’s the tide. It’s the dismal tide. It is not the one thing.
It’s a remarkable scene that may be without precedent (outside some of Disney’s Fables, W.D. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, or Gone with the Wind.) When was the last time a Hollywood character complained about the degeneracy of America (or the South) and was not depicted as a crackpot, crank, fascist, or religious nut?
One truly tragic aspect of No Country is that Bell laments the decline of his people and civilization, yet is himself an expression of it—a fact of which he seems dimly aware. From the beginning of the film, Sheriff Bell is terrorized by the rise of what he describes as a new breed of criminal, one that is a product of the times: brutal, psychotic, and remorseless. But he does not rise up to confront and defeat this evil; he does not, like Ethan in John Ford’s The Searchers, hunt down bad men, no matter the cost. Instead, he submissively retires, and fails to try to bring Chigurh to justice.
It is not just the green hair, the breakdown of community cohesion, the loss of a healthy distrust of the stranger—it is also cowardice and forfeit that signal the end for America. At least Old America.
Harder to discern are the Coen Brothers’ feeling regarding the Decline that they poignantly explored in their film. For instance, is it not possible to detect a certain sublimated joy in the destruction of the dumb, fatted cattle of rural White America? Early in the film, Chigurh actually kills his prey with a captive bolt pistol, an instrument used to stun livestock for slaughter. Is it not possible to detect a joy in nature running its course, as a man might gain some sublimated satisfaction in seeing a powerful lion take down an impala, knowing, on some level, that this is how, long ago, his own species survived—by being strong and merciless?
In the minds of the Coen brothers, is No Country for Old Men something like Django Unchained or Machete for epicures, revenge porn for people who prefer a Pinot Gris to a Budweiser (or a joint)? Perhaps this is true to an extent. But there does seem to be, however improbably, a strong undercurrent of pity—even longing—for White America.
Perhaps we should ask how McCarthy views his Anglo subjects? After all, despite the clever affects brought to the film by the Coen brothers, McCarthy is the true and final weaver of this tale. Is the countrified dialect of his characters a sign of McCarthy’s affection for his subject, or of mockery or merely verisimilitude? One should consider his background in this matter—a southerner from childhood (though one with Catholic, Yankee parents). McCarthy’s political views are unknown, though he has offered up this gem: “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea.” If by “improve” he means “improved to live in harmony,” as it seems he does in this passage, I imagine the RadixJournal readership finds little to disagree with.
But certainly one would have to weigh No Country against his earlier works, most saliently the novel that is widely consider his masterpiece, The Blood Meridian published in 1985. Here, the main part of the story is a depiction of a band of western outlaws hired by regional leaders to fight the Apache. They end up indiscriminately and brutally massacring Indians and Mexicans, even the peaceful ones. While it is certainly a layered and complex novel, Steven Shaviro’s gushing review characterizes the way that the novel has been received.
Both [Moby Dick and The Blood Meridian] savagely explode the American dream of manifest destiny (sic) of racial domination and endless imperial expansion.
We might consider two possibilities. First, men change, as, indeed, does the world around them. Conscientious men are especially mutable, as they might have a varying sense of who is gaining and losing power. The idealism of younger man is replaced by the experience of life. Did Cormac change? And has he revealed this, esoterically, to his audience?
The second, related possibility is that perhaps McCarthy— simply being a universalistic moralist, and with no particular sense of allegiance—has moved on to describe the destruction of another people, facing a similar fate as the American Indians. It is interesting to note that one of the few meaningful physical descriptions he includes in No Country For Old Men is of the Indian carvings that Moss encounters out in the desert.
The rocks there were etched with Pictographs perhaps a thousand years old. The men who drew them, hunters like himself. Of them, there was no other trace.
All these things considered, I believe that perhaps the final scene of this film, rendered faithfully from the book, may contain the answer. Here, Bell, now retired, describes a pair of dreams he’s had the evening before. The script is worth revisiting in its entirety:
All right, then. Two of ’em, both had my father in ’em. It’s peculiar. I’m older now than he ever was by 20 years. So, in a sense, he’s the younger man. Anyway, the first one I don’t remember too well … but it was about meeting him in town … somewheres, and he give me some money. I think I lost it.
Second one, it was like we was both back in older times. And I was a-horseback, going through the mountains of a night. Going through this pass in the mountains. It was cold, and there was snow on the ground. And he rode past me and kept on going … never said nothing going by, just rode on past. He had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down. When he rode past, I seen he was carrying fire in a horn … the way people used to do, and I … I could see the horn from the light inside of it … ‘bout the color of the moon. And, in the dream, I knew that he was … going on ahead. He was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and cold. And I knew that whenever I got there, he’d be there. And then I woke up.
These dreams are best understood through an examination of their symbols.
What is the meaning of his father as a younger man? This, in my view, is emblematic of the healthier and vigorous generation that has passed. Bell’s generation—passive, permissive, and tolerant—is exhausted and senile. Thus, it is natural that he sees himself as an old, dying man, relative to his father who was of a younger, more robust, and healthier generation). In this context the meaning of the money is simple: Bell dreams of losing something bestowed to him, which expresses the anxiety of the prodigal son—or generation—who squanders the inheritance of his father.
In the second dream, I believe Bell is not merely encountering an ancestor but also a descendant, if not quite his own son. The young man is his prophetic dream is a “young man” of the future. What is the meaning of the moon-colored fire in the horn? There is a holy fire mentioned in the Yeats “Sailing to Byzantium,” the poem from which McCarthy’s book takes its name. (The first line goes: “That is no country for old men.”) Here, the Holy Fire represents a spiritual or magical force commanded by the “Sages” of Byzantium, a city that is the historical seat of Orthodox Christianity, the gate to the West, and the capital of the most abiding remnant of the Roman Empire.
The central anxiety of the poem is one of mortality and of Yeats’s concern that his art and impression in the world will not abide. Hence, he seeks Byzantium to gain the magic of its immortality. Here, in Bell’s dream, the moon-colored fire, I believe, can be taken to mean something similar. The father, who is emblematic of a descendent, goes ahead to rekindle the fire anew amid the cold and darkness. The civilization of Bell’s blood will come again. Hence, McCarthy does what his Irish kinsman Yeats desired in his poem:
Or set upon a golden bough to sing,
To Lords and Ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come
Therefore, the book and film are hopeful, if only wistfully so. Civilization will be rekindled amid the “darkness,” and the blood of Bell will survive by it. Arguably, one could say this dream is merely a vision of Bell’s personal afterlife; however, this seems unlikely given the attention paid to so specific a symbolism, as well as given Bell’s professed lack of faith in God, and given the broader themes of moral and cultural decline.
Let us consider the Coen Brothers intent with this ending. Are they also hopeful that such a civilization, rekindled by the blood of Bell, will be reborn?
Perhaps the relative ambiguity and esotericism of the scene is its guardian, and its true meaning, to the extent my deciphering is correct, is lost on the Coen Brothers? Yet I tend to give them more credit than this (especially since A Serious Man, with its suggestion of decline, seems inspired by themes in No Country for Old Men, only adapted to a Minnesotan Jewish community).
Certainly, there must be an instinct among sub-creators, like the Coen brothers, to attach themselves to art of great value and permanence, and to serve that art to the best of their ability, as its glow will invariably reflect on them. And one should remember the last line of Bell’s description: “And then I woke up.” Does this suggest that the prophetic dream is merely a fond illusion? The Coen Brothers, it seems, also have an alibi… Indeed, one could reasonably interpret the scene as a compassionate and sympathetic paean to a dangerous but dying beast, in much the way a New York Times columnist might laud the WASP Establishment for having the “goodness” and “virtue” to eventually relinquish its grasp on power. (One can have sympathy for a dangerous beast only when one is certain the beast is dying.) Or perhaps (who knows?) the Coen brothers are secretly onboard with us. After all, without a strong race and civilization, there would be no employment for its sarcastic critics!
In the category of “dark, unpleasant, and truthful,” No Country For Old Men may be the best film ever made. And by truthful, I also mean life-affirming. Hence, the Coen Brothers, as if interpreting the mysteries of a higher being, honor their priestly names.
Finally, if the famously evasive Cormac McCarthy ever denies this meaning I have put forth, be slow to believe him. The Irish are master liars (their kings, no less so). Perhaps Comac’s willingness to deceive is the only reason No Country became a film in the first place. So if you see him, be sure to thank him.