No Country for Old Men isn’t just a great movie, it’s one of those movies that I can watch endlessly; if I see it’s on cable while channel surfing, I’ll stop right there and watch it to the end. It’s definitely one of my favorite Coen Brothers movies, but even within that group, this stands out. Easily the darkest of any Coen Brothers movie (which is saying something), No Country for Old Men is a faithful adaption of the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, masquerades as a traditional thriller, but is really a pitch-black meditation on the themes of free will, moral accountability, and the illusion of control.
The story takes place in a desolate corner of southwest Texas in 1980. While hunting antelope, Vietnam vet Llewellyn Moss discovers the site of a drug deal gone wrong. Bodies lay everywhere, as well as a truck filled with heroin and a satchel containing $2.4 million in cash. He takes the cash and splits, setting off a chain of events that consume everybody who they involve. Ed Bell is an aging sheriff who descends from a family of lawmen, and he cannot understand the increasingly brutal violence he sees in the region, which comes as a by-product of the exploding drug trafficking trade. Anton Chigurh is a sinister hitman sent to recover the money Moss took from the drug deal, easily killing anybody in his way, except for those fortunate few to whom he puts the challenge of calling a coin toss; call it right, and they live.
What follows is an extended and twisting narrative that follows Moss as he tries to get his wife Carla Jean out of harm’s way while somehow shaking Chigurh from his tail, all while Bell is following the mayhem left behind, feeling increasingly unable to stop any of it. As a lawman, he is supposed to be a protector, but as the story progresses, he simply becomes a defeated spectator, shaking his head slowly at what he sees as he withdraws from the stage. The story begins with a lot of suspenseful chases and such, but we soon stop caring so much about whether or not Moss will get away clean, or whether anyone will stop Chigurh, or whether Bell will live to see his retirement. What matters more is why any of these characters are doing what they’re doing. Until Moss finds that satchel, there would have been little chance for he, Chigurh and Bell to ever cross paths. But once they are intertwined, they all seem hell-bent on staying in each other’s frame of reference until they get what they want out of this. None of them do. And that’s a pretty big point here: most of us go through life with illusions of how much control we have over it. In No Country for Old Men, Moss, Chigurh and Bell all do, to varying degrees, and this movie has us watch as that illusion is stripped from each of them. When it is all over, we are left contemplating the bleak notion that there is no greater force protecting or guiding us. There are only our own choices, sometimes fueled by a desire to do right by others, but mainly by our own arrogance that we can impose our will on the world around us any more than a grain of sand can control the current of the ocean. There is nothing out there to protect us from anything, especially ourselves.
There is a standout scene early on in which Chigurh visits a filling station out in the boondocks. Annoyed by the station owner’s idle banter, Chigurh decides to kill him, but first has the man call a coin toss to see if he lives or dies. It is an incredibly tense scene, with the station owner, outmatched in every way Chigurh, a mouse trapped under a cat’s paw. The point of the scene isn’t how the coin toss turns out; it’s that Chigurh even employs it. For much of the film, we watch in horror as Chigurh cruises through the world as an apex predator, killing at will without much to stop him. His coin toss is a game he plays to remind himself that the only limits on him are the ones he self-imposes. But even he discovers the hard way just how wrong he is.
The filling scene station isn’t my moment of truth here, though. It comes very close, but it’s narrowly beaten out by a scene near the end, when Ed Bell visits a fellow lawman, now long retired, to express his despair over the Moss case, and the futility of his work. Bell’s world-weary colleague reminds him that there have always been Anton Chigurhs roaming around out there. Officers of the law do what they can, but they, too, labor under an illusion of control. If they despair of their job, then they have succumbed to that illusion, and no longer fit to wear the badge. The next time we see Bell, he isn’t wearing one. He is one of the few characters who survives this story, but he has no clue how close he came to becoming just one more of the bodies. He is, at last, willing to let the case of Moss and Chigurh go unsolved, finally accepting that the only thing more terrifying than a guy like Anton Chigurh is a world of cruel circumstance that permits Chigurh to operate. This story won’t provide any tidy endings. We must accept that here in the theatre, and out there in the world, just as Ed Bell accepts it of his life’s work. Truth is, no matter how hard we try, we are all never more than one bad turn away from disaster, and whether we miss it or not is mostly a matter of luck. That strikes at the notions of the supremacy of good and the defeatability of evil most of us cling to (and which are present in other Coen Brothers movies, by the way). But it is a useful caution that at any given time, no matter how we manage our risk, we might catch a supremely unlucky bounce. Whether it’s a hitman with the world’s most questionable haircut or an out-of-control station wagon makes no difference. It pays to remember that.