The Coen Project Part 12: No Country for Old Men

I’ve been putting off writing this entry because watching No Country for Old Men never struck me as a refreshing activity for a weekend night. But since I’m anxious to make it to Hail Caesar it had to be done, so I’m glad I was able to work up the energy. The Coens’ Oscar-winning twelfth film is heavy stuff — if the violence doesn’t shake you, the existential despair probably will. While entertaining, it doesn’t give the viewer anything they’d typically want from a movie, like characters whose actions make sense, a happy ending, or an unambiguous moral. Instead, it unflinchingly performs fiction’s most important function: to hold a mirror up to the realities of human life, regardless of how disturbing the reflected image may be.

By the No Country‘s release in 2007 the Coens had proved willing to indulge themselves, playing with their favorite genre tropes and over-the-top dialogue for their own amusement. Look no further for examples than their two most recent films at the time, The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty. In a sharp turnaround, No Country For Old Men presents the filmmakers at their most restrained, mature, and in command of their craft and creative voices. If Fargo’s success and acclaim secured Joel and Ethan’s ongoing careers,  No Country cemented their place as masters in the canon of film history.

No Country is a direct adaptation of a book, Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same title. This fact didn’t surprise me — while the narrative plays to the Coens’ strengths as filmmakers, I don’t believe they would have necessarily arrived at it on their own. In fact, they didn’t even come up with the idea to adapt the novel: producer Scott Rudin sent Joel and Ethan an as-yet-unpublished manuscript of the book, to which he had just acquired the film rights.

The script was written as a faithful transposition of the source material onto film — much of the dialog is taken verbatim from the book. As Joel described the writing process: “…one of us types into the computer while the other holds the spine of the book open flat. That’s why there needs to be two of us — otherwise he’s gotta type one-handed.”

Like many of the Coens’ best films, the story is closely tied with the surrounding landscape, in this case the same 1980’s West Texas that was explored in Blood Simple.

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Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a young Vietnam veteran who stumbles upon the scene of a botched drug deal while hunting in the desert. He snags a briefcase full of cash left behind in the struggle without hesitation, but leaves a surviving man bleeding out in the front seat of a truck. Later that night he decides to go back and help the man, but his compassion is quickly punished when he is spotted and pursued by two other drug dealers. Although he is able to escape, Llewelyn becomes the target of the psychotic cartel hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who sets out to kill Llewelyn and retrieve the stolen money.

The plot then centers on Llewelyn’s attempts to thwart his pursuer, their violent encounters resulting in some the most suspenseful scenes in the Coen filmography. Following the trail of destruction left by the two men is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), an aging detective baffled by the illogical nature of the violence he’s witnessing.

Thematically, the film hinges on the characterization of Anton Chigurh, one of the most terrifying villains ever presented on screen. Equipped with an unsettling haircut and a pneumatic bolt gun normally used to slaughter cattle, he kills not just because it’s his job, but because he seems to believe himself to be an agent of fate. He makes this idea literal in his habit of flipping a coin in order to decide whether to allow people to live or to kill them.

Llewelyn believes that he can fight fire with fire and defeat Chigurh, pushing back against fate. He succeeds in this for a short while, shooting Chigurh in the leg and escaping with only a wounded arm. But soon after, another group of drug dealers kill him while he waits to reunite with his wife in a motel room. By Chigurh’s logic, it didn’t really matter whether he was to one to kill Llwelyn or not. The result was the same — fate still found a way.

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Llewelyn’s wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) attempts to retaliate against Chigurh’s bloody crusade with reason instead of violence. When he confronts her in her home, she attempts to convince him that he has the human agency to spare her life in the following exchange:

Carla Jean: You don’t have to do this.

Chigurh: People always say the same thing.

Carla Jean: What do they say?

Chigurh: They say, “you don’t have to do this.”

Carla Jean: You don’t.

Carla Jean reasons that a normal person should be able to walk out the door without killing anyone. But is Chigurh isn’t a normal person — he pulls out his coin to let chance decide instead.

Chigurh: Call it.

Carla Jean: No, I ain’t gonna call it.

Chigurh: Call it.

Carla Jean: The coin don’t have no say! It’s just you!

Chigurh: I got here the same way the coin did

Carla Jean refuses to allow a coin flip to determine if she lives or dies — she wants to prove to Chigurh that he alone can choose. But in Chigurh’s mind, there is no such thing as choosing when everything that leads up to the choice is random. Free will becomes an illusion.

The third character standing in opposition to Chigurh is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who attempts to protect Llewelyn, Carla Jean, and others from the madman’s vortex of destruction by following the rules of police work that he’s practiced for most of his life. But his rules don’t work against a killer who follows no ordinary patterns of criminal behavior. He can’t understand Chigurh, so he can’t fight him. He decides to retire because he feels “overmatched”.  Faith can’t provide him the order that he craves, either: “I always thought when I got older God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t.”

No Country is an exceptionally difficult film because it doesn’t even hint at a resolution or solution to the fatalistic pessimism of the story. We’re left to figure out for ourselves whether the harsh vision of reality it depicts is true.

How can we make sense of No Country’s pessimism in the context of the Coen filmography? An obvious parallel to draw is with the Coens’ very first film. 1987’s Blood Simple is also a violent thriller set in Texas, but the darkness in No Country runs deeper. Blood Simple is about bad choices that cascade into violence, and the basest aspects of human nature that drive us to make those choices. It’s the first in a long tradition of Coen films focusing on stupid people making stupid decisions, sometimes tragically (Miller’s Crossing), but more often hilariously (Raising Arizona).

In No Country, however, we’re not so certain that choices can be made at all. Everything feels inevitable: even Llewelyn’s initial decision to steal the money was made without much reflection on potential alternatives. Carla Jean offers us an opposing view, but her belief in choice was still unable to save her.

Fargo can provide another fruitful point of comparison. On the surface, No Country and Fargo are strikingly similar films: both involve a crime that spirals out of control, a killer on the loose, and a police officer who is left to deal with the wreckage, all set in an unforgiving rural environment. But even though Fargo presents a world of comparable brutality and randomness, it offers us a respite in the form of detective Marge Gunderson. Marge is able not only to survive and defeat the bad guys, but also to retain a sense of optimism and compassion in the face of the darkness surrounding her. This contrasts sharply with Ed Tom, who despite his best efforts fails and gives in to despair. In Fargo, humanity triumphs. In No Country, the best humanity can do is to soldier on.

The thematic content is a lot to parse through, but I’ll touch on No Country’s deservedly Oscar-winning direction by talking a little about this scene, in which Llewlyn faces down Chigurh in a hotel:

It’s the most pure piece of visual storytelling the Coens have ever done. Almost every shot is a micro story beat, especially in the beginning of the sequence: the flashing transponder, the door, the shotgun being pulled from the bag. On top of that, each sound we hear conveys story information. Similar scenes rely on music to cue the audience, but that shortcut isn’t used here — intervals of silence punctuated by perfectly timed noises are that’s needed to build the suspense to a terrifying peak. With this one scene, the Coens beat Alfred Hitchcock at his own game.

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