“The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job – not to be glorious. But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. You can say it’s my job to fight it but I don’t know what it is anymore… More than that, I don’t want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard… He would have to say, okay, I’ll be part of this world.”
Joel and Ethan Coen are the grand-masters of modern American mythos, and never has their work been more fine-tuned than in “No Country for Old Men.” Using a blend of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian mythology, the Coen brothers weave a rich tapestry of good versus evil, of dark versus light, and those that travel in between, set against the backdrop of the American Southwest.
The film, adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, is a veritable treasure trove, culled straight from the works of Homer, Jung, Campbell and Levi-Strauss. I retired early last night, as I stayed up until the wee hours the night before, and rose early, only to discover this gem playing on cable. Commercials aside, I found myself once again mesmerized by this lush, thoughtful and haunting tale.
At surface glance, the film seems to be a sort of Rorschach test for the viewer – evil triumphs over good, the sacrifice of the innocent, the abstract, hollow ending. And yet, at the end of the day, I think that it’s a very simple tale about a man facing his mortality.
A quiet desperation envelopes the character of Bell, as he watches the world around him morph into something dark. There’s a new god in town – the god of money. Men are driven by it; they yearn for it. They kill for it. The theme of money as the omnipotent determiner of fate is a driving force behind the film, as demonstrated when Chigurh enters a gas station:
Heads or tails. One side of the coin stands between a man and his death.
Chigurh is the archetypical Angel of Death. He is relentless, always moving forward. in search of his next target. He is deliberate. Methodical. Even when shot, he does not break his stride… for death is eternal.
Chigurh pursues Moss – a sort of reverse Odysseus – as he unwittingly carries a tracking device: an anti-invisibility cloak From town to town, Chigurh is on a mission… for it is the money that he wants, and it is the money which drives him/ Yet when he obtains his prize, he does not stop, for now, the wrath of his god compels him. Chigurgh will make Moss pay for Moss’s sin, for Chigurh bears the wrath of god… and Chigurh’s god is an old one. There is no room for forgiveness or compassion. Moss – and all those who have aided and abetted him – will be punished. The slate will be wiped clean.
Bell, the ever faithful warrior, pursues this grim reaper. He wonders about Chigurh and the carnage that this punisher wreaks. Bell speculates the Chigurh may not be real. Perhaps, he suggests, Chigurh is a ghost.
The act of retribution against Carla Jean presents one of the most fascinating threads of this tale. Carla Jean returns home from her mother’s funeral. Moss is dead. Her mother is dead. She has no one… and death waits for her in her bedroom. She is a widow; death will make her his bride.
She knows who Chigurh is; she knows why he is here. She sits in front of him, unafraid. Chigurh pulls out his coin, and asks her to choose head or tails:
That Carla Jean dies is of little importance. She has renounced Chigurh’s god. She has denied the power of the coin by forcing Chigurh to make a choice.
Chigurh leaves; it seems as if his god has forsaken him, for as he drives away, he is blindsided by a car. His arm is broken; the last we see of him is as he plods down the street, his pace deliberate. His mission continues, as he still has another visit to make, and yet, I cannot help but wonder if he does complete his mission, or if this last act has awakened something within him. Perhaps he will lead a rebellion against his god…
…and we return to Bell’s home. Time has passed; Bell has had enough. He is retired.
Something troubles him. A dream he had, the night before. Death beckons him:
Now, go write.
HRH, Princess Scribe
With the three clips and description/review you’ve provided, I don’t need to see the rest of the film. Thanks for saving me time.
PS, the coin motif is nothing new, as any reader of a Batman comic featuring Two-Face will tell you.
I don’t believe I claimed that it was new or unique. There are no original stories; the stamp of singularity hinges upon how the tale is told, so in that regard, both McCarthy and the Coen’s brought something quite new to the coin toss.
Too bad you won’t watch the film, for it is a classic. It’s definitely your loss.
Yes, the Cohen Brothers did a great job on this movie…more accurately, they didn’t let Cormac McCathy down, for it is Cormac McCarthy that dug the well on this one.
Robert, I agree that McCarthy laid down an incredibly rich frame to build on; however, as I focus on film instead of literature, and, as a filmmaker, I pay attention to the visual articulation of the script, this article was decidedly Coen-centric (pardon the pun).
There was a lot of retooling of the novel; some dialog lifted directly, other greatly rewritten… but a great adaptation of a glorious work. If only THE ROAD had received the same treatment…
Yes, I agree about THE ROAD.
I am waiting for someone to tackle THE CROSSING, an incredible coming of age story. I still stand in the gray, early light, watching Jimmy, sitting on the tarmac, his face in his hands, weeping and yes, after a while the right and godmade sun did rise, once again, for all and without distinction.
In such a bleak story, one wonders whether morality has fled entirely. Yet the subtext is often about choices & consequences: if Moss had not had seconds thoughts about “l’agua”; the repeated phrase to Chigurgh “You don’t have to do this”; the conflicting motives people have, even the boys at the end…And frequently set against the backdrop of seemingly existential forces with a momentum of their own, a concern articulated most by the sheriff musing on the past & present lives of lawmakers, who ironically seem unable to resolve things or bring any order or remedy to the chaos. Not trying to be hi-falutin’ here, just teasing out some very subtle ideas that the Coen’s have seeded into the story.
Nothing hi-fault in’ about it. I, too, wondered what would have happened if Moss had given the dying man a drink.
This viewing was the first one in which I realized that the ending was a prophecy of impending death- the dream, Bell’s nervousness, how he wanted his wife to leave- and that Chigurh would soon be paying a visit… perhaps. As I said, the film is a Rorscach test as all good films are.