“What you got ain’t nothing new,” a retired lawman says in No Country for Old Men, counseling a colleague who’s so traumatized by a recent mass murder case that he’s thinking of quitting his job. That’s hard truth, and the fact that the sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), is more introspective than some of his colleagues doesn’t make it go down any easier. Bell’s astonishment at the violence unleashed by his quarry, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem)—an assassin tailing a Vietnam vet (Josh Brolin) who filched a briefcase full of drug money—is so deep that it spurs Bell to reconsider his life, his job, the nature of morality, the mind of God, the shifting cultural character of the border country he calls home, and the profound ways in which the United States changed between World War II and the Reagan era. Bell is one of many characters forced by Chigurh’s rampage to consider his place in the universe: who he really is; what he stands for; whether he believes what he believes and behaves as he does by choice, predisposition or predestination; whether evil exists and whether God, if there is one, cares one way or the other.
All these elements and more come through in a movie packed with laconic lawmen and criminals that has very little exposition and almost no music. I haven’t read the Coens’ source material (a novel by Cormac McCarthy), which means I’m not sure whether virtues I attribute to the Coens are partly attributable to the novelist; in any event, No Country is an unsettlingly effective movie, different from, yet consistent with, everything the brothers have made till now. The film’s leisurely ruthlessness—picture a John Carpenter ghoul loping toward its prey—is not just another demonstration of the Coens’ eerie aesthetic assurance. The novel’s title is drawn from William Butler Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” but the Coens’ film adaptation seems more aligned with another Yeats poem, “The Second Coming,” with its warnings of a “blood-dimmed tide,” a paralysis and decay in the face of seismic social upheaval.
Perhaps because so many current theatrical films have tried to address the post-9/11 world in a boringly prosaic way, the terse period piece No Country has been framed by critics as an assessment of America’s moral health circa 2007. To a limited extent, it is that; given the time and place in which it was produced, it couldn’t be otherwise. But it would be a mistake to presume that the Coens’ main intent is to render judgment on U.S. foreign policy (or domestic morality) post 9/11, or even post-Reagan (the film is set in 1980). The film actively discourages such a narrow reading.
No Country’s message, such as it is (the Coens aren’t message-y directors) is not about Where We Are Now. It’s simpler and more encompassing, less reminiscent of reportage or the editorial page than the admonitions of a philosopher or court jester: Get over yourselves, Americans, and everyone else, too. Look beyond yourselves and the time you live in. What is happening to the United States and the world—and every individual—is a variant of a dynamic that recurs throughout personal and political history, as predictable as the end of one year and the start of the next. What you got ain’t nothing new.
Bell narrates No Country for Old Men, or at least begins to. But pretty soon his narration all but disappears. This strikes me not as a mistake, but a telling aspect of the movie’s vision. Because Bell is played by Tommy Lee Jones, a star who specializes in hard-bitten, smart-alecky, “rebel” authority figures, we’re predisposed to view Bell as a voice of wisdom, an amiable patriarch, and in certain superficial ways, he is that. But in a grander sense, he doesn’t know shit. He’s the latest in a long family line of local sheriffs. He’s proud to inhabit such a mythic post. But he also fantasizes (openly) about what it must have been like to do his job in an earlier, more exciting time, when the world supposedly held more possibilities for heroism. This is a nod to modern Western convention—Bell is a lawman in a closed frontier—but the character’s wistful unease is universal. He could be a ballplayer wishing he could have tested himself against Babe Ruth, or a musical performer pining for a time when Broadway meant something. He’s a representative of a settled, complacent mindset: a guardian of the dominant culture. Bell’s belief that he lives in a time of fixed realities and diminished potential is indicative of the mentality that makes a dominant culture vulnerable to aggressive revisionists. To the people Bell hopes to stop, the future is a wide-open road. The status quo’s defenders are speed bumps.
Bell has no idea that his circumscribed perspective as a sixty-something white Texas lawman hampers his ability to understand the forces at war in his territory: Mexican drug runners and Anglo-American bankers, strange bedfellows who have nothing in common but an implacable urge to make a quick fortune. The horrors Bell encounters expand his perceptions—his sense of what’s possible, for better or for worse (mostly for worse). But his evolution ends before it can really take root, and his final monologue has a defeated, even mournful tone. Bell gives his word that he’ll find and save the Vet, Llewelyn Moss, before Chigurh (or other drug thugs) can kill him; but he arrives too late. (Shades of Fargo: Marge Gunderson’s smart police work cracks the case, but when she arrives at the kidnappers’ hideout, she finds a dead victim and a perp feeding his partner’s corpse into a woodchipper.) Llewelyn’s death is made more poignant by the Coens’ decision to have it occur off-screen; likewise the sequence with Llewelyn’s wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), refusing Chiguhr’s demand that she flip a coin to determine a fate that’s ultimately settled behind the door Chighur shuts in the film’s penultimate sequence.
The Coens’ shift from up-close, graphic violence to obscured or elliptical violence cements the sense that we’ve been privy to a mysterious but fundamental change in the universe. We see bloodied flesh close-up when it’s a new phenomenon; when it ceases to be noteworthy, the filmmakers stop showing it. A notable exception is the climactic car wreck that injures Chigurh. It has the hallmarks of a deus ex machina, but it occurs too late to prevent the assassin’s campaign of terror and it doesn’t so much end his rampage as interrupt its denouement. Chigurh enlists two teenage boys in his escape, paying one of them $100 for a shirt to use as a sling (echoing Llewelyn’s furtive bribery of tourists on a U.S.-Mexico border bridge). It seems significant that the killer’s escape is aided by kids who have no connection to, or stake in, the apocalyptic crime war we’ve been watching. The accident scene’s whiff of cosmic retribution reminded me of the Coens’ shooting gallery-like dispatching of the bad guys in The Ladykillers. But given the rest of the story, I doubt that’s what was intended—and did my eyes deceive me, or did Chigurh have the green light when his car got rammed?
Spiritual but not religious, the Coens are Stanley Kubrick-style secular theologians. Their awe of the unknown is comprised of equal parts humility and philosophical-scientific curiosity. Their films tease our suspicion that powerful, unseen forces move the universe—moral and ethical forces that sometimes seem to be rendering judgment or sending a message.
But at the same time, the Coens insist that no man can verify if these forces actually exist or if we insist they do out of vanity—in order to convince ourselves that our existence matters to anyone but us and our loved ones. The confluence of forces that suggests fate or justice might be evidence of a higher power (represented in the conversation between Bell and the old lawman about what God wants), chance (Anton Chigurh’s tossed coin, which decides if a person lives or dies—an intriguing hint that on some level, this stone-cold psychopath feels guilt and perhaps wishes to reassure himself that his bloody deeds were inevitable) or free will (a subject broached in the scene where Carla Jean declines the coin toss to force Chigurh to accept responsibility for his deeds). Or it could be the result of electrons colliding to produce a result that might have been different had a single electron bounced differently. This free will vs. destiny thread runs through all of the Coens’ work, even their most maligned and dismissed movie, The Hudsucker Proxy—a comedy in which the story’s microcosmic society, the Hudsucker Corporation, persists no matter what executives, workers, stockholders and outside agitators do to influence it. That film’s most revealing image is dolt hero Norville’s blueprint of three ridiculously successful toys, all represented by the same drawing, a straight line (the side view: free will) and a circle (the overhead view: destiny).
The Coens’ narrations often hint at, but rarely confirm, the existence of deliberate, supernatural forces. Their narrators purport to know the whole story, but mostly they know what they saw, heard or read. Blood Simple’s narrator is dead; Hudsucker’s is a corporate servant who seems to have gleaned much of what he knows from newspaper reports and the company grapevine; Lebowski’s narrator is either a literary conceit or a figment of the hero’s bong-addled imagination, and in any event, he’s so self-satisfied and scatterbrained that he can barely follow his own train of thought. The most humble (and therefore trustworthy) narrator in the brothers’ filmography is H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona, whose after-the-fact account of a kidnapping gone awry mythologizes and caricatures what is, on its face, a rather sad little story, then accepts a few shreds of hope (a reconciliation with his wife; a coming-to-terms with adulthood; a dream of fertility and old age) as a truly happy ending.
In No Country, Bell’s narration primes us to expect answers, but its true purpose is to spur admission of how much we don’t know and steer us back to what we do know, or should know, based on a cursory study of history: The new order invariably overthrows the old, then gets comfortable, all the while nostalgically wishing it could have experienced what prior generations went through, back when the world was new and people were decent and there were rules or a code or somesuch nonsense. (It’s no coincidence that once Baby Boomers took control of the media, we saw a wave of films and TV shows characterizing the ’60s as the most important decade ever, followed by a wave of movies mythologizing the World War II generation.) Once the new order gets settled, it becomes the old order; then, like clockwork, new forces arise that seek to topple the current powers-that-be. These new forces terrify the establishment by behaving not merely as if its written-in-stone traditions were Etch-a-Sketch doodles (in a conversation with Bell, the El Paso sheriff lumps in hippies with the forces of darkness), but as if the establishment itself is merely a glorified obstruction that will be inevitably be toppled or abraded by time.
No Country reinforces this theme from start to finish, in ways both small and large. In a grand sense, Bell, his fellow lawmen and the white, working class Texans down near the Mexican border are representatives of the Powers that Be, forced to reckon with a threat that seems fresh (Mexican drug runners, their American enablers and their unseen customers). But the “fresh” threat is the latest incarnation of meet the new boss, same as the old boss. The Coens’ italicize this point by comparing (through compositions and editing) the murders Chigurh commits with an air-gun designed to kill livestock (and Chigurh’s impulsive shooting at a pheasant on a bridge, a moment reminiscent of warthog-from-Hell Leonard Smalls’ destruction of a lizard and a bunny in Raising Arizona), and the white Texans’ subjugation of the land and its resources (acknowledged in the early scene where Llewelyn snipes at antelope from a distant ridge). Once a man has decided (as Chigurh has decided, and as Leonard Smalls and Johnny Caspar and the kidnappers in Fargo decided) that another person (or creature) is a valueless object, he can kill without remorse. In the Coen Brothers’ universe, the abandonment of empathy (and the accompanying detachment from civilization’s agreed-upon laws and traditions) is a dark key that unlocks the door to absolute and terrifying freedom, leading to existential rampage. No Country makes the key-and-door analogy explicit: Chigurh uses the same air gun to blast through door locks and attack his quarry. The projectile is almost exactly the same width as the lock, and its passage leaves such a clean hole that it’s as if the lock never existed.
Though they are habitually described as snotty formalists with nothing on their minds but cinematic gamesmanship, the Coens’ body of work is one of the most sneakily moralistic in recent American cinema. To some extent, all of their movies poses questions that supposedly deeper filmmakers have broached time and time again: if we cannot be certain of God’s existence; if there is a possibility that no one’s watching what we do; if, to reference Johnny Caspar in Miller’s Crossing, “morality and ethics” are agreed-upon lies; if the evil can destroy the good with impunity, and if the wicked often die for reasons unrelated to a hero’s good deeds (throughout the Coens’ filmography, bad guys often destroy themselves through vanity or stupidity, or get snuffed out by coincidence or bad luck), then what’s the point of being good? Just because. “There’s more to life than a little money, you know,” policewoman Marge Gunderson tells the dead-eyed killer in the backseat of her police car at the end of Fargo. “Don’t you know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.”
In Raising Arizona, Leonard Smalls is a manifestation of H.I.’s untamed id; he literally enters the film through the hero’s nightmare. No Country visually quotes Arizona at several different points, notably in the sequence where Llewelyn discovers the wounded dog (the cutting between close-ups of his boots striding through the desert and the low-angled shot of his face as he walks exactly mirror shots of H.I. and Smalls in Arizona); in the aforementioned shooting at the pheasant; and in the overhead shot of Llewelyn lying awake next to his wife, thinking about the criminal adventure he’s about to embark on. In Arizona it seemed as if H.I. dreamed up Smalls; in No Country, the stalker appears first, and Llewelyn’s descent into criminal mayhem makes it seem as though he is an extension, or a would-be protege, of Chigurh. At times Bell, Llewelyn and Chigurh seem like aspects of one human soul, fixed on different spots in a moral continuum: the good (Bell), the evil (Chigurh) and evolving man (Llewellyn). Llewelyn initially suggests a younger version of Bell—with his narrow eyes, walrus mustache and broad-shouldered confidence, Brolin looks like a young Nick Nolte—but gradually, through manipulation, corruption and violence, he becomes more like Chigurh. When Chigurh tells Carla Jean that her husband is ultimately responsible for her impending death, he’s being self-justifying—but he’s not wrong. Sometimes you reap what you sow—and your loved ones do, too.
The Coens aren’t nihilists. There may or may not be a God in their imagination—the only Coen Brothers films that definitively confirms the existence of intelligent, purposeful, supernatural forces are Hudsucker and The Ladykillers, easily their dopiest, least consequential films—but the lack of theological clarity doesn’t necessarily mean that the Coens endorse their characters’ decision to be indecent or cruel. Quite the contrary, the Coens’ movies strongly endorse the notion that one should honor certain bedrock principles for their inherent rightness (or, barring that, for the benefits such a life might confer). Decency is the Coens’ version of piety. It’s not just a rock to cling to in hard times, but a quality worth cultivating for self-interested reasons, because it makes a character more likely to know love and comfort. The Fargo kidnappers live for the moment, and their existence is defined by cheap motor inns, bored hookers, an increased likelihood of getting shot in the face or stuffed into a woodchipper, and the impossibility of every truly trusting anyone. Straitlaced Marge, on the other hand, goes to sleep each night in a warm bed beside a man who loves her. In the Coens’ world, acceding to certain customs and laws means sacrificing visceral liberties to gain deeper and more satisfying ones: freedom from fear of loneliness and the nagging suspicion your existence is meaningless. H.I. and Ed McDunnough and Florence and Nathan Arizona are cushioned against despair by their love for, and commitment to, their respective unions. Leonard Smalls in Arizona, like Chigurh in No Country, is utterly alone in the universe, connected to no culture, beloved by no person; if they weren’t committed to the loner lifestyle, they could start a support group, and invite Visser in Blood Simple, Bernie Bernbaum from Miller’s Crossing, and the Fargo kidnappers to join.
Chigurh’s wraithlike presence makes him a Grim Reaper in a chili-bowl haircut. He’s half man, half literary device. Bell likens him to a ghost, and he does have a touch of the horror movie stalker about him. He lopes after prey like Michael Myers or the Terminator, verbally toys with them like The Hitcher and Richard Ian Blaney in Frenzy, and has a Droopy-like ability to materialize in places that his victims chose as sanctuaries. But he’s not a contented man. He only seems fully actualized when he’s killing people barehanded—as in the early scene where he strangles the deputy, his rapturous psycho grin photographed from overhead as if he’s daring God to intervene. When Chigurh uses a gun, he’s a Satanic cattleman putting down bipedal animals, like the (invented) farmer in the anecdote that Bell tells Carla Jean. Bardem’s astounding performance—he’s the most terrifying yet multifacted psycho since Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet —subtly hints at the fathomless despair that must fuel a man like Chigurh. Something in the way this murderer peers at his soon-to-be-victims suggests an internal, perhaps subconscious process of translation: a means of turning self-contempt into contempt. The apparent “code” that Bell attributes to Chigurh is the code of a fascist; to Chigurh, the wrong decision is one that goes against his wishes, and the penalty for resistance is death. He’s the freest man in the movie, and he knows it; he carries himself like a self-created dark prince. Yet he enters the story in handcuffs and leaves it bloody and broken-boned, trudging through the suburbs on foot.