No Country for Old Men: A critical response

No Country for Old Men a critical response

There are SPOILERS here! 

I find that sometimes to further infiltrate the skin of a movie one must read other’s interpretations to help resolve ones own thoughts, and then to create a dialogue. Jim Emerson at Scanners has recently put forth many posts about the Coen Brother’s latest film No Country for Old Men, and I’ll let him say many of the things I could say, as I agree with most of what he puts forth, which can be read in its entirety here. He states with eloquence some of the ideas that permeate the film and some of the problems he sees in other critics interpretations of the film. He begins with this assesment before moving into the film itself.

“No Country for Old Men” has been called a “perfect” film by those who love it and those who were left cold by it. Joel and Ethan Coen have been praised and condemned for their expert “craftsmanship” and their “technical” skills — as if those skills had nothing to do with filmmaking style, or artistry; as if they existed apart from the movie itself. Oh, but the film is an example of “impeccable technique” — you know, for “formalists.” And the cinematography is “beautiful.” Heck, it’s even “gorgeous.” …

But what do those terms mean if they are plucked out of the movie like pickles from a cheeseburger? How is something “beautiful” apart from what it does in the film? (See uncomprehending original-release reviews of “Barry Lyndon” and “Days of Heaven,” for example, in which the “beautiful” was treated as something discrete from the movie itself.) When somebody claims that a movie overemphasizes the “visual” — whether they’re talking about Stanley Kubrick or Terence Malick or the Coens — it’s a sure sign that they’re not talking about cinema, but approaching film as an elementary school audio-visual aid. When critics (and viewers) refer to the filmmakers’ application of “craft,” “technique,” and “style” (can these things be applied, casually or relentlessly, with a spatula?) without consideration of how these expressions function in the movie, we’re all in trouble. A composition, a cut, a dissolve, a movement — they’re all manifestations of craft (or skill), technique (the systematic use of skill), style (artistic expression).

 Great points before he goes further into the themes of the film.

Chigurh sees himself, however, as destiny personified. He is simply the Reaper, who does what must be done… because that’s what he does. The way he sees it, he is not the one responsible for the decision to kill or not kill. There are rules and he must enforce them, if only because he’s the only one who understands them (as far as he’s concerned). So, he doesn’t choose to kill or not kill; but if fate puts someone in his way, then so be it.

True, true, all true. Chigurh as I said in my own review represents death or the lack of safety in our world. Chigurh is relentless in his need to fulfill his duty, but then Emerson takes it a touch too far perhaps.

It doesn’t much matter what Chigurh is, and even less who he is. He’s not a character (say, a compulsive murderer who acts to gratify his primal psycho-sexual needs). He’s a catalyst, who represents different things to different people: evil, chaos, “the ultimate badass.” Chigurh, with the nearly vowel-less-sounding, unpronounceable name, is a Western figure of mythical stature, like Clint Eastwood’s “Pale Rider” or The Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s trilogy — or Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) or Mystery Man (Robert Blake) in David Lynch’s movies.

To say that Chigurh isn’t a character is faulty. It’s like saying the film is beautiful while dismissing the rest of it – you can’t separate the two. It’s like saying that because Randle Patrick McMurphy, Nicholson’s role in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, represents something, he can’t be a character. The two, in the best films, go hand in hand. Just because Chigurh doesn’t act with the same motivations of other movie killers, what Emerson exemplifies with “primal psycho-sexual needs” doesn’t mean he isn’t a character, because he represents something, or because he doesn’t have an arch, well, it’s insane to not call him a character.

I would go even so far as to describe Chigurh in the way I’m about to. There are two types of main characters I learned in my screen writing class back in college, the kind whose ideals change throughout the film to match the world around them or those who hold firmly to their ideals, who stays strong and firm and who fight against the unchangeable world around them. With this in mind it’s easy to see Chigurh as the main character. And he’s putting up a pretty good fight to get people to listen to him, but when you go looking for death, it’s bound to notice. As Brolin does when he enters back into what seems to be hell to give water to a dying man. A moment of charity spells his demise.

We see many times Chigurh having reactions that go beyond his duty as a mere catalyst or making decisions that perhaps stray from his code. He becomes frustrated and annoyed almost pushed to anger when Moss’ wife won’t call the coin toss or when the receptionist won’t tell him where Moss works. We see him toying and having fun with people, like the clerk and owner who married into the gas station business. The interesting thing about this confrontation is you see that Chigurh isn’t only just a killer, but he’s not afraid to tell it like it is. He doesn’t mince words, he isn’t afraid to. The old timer married into it, no matter which way you cut it. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” He confuses the old timer, and calls him on it. Chigurh in his own way shows sympathy when he tells Moss he will let his wife live if he gives himself up and hands over the money. Chigurh is more than just fate or death, there are things that make him more complex than just an idea. Did Chigurh kill Moss’ wife without a coin toss? We’ll never know. Did Chigurh allow Ed Tom to live in the end and why? Did Chigurh kill the boy’s at the end, even after seeming momentarily annoyed by the baseball cards on the sockets? No. He himself was even wounded. He himself could have met his demise. What answers do these questions bring forth? I’ll return to some of this.

But finally the biggest oversite in Emersons critique is to leave the idea of vanity almost untouched. Here Emerson talks about the profundity of Jones’ final moments in which he as Ed Tom describes to his wife the dreams he’s had.

I can’t imagine a more perfect and eloquent conclusion for this film, which begins and ends by acknowledging Ed Tom’s dreams and illusions, but some audiences have been vocal in their disapproval. What does the ending do? For one thing, it shows us a man who has retired, who has said he will not be part of the world he described in the opening, and who now sits indoors, in a cozy kitchen, where the wild outside is just a view through a window.

And yet, he’s still comparing himself to the “old-timers,” and still coming up short. It follows another scene in a kitchen, swarming with feral cats, belonging to Ed Tom’s cousin (and his granddad’s former deputy), Ellis, who sits in a wheelchair, having been shot by a man who died in prison. “What you got ain’t nothin new,” old Ellis tells Ed Tom, trying to shake him loose from his nostalgia. “This contry is hard on people…. You can’t stop what’s comin. Ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”

Then Emerson moves on and leaves that final line, “That’s vanity,” sitting untouched, as if when it’s said, nothing is meant by it, and to me it’s one of the most important lines in the film, especially when taken into context with the rest of Ellis’ speech, funny that it should come from the one character who looks like he’s been fighting off death for decades. Ellis is making a comparison between the violence and lack of safety that was then, when the “old timers” were around, and the violence that is now, that Chigurh represents. When he says “That’s vanity,” he turns the narrator’s, or Ed Tom’s, opinion on its head. To feel that you have it harder than anyone else did, that death didn’t arbitrarily present itself before you were born is vanity. To quit or give up because of that is vanity. It means you’re saying you have it harder, and you don’t. Just because the means have changed, doesn’t mean the ends weren’t there before. We spend the whole movie listening to Ed Tom, believing his advice, understanding his dilemma, and then here it seems like he was wrong. And that’s the problem with Ed Tom, that’s always why he’s a step behind. We wonder that maybe if he hadn’t been so vain in thinking he could do nothing, Moss could have been helped sooner. It’s what makes the scene in which Ed Tom says he’s going to do something good for mankind three times a day so important. So, if Chigurh represents death, then Ed Tom represents safety, or God, or what have you, “I can protect him” Tom says to Moss’ wife Carla Jean, but inevitably for Moss and us, the mortals caught in between, doesn’t that feeling or idea always seem a step behind the terrible events that take place in our life. No matter what, that promise of safety can’t stop death or pain.

So, perhaps when Moss took the shotgun slug to the arm, he was already dead. He was avoiding death from the get go. Moss crosses the river Styx, running from death, as the dog chases him. Maybe the whole cat and mouse game between Moss and Chigurh is the chess game that Bergman personified in “The Seventh Seal”. In that case Chigurh isn’t even a bad guy, he is simply death doing his job, he’s “Death on a Pale Horse” by Piers Anthony. He’s something only the vain fear, those that think either death has made it harder for them alone (Ed Tom) or those that think they can avoid it or fight it or pretend it doesn’t exist (Moss has a chance to save his wife but his vanity keeps him from sacrificing himself to keep her alive) or bargain with it or contain it (Carson Wells, Woody Harrelson’s character), and even Chigurh, who believes he is above the inevitability of death almost and unexpectedly meets his demise. And that is the brilliance of the film, in the final few scenes the Coen’s very subtly flip the themes we’ve been following on their heads. First when Chigurh meets a flip of the coin, and when Ed Tom is told, “That’s vanity”

In the end it’s ironic that Moss isn’t killed by Chigurh, but by the Mexican drug runners. He doesn’t see it coming, we don’t see it coming! That Chigurh shows up to take the money, it would seem, well he’s just finishing his job, right? So there’s no one left to get in his way. Ed Tom is lucky. A few minutes earlier, and he might have been facing his early retirement. And in the end, no matter how much hope the imagery Ed Tom conveys from his dream, about his father waiting for him in the darkness, it’s a sad ending for the character, because he has become the idea of the “old-timer” that he wondered about, unable to deal with what’s now and has always been, death.

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9 Responses to “No Country for Old Men: A critical response”

  1. Ken Says:

    “Vanity” does seem to be a key word in the movie, but what exactly does it connote? I’ve been toying with the concept of “vanity” as developed in Ecclesiastes. For a discussion of this idea, see:

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  6. lawrence serewicz Says:

    An interesting view of the film and one that I appreciate. However, it misses some of the important elements of the book. First, Moss is a hunter who is distracted by the money. He did not go hunting the money and he knew it would change him. Second, Moss ends the film hunting Chigurh. Wells was hunting Moss as well. Chigurh is a hunter. The only reluctant hunter is Bell. He chooses not to hunt Chigurh (at the end of the book).

    Second, Moss (in the book) has the drop on Chigurh (the only time that hapens to Chigurh) and it makes one think about the fact that Chigurh does NOT kill Moss. Perhaps he cannot kill Moss because he owes him his life.

    Third, the film explores the boundary between the law (civilisation) and criminality (what lies beyond the law) with Bell willing to patrol and defend that border but never cross it. Chigurh patrols the other side, the criminal world, that Moss chooses to enter by taking the money. The brutal fact that Chigurh uses a cattle gun on civilians (ie not on any predators (or hunters)) should give us pauses regarding what civilisation has done for us and what we need to do if the guardians are unwilling or unable to defend us. What are we left with?

    Fourth, the movie and the book, in particular, make us think about the quotation “Who guards the guardians”. I explore that idea more in my blog about the book here:
    I would be interested in your views on it.

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  9. Clayton Miller Says:

    “You can’t stop what’s coming.”

    Moss couldn’t stop the Mexicans
    Wells couldn’t stop Chigurh
    Chigurh couldn’t stop the car at the intersection
    And Sheriff Bell couldn’t stop any of this

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