SPOILER ALERT: This post is intended to aid in discussion for people who have already seen the film. If you have not seen No Country for Old Men, I encourage you to go watch it first. If I had to pick a favorite movie of all-time, I would pick this movie, and I would not want to mar that experience for anyone else. So please, watch the film first. With that, here are my thoughts on No Country for Old Men. Enjoy!
A little over halfway through No Country for Old Men, there is a scene where Carla Jean Moss (Kelly Macdonald) is sitting across the table from Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). Sheriff Bell is looking for Carla Jean's husband, Llewelyn (Josh Brolin), who is being chased by a man that can only be described as the pure embodiment of evil - Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Carla Jean says of Llewelyn, "He can take all comers." Notice Sheriff Bell's reaction to that line, and you'll begin to feel the power of this movie.
I have seen this movie many times, and I've read the source material - a chilling novel by the legendary Cormac McCarthy. I love great writing, and this movie has it in spades thanks to the work of McCarthy and the directors of the film, Joel and Ethan Coen.
In this movie, they portray a land that is stained with the sins of the people who inhabit it. The movie begins with images of the stark landscape with the voiceover of Sheriff Bell providing the backdrop. It is beautiful, both visually and for the pristine writing and the masterful delivery by Jones. The country itself plays a role in this film, something at which the title hints.
We then meet Chigurh, and even with the artificial barrier between us and him provided by the screen, it is not a meeting to relish. He kills wantonly and he wears black, leading many to compare him to the angel of death. He is evil - pure and simple. Twice in the movie, he gives his victims the "chance" to let the flip of a coin decide their fate. One of these comes in an early scene which I believe to be one of the greatest scenes I have ever watched in a movie. It takes place in a Texaco station, and the way the Coens use dialogue to rachet up the tension of the scene is some of the best writing around. If you watch this movie with me, we will undoubtedly rewatch this scene. However, there are many others to whom Chigurh does not give the choice of heads or tails. Death waits for all, and that is the specter that hovers over the film.
The other main character in this film is Llewelyn Moss - a Texas man. We first meet him as he is hunting wild game on the Texas plains. He then stumbles upon a situation that will change the course of his life. Out in the wide expanse of country, he happens upon the scene of a drug deal gone wrong. Every living creature - human and animal - is dead except for one man holding on to the last vestiges of life and desperately in need of agua. Moss - the expert tracker that he is - follows the trail leading away from the scene and finds the "ultimo hombre" - the last man who had made away with $2 million worth of drug money before he met his end under a shade tree. Moss now faces a decision: whether or not to take the money. We watch and wonder what we would do under the circumstances.
I believe the power of this film is in its subversion of genre. For most of this film, we believe it to be a mixture of Western and Crime Drama. As such, we expect there to be a final showdown - an O.K. Corral - between Chigurh and Moss. They spend much of the film chasing each other. However, except for one scene, they never face off. Even in that scene, their interaction is very short-lived and does not provide the finale we expect.
In fact, both characters end up disappearing off-screen. Moss is killed, and Chigurh walks away after a car accident. Because of this ending, many view the film's final scenes as a bit of a letdown. While I understand that sentiment, I believe it is only a surface-level view of the movie. Dig a little deeper and you will find treasures.
If Moss and Chigurh are not the main characters (as they must not be since they both disappear before the end), we are then left with Sheriff Bell. He is the crux of the film, and it is his view of the events depicted in the film that make this movie masterful, in my opinion.
From the beginning of the film, we learn that Sheriff Bell has been around law enforcement his entire life. He has been Sheriff of this county since he was 25 years-old, but he is a third-generation "lawman." He has seen a lot, including many things that most of us would rather not see. Now, he is getting older. By his own admission earlier in the film, "Age'll flatten a man..." It is at this stage of life that he is thrust into the goings on of Moss and Chigurh, and it is an experience that has a major effect on him.
In a pivotal scene late in the film where Bell is visiting his Uncle Ellis (Barry Corbin), Bell discusses why this chase impacted him so. He has begun to feel overmatched. He has finally met something that he doesn't understand. He realizes that he cannot take all comers even if people younger than him think they can. He had hoped that when he got older, God would come into his life somehow. But in Bell's mind, that did not happen.
We see a man who is tired and battered, dragged down by a life spent staring the worst of humanity in the face. Things aren't how they used to be, and they never will be again. This truly is, as Sheriff Bell realizes, no country for old men.
And thus, we come to the final scene. It has become somewhat of a polarizing scene, I guess. As I said before, I've heard many people say they dislike the ending. That is usually because they feel somehow cheated because the characters they have been watching for the whole movie suddenly disappear off-screen. As I said, I fully understand that thought process. All I ask is that you give the ending a chance. Because, when viewed with empathy for the entire story, I believe this ending reaches the transcendant.
Sheriff Bell has now retired. He is sitting at the kitchen table across from his wife, Loretta (Tess Harper). It is a domestic scene, one that is familiar to us. The retired man now attempting to find purpose in his life. They offer some common husband and wife discussion back and forth, and then the conversation turns to two separate dreams that Bell had the night before. They both include his father.
The first he bypasses rather quickly. But the second, he remembers in greater detail. We all know the feeling of trying to remember a dream the next day. Ones that linger in great detail seem to us to have greater significance.
In the dream he is travelling up a cold mountain pass with his father. His father passes him, and Bell sees that he is carrying fire in a horn "the way people used to do." Bell says that in his dream, he knew that his father was going ahead of him "to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold." Then, Sheriff Bell utters the final lines of the movie.
What a powerful way to end a movie. This is certainly not like very many movies you often see. And it is for the unusual choice made in ending the film that I find this movie to be so powerful.
In this film, we are presented with pure and utter evil (Chigurh). We watch in horror as he blows through the film. He is a force of nature. But, if we think about it, even before watching this film, we knew about Anton Chigurh. We see evil in the world all too often. Unfortunately, there are people like Anton Chigurh out there. What are we to do in the face of such evil, that is stained into the very ground beneath our feet?
If the movie ended there, it would be a very bleak picture of life, indeed. But it doesn't. We are given this dream of Sheriff Bell's. The obvious question: what does it mean?
Well, I won't begin to speak for the Coens or Cormac McCarthy or anyone else. But to me, the ending of this film is extremely hopeful. Even in the midst of evil and darkness in the world ("out in all that dark and all that cold") there is a Light that leads the way before us. He knows the way, and He is in the midst with us. We are simply called to follow.
You see I think this final scene is the interaction for which Sheriff Bell had longed. God did come into his life. It was at the point when Sheriff Bell acknowledged that the evil he faced was beyond him. He couldn't fight it alone. He simply can't take all comers.
I love this film because I think it takes us to a place where we must consider some very hard facts of life. People age. People die. The world moves on whether we want it to or not. Life is hard. Things happen outside of our control that change us forever. And, yes, there are forces of evil at work.
But it is precisely the ending of the film that not only takes us to those places of deep thought, but gives us a profound insight - hope is not lost.
Even in the midst of all this, hope is not lost.
Note on content: This movie contains heavy violence, and as such I cannot recommend it for younger viewers. It also does contain some language, but there is no overt sexual content save for one passing comment early in the film. There certainly is no nudity or anything that could be considered a sex scene. As I mention in my primer on my views on content, I will overlook violence and language in a movie as well as small levels of sexual content if I believe it to be a worthy piece of art. No Country for Old Men is certainly that. So for older, more mature viewers who can make such content decisions for themselves, I recommend it in the highest regard for the questions it poses and the beauty of its writing.