Be part of this world…

16mm Shrine

Andrew Collins

The 2007 film, No Country For Old Men, was written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. The movie is based on the novel by award-winning author Cormac McCarthy, and the title seems to be drawn from the first line of the poem “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats. The film won a total of nine awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor from Javier Bardems performance, and Best Adapted Screenplay. This picture cost $25 million to make but brought in a whopping $171.6 million. This was an incredible film that really had me enticed throughout the entirety of the movie.

The film is set in Texas in the year 1980 and depicts the events that occur after one of the main characters, Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin), stumbles across a drug deal that has gone bad. At the scene, Moss finds a lot of drugs, a lot of people who have been killed, and a lot of money—$2 million in cash to be exact. Moss takes the money and is chased by a psychotic hitman who was hired to get back the money. The hitman, Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem), stops at nothing and kills everyone who gets in his way, even the people who hired him to get the money.

When I watch a movie, I tend to notice a few things right off the bat. I notice the overall colors that convey the mood of the film, and I notice the score and how the music effects the way the movie flows. The overall color scheme of the movie was very natural to dark. This gave me an ominous feeling as though something bad is about to happen the whole time.

Now for the musical score of the film: there is no score whatsoever. When I first realized it, I thought that this was a mistake because it would make the movie just feel kind off-putting. However, the lack of sound, other than natural sound and dialogue, adds to the unsettling feeling from which this movie feeds. This also makes the dialogue stand out and makes the dark words of Chigurh feel even more chilling and deeper-cutting.

In one of the first scenes Chigurh puts the fate of a man’s life on the flip of a coin. In wagering a human life on the probability of how a coin will land, Chigurh shows us how psychotic he really is. Not only does he leave a man’s life to the chance of a coin toss, but he also does it with smile on his face as if it were a fun game for him. Indeed, when Chigurh talks to Moss on the phone, it does seem like he is playing a game:

So this is what I’ll offer—you bring me the money and I’ll let her go. Otherwise she’s accountable, same as you. That’s the best deal you’re gonna get. I won’t tell you you can save yourself, because you can’t.

This quote stood out to me because it really shows that Chigurh is just out for blood by the end of the movie. He does not care about the money anymore; it’s just the principle now. One of the last scenes shows Chigurh with Carla Jean, Moss’s now-widowed wife (played by Kelly Macdonald). Chigurh flips a coin again and kills her after she refuses to ‘call’ the toss. Carla Jean doesn’t even have the money, and she thinks that the toss makes no difference because Chigurh is going to kill her anyway. After the murder, all Chigurh does is check to see if his shoes are clean when he walks out the door.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones) is a symbol of power throughout this film, but he is little more than a symbol. Bell plays a role as Sheriff where ultimate authority should come from. Bell is a noble character and full of good qualities both as a lawman and as a person. Nevertheless, these qualities are often contrasted in the film with the fact that Bell does not always seem to understand the nature of the world where he must exist.

Indeed, the movie begins with a long monologue where Bell tells the story of when he first became the Sheriff. The speech is made before Chigurh arrives in Bell’s jurisdiction, and the monologue illustrates both Bell’s qualities as a person and lawman as well as his difficulty in understanding the nature of evil that begins to encroach upon him and those who he tries to protect:

I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five years old. Hard to believe. My grandfather was a lawman; father too. Me and him was sheriffs at the same time; him up in Plano and me out here. I think he’s pretty proud of that. I know I was.

Some of the old time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lot of folks find that hard to believe. Jim Scarborough’d never carried one; that’s the younger Jim. Gaston Boykins wouldn’t wear one up in Comanche County. I always liked to hear about the oldtimers. Never missed a chance to do so. You can’t help but compare yourself against the oldtimers. Can’t help but wonder how they would have operated these times.

There was this boy I sent to the electric chair at Huntsville Hill here a while back. My arrest and my testimony. He killed a fourteen-year-old girl. Papers said it was a crime of passion but he told me there wasn’t any passion to it. Told me that he’d been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he’d do it again. Said he knew he was going to hell. “Be there in about fifteen minutes.” I don’t know what to make of that. I sure don’t.

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. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, “Okay,  I’ll be part of this world.”

Bell’s opening statement to this story is compelling because of its narrative simplicity, yet it also reveals some of Bell’s faulty perceptions of the world that surrounds him. Bell’s monologue not only gives a great deal of background into his life, but it also shows where he believes his authority—maybe all authority—comes from. Bell seems to assume that power comes from the law and people naturally choose to abide by it so they can live in some measure of peace and prosperity. By the end of the film, Bell has lost any illusion he had about the nature of earthly power.

Even before he begins to go after Chigurh in earnest, Bell talks throughout the film about the “good ole’ days” when life was easier, and bad things didn’t happen all the time. The truth is that Bell has misjudged the nature of how power works in the world. When he began as Sheriff, more people respected the law, and it was easy for Bell to believe that power and goodness lived together in symbiosis. By the time Chigurh escapes him, Bell is a disillusioned man. He tells Ellis, a disabled retired deputy, that he feels ‘over matched.’ Ellis tells Bell,

What you got ain’t nothin’ new. This country’s hard on people. You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.

What Ellis tells Bell has always been the truth, even before Bell and Chigurh crossed paths. Indeed, as Ellis indicates from the story he relates about the murder of his great-uncle in 1909, Bell has allowed his view of the past to be altered by rose-colored glasses. His nostalgia and memories of working at the same time of his father has made him unable to face the reality that bad things have always happened in the world, and that earthly power and goodness are often at odds.

What this means for Bell’s decision to retire as Sheriff remains an open question. Has Bell done the right thing by not putting ‘his soul at hazard’ and leaving the field of battle to others who don’t feel ‘over matched’? Or has Bell surrendered to ‘what’s coming’ and left those under his protection helpless against the onslaught?

The answer is up to the viewer. However, there is no question that in No Country for Old Men the Coen brothers created another amazing film, and I recommend it to anyone who doesn’t mind a lot of blood. I do not remember a time that I felt as drawn in by a movie as I did watching this. All the characters brought out the intensity of the situation incredibly.