What We Talk About When We Talk About Movies: “No Country for Old Men” (2007)

I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw No Country For Old Men (2007), but I can say that I was probably too young to be watching it. As the eldest child in my family, my parents were eager to have someone to watch adult movies with, so I got roped into watching some earlier than I likely should have. The pattern continued with my siblings; if I was watching it, they were too, even though they are two and six years younger. Famously, my youngest sister once burst into tears while watching The Bourne Identity (2002) when the concierge was shot in the head. However old I was when I first watched No Country, I remember being mesmerized by it. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before and one of the first real “adult movies” I had seen after being raised on a steady diet of Disney, Pixar, and Spongebob (1999-). No Country for Old Men was gritty and dusty; its stark, wide open spaces were entirely new to me. So was the straightforward approach to violence and the messages it expressed. It has since grown into one of my favorite films, one that I like to rewatch when I’m in need of comfort (as strange as that may sound). 

One of my favorite aspects of the film is its screenplay, adapted by the Coen Brothers from Cormac McCarthy’s homonymous novel. I had read McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses by the time I first watched the film, so I was familiar with his fascinating writing style, but seeing life breathed into them onscreen is just mesmerizing. (When preparing to write this piece, nearly all of the notes that I took were just dialogue). The sentences are short, the words simple. But McCarthy is fastidious about the language he uses, ensuring that each sentence is well-crafted and crucial to the story; he is not wordy, but he gets the point across. This is perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in one of my favorite scenes: when Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) chats with (threatens?) a gas station owner (Gene Jones). The exact words that are used are crucial. When he tells Chigurh that the gas station was his wife’s father’s place originally, Chigurh appears to choke on a peanut before stating, “You married into it.” “If that’s the way you want to put it,” the owner chuckles. “I don’t have some way to put it. That’s the way it is,” Chigurh replies. I frequently will go back to rewatch this scene, just to watch the tension build and the gas station’s manner shift as the interaction progresses. 

A brilliant screenplay is nothing without a cast skilled enough to pull it off, and for me much of the strength of No Country For Old Men comes from its phenomenal cast. Bardem’s performance comes to the fore. He gets under my skin in a way no other film villain ever has. He’s not flashy or loquacious (as he was when he played Bond villain Raoul Silva in Skyfall [2012]). He’s quiet, singularly focused, utterly undeterrable, fantastically violent, and entirely cold. There is nothing human or warm or understanding behind his eyes. Of course, Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones are also exceptional, but what really draws me in is the film’s supporting cast. Kelly Macdonald, for example, steals every scene in which she appears. She weathers a lot throughout the film and often wears a look of quiet worry. My favorite line of hers is “I’m used to lots of things. I work at Wal-Mart,” which offers a rare bit of comic relief. But when faced with Chigurh, she accepts what is in store for her, and watching the waves of emotion roll across her face is magical. I think that the most overlooked performance in the film, however, is Garret Dillahunt as Deputy Wendell. He is perfectly young and gullible and provides a balanced foil for Jones’ jaded and experienced sheriff, Ed Tom. After they find a burning car, Jones quickly surmises what has occurred. Dillahunt replies, impressed, “That’s very linear Sheriff.” “Age will flatten a man,” Jones responds. We can imagine Wendell as a younger Ed Tom, fresh-faced and ready to take on the world; that innocence and clarity shine through perfectly in Dillahunt. 

Age is one of many inevitabilities that threads throughout the film, including its central conflict: Chigurh’s pursuit of Llewelyn Moss (Brolin). As soon as we understand the situation, we know that Moss is doomed to die. There is never any question as to Chigurh’s effectiveness or success, and Moss, brave as he may be, was never up to the task. At one point, Chigurh asks him, “You know how this is going to turn out, don’t you?” Moss, denying the inevitable, replies, “No.” But it was destined to happen from the beginning; as Llewelyn says to Carla Jean, “Baby, things happen. I can’t take them back.” Llewelyn’s death is such an obvious part of the film that it isn’t even shown. Part of what I love so much about the movie is this inevitability, that forever looming, inescapable sense of dread. Chigurh understands it best. When he has caught Carson Wells, he says, “And you know what’s going to happen now Carson? You should admit your situation.” Wells is still trying to talk his way out of dying because he does not understand that Chigurh made up his mind about killing him long ago. Until this moment, Wells has seemed to be something of a Chigurh expert, the only one who really seems to understand him, what he’s capable of, and what he’ll do next. But here we realize, terrifyingly, that even he is not immune. His death is a foregone conclusion. The entire film is beautifully imbued with this certainty: of death, of aging, of loss. 

The most maddening part of all this certain death and violence is the pure senselessness of it. As Carson says to Chigurh right before he kills him, “You don’t have to do this.” Chigurh is fed up with this line when Carla Jean repeats it again, sighing, “People always say the same thing.” They’re right, of course, but to Chigurh, it’s all just fate and happenstance. He explains to the gas station owner that the coin he holds has “been traveling 22 years to get here. And now it’s here. And it’s either heads or tails, and you have to say. Call it.” There’s no rhyme or reason to it really. Carla Jean is the only character to immediately understand what’s coming for her and refuse to play Chigurh’s game: “I knowed you was crazy when I saw you sitting there. I knowed exactly what was in store for me… The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.” But even her fate is the same as the others’. He replies, smiling, “Well I got here the same way the coin did.” He believes that fate will decide our futures, random as it may be, and he’s simply fulfilling his duty based on what the coin flip reveals. The seeming inevitability of all this brutality is incomprehensible and yet unstoppable. 

This struggle against incomprehensible violence is personal for Sheriff Ed Tom (Jones); he’s overwhelmed by the violence he’s seen and feels he can no longer handle what’s coming at him. I love watching him come to terms with it throughout the course of the film. As his Uncle Ellis (Barry Corbin) explains, “You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” And, Ellis says, there’s no use worrying about it: “All the time you spend trying to take back what’s been took from you more is going out the door.” Some might consider it depressing, but I think this view is just realistic. You have to accept the way the world is. In the final scene of the film, Ed Tom tells his wife about two dreams he had, the latter involving his father “fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold.” It’s a hopeful picture, the promise of blue light out in the darkness. But it will not last: “Then I woke up,” Ed Tom says. We’re dropped back into today, the real world, and the real violence and devastation and loneliness that occur here. 

One of my favorite examples of this occurs near the end of the film, when Chigurh is in a car crash after having just killed Carla Jean. He drives along a quiet residential road, glances at two boys biking along behind him, and then has just driven through a green light when another car smashes into his. The sudden violence is shocking and also extremely gratifying. We get to see Chigurh held up, thrown off course, injured. But of course, he is not deterred, and within minutes is limping off with his broken arm bandaged, having paid off the boys to pretend they never saw him. The first time I saw this scene, I yelled, “WHAT? He just walks away?” And my dad just turned to me and said, “You don’t think evil gets away sometimes?” This moment was deeply unsettling to me as a young viewer. Growing up, we are taught morals and ethics, taught to do the right thing, taught that if we do the wrong thing we will be punished. And yet here, in black and white was a purely evil person getting away with his deeds for absolutely no reason at all — and my dad telling me to my face that this is something that happens. (For me, there was also the symbolism of my father — who parallels Jones’ character in that his name is also Tom — already having learned this lesson while I, like so many characters in the film, still believed that truth would prevail). Watching the movie, there was nothing I could do about its outcome, and I felt so helpless in the face of a great injustice. 

There are many reasons I love rewatching this film. One is its familiarity; I know most of it by heart, and my family and I will frequently drop quotes into conversations: “Hell’s bells, they even shot the dog.” Another is the way that I relate to its central themes of fate and predetermination. Having dealt with a variety of chronic health problems, I have seen firsthand how you can do everything right, complete every task you are supposed to, and still face a horrible outcome for no discernible reason. This pivotal and life-changing lesson is one I have learned and relearned personally over the years, so I’ve learned to find comfort in this inevitability and the fact that we all experience it, whether we know it or not. No Country for Old Men is the only film I’ve seen that also seems to fully understand and embrace the role of fate and of inevitability in our lives; so many of the lines in the film just perfectly express that sentiment, which is something that I feel intimately and frequently. It’s not about right or wrong at all, as Chigurh has learned and the rest of the characters in the film struggle to figure out. No Country For Old Men is about time passing, people aging and dying, and the utter futility of fighting against any of it. We have to, the film argues, accept the role of fate in our lives. I find solace in this impenetrable fact and the way we must all experience it together. As Vonnegut would say, “And so it goes.” 

A particularly horrible haircut I once received, which my family said made me look like Anton Chigurh. I walked around intoning “Call it” for a couple of days.

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