Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2007 take on Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men, is perhaps their masterpiece. Whilst rated at the time, and the recipient of scores of awards, fourteen years later, the film gets overlooked within their filmography and modern cinema itself. It took the themes of fate, conscience, and circumstance that the brothers had explored in their earlier films Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Fargo and perfected them.
Perhaps down to a story that was penned by one of the greatest literary masters, McCarthy, the king of the nihilistic take on the modern human condition, both the novel and the film adaptation of No Country for Old Men, offers a critical view on human existence, and the modern world at large.
Ostensibly labelled as a rather pessimistic take on the modern world, it can also be taken as a Gnostic discussion that directly brings into question the deeply organised, orthodox Christianity that is so pervasive in American society. One mustn’t forget that No Country for Old Men is a period piece within itself, written in the weary post 9/11 world of 2005. Set in the ’80s, this is an effective device of taking users back to when neoliberalism and technology were starting to take foot.
In 2009, McCarthy summed up the violence in his work, positioning himself as somewhat of a modern equivalent to Thomas Hobbes. He said: “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed. The notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.”
However, the film takes the blood-drenched nihilism of the book, and turns it into a serene masterpiece, a new construction of the revisionist westerns of Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah, brimming with juxtapositions. Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, perfectly brings McCarthy’s character to life.
Positioned as a remnant of a bygone era, he embodies the central philosophical theme of the novel and film, that the world is changing and is bringing with it a new form of evil. In this sense, it is modernity and the War on Drugs. However, Ellis, Ed Tom’s cousin, provides a foil to this, telling Ed Tom and the audience that the evil has always been there, it just comes in different forms. He says: “What you got ain’t nothing new. This country’s hard on people. You can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”
Minimalist like Blood Simple and Fargo, No Country for Old Men is noted for its lack of music. The only real film score it has is the wind, giving it a natural, lonely ambience, and when taken in tandem with the film’s opening shot of the desert, it positions the fictional version of West Texas as representative of the American Eden — untouched by modernity — but with this overwhelming sense of the calm before the storm. In fact, the drug bust where our protagonist, Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss, decides to cut with the cartel’s $2 million is significant. All is not well in Eden.
In one way, it represents how a decision can set off a chain of events that one has no capacity to change, akin to the butterfly effect. On the other hand, in relation to this peaceful, heavenly setting, there’s an element of Eve taking a bite from the apple and all the ills it entails. The density doesn’t stop there either. The drug exchange gone deadly wrong is as clear of an example that the modern world of the ’80s was encroaching on the world of the Ed Tom Bell’s, the last true remnants of the heavily romanticised, Christian old West.
Ed Tom Bell is a marvellous character, and Tommy Lee Jones’ performance is one of those rare displays where, after watching, you forever associate the character with the performance. He brings the world-weariness of a retirement age man into focus, and brilliantly conveys how almost naturally, the older we get, we seem to become increasingly opposed to the way the world is going. The essence of this is critically summed up by Ellis’ comments.
What is also iconic about the Coen Brothers‘ adaptation is the way that it is packaged as a neo-western, but in fact, breaks many of the genre’s stereotypes. Instead of it positioning itself as a morality tale where the heroic, white-hatted Sheriff is simply at odds with the dastardly black-hatted criminals, at the centre of the film is the idea that morality actually plays no palpable part in life, as we all meet the same end.
It’s just up to the beholder if they want to live their life according to rules, moral or religious, with the slight hope of some reward in the afterlife. But just like McCarthy, the Coen’s expertly display that this is perhaps a futile way of approaching life, as none of us can stop what’s coming.
We all will die, there’s no escape. The conduit for this theme, is Javier Bardem’s antagonist, Anton Chigurh. This is where the true brilliance of the film lies. On the pages of the novel, Chigurh is a scary, opaque character of unknown origins. He is evidently intended as a modern appropriation of the Angel of Death, and his depiction in the film augments this.
He is not aesthetically evil like Lord Voldemort or Darth Sidious and it is this simple nature of Chigurh’s character that makes him so scary. Many parallels have been drawn between his depiction and Bengt Ekerot’s personification of Death in 1957’s The Seventh Seal. With a bowl cut acting as his hood, dressed in black and using the cattle gun instead of the Scythe, Chigurh’s embodies fate.
The one chance he gives his victims for reprieve is a coin toss. Who can forget the scene where he visits Llewelyn’s wife, Kelly Macdonald’s Carla Jean, saying to her from the shadows, “this is the best I can do”. This instantly brings into focus the similarities between choosing to believe in or against God and wagering your life on the toss of a coin. The most pertinent line in perhaps all of the film is Chigurh saying: “If the rule you followed brought you to this, what use was the rule?”
The film’s ambiguous end captures the cyclical nature of life and the fact that humans are as hopeless as the rest of the planet’s inhabitants despite their consciousness. A cold but true sentiment, Roger Deakins’ cinematography perfectly accentuates the themes. Beautiful yet horrific, this speaks to life’s innate duality, and the Coen’s magnificently display the fact that from the moment you’re born, you’re on a one-way ticket to somewhere else.
Watch the trailer for No Country for Old Men, below.