The Coens' grimmest film offered a prescient vision of a new world dominated by faceless corruption
The Sunday Matinee takes a look at a classic or beloved film each weekend. This week, we’re calling a coin toss as the Coen brothers’ masterpiece and Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men reaches the decade mark.
This week marks 10 years since Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s sparse, devastating 2005 novel No Country for Old Men was released in theaters to rattle audiences’ nerves and immediately introduce one of film history’s most singularly frightening villains. Yet, for all of the terrors presented in the film by Anton Chigurh, or by the Coens’ signature cruel, omnipotent, and blind God presiding over the story’s events, the most skin-crawling idea put forth by No Country is one that proved prescient in the years that followed. There are no antiheroes, lone cowboys fighting for what’s right, or final battles between good and evil. There’s just a faceless, amorphous, constant violence in the world now, perpetrated by forces beyond anyone’s comprehension or control.
To be sure, No Country has a villain, but who and what it is shifts throughout the film. On its face, it’s Chigurh (Javier Bardem in an unbelievably deserving Oscar-winning performance), who wanders West Texas in the early 1980s, doling out sudden and brutal death based on the flip of a coin. Chigurh can be hired, but he truly works for fate and fate alone. Early, he menaces a kindly shopkeeper with that coin; when the soft-spoken gas station attendant asks him what he’s playing to win, Chigurh responds simply, telling him: “Everything. You stand to win everything. Call it.” He wins the coin toss, and Chigurh goes on with his day. Others throughout the film aren’t so lucky.
Fate and chaos and violence are the milieu of No Country, from the revolting early scene of Chigurh murdering a police officer with a cattle bolt for having the misfortune of pulling him over on a country road. And once Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) steals $2 million from the aftermath of a drug deal gone fatally wrong, those forces conspire to destroy everything he once knew. Soon his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), is in hiding, Llewelyn is forced to flee from small town to small town to Mexico and back again, and Chigurh is always just a step behind, the vengeful shadow punishing him for his sins. He may be tasked with recovering the money, but it’s an abstract concern to the assassin at best. Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) follows both men all the while, with a mixture of weary, wholly Jonesian bemusement and a growing sense of horror at what the world has become and how the moral rot of it has slowly managed to find its way to even the most placid corners of the world.
No Country arrived near the tail end of a major turning point in American history. Released a year shy of the conclusion of George W. Bush’s time as president, a kind of grim nihilism had begun to blanket the nation, preceding the divides that exist today in an era of MAGA and fake news and so forth. It’s not as though social divisions were a new concept, but now they had a face. You were for the country or against it, loyal to white skin or traitorous to dark, obedient of God and country or unfit to accept its benefits. Once-gentle music turned angrier, with so much talk of putting boots in asses as the new American way. September 11th and a war that slowly mutated into a military occupation turned the country into a more constantly frightening place, and the infinite cable news cycle ensured that you were always fully aware of how much danger existed around every corner, how scared you could and should be, and who your enemy was.
The film preys directly on that latter fear by suggesting that the real danger is the one you’ll never see coming. After spending much of its runtime meditating on the riveting cat-and-mouse game between Llewelyn and Chigurh, the hunt suddenly ends when Llewelyn is gunned down in the doorway of an El Paso motel by anonymous drug runners for the briefcase of money. Chigurh, meanwhile, ends up in a car accident, and limps off into the night, bribing a pair of young boys for their discretion. In both cases, many audiences at the time took this as a disappointing anticlimax. One of the more riveting action films of the decade concludes in these scenes and in Jones recounting a sad dream about his father. But in the anonymity of their ends, No Country speaks to the comedown of so many triumphalist fantasies with the dawn of the modern era. There are no heroes, just people attempting to scrap for money and claim their small piece of stability and the manifest destiny once promised to all but clearly now restricted to the few. And there are no villains, just killers without names or backstories who destroy lives in the pursuit of the same. The battles are broader, and constant, struggling lives cutting down others to try and claw their way up a rapidly shrinking ladder.
After the political process gave itself over to a national acceptance of open corruption in the wake of the 2000 election — right and wrong surrendered over to party loyalty and piety to one’s winning or losing team — No Country imagines this process as a zero-sum game, the violence surrounding the film’s release an extra-textual backdrop for the carnage onscreen. Virtually every character onscreen either dies, accepts that death is drawing near, or experiences the quieter terror of having one’s identity diminished to nothing. In the film’s paranoid world, you simply wait for what’s coming to you, and there’s no dispute about whether it is or when it will. Like a wave crashing over shores, death and ruin is the only fate for us all, and more than likely it’ll be through no fault of your own. It’s just the way of circumstance. Given that the American economy collapsed less than a year later, the film almost now reads as less of a warning than a statement of fact. Your life was about to collapse, because of things you can’t understand done by people you’ll never meet, and you will be left to carry the burden.
Or, as Jones suggests in the film’s haunting final monologue, you wait to meet that other end, the one coming to us all if circumstance doesn’t beat it there. Jones muses about a dream involving his father, noting that “I’m older now than he ever was,” and speaks of how he sees the deceased older man off in the distance, carrying a fire, waiting for his son to arrive. No Country for Old Men wears the artistic auspices of the old-time Western, but in the service of something far more unforgiving. There are no duels, no last-minute rescues, no moments of respite in the saloon. The thieves and killers don’t ride into town and declare themselves anymore. They just take, until someone takes from them in turn, and the forces of avarice and retribution become an ouroboros, a death spiral from which nobody can escape once they’re pulled into its orbit. Perhaps the most despairing aspect of that monologue, and of the film at large, comes when Jones is forced to surrender even the hollow comfort of knowing that one day he’ll reach his father and that flame. He and the film both conclude with a flat statement: “And then I woke up.” The world will only grow more venomous, and he still has to live in it.