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January 15, 2008

No Country for Old Men

I'm taking a fantastic class on the structure of memorable films, and we have to watch a specific film every other week and write a paper about it. This past week I had to watch the Coen Brother's No Country for Old Men, and write a paper answering "Whose movie is it?" and "What is it about?"

What is it about is not the plot... it's the message of the story, the overall theme. Anyway, if you haven't seen this film, you probably should (assuming you're old enough to watch a fairly violent film). It's an excellently made film, even though "What it's about" is very much a depressing notion.

If you've seen it and want my take on the film, read on...

No Country for Old Men is Sheriff Bell’s movie, about how relentless evil can eventually wear people down to the point where they just give up. The Coen brothers very carefully work against genre expectations to make this point in a dramatically memorable manner.

The film opens and closes with Bell ruminating about lawmen of old, and how they might be able to handle the evil of today. He sounds tired, and confused, and over- matched. These bookends indicate that while Moss appears to be the protagonist for much of the film, this is indeed Bell’s story. (This deduction is also fairly easy to make once Moss’s death doesn’t even warrant a on camera scene, and he’s barely mentioned the rest of the film.)

So this is Bell’s journey. Or rather, as the Coen Brothers would intend, his lack of one. That they intend to make this point is so obvious because they set the film up for this perfect genre moment. Husband murdered by a terribly evil man, wife crying, good sheriff, noticeably upset... How would 99% of films treat the third act of this film? Well, the doggedly persistent sheriff would promise the wronged bride, “I’m gonna get this sumbitch.” And then he would proceed to, against all odds, get the sumbitch.
What does Bell – who, make no mistake, is a good man – do? He has coffee with another old lawman, where they complain about the loss of manners and decency. He talks to his old wheelchair bound uncle, who says things have aways been bad, and age just wear a man down.

Does he make sure the wife is properly protected against the evil still at large? No. And she’s killed, because evil keeps it promises. Instead he retires to his ranch, haunted by dreams of his father, and expectations he can never live up to.

The antagonist, Chigurh, is the one who overcomes all the obstacles to attain his goals, while the protoganist wears down and gives up. We don’t even get a climax where they confront each other. People looking forward to the violent end where all the blood spilled would finally be avenged instead got a lengthy meditation on dreams and fathers from a man too tired to do anything but meditate on dreams and fathers.

Because this is no longer a country for old men, or good men, or young men for that matter.

Poor Moss showed us he was a good guy! He couldn’t sleep until he brought some water to the dying Mexican. He’s not supposed to die. At least, not without having some kind of redemptive value. Like saving his wife, perhaps. But no, his death only hastens his wife demise. But no, because this is the kind of evil that breaks the rules, it’s so persistent.

Just about the only people who can flourish in this country are those that have bad intentions. Chigurh even escaped the normal Coen Brother comeuppance, surviving the vicious car crash and eluding the police. What are the good people to do in the face of this?

And a scene late in the film, where Bell’s wheelchair bound uncle tells us that it’s not getting worse, things have always been this bad, that’s where it’s clear... despite what the movies will tell you, in the classic struggle of good versus evil, evil will win. Because evil knows that eventually it’ll wear you down.

And the only thing a good man can do is retreat from it, and hope it passes him by.

Posted by jason on January 15, 2008 11:27 PM


looks interesting but who is moss? you never explain him...

Posted by: Anonymous on January 16, 2008 12:38 AM

I was assuming people who read the essay saw the movie. Moss is a dude who finds a suitcase with 2 million dollars in it and works to somehow keep it and survive the evil man pursuing him.

Posted by: jason on January 16, 2008 12:47 AM

i started reading your essay, but the way the sentences are split really annoys me. Anyway, great movie, but i thought it was more about chance, predestination, and free will all that stuff. How much have YOU ever lost in a coin toss?

as good as the movie was, the book was better. and i highly recommend "the road" by cormac mccarthy as amust read.

Posted by: paul on January 16, 2008 02:40 AM

what is this line problem you speak of? I thought the coin toss was definitely part of Chigurh's ethos, where 22 years the coin started a journey to get here today... creepy and scary, great character.

But then he said, it's not your lucky coin. And when Moss's wife wouldn't play along with the game, she died anyway. So it was not chance as much as what Chigurh wanted to do. It would only be chance when that amused him, or interested him, and so is it really chance at all? (Did the guy driving the car, or the deputy, or any number of people get to flip a coin?)

Posted by: jason on January 16, 2008 02:54 AM

The store keepers fate rested solely on the coin flip, but the wife, she was going to die no matter what. Chigurh had promised to kill her, so i thought the coin flip probably represented something other than her fate, maybe how he was going to kill her. There are also other aspects of chance in the story, such as moss's finding the money. Also, the "ultimate badass" Chigurh can't be stopped by the police or gunshot wounds, but everything for him was almost screwed up, because of a freak car accident.

Posted by: paul on January 16, 2008 12:17 PM

Joke's on both of you cause the movie was actually about illegal immigration. Those sneaky Mexicans... Give em an inch and they start huntin down innocents to steal their money.

But seriously, my thinking was more with Jason. I didn't think predestination really played into it at all, each character made choices that determined their situation at the end of the story. I thought the whole coin toss/chance thing was a great sidebar, but not neccessarily the main theme.

I would argue the best scene that illustrates the point was actually the car accident. Everything was almost screwed up for Chigurgh by a freak car accident... almost. But evil just walked away with a limp. Evil 1 Chance 0.

Bottom line: Paul fails at life.

Posted by: SnakeMan on January 20, 2008 07:56 PM

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