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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Sailing to nihilism

Okay, it’s time to have some serious discussion about No Country for Old Men. Well, actually way past time. But, as with so much that I do, late is better than never. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Many people (including me) are tipping this movie, directed and adapted for the screen by the brothers Ethan and Joel Coen, to be the big winner at the Academy Awards later this month. The buzz is only juicing the chat over the flick. So let me add my one eurocent’s worth.

Before I get started, let me make clear that the following will contain major spoilers. Please do not continue reading if 1) you have not seen this movie, 2) you have seen this movie but do not remember it very well, 3) you have seen this movie, but you think you might see it again, or 4) you have seen this movie, but you think your grandchildren might someday see it. Moreover, not content merely to spoil No Country for Old Men, the following will also spoil Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks. Okay, now that I’ve scared everyone off, I will proceed to enjoy myself, as I ruminate, alone with own thoughts.

The various message boards on the internet have been buzzing with debate about The Deeper Meaning of No Country for Old Men. The fact that so many people feel a need to work this out and that there are so many varying interpretations testifies that this is more than a simple cat-and-mouse suspense thriller. And the fact that so many of the debaters mention that they have seen the movie multiple times testifies that its somewhat ambiguous story holds a fascination beyond simple curiosity about how it will all turn out. Generally, the consensus is that the film is a meditation (a strangely peaceful-sounding word to describe such a tense and violent piece of work) on chance and fatalism or the implacability of evil. Some have suggested that there might be a 9/11 theme going on, i.e. coping with a world that seems to have been irrevocably changed by evil. But I don’t see it. 28 Days Later may make us think of 9/11. Cloverfield may make us think of 9/11. But No Country for Old Men doesn’t. The essence of 9/11 was the numbers of innocent victims. While some of the victims of violence in this movie are innocent, the key ones walk into their fates with their eyes more or less open.

Adding to the intrigue of the movie are some of its unconventional and ambiguous touches. Writing in Variety on Monday, Peter Debruge wrote, “Not since ‘Psycho’ has a lead character made such a conspicuous mid-movie exit,” describing the unexpectedly sudden (and off-screen) demise of what amounts to the hero of story, Llewelyn Moss, played by Josh Brolin. Up to that point, the whole thrust of the narrative has been about Moss’s mad scramble to avoid being offed by the relentless killer played by Javier Bardem. The viewer could reasonably expect that the climax would be a bravura set piece, depicting either Moss’s escape or on-screen death. Instead, we learn of the character’s fate more or less second-hand, along with Tommy Lee Jones’s narratively detached sheriff, Ed Tom Bell. Debruges notes that this completely unexpected development leaves “some audiences wondering whether the character is even dead.” The bottom line is that the movie is “about” something other than what we were led to think it was about.

I myself compared No Country to Psycho, although more for the tension it managed to wring out of motel settings than for the shocking premature death of a main character. I think a more apt cinematic precursor to Moss’s strange death would be the killing of Marlon Brando’s character in the 1976 movie The Missouri Breaks. In a similar cat-and-mouse hunt narrative, it all ends suddenly and unexpectedly when we see, from Brando’s point of view, Jack Nicholson’s face emerging from the darkness of sleep long enough to whisper, “You know what woke you up? You just had your throat cut,” before fading to black again.

Another ambiguous touch is the scene where Ed Tom Bell draws his gun (possibly for the first time in his career) and prepares to go into the motel room where Moss has been killed. We see the unfortunate man’s killer lurking on the other side of the door. Just when we think something awful is about to happen… nothing happens. Was Anton Chigurh really there? Did he go unnoticed? One of my readers actually had a very intriguing take on this. She hypothesized that the two were actually having a pre-arranged meeting, that Bell was there to get paid off by Chigurh for tipping him off where Moss was. And that this is why Bell suddenly decides to retire. I’ll admit that this view went around in my head for some time before I finally dismissed it. It just seemed inconsistent to me that Chigurh would need Bell’s help or that he would part with any of the money when his consistent manner of dealing with these sorts of things was simply to kill anyone in the way.

BBC radio critic Mark Kermode has noted more than once that, as far as he is concerned, it is about Bell’s perception that the world is, in so many words, going to hell in a hand basket, that the world is bleaker and more violent than ever before—a view put into perspective when Bell has hung up his badge and gun and had a chat with his brother, who reminds him that such terrible things had happened even long ago. As is often the case, Mark is on the right track. So is Debruges, who concludes that the film “is about the character who doesn’t get his man: a fundamentally decent cop (Jones) who meets a force so evil (Bardem) he literally cannot comprehend it and decides it’s time to quit.” He adds, “He’s not called out of retirement for one last case. The good guys don’t win. The villain goes free.”

Normally, when you are trying to figure out a movie that is adapted from a novel, it might seem reasonable to give the novel a read to get more insight. I confess that I have not read Cormac McCarthy’s source book, but I also maintain that a movie deserves to be seen on its own and not merely as a varied form of or extension of its source material. But I have found that a reliable way to get to a movie’s meaning is to have a good look at its title. As I noted, upon seeing the movie back in October, the title comes from the opening line of the poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” published by William Butler Yeats as part of his collection The Tower in 1928. Yeats is something of a living presence to me. His poem “The Second Coming” (with its memorable final lines: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”) made a major impression on me as a university student. Little did I suspect back then that, at a future point in my life, I would be regularly driving by Coole, in County Galway, the former estate of Lady Gregory, where he spent much time, and occasionally past his grave (under a headstone inscribed, “Cast a cold eye on life, on death, Horsemen pass by”) in Drumcliffe, County Sligo. Or, more to the point, that I would be living in his country, which is still steeped in the struggles that informed much of Yeats’s poetry. Did novelist McCarthy see parallels between the West Texas of the 1980s and Yeats’s Ireland of the early 20th century?

Yeats was in his 60s (and a senator and a Nobel laureate) when “Sailing to Byzantium” was published. And, in my reading of the poem anyway, when he says, “That is no country for old men,” he is talking of the world of the young, who are too caught up in their sensual pleasures to appreciate what is really important and lasting: “Caught in that sensual music all neglect Monuments of unageing intellect.” The poet retreats from this youthful world to a place he calls Byzantium, a place where lasting art is revered. Frankly, that is hardly what Ed Tom Bell seems to be doing in the Coen brothers’ movie. He’s not going to Byzantium. He’s riding into a dark dream wildness where his dead father has made a campfire.

Clearly, what McCarthy had in mind is something much bleaker than what Yeats was writing about. Bell is not merely escaping from a world dominated by people younger than him to become one with his art. He has reached a point in his life when the world—and the evil that sometimes roams it—has overwhelmed him. Ed Tom Bell is literally the old man that West Texas in the 1980s is no country for. But Bell and Yeats’s poetic persona do have one thing in common. If “that is no country for old men,” it is because the men have changed, not the country.

But I suppose there is another way to look at the title. The country portrayed in the movie is one in which young men like Llewelyn Moss never get the chance to become old men. Indeed, despite his efficiency at killing, there is no reason to assume that Anton Chigurh will live to become an old man either. Any way you look at it, the movie has a bleak view of the world, where death is always lying in wait around the next corner—or behind the motel room door. The best you can hope for is that maybe, with the help of luck and chance, you might get to be an old man anyway.

-S.L., 7 February 2008


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