At least once in a person’s life, they find something that really sticks with them. It could be a book, a painting, a poem or a film. For me, it was watching ‘No Country for Old Men’. I didn’t like it at first; like many people, I was miffed about the way it ended, and ended up just hating Carla Jean’s mother instead of really thinking about why the film ended the way it did. Once I cared to see, I realised what the film was really trying to say.
The film takes on a pretty simple set-up; a Texas-‘Nam-Vet-Hunter-Salt-of-the-Earth cobblestone archetype called Llewelyn Moss comes across the aftermath of a Mexican drug deal gone wrong. All the combatants are dead or dying, and a briefcase filled with money is left behind. The hunter takes the case and is then pursued in a cat-and-mouse game by a remorseless villain, Anton Chigurh, who, as a side note, uses a coin like Two-Face in a film with Tommy Lee Jones in it, and the old-time sheriff Ed Tom Bell who’d much rather be watching reruns of Rawhide, curled up on his couch. So far, so seen-before.
But ‘No Country’ isn’t content with re-telling the chase story with some sly Fargo humour and no real musical score. It’s a film that deliberately challenges its audience, and their expectations, as evidenced by the amount of people who get angry when its ending is brought up.
Ending aside, the film itself I regard as spotless. There are some glaring logic flaws throughout, like Llewelyn ‘Usain Bolt’ Moss outrunning a truck on foot and Chigurh teleporting a city block during a climactic shoot-out to get the upper hand, but cinematically and in terms of sound design, the film is a triumph. Never before has a film with two-thirds the main cast of Men in Black III had such great acting, or a film with little to no music had your backside on the edge of the seat instead of your head on the armrest.
The issue of violence is woven through the story like a… thin red line, if you will. One can draw a connection about the human impact of violence from the three main characters. Bell has come undone from exposure to it, labouring under the mistaken belief the world was rosy before he arrived, and it’s only under his watch the thorns have started to prick. Moss has hardened against it, resulting in a stubborn but resolute man w
ho takes on all comers, regardless of the costs involved. And Chigurh? Chigurh has let himself become violence personified, revelling in his ‘principles’, as molasses-mouth-man Carson Welles surmises. Thematically, the film builds a case for its conclusions; while accepting violence can keep you alive (‘if the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?’ gloats Chigurh), it will corrupt and dehumanise you as payment.
‘No Country’ is a film that frustrates you. Even its most ardent supporters, myself included, will concede it’s a little disappointing after spending much of the movie building up to a showdown between Moss and Chigurh, to instead be met with Bell chatting with a paraplegic about God. The question to be asked is only this: ‘does the ending fit the movie?’ In some cases, it doesn’t. In this case, it did.
One could argue the fact its ending is so far out of left field is part of the reason the film has remained so endearing. It is a film with something to say that hasn’t been said before. We’ve seen plenty of films use violence for both theatrical and thematic purposes but none quite as gracefully as this film does, and with such a lasting impact.
Bell becomes the focal point by the end of the film, the character with which we can most relate. We have seen just as much violence as he has, and when the film reaches its end we have become Bell; so desensitised we only need to see Chigurh checking his bootheels for blood to know something terrible has happened.
He encapsulates the nihilism the rest of the film has struggled to create. His actions never have bearing upon the plot. There is no point of him even trying to save Moss or capture Chigurh, because he comes to realise his actions, and furthermore everyone’s lives, are meaningless, leading to the melancholy finale where he is told of the everlasting violence of the area, and even his fantasy version of the past becomes shattered. In the end, he is a shadow of a man, no past, present or future about him, only hoping for death so he can reunite with his father.
Now that may be very depressing, but like a punch to the gut, it stays with you for a long time after you watch it. I can say almost for certain that if the film had ended with the typical Western shootout and Moss the victor, it would have lost far more than it gained by subverting our expectations. Rather than glorify violence as the tool to stamp out evil, ‘No Country’ establishes it as the fertile ground on which evil grows. Only Bell, who doesn’t use violence at any point in the film, is left standing at the end, and he physiologically limps away from his encounter with it. ‘No Country for Old Men’ is one of few films I consider to be perfect, and for that, it’s earned itself five stars.