|The eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, er, Anton Chigurh|
Up until a woman by a motel pool offers Josh Brolin’s Llewelen Moss a beer, No Country for Old Men was the best movie I had seen all year. There were great Texas characters speaking great Texas dialogue in epic Texas landscapes, and the narrative had set a number of these characters on a collision course for a climactic scene at the aforementioned motel. The screen fades to black.
When we fade back in, this great movie has evaporated. Just based on my emotional and narrative investment in Josh Brolin’s hunter character alone this ranks as one of my top cinematic disappointments. The taut, suspenseful, thematically-resonant narrative that the movie had demonstrated up to this point unravels scene after scene, as if the brothers Coen had let a pretentious novelist sneak in to write the last act.
The final scene, which I don’t hate, like many of the people I’ve talked with about the movie, is the biggest middle finger given to a trusting audience since Magnolia. Taken with the late scene that introduces a new, retired lawman confidant to Tommy Lee Jones’ world-weary Sheriff, it would seem to explain the title of the film better than reading Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”:
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
The poem is a rumination written by a poet who admires Byzantine art for its ability to last the ages. The phrase ‘no country for old men’ is literal in the movie (and the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name to which the movie is apparently quite faithful): Tommy Lee Jones’ old man Sheriff Ed Tom Bell feels that he no longer understands this world of remorseless violence.
The need to have this theme swallow the narrative is the clearest demonstration yet that the Coen Brothers despise their audience. The alternative, that they somehow lost control of their last act, is dispelled by the absolute mastery on display in the first two thirds of the film. This is not like Gangs of New York, where a great film has been crippled by bad story structure; this is a great movie that was driving along and WHAM out of nowhere got t-boned at an intersection.
If you look to the horizon, you might just see Joel and Ethan Coen, fleeing the scene of the accident: no doubt sailing off to Byzantium with a bag of producer’s fees.
I’ll get back to the car accident in a moment. Let’s break down the scenes that lead up to it, and see if we can’t discover exactly what the Coens & McCarthy were driving at, because a lot of critics are declaring this movie a masterpiece yet all saying contradictory things about its themes. First, we have the scene where a woman by the pool offers Llewelyn a beer. “Beer leads to more beer,” she says. Does he believe her? Does he go party with her, and thus – by movie morals – deserve to die? There is no clue in the movie. [UPDATE: The screenplay draft dated November 28 makes clear that she was in league with either the Mexicans, Chigurh or a third party seeking the money, that Llewelyn did in fact party with her, and that she died in the gun battle.]
When we fade in, the Mexicans who got the info from Carla Jean’s mother are finishing an assault on the motel. Definitely dead are one Mexican gangster, the beer woman and Llewelyn. We don’t want to believe Llewelyn is dead, because we’ve invested so much in his conflict with Chigurh, so the Coens even give us a scene in the morgue to rub our faces in their narrative perfidy.
Why are the Mexicans fleeing the scene when Sheriff Bell already shows up? We know they don’t have the money, because later we see Chigurh’s coin calling card by an opened air vent, which can only mean Chigurh got the money. (It’s tough to believe Llewelyn wouldn’t have been more creative in choosing a hiding place, but I will allow some movie logic.)
Later, after the local Sheriff mentions that Chigurh has been known to return to the scene of a crime, Sheriff Bell goes back to the motel. In what the Coen Brothers say, in the Creative Screenwriting podcast interview, is only major change they make from the novel, they have Sheriff Bell enter the motel immediately after seeing the lock is punched out on the door to Llewelyn’s room. In the book, he drives around, to give anyone who is inside a chance to escape. While this may not seem like a big change, depending on how you view the rules of Chigurh, it is potentially huge. Chigurh doesn’t seem to target people unless they actively get involved (or have a car he wants). He doesn’t flip the gas station proprietor for his life until the proprietor starts a conversation. Sheriff Bell entering the motel room is a more active choice, and thus the many people who interpret Bell’s final monologue to be a vision of his own death at the hands of Chigurh have ammunition from this moment.
But if Chigurh wanted to kill Bell, he could have done so when Bell enters the motel room. Thus Chigurh does not see Bell as involved. After this scene, all dramatic tension about whether Chigurh will face Bell is gone. Unfortunately, rather than tying up the loose end of Carla Jean and being done with the movie, we are treated to two additional long dialogue scenes and a baffling car crash scene.
The first long dialogue scene is between Sheriff Bell and a male relative, Ellis. Nevermind the storytelling taboo of introducing a major character to no effect late into a script (the Coens also do this with Mike Yanagita in Fargo), what does Ellis’ story mean?
EllisSheriff Bell shrugs.
I sent Uncle Mac’s badge and his old
thumbbuster to the Rangers. For their
museum there. Your daddy ever tell
you how Uncle Mac came to his reward?
…Shot down on his own porch there
in Hudspeth County. There was seven or
eight of ’em come to the house. Wantin
this and wantin that. Mac went in and
got his shotgun but they was way ahead
of him. Shot him down in his own doorway.
Aunt Ella run out and tried to stop the
bleedin. Him tryin to get hold of the
shotgun again. They just set there on
their horses watchin him die. Finally
one of ’em says somethin in Injun and
they all turned and left out. Well Mac
knew the score even if Aunt Ella didn’t.
Shot through the left lung and that
was that. As they say.
When did he die?
Nineteen zero and nine.
What this says to me is that the senseless violence that Bell is attributing to the kids with green hair and bones in their noses has in fact been around all along. The violence that Chigurh represents is just a feature of the landscape.
…What you got ain’t nothin new.
This country is hard on people. Hard
and crazy. Got the devil in it yet
folks never seem to hold it to account.
You can’t stop what’s comin. Ain’t
all waitin on you.
This raises the dramatic possibility that Chigurh will in fact be coming for Bell, and didn’t kill him in the motel room for some reason. But this is not the case.
In the next scene, Chigurh has come for Carla Jean, right after death-from-natural-causes has come for her mother. Chigurh’s ethics require he kill Carla Jean, because he promised Llewelyn he would do so. However, for some reason he softens and offers her a coin flip for her life. She doesn’t understand him and presumably — because the Coens cut outside the house — she refuses the flip or loses it, and he kills her. He doesn’t have a gun, so whatever murder weapon he used caused there to be blood on the floor, for which he checks the bottom of his boots after leaving the house. We know he doesn’t like blood on his boots from the scene where he kills Wells, and moves his boots to avoid a slowly-spreading pool.
Driving away, in what I think is the movie’s greatest dramatic and thematic blunder, Chigurh is the victim of a random car accident. Someone runs a red light, t-boning Chigurh’s car and causing his arm to fracture to the point that bone is sticking out. I have heard the theory that this is a scene about how money corrupts the young, because he pays the two boys on bicycles for their silence.
But he could have as easily done that if they witnessed Carla Jean’s murder and the film production could’ve saved the half-million dollars it costs to stage a car accident. If the movie is making a point about chance or fate it is an obtuse point. The only clear thing that comes out of this scene is the terminator-like nature of Chigurh (he did, after all, perform surgery on his leg in the same manner the Terminator operated on its own eyeball).
The movie could’ve ended with Chigurh hobbling off into the sunset, but instead we return to Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who is restless in retirement. He recounts his dreams to his wife:
Two of ’em. Both had my father.
It’s peculiar. I’m older now’n he
ever was by twenty years. So in a sen-
se he’s the younger man. Anyway, first
one I don’t remember so well but it
was about money and I think I lost it.
The second one, it was like we was
both back in older times and I was on
horseback goin through the mountains
of a night.
…Goin through this pass in the moun-
tains. It was cold and snowin, hard
ridin. Hard country. He rode past me
and kept on goin. Never said nothin
goin by. He just rode on past and he
had his blanket wrapped around him and
his head down… and when he rode past I seen he
was carryin fire in a horn the way
people used to do and I could see the
horn from the light inside of it.
About the color of the moon. And in
the dream I knew that he was goin on
ahead and that he was fixin to make a
fire somewhere out there in all that
dark and all that cold, and I knew
that whenever I got there he would be
there. Out there up ahead.
Encoding the final message of the movie in a dream is a poetic gesture. It’s also a highly-subjective one, and I think that’s why the final scene has been so divisive and controversial. (The third response: more than one person has admitted to me they had narrative fatigue at this point, and weren’t even paying attention to the dream speech.)
What isn’t controversial is that the father would seem to be traveling in ‘the undiscovered country’ and thus this dream is a premonition of Sheriff Bell’s death. Death is the country where crusty old-timers are welcome, the country for old men. Slow fade, no music. Get it?
I choose to see profundity in the point, but I rather think the profundity could’ve emerged stronger by telling the ending of this story in a way that didn’t antagonize audiences. Several questions are still unresolved or unclear: it anyone still pursuing Chigurh? Chigurh is not pursuing anyone, not Sheriff Bell, right? What caused the drug deal to go awry (not that we care)? How will Sheriff Bell die, by violence or natural causes? I’m fine with leaving things open-ended, but one certainly has a right to expect the ending to be dramatically satisfying. No Country for Old Men was tracking just such a satisfactory ending through the plains, but lost it in a thicket of obscurity.