by Leo Braudy
From Film Quarterly Summer 2008, Vol. 61, No. 4
Now that the desert desperation and motiveless malignity of No Country for Old Men (2007) has been showered with awards from the Directors Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, and finally the Oscar for Best Director(s) and Best Picture, it’s worth mulling over what the film, apart from its directorial panache, is actually about.
Consider the story: a hapless young man (Josh Brolin) scraping by with a young wife, happens on some big money left among the mayhem from a drug deal gone bad. After a brief internal struggle over the wisdom of mixing into such events, he takes the money and is in turn pursued by a relentless killer (Javier Bardem), who gradually mows down everyone who gets in his way, including the hapless young man and finally his wife.
There’s also a sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who makes some feeble efforts to catch the inexorable killer but finally decides to sit around with his deputy and sundry other people to philosophize about how times have changed and such implacable murderers weren’t around in the good old days. The sheriff is given some voiceovers in the film that might imply he has a wider view of the grim situation but, unlike the first-person narration he gets in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, it is the detached, omniscient eye of the author/ director(s) that encompasses whatever final truths the novel/ film believes it is purveying.
If you think about the film in genre terms, it could be considered a nice comic turnaround of a classic Western plot. We all remember the stranger who comes into town at the beginning of the movie, cleans up the villains and general corruption, and leaves at the end. Only this time, the stranger is a cold-blooded killer who ventilates most of the rest of the characters—except the philosophical sheriff—and then goes on his way, hindered only by an interesting accident—about which more in a minute.
In the mix there’s also more than a little of another classic plot turn, this time from film noir, where a struggling young man comes accidentally upon illegitimate money and spends the rest of the film either trying to escape from his pursuers or give it back or, in the case of a great Don Siegel film named Charley Varrick (1973), to outwit the baddies at their own game.
I shouldn’t say “baddies” in such a jokey way, though, since No Country for Old Men is hardly going for the obvious pratfalls, although one friend of mine reported that he laughed all the way through, much to the upset of the people sitting nearby. The Coen brothers, who directed it, are known for their comic films, but Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, is hardly a vendor of knee-slappers. Ever since his breakthrough novel Blood Meridian in 1985 he has been the go-to writer for grim and virtually unrelieved stories of death and mayhem presented in an intriguing blend of Faulknerian melodrama and Hemingway-esque macho posturing, although often, as in Mathew Brady’s photographs of the Civil War, the mayhem takes place offscreen, before the hapless viewers come upon it.
But back to the story and that tantalizing question: what is this movie, now so celebrated and rewarded, actually about?
When I was working on a book about war and masculinity, many men recommended Cormac McCarthy’s books to me. That’s what they were about I was told, and I did find in them a certain style of masculine brutality—tribal and bloodthirsty, as if the author’s saving grace was to face unflinchingly the dog-eat-dog world, wrapped lovingly in his prose.
The title here gives the point away: the “old man,” the sheriff we presume, can’t figure out how to deal with this new breed of criminal. This is no confrontation of equals at noon on a windswept desert street. This killer just blows people away, after a few gnomic remarks (longer in the novel) about his philosophy of justice.
In the Yeats poem McCarthy lifts the title from, the message is to leave the country and go to a place where the old are appreciated for their wisdom and their ability to create. But as McCarthy and the Coens use the phrase, it thinly veils a basic misanthropy and disgust with human behavior. The only answer is to retreat into private pleasures, which are at best fleeting and frequently just veil more pain.
No Country for Old Men turns the Western idea of redemption and renewal in nature inside out. Westerns like The Wild Bunch (1969) or Unforgiven (1992) similarly criticize the myths of the west, but they give us in return a perspective on both the usefulness of those myths and their ultimate failure. The violence in such films, like that in There Will Be Blood (2007), makes a profound point about the costs of physical and moral survival in a vicious world. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), the main character in There Will Be Blood, loosely based on the pioneering California oilman Edward L. Doheny, faces a similarly brutal world and indulges in violence himself. But as the film unfolds, we see how he has been warped by the determined individualism he has embraced and how he bears the consequences.
What does No Country for Old Men show? There is evil in the world that can never be dealt with. It is inexorable, it has no conscience or human nature that can be appealed to, and it is foreign (casting Bardem as a character named Anton Chigurh certainly allows for a potpourri of ethnicities). To make matters even more fatal and stereotyped, the Coens have pared away from the novel even the small suggestions of Chigurh’s human nature McCarthy allowed him.
One shot in No Country for Old Men gives a glimmer of a film that could be respected as well as admired: the sheriff, for once out of his garrulous lethargy, goes to search the cabin of a suspicious motel. As he opens the door, his shadow, complete with cowboy hat and guns, appears on the wall—all that’s left. It used to be that the physical force of the young criminal would be met and defeated by the wisdom and guile of the old lawman. Not here. Bardem and Jones might as well exist in two different movies. Even when they almost confront each other, it seems visually as if they are in different rooms of this ratty motel, each playing out his own game of genre solitaire.
Towards the end of the film, we might wonder why the sheriff, who is perfectly aware of what Chigurh is capable, doesn’t try to protect the young wife. Who knows? Too busy philosophizing. The only event that seems momentarily to halt the killer’s inevitable success is the happenstance car accident. Fate meets Chance, a perfect collision in McCarthy’s nihilistic cosmos.
To praise No Country for Old Men for its play with genre celebrates the ultimate victory of style over meaning, a trap for the Coens ever since Blood Simple (1984). Only in a post-9/11 world, with darkness and paranoia so close to hand, could Cormac McCarthy, with his overweening attention to style and his absence of any meaning beyond despair be considered a major author. He is less the Faulkner or Hemingway of our time than the Mickey Spillane, attuned to all the insecurities of American culture and exaggerating them even further—although Spillane at least managed to create a hero. The only hero in the novel No Country for Old Men is the author, whose bleak vision we are asked to applaud, just as the only hero in the movie are the directors, whose virtuosity is supposed to inspire similar praise. As Joel Coen remarked when they accepted the Oscar, “We’re very thankful to all of you out there for letting us continue to play in our corner of the sandbox”—a perfect example of the superficial sense of style-above-all with which they approached No Country For Old Men, leaving the rest of us with the emptiness of the film and the world it depicts.
Leo Braudy is the author of From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity (Knopf, 2003).