Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones
There’s a compulsion to see No Country as a sort of relentlessly nihilistic story, and I smell what those people are stepping in. There is an awful lot of collateral damage in this picture, well beyond the people who enter a dangerous line of work and cannot reasonably expect to grow old. There are hotel keepers, regular folks driving around, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), and it seems that their deaths, compared to Anton Chigurh’s (Bardem) inability to die, are a statement about what happens when a typhoon meets flotsam. These are people who are killed because of circumstance and not because of foolhardiness or intemperance, and so their deaths are sad ones. The hotel keeper is blown away, but his cat still laps up the milk spilled from his bowl. A friendly man on the side of the road can’t imagine why he’d need to get the chickens out of his truck; the next shot cuts to a truckbed being sprayed clean of chicken feathers. And yet: the filmmakers do not show us their ignominious corpses. There are certainly dead bodies in this movie, belonging to gangsters and capitalists, cops and robbers: in short, the people who are involved in the bulletstorm sweeping Westexas. “If the rule you followed brought you to this,” Chigurh says, “of what use was the rule?” It is pure determinism, horrifying determinism, and it’s hard not to think that it’s the determinism which runs through the mind of Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) as Chigurh prepares to kill him. All the same, the uninvolved are spared our prying eyes, and we hear them say things which shake us out of this environment. Carla Jean, whose only mistake was to marry a man who took without prudence, is plain with Chigurh. You don’t have to do this, she says, and it’s a line which must be as DOA in our ears as it is in Chigurh’s (Why does everyone always say that? he asks.) He takes pity on her, at least as far as someone like her can take pity, or more likely this is a cat batting around a mouse it hasn’t decided disembowel quite yet. He pulls out a coin and tells her to call it. She refuses. It’s not the coin that chooses, she says; you are the one who’s choosing. After as much cruelty as has been expended in this movie, that line strikes like, well, a captive bolt gun between the eyes. She’s right, even though Chigurh demurs, says he’s here with the same randomness that brought the coin itself. It’s not about the coin, not any more than randomness is about fate, and if it’s not about the coin, then it’s about will. The hotel keeper was warned. The man driving chickens didn’t take the hint. The fellow who gets out of his car and stands still so Chigurh can kill him was credulous. But it also means that Chigurh is not the Angel of Death, a symbolic hatred with real weapons, a murderous surgeon. He’s a psychopath with a silenced shotgun and compressed air for slaughtering cattle, and his survival is as much about his will as his trail of bodies is. This is unpleasant, even dark, but it is not nihilistic. The Coens see choice after choice after choice in No Country, and even if some choices are stupid, they are not necessarily immoral.
The rule that Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) follows is a basically decent one, which is the problem. He is like most of us in that he is venal enough to walk away with a satchel filled with two million dollars, regardless of the terrifying conditions it appears to have come from. He is also like us in that he cannot get a suffering man out of his head. He opens the door of a pickup truck and finds a survivor at the scene of the shootout, a man begging for agua. “I told you I ain’t got no agua,” Moss says after the fifth or sixth request, and the harshness in his voice is, we find out some time later, made from self-reproach. His greed is bouncing up against his conscience, his want of the money he knows must be out there somewhere struggling with doing the right thing, to find this dying man some respite. He chooses wrongly, and that wrong choice leads to an imprudent one later on; Carla Jean catches him filling up a gallon jug with tap water, and he returns to the scene of the crime after dark on some gruff mercy mission. What happens instead is that he’s chased around by some guys in a truck, shot, and must himself shoot down some pit bull so as not to be savaged at dawn. An intended good deed seals his death, and the death of his wife. Moss’s death is the product of his humanity, not his logic, and the Coens treat that seriously. If Chigurh was not such a “cool” villain, more of the r/movies types would be out in force to lambaste the movie, I think, to lament that Moss did not act logically enough after stealing the money, and could have saved lives if he had acted more prudently. Of course, that would defang the movie: the Coens understand that the movie is about that entirely realistic interplay between rash decisions, generous decisions, and innocuous decisions. Nor do all of us have it inside to triumph in the combat that Moss gets himself into. I think about Carla Jean’s proud assertion that Moss can “take all comers,” and Carson Wells’ respectful surprise that Moss has seen Chigurh and lived. But he doesn’t have what it takes to kill Chigurh, and we’ve known that from the get-go. Moss picked out a pronghorn from its herd, fired, and got only a glancing blow on the animal. That particular cause was always hopeless, no matter how much faith Carla Jean had in her husband to set things right.
This would be a terrifically interesting movie if it were a ninety minute cat-and-mouse game between Moss and Chigurh, which is frightening and thrilling and stunningly shot by Roger Deakins. (It’s a less beautiful movie than The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but there are scenes in this movie which are simply indelible, mostly wordless but framed magnificently. The scene where Chigurh blows up a car in order to more effectively shoplift at a pharmacy, hobbling his way in and gasping for breath as that blue sedan skies incandescently behind him.) As one expects in a Coen movie, it’s the people who seem to fit in most tightly with the place itself who make the movie as exceptional as it is. “I need to know what I stand to win,” says a man who runs a gas station (Gene Jones) and who manages to rouse up as much suspicion of Chigurh as anyone who’s not gotten into a gunfight with him. “How are those Larrys holding up?” a salesman (Thomas Kopache) asks Moss when he wanders into the shop for a second time, on this go-round still in his hospital clothes. “But that’s got two double beds!” cries the woman behind the desk at a motel (Margaret Bowman) when Moss asks for a second room. It’s practically a cliché to talk about the Coens’ ability to find regionally appropriate faces and voices by now, but it’s impossible to imagine the picture without them, belonging to the places that the protagonists criss-cross. Nor is it possible to imagine the movie without Tommy Lee Jones, playing the veteran sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Bell is a romantic. He likes the past. In a monologue that runs over shots of the hazy countryside, Bell informs us of a young murderer who was plenty ready for the electric chair, who’s had an itch for killing since he was young. Bell is amazed by this testimony—”I don’t know what to make of that, I sure don’t”—and tacitly staples this kind of ruthlessness to modern times. He idolizes the sheriffs of old, especially the ones who could do their jobs without even carrying a gun. His own career is tightly tied to his father’s in his mind, and the beginning of the movie and the end of it both discuss the way his mind drifts to his dad. He’s wrong about violence, though. There’s thousands of years of horrifying violence in the can already, and as scary as Anton Chigurh is, he doesn’t leave behind bodies that look like the ones Jack the Ripper cast aside. In a conversation he has towards the end of the movie with a man who was deputized and paralyzed, Ellis (Barry Corbin), he gets some advice worth hearing. “You can’t stop what’s coming,” Ellis says. “That’s vanity.” The next time we see Ed Tom, he’s sitting at his kitchen table, retired. In the same pat way that one might read the picture as nihilistic, it’s easy to read Ed Tom’s retirement as the justification of the title. Yet Moss was not so old, nor Wells. Nor is this Chigurh’s country, for all the time he spends putting his bloody footprints all over the map; he can no more belong to it or own it than he can put his bone back in his arm by himself. This is a country for those who do not believe themselves to be protagonists. It’s his own vanity which sets him down low, which scares him into retirement, and not the stumbling psychopath leaving the scene of a car wreck.