‘I knowed you was crazy when I saw you settin’ there. I knowed exactly what was in store for me.’
‘Yes. Things fall into place.’
Beyond the stark and brute depiction of the preparation, explosion and aftermath of violence that makes up so much of No Country For Old Men, there is a much more steady, and more enduringly interesting, reflection on the insanity and inevitability of this violence. Joel and Ethan Coen have never shied from the ironic or insane elements of brutality, as most famously depicted in their contemporary classic Fargo, but never with such exhaustion or nihilism. Indeed, it took the suffocating absence of irony in Cormac McCarthy’s literary vision for them finally to realize despair.
The principle characters of this triangulate tale are introduced quickly. First, the story’s moral conscience and commentator, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. In a wind-swept, weary voice-over he speaks, as though only to himself, of how crime is not what it once was. He no longer understands what he is fighting, and is in fact unsure he wants to. The world, he suspects, is so far gone that to fight against it is to become a part of it; and to become a part of it is to endanger one’s soul. As Bell speaks, the camera pans from the parched Texas prairie to the very embodiment of what he is fighting and fearing, Anton Chigurh.
Fittingly, and in retrospective defiance of Bell’s opening monologue, Chigurh begins the film in police custody. ‘Yessir, I got it covered,’ says the deputy, as he reports Chigurh’s recent arrest to his superior over the phone. Within seconds, however, the deputy is dead, strangled to death by a handcuffed Chigurh. The only facial expression Chigurh shows is that of physical exertion. Beyond that, it is blank. We are thus introduced to a killer who kills not for pleasure or strictly for gain. His is, we learn, a moral conscience of its own—that of a pure activity that requires no commentary. In a world not quite fit for the gods, Chigurh is depicted as the closest we have.
The aim of Chigurh’s activity throughout the film is finding and punishing his own Prometheus, Llewelyn Moss. Moss is a ‘man’s man’. He is rugged: he is an outdoorsman who tracks and hunts wild game; and as observed by his wife, he’s never been known to quit when faced with a challenge. He is human: he loves his wife; and he has compassion for those who are suffering. And most of all, he is decisive. He decides, first of all, to investigate the mysterious scene of a drug deal gone bloodily bad; he decides to take the $2 million he finds; he decides to return to the scene hours later so that he might give water to the sole survivor. All these decisions, and those that follow, set in motion a series of events that inevitably lead to an anticipated climactic encounter with Bell and Chigurh.
The Coens are masters of their craft in telling this story. Many of the scenes are long, but they remain taut and intricate in their details, especially those depicting the cat and mouse chase between Chigurh and Moss. Bell remains on the outskirts of the action, distanced from its immediate tension, but not its effects. Each corpse and clue incites a reflection that confirms his belief that he is no longer cut out for his line of work. Time has, he believes, caught up with him, and the “old ways” and manners no longer hold true. The world is, in effect, damned. And neither the Coens nor McCarthy are interested in redeeming it for us. The world’s damnation is without question. Theirs is, rather, whether this damnation is new, or have we always carried its curse?
What seems to go unremarked in most assessments of No Country for Old Men, be it the novel or the film, is the degree to which this most tragic of questions is explored in a modern, “genre-fiction” rendition of classical tragedy. We have all of the constituent structural parts: a monologue/prologue; an actor-chorus, or amoibaion, who comments on the action mostly from a distance (i.e. Sheriff Bell); an episodic story paced by Bell’s “choral” reflections/stasimons; and even a multi-layered, epiphanic exodus. Of course, unlike classical tragedy, our encounter with these elements is in all likelihood initially unnoticed; or where it is noticed, especially during Bell’s extended debate with his mentor on lost innocence and present depravity during the post-climactic denouement of Chigurh’s stalking of Moss, it is easy to overlook the complexly tragic implications of what is happening in the midst of this apparently conservative reminiscing of a bygone era.
The Coens set all the converging pieces in motion with delightful, expert pacing, and as we see Bell approaching the scene, we already know that the violence that propelled the players forward is not far behind. Up to this point, we have been given very little indication that the Coens are going to really push the crime genre beyond itself, and thus beyond the description and depiction of the insanity at our violent, damnable core. And yet, here, the tragic content of No Country for Old Men really takes shape, beyond even the experiments with its form (which the Coens have already used to some degree, though to comic effect, in The Big Lebowski).
In the end, this very violent story is not really about violence—its celebration, its ironic send-up, or even its condemnation. Moreover, and far more provocatively, in placing markedly more emphasis on the immediate results of the story’s climactic confrontation than on the unfolding of the confrontation itself, emphasizes the fact that, for the Coens, neither is this film consumed by a narrative structure that privileges climax. Rather, in the style of a true modern tragedy, violence accompanies and inheres to the decisions made by Moss, to those he appears freely to choose and those set upon him; the climactic, pitched battle we anticipate, in effect, has already been set by the decisions made. It is only now for the players to play their parts.
Where Bell cannot face this, and is compelled instead to look backward, and Moss is fixated on the pure contingency of trying to stay alive, only Chirguh seems to know the truth laid out by the Coens and McCarthy. ‘You know how this is going to turn out, don’t you?’ he asks Moss. Chigurh, the humourless force of nature, compared in the film to the bubonic plague, cannot be placated: ‘You can’t make a deal with him. Even if you gave him the money he’d still kill you. He’s a peculiar man. You could even say that he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that. He’s not like you.’ Indeed, on a certain level, it could even be argued that Chigurh does not in fact decide who lives and who dies. Through their decisions, those pre-determined as well as those that emerge purely from chance, death and life are dealt. As such, in the midst of contingency, the inevitability of consequences lurks. Chigurh illustrates this a couple of times, when he flips a coin and places a person’s fate on whether they call it correctly. One central character refuses, arguing instead, ‘The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.’ But in the final scheme of fate and nature, refusal is its own decision, with its own consequences.