No Country For Old Men

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Llewelyn Moss can hardly believe his luck. One moment he’s a penniless nobody living in a trailer, the next he’s a millionaire. Life couldn’t get much better.

Unfortunately, though, good luck often has a price, and the price here is a psychopath by the name of Anton Chigurh. He’s the man who balances the accounts; the man who makes sure that good fortune doesn’t smile forever.

When Moss stumbles upon a massacre in the desert, all of his initial thoughts are self-serving. He doesn’t care about a dying man who asks for water. All he cares about is what he can get out of this. He knows he’s in danger, but he also knows that there might be some loot somewhere. And sure enough, he comes across a case full of money. The decision to take it seems simple enough. Walk off with this money and you’re a millionaire. But although Llewelyn Moss isn’t a mental giant, he isn’t stupid either. Taking this money could have grave consequences. Someone’s certainly going to come looking for it. But in a moment of moral weakness, Moss to decides to make himself rich. He figures he can deal with whatever comes his way.

Later on, after he’s safely back in his trailer, Moss is wracked with guilt about the dying man. It gets to him so much that he decides to go back and give him water. Moss’s first mistake is to give into thoughtless greed. His second mistake is his failure to commit to his selfishness. He’s made his decision. He needs to stick to it. But no, he goes back and some Mexican drug dealers turn up on the scene. They destroy Moss’s vehicle, meaning that anyone who recovers it can find out who the pick-up is registered to, and they later give chase to him. If he hadn’t gone back, he would have had a better chance at getting away scot-free. Or even better, if he hadn’t taken the money, he could have continued with living a normal life.

The action scene that takes place after Moss decides to go back to the dying man is a wonderful piece of filmmaking. The direction is simple but it’s assured. There are no visual pyrotechnics. The excitement is generated by the atmospheric photography and the mystery behind the attack – we never see the men who are chasing the protagonist. We just know that a hurricane is beginning to envelop Llewelyn Moss and he’ll be lucky if he comes out of it alive.

The best bit in the sequence is when Moss jumps into a river in a bid to escape his pursers. A pit bull leaps in after him. It gets closer and closer, and as Moss reaches the riverbank, and as he tries to get the water out of his gun, it’s right on him. But at the last second, Moss shoots it. It’s a heart-stopping bit of cinema. The tension is phenomenal.

And it’s a joy that the Coens’ sustain that tension throughout the course of the movie. There are few films that are as nerve racking.

One of the tensest scenes is when Chigurh talks to Carson Wells, the man who is given the responsibility of taking the loose canon out. Chigurh has the man held at the gunpoint, and we all know that Carson is going to die. The only question is when. And they talk a little bit and they insult one another, but it’s all very quiet. And then suddenly a phone begins ringing. The phone rings a couple of times and then Chigurh shoots the man. It’s a nail-biting scene.

And the scene’s also excellent in that it gives us a small insight into Chigurh’s twisted mindset. He calmly says that the money will be placed at his feet, showing that he has something of a god complex. He also mocks Carson, cryptically saying, ‘If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?’ Chigurh seems to think that he understands things better. He thinks he has more control. But as the ending shows, with his car getting hit, he’s not immune. Everyone’s luck runs out eventually.

But in other scenes we see Chigurh absolve himself of responsibility. He lets a coin toss make his decisions. He doesn’t do this out of compassion or indecision. Instead he seems to be putting his trust in a higher power. A force greater than him will decide whether this person deserves to live and he will be the executioner should the coin not fall in their favour.

And this leads me to another one of the film’s incredibly tense scenes. The scene where Chigurh talks to the storeowner. The man’s crime is to try and make small talk. However, Chigurh feels that he exists on a higher plane than everyone else. He doesn’t like having to answer other people’s questions, no matter how innocuous – he perceives it as a threat and as disrespect. Therefore he interrogates the man, evaluating his worthiness to live. Eventually, though, he lets the coin decide. If the man wins, he gets everything (his life). If he loses, he’s dead. Luckily for the man, lady luck smiles on him. He’s been blessed by a psychopath.

A notable little detail in the above scene is the wrapper than Chigurh leaves on the counter. Tightly scrunched up, it slowly unwinds. It’s a visual representation of the man himself. He’s tightly wound and it doesn’t take much for him to uncoil.

Another notable visual is when Chigurh is in Moss’s trailer. First he goes through his phone records and then he takes a bottle of milk so that he can refuel. He then sits down before a blank TV screen. We don’t see much of a reflection; Chigurh doesn’t shine much light. He’s something of a black hole.

This visual is repeated when Sheriff Bell and his Deputy also visit the trailer, a few minutes behind Chigurh. Bell is a man who is doomed to live in the shadows with the men he’s sworn to apprehend. He’s forced to walk in their footsteps, even though he struggles to understand them.

If the film has a hero, then Bell is it. He’s the only truly decent man out of the three main characters. But this being a wonderfully unorthodox thriller, Bell is doomed to failure. He can’t save Moss and he can’t catch Chigurh. He’s nearly powerless.

And in the end, he even retires. He just can’t deal with it any more. And his disappointment in himself is expressed in a dream he has. He says that he remembers his father, who was also a lawman, carrying some fire and going on ahead of him. He says that in his dream he knows that his father is waiting for him. Maybe this dream echoes his disappointment in himself. His father took the fire and set an example that Bell has never been able to live up to. He’s always been lagging behind.

And an earlier scene where Bell visits a friend of his father also highlights his disappointment. He laments the fact that god hasn’t come into his life like he expected. Maybe he thought that age would bring wisdom, but instead, if this film is anything to go by, it just brings pain and confusion. As much as the world changes, it doesn’t really change much. People still want money and people still kill for it. And although we might begin our adult lives full of hope and optimism, there a tendency for reality to wear us down. How much of a difference can we really make when we all face the same end: oblivion?

Maybe Moss, despite everything, kind of has the right idea. He sees an opportunity and goes for it. His biggest mistake was not committing to it fully. When you make your bed, you’ve got to lie in it.

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