Thoughts On: No Country For Old Men (2007)
A relentless cat-and-mouse chase ensues after a Texan war vet steals drug money.
No Country For Old Men is a quintessential Coen Bros movie and is one of their best for the way in which it captures the subtle absurdity embedded into many of their narratives whilst creating an abstract sense of meaning. However, asking what No Country For Old Men is about isn’t an easy question.
In a sense, this is about a conflict between nihilism, morality and structure. There are no easy lines to draw in this film, however; there could not have been an opening title sequence in which the ‘good’, the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’ are introduced. Each major character in this film bares within them ideas of structure and nihilism – and, from structure, there sometimes comes morality. The three major players of this narrative are Sheriff Bell, Llewellyn and Anton: the law, the cowboy and the outlaw.
The Sheriff, if he is a good sheriff, is an archetypal manifestation of the general the structure of society; he is the voice of the law. However, and this is putting to the side the bad cop concept, sheriffs can often run into a confrontation between the moral right, the structure of law and their own personal structure. This is expressed minimalistically in No Country For Old Men with Bell refusing certain mundane duties and eventually opting to quit the force, and is important because this is where a key theme of disavowal enters this picture. Bell is tested, both in terms of his patience and courage, throughout this narrative, which has him drift further from his role as the voice of the law. His failure to bring law-decided justice and order to his town is the ultimate expression of this drifting. And the ‘drifting’ itself is disavowal; it is the rejection of structure.
Before going any further with that idea, let us look at the cowboy archetype. Traditionally, there is the black hat cowboy and the white hat cowboy; the good individual and the bad individual – they are individuals because they are not necessarily tied to society in the same way, for instance, a sheriff is (though, he, too, is an individual – he just doesn’t express this so much through his relationship with ‘structure’ as this, law, belongs to a society bigger than himself). However, because of the long cinematic history of the cowboy, this archetype has shifted in its representational capacities. As Eastwood’s Unforgiven best defines, there is usually a more rounded and complex conception of the cowboy following the descent of the old John Wayne western and the rise of the New Hollywood one à la The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This is expressed by the Coens through Llewellyn. He, as a cowboy, lives outside of the structure of society and by his own rules (and such is the cowboy archetype in many respects), but, whilst he isn’t a true outlaw, he does not hold the moral status of a white hat cowboy. In such, Llewellyn, arguably, never makes a courageous and controversial decision to help a group of people. You may suggests that the money he steals is for his wife, but there is no stress on this concept; Llewellyn takes the money without much moral reason or foresight.
With Llewellyn’s decision to steal the money, he chooses to step into the realm of a new, dark order – one that in fact suppresses all of his positive acts of morality such as bringing the Mexican gang member water. Stepping into a new, dark domain of order is actually a deeply archetypal decision that can be thought to draw parallels between No Country For Old Men and the “rescue the princess” narrative.
The “rescue the princess” story could be thought of in two respects: the Rama, Sita and Ravana myth or the Saint George and the Dragon myth. The Rama, Sita and Ravana story – which we referenced in the previous post – is a variation of the “rescue the princess” narrative that sees the equilibrium of romance disrupted by the princess being stolen by a king of demons. This, to reference Todorov’s narrative theory, ‘disruption of equilibrium’ catalyses an adventure in which the princess must be rescued so that romance could be restored anew. Somewhat different to this, the Saint George and the Dragon myth sees an equilibrium of individuality disrupted by evil, which spurs an adventure to, as you could guess, rescue a princess and establish a new equilibrium that, in certain incarnations of the Saint George myth, does not end in romance. These two version of the “rescue the princess” narrative suggests that all heroic stories are about romance and/or adventure. In such, personal structure, which is defined by a romantic, familial or communal relationship, is abandoned when a hero is forced to step into the realm of a new structure or order. This adventure into the unknown is often catalysed by higher ideals tantamount to chivalry and the moral right, and it allows a new, improved and stronger equilibrium to be re-established.
This story has been told ceaselessly for centuries, and to a degree which suggests that it is maybe harder to break this paradigm than it is to adhere to it. With No Country For Old Men, this structure is abandoned as this is a tragedy of sorts, but it is still high visible. As mentioned, there are strong ideas of structure alongside romantic and adventurous themes in this film, and this leaves this narrative a failed “rescue the princess” narrative that is more a reflection of the Rama, Sita and Ravana romantic-adventure than the Saint George adventure (though, there are elements of both within). This is because Llewellyn attempts to essentially steal gold, but only manages to awaken an evil king, or dragon, that he must save himself and his wife from.
Both the Saint George and the Rama, Sita and Ravana “rescue the princess” narrative have been mentioned as they comment on the kind of cowboy (and cowboys can be thought of as Americanised knights or samurai) that Llewellyn is. Saint George follows this narrative to ‘save’ a city (convert them to good Christians). Rama and his brother pursue Sita and her captor, Ravana, to save her alone. As mentioned, Llewellyn doesn’t attempt to save a greater group of people and gain a romance like, for instance, John Wayne’s character does in Stagecoach. Neither does he just try to save his princess. Llewellyn awakens a dragon and endangers his princess, then spends much of his time trying to sort this mess out. This is the key way in which a tragedy is constructed out of this narrative and it is separated from the classical “rescue the princess” myth; the princess is thrust into the grips of the beast by the ‘knight’s’ hubris. So, the kind of cowboy that Llewellyn reveals himself to be is an ageing, grey hat one. He then falls in some place between The Wild Bunch’s Pike and Unforgiven’s William, which is to say that he is not making a final stand (as we can assume he has already established a settled life), but is also not being called out of retirement. Llewellyn has escaped the old rat race of life, but is teased away all too easily. As this foolish grey hat cowboy-turned-outlaw who cannot establish a solid adventure or romance, Llewellyn demonstrates no higher morality or sense of structure, and so we could suggest that he is fated to fail.
Llewellyn has no strong structure about his personality, apart from the structure that is implied by him serving his wife. But, he does know how to recognise structure; both the dark and the light. And this is where we come to Anton. It would be all too tempting to say that, whilst Llewellyn is grey and Sheriff Bell is good, Anton is plain evil. The fact is: he’s more than that. The most formidable bad guys are those that see themselves as a hero. I’m sure we’ve all heard this before, but, what on earth does it mean?
The best bad guys seeing themselves as the heroes gives their darkness a kind of structure. Structure is, existentially speaking, everything. The world, stared at through objective eyes, means nothing, has no substance, worth, rhyme or reason. This idea is key for scientists as from objectivity flourishes truth. However, as the most insidious projections of scientific concepts – such as the Social Darwinism of the Nazi regime – make clear, if objectivity precurses or overwhelms shades of humanity that we may define to encompass ‘higher, positive morality’, darker structures will prevail. With positive morality (which is hard to articulate, but can be conceptualised through fundamental, abstract ideas of good as opposed to bad), a structure that preserves and betters humanity comes to exist. Remembering that the universe does not necessarily give reason for this positive morality, when its (speaking human-centrically) chaotic being is overindulged, any structure – good or bad – can come into being. We can think of structures that do not fit the fundamental human concept of good as opposed evil as ‘dark structures’. These dark structures manifest themselves through figures such as Stalin and Hitler, and they are alluded to, through archetype, by bad guys who see themselves as heroes.
Bad guys are those that the average human agrees come from evil–from darkness. By extension of this, the reflection of heroism that the bad guy sees when he looks into a mirror is the structure that emerges from his darkness. The reason why bad guys who think they are heroes are then so formidable comes down to the fact that Hitler, an archetype of evil, cannot really be understood. This is a somewhat misleading idea, but it has a certain sense. Hitler can be understood to a significant degree – and because his being had structure. Hitler was highly disgust sensitive and so wanted to wipe out the parasites, rats and plagues that infected his to-be-utopia. Understanding that Hitler essentially saw his structure of being as separate from, for instance, the Jews’ just as we see our structure of being as separate from that of rats, it becomes very clear why he would exterminate them. Understanding this and the important, though sometimes problematic, role of disgust in human civilisation allows us to structure society around preventing the rise of another Nazi regime, maybe another to-be Hitler. Nonetheless, Hitler represents an archetypal symbol of chaos that, by definition, cannot be understood. We can understand this by asking the question: why did Hitler have to come into being? Why does Hitler have to express the deep-seated faults of humanity? We have no answer for this because chaos, when we don’t blind ourselves to it, is overwhelming. As we discussed, the disorder of the universe is a much more powerful force than the order that humanity creates. We cannot understand the universe, thus we cannot fully understand its structure and order (which is why we say it is dark, chaotic and disorderly; we personify it without access to a possible ‘greater purpose’). When people, such as Hitler, begin to embody our paradox of ‘meaningful living’ through their evil, there is no other reaction but fear, disgust, denial, negative reaction and disavowal.
To deny Hitler was ‘right’, that he made any sense, is to deny what could reveal itself to be a newly realise truth. After all, if there was a perfect fascist world-wide state that was entirely under Hitler’s control – an (impossible) Nazi utopia – then the rules of humanity would be re-structured to suggest that he was the greatest hero of all human history. With this as a conceptual truth (though, this hypothetical concept could be argued endlessly), it becomes clear that our moral positive structure of being is somewhat precarious. And what this ultimately suggests is that the bad guy with structure, he who sees himself as a hero, is so scary because he is an expression of our precarious rules that, though they are probably the best way to navigate into the future as a species, can easily be overwhelmed by the chaotic nature of the universe. Just like Hitler is an expression of this, so is Anton.
Anton Chigurh is one of the best definitions of ‘nihilism’ that I have ever come into contact with. Nihilism is defined as an absence of theological meaning. Nihilism is the recognition and embrace of the universe’s disorder and chaos (much like, more actively, anarchism is). However, nihilism does mean complete disorder. As has been implied, whilst we say the universe is chaos, this is merely an expression of our incomprehension. Figures such as Anton can draw structure from the meaninglessness universe (which is possible evidence that there must be some structure to it that we can only perceive and access in part). This is why Anton acts without any care for a life other than his own and by the rules of his own selfishness; when he makes a promise, or envisions a goal, he cannot let this be challenged by anything other than the universe itself. The universe is represented by fate and probability: Anton’s coin. And such defines the nihilist structure that Anton represents as a bad guy who thinks he’s a hero.
Understanding Sheriff Bell as structure, he becomes a voice of what we have been referring to as ‘positive morality’. Positive morality is the structure that humanity has collectively drawn from nature and the state of being human so that we can live the best possible lives in the present that enable equally good or better futures (and much of this is predicated on sacrifice). Llewellyn is a wrench in this system. He is not truly good, he is not truly bad and he does not conform to the structures of human expectation (these expectations have been explored through his relation to the “rescue the princess” myth). When the lost cowboy ventures into the realm of the nihilist outlaw and the moral sheriff follows him, we get an old story of goodness and naivety confronting evil. What the title of this narrative, No Country For Old Men, suggests, however, is that this old tale is doomed to fail. The question that this title then asks is: what happens, against all expectation, when human structures of good defeating evil and naivety being converted into wisdom fail?
With naivety, the lost cowboy, Llewellyn, being killed by the nihilist hero, Anton, and our moral Sheriff losing his faith and reasoning, this is the question we are left with as this narrative comes to a close. But, in recognising this, it should also be said that this film has three conjoined endings: Bell speaking to his uncle about quitting, Anton confronting Carla, Llewellyn’s wife, and the retired Bell talking to his wife.
With Sheriff Bell wanting to leave the police force, we see this narrative defined largely by the idea of disavowal. As touched on, disavowal is the rejection of an idea. This implies that disavowal is something to be avoided. However, as we could make a case for with a reference to Newton’s 3rd law of motion, disavowal is in fact inescapable and even essential. “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”, defines the known physical world (stress on known; we have to excuse the origins of the universe amongst other things as, for now, science needs a few miracles). Newton’s 3rd law, beyond physics, also suggests much about the idea of meaning itself. Humans derive meaning from ‘nowhere’, ‘nowhere’ being the unknown; we do not understand ourselves and the universe, therefore, they are unknowns and relative nowheres to our self-evident somewhere. Ultimately, meaning is then not the nothing of the chaotic, meaningless universe; to oppose meaning there will always be nihilism of equal (maybe greater) magnitude. We bring this up to recognise that meaning itself is a form of disavowal; we have to deny disorder and faulted structures to construct and maintain our own precarious structures (positive morality). To map this onto No Country For Old Men, Sheriff Bell only is because his antithesis, the nihilistic Anton, is, too. However, he gives up his position of representational structure because he feels “out-matched”. This means that Sheriff Bell has to disavow the structure that he represents because it has been overshadowed by meaningless; he becomes a nihilist because he cannot see any other option.
Moving on to the second of the three end scenes, we come to the most ambiguous and challenging element of this film: Anton’s confrontation of Carla and the car crash. To skip the confrontation with Carla for a moment, we have to first ask: what is the meaning of the car crash. The fact is: there is no meaning, only commentary. This has been inserted into the script to characterise Anton’s world by his structure of being; he is an anarchistic nihilist who embraces chaos, and the world the world has an abundance of chaos to throw his way. Thus, through his rejection of society and its structure, Anton has to crusade, or accept this, alone – and this is why he pays the boy for his shirt and is left to hobble off to, in all probability, find himself fighting chaos until he is consumed by it.
The meaningless of this all suggests that Anton is ultimately wrong. His sense of ‘dark structure’ is not as strong as the positive, ‘good structure’ of the average, moral human. This is revealed to be undeniably true as his way of life is not at all desirable; he may live with a sense of honour and power, but his life will not be a pleasant one. Consider the alternative ending: an average man gets into a car accident, he is subjected to the chaos of the world, but someone calls an ambulance, his life is saved and, after a period of suffering, he has the chance for a better life. Because of the structure of a good society, the average person has the opportunity to live a far better life than most alternatives could provide – especially that of a nihilist who chooses to confront the anarchy day by day, hour by hour. This isn’t to say that current societies are perfect, just that, with meaning, they are far superior to a nihilist or anarchist state (which would, hypothetically, revert to a state with meaning or exist in perpetual chaos). The fact that societies are imperfect is actually where the whole conflict of this film comes from: structures can be rattled, and this is a scary, potentially catastrophic, event, but, it can be endured.
We now come to the final scene in which the retired Bell talks to his wife about his dreams; his father helping him with money in one, a less important dream, and his father providing light and warmth in darkness in the second, more important dream. The first dream is a reflection of the end of the previous scene in which the boys are paid to help Anton. This is an allusion to a faux kind of structure that he is embedded in. After all, you could retort to the idea that Anton is doomed by suggesting he can always pay or bully his way towards comfort – and he does in a certain respect. But, as we all know, crime doesn’t pay. Anton’s ‘structure’ is a faulted one as it does not confront chaos, instead embraces it. Whilst this sounds positive, you cannot live alongside chaos without a genuine shield; money and violence may get him somewhere, but they are destined to fail (at least, this is what we can believe after centuries upon centuries of learning as a species). Bell dreaming a reflection to this concept suggests that there is some shade of nihilism within himself. However, this strain of his being and this story is overshadowed by a second dream.
Whilst Bell becomes a nihilist, to a degree, when he quits his job, he is told that what he’s going through is not new. The story his uncle tells him also suggests that Anton is nothing new; he is the archetype of structured evil threatening structured good that has always existed in human society, and so has only manifested itself in a new skin. The second dream reflects upon this notion and the title of this movie by exploring the concept of “old men”. Whilst times change, old good guys and bad guys don’t. They evolve and intensify, but how much of a difference is there between ancient gods and warriors and modern superheroes and cowboys? Bell’s father establishing a camp in the darkness of the world embodies this implied concept of inherited archetypal traits; Bell can learn (has learnt) to be a hero from his father; whilst it is easy to accept material help, money, it’s in an ancestral guiding light that true wisdom is found. Bell is then not a true nihilist as this signifies that he realises that his land is, and isn’t, a country for old men. By seeing that the country hasn’t change much, only that it needs a new sheriff, Bell should realise that he has the capacity to be the light in darkness for the deputies to follow him. In other words, Bell can pass on the essential positive structure of society down to the generations to come.
We cannot end here, however. Does Anton kill Carla? This is a tricky question to answer as Carla essentially asks Anton to judge her himself and to rely on his own structure, not plain nihilism and fate: his coin. However, we could also ask: Does Bell become the light in darkness for upcoming deputies to follow? Has he lead an inspiring life that re-affirms the purpose of law and the police? This is a far more important question as, though it is a tragedy that Carla may have been killed, this is the consequence of a naive man being overwhelmed by darkness; and that is the commentary of Llewellyn’s pointless death. If Bell does manage to keep the fire of moral goodness burning even though he has, to a degree, disavowed it, then there will always be someone to fight Anton. So, ultimately, Carla’s death is a tragedy to be learned from, but irrelevant to this narrative. The answer to the ultimate question of this narrative – what happens, against all expectation, when human structures of good defeating evil and naivety being converted into wisdom fail? – is then: find old lights in the darkness and spark new ones; have faith that the better structures will prevail.
If we bring things towards conclusion, we should recognise that, though this is a tragedy and a film about failure, it is a realist tale that hope can be derived from given that certain structures are disavowed, and in the correct capacity. In such, if we do not believe in Anton’s nihilism and if we have faith in Bell’s legacy, despite the somewhat irrelevant failures and successes of these characters, then we, the naive individual, the lost cowboys, can find our place within the positive superstructure of a successful society. So, not only is this a commentary on the war on drugs and the chaotic mess that emerged from it in America that people still live in wake of, but this is a story about confronting the disavowal of the good, the bad and the ugly in the dark country of old men.
Before you go, I think there’s a lot more to be said about this narrative, for instance, much could be further discussed about themes concerning fate and the individual. So, what are your thoughts on this film and all we’ve covered today?
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