Saw the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men. Need to see it again, because on the first pass I only half understood it. But I’m pretty sure it’s brilliant.
I know for certain it’s haunting, and I suspect that was by design.
(If you haven’t seen the movie and plan to, you may want to skip this post, because I’m going to spill all kinds of information as I try to make sense out of it. But please come back after you’ve seen it and tell me how you parsed it, because this is the kind of movie you want to spend long hours dissecting with friends before you dive in to see again. And again.)
Anton Chigurh, the psychopath with the pneumatic cattle gun played by Javier Bardem who drives so much of the action in the film, has a curious trait that I wouldn’t have thought to name if Mr. Hoo hadn’t raised the question on the way home, namely: “Why did he kill off the two corporate guys early in the film? I didn’t get that.” The two corporate fellows who, it appears, brought in Chigurh to track down poor old Llewelyn Moss, Josh Brolin’s character, the welder who, while hunting, stumbles by chance upon a drug deal gone bad, and traces, through careful inference, two million dollars -- under a tree, on a far ridge -- that was no longer needed by the dead man holding it.
Yeah. Doesn’t immediately make sense. But as the movie unfolds it appears there’s an logic baked in: Chigurh obliterates anyone who sees him in his official capacity. The corporate guys were dispatched to get him started on the trail, therefore... Too simplistic a syllogism maybe, but hear me out. Tommy Lee Jone’s character, Bell, who holds down the moral center of the film, refers to him as a “ghost”, and we hear passing reference to his immateriality as the story spools out.
“You saw him and you’re still alive?” Woody Harrelson’s Carson Wells asks Llewelyn. And while Llewelyn claims so, it’s not entirely true: he heard Chigurh’s approach, saw the shadows of his feet under the door, his ghostly reflection in the glass. Never do they face each other square on the way gunslingers oughta. Not even at the end do we see the moment of their confrontation: we only see the remains. (Although Wells himself reports having seen Chigurh the previous November, by the movie’s end Wells too is dead.)
“Are you going to kill me?” asks the Accountant, after Chigurh has obliterated the corporate guy who was the boss of the other corporate guys, and Chigurh asks him, while full on facing him: “I don’t know: did you see me?”
And finally: “You didn’t see me,” states Chigurh, as he pays off the boys on bikes who assist him after he’s been sideswiped in a violent car accident at the movie’s end. These are his last words in the film, and it’s a bit startling to see that he leaves the boys standing -- he is, after all, fleeing the scene of a murder, where he obliterated a poor woman who did nothing more than wind up on the wrong side of a deal that Chigurh offered to her husband (a deal to which the husband never nearly agreed), and then fulfilled on “principle”. We learn about his principles earlier in the film -- and one’s left to wonder if we’re to assume that Chigurh is supposed to be the film’s moral center -- in an upended wild west kind of way.
Because this is a Western, after all, and even though it’s set in 1980 and drug runners have replaced cattle rustlers, the men pack shotguns, ride horseback (when they’re not driving Fords), and the overriding impulse of the film is to reign in lawlessness that has overrun its rim.
Which is why I keep coming back to this image of the shadowy Chigurh. The hero who impacts his environment profoundly and then disappears into the horizon at film’s end to destinations unknown is a prevailing theme in Westerns. Alan Ladd in Shane. Lee Van Cleef in For a Few Dollars More. Even Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles. (Okay, okay: Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder. But buddies are allowed. And besides: Blazing Saddles was a parody in which they ride off on their horses before they pile into a waiting limousine. Fact that they parodied the ride to the horizon only strengthens my point. ;)
Our last shot of Chigurh in No Country for Old Men is from the back as he limps off into the horizon. Only in this film he’s surrounded by a Texas suburb rather than the wide open plain.
So what? Why does it matter? Is it a statement on the American West or the Hollywood Western that Chigurh uses a huge shotgun outfitted with a silencer to enforce his disappearing act? Or is it just a really cool character device -- this violent impulse to be seen and yet remain unseen -- that Cormac McCarthy worked into the story for entirely different reasons?
The romantic notion of the tortured individual who’s seeking his soul's respite out on the broad Western horizon doesn’t hold up here. Maybe because the horizon’s run out -- there is no untamed West left -- and instead of wandering off into the far reaches where there is no one and none can find him and he can pursue his friendless solitary way -- in order to have the thing that Western heros seek, he must raze the horizon of all living things.
Or maybe it’s a statement on the American West: The human cost of that horizon; a horizon that, as wilderness evaporates under the forward movement of development, is increasingly illusory.
Hell I don’t know. Like I said: I only half understood it. Just haunted by a few of the possibilities. Haunted too by the theme of chance that circles strongly through the film.
But I need another viewing before I throw any more dust into this wind.
p.s. On a lark: it'll be interesting to see, given the film's dark & fleshy poster (among other things), whether the film's box office performance conforms to the law of dark movie posters »
 yeah. not a boy. can’t tell you what gauge the shotgun was. sorry.