No Country for Old Men & Tragedy

Halden’s post on Cormac McCarthy/the Coen Bro’s No Country for Old Men brought to mind the review I wrote of the film a few years ago. Now, surprising to no one, mine has nothing at all to do with Barth, and is not at all sure that the absence of depicted redemption points to a demand that we “think redemption in the most radical and truthful way possible” (indeed, I’m not at all sure I know what that means), but I do think the review has something to do with theology, and is, in a way, in a kind of dialogue with Halden’s assessment.

* * *

‘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.

13 thoughts on “No Country for Old Men & Tragedy

  1. A good treatment, thank you. I’d be interested in your reading of the final scenes. You touch up on it with the refusal of the woman to call the coin… What is interesting is that we don’t see whether or not he kills her – but we do see that he leaves the house without his weapon, which is a first for the film. Are there any suggestions of a faltering in his principles here? A ray of guilt?

  2. The scene w/ Carla Jean is kind of problematic, because it is one of the places where the Coens deviate in a less than satisfying way from the novel. There, Carla doesn’t refuse: she loses the coin flip, and then calls out Chigurh for being the person who decides, not the coin. He neither agrees or disagrees, and because she flipped, we’ll never know. I suppose that might be the rationale for her refusing to flip in the movie–except then you’re left with the ambiguity you express (i.e., what did he decide?). I find this ambiguity a lot less interesting than the tragic inevitability / Chigurh-as-force-of-nature dynamic that seems to be at play through the rest of the novel. I’m left wondering what it would add (or, for that matter, say about the rest of the story) that he might go against his principles here.

  3. Maybe the ambiguity is more about the fundamental incompleteness of any set of principles — even the most demonically consistent principles might not have a contingency plan for when someone refuses the coin toss.

  4. Yeah. There is a potential Bartleby-esque refusal thing at work there — which puts the decision purely in his court at that point. Kill me or don’t, it’s up to you, but I’m not playing. This denies the tragic aspect, admittedly. If that is the case, I think the depicted ambiguity is a kind of a cop-out. But I’m coming around to being convinced otherwise.

  5. I don’t know — it seems to make Chigurrh himself into a tragic figure alongside Moss. The model for a two-figure tragedy would be Antigone rather than Oedipus, let’s say — I think both Creon and Antigone are tragic figures in their own way, and the tragedy obviously comes out of their interaction.

    Put schematically, the drama of No Country would be spontaneity’s attempt to escape from a system. System swallows up spontaneity in a way that truly is a foregone conclusion (hence the lack of an explicit portrayal of the climactic murder) — but when the system begins tying up the lose ends, it’s forced into a situation where it must betray its own nature and become spontaneous as well (due to the unforeseen contingency of the wife’s refusal — perhaps parallel with Antigone’s refusal to allow for the possibility of arbitrarily favoring one brother and abandoning the other).

    So maybe the concluding ambiguity still remains faithful to the tragic element, if Antigone rather than Oedipus is the model tragedy.

  6. Wow. This next statement says more about me than the quality of the blog: but Adam’s comment above is the most thought-provoking thing I’ve read here in quite some time. I don’t know that I agree, but it is something I will wrestle with.

  7. Fascinating discussion.

    For me, the decision to make Carla Jean refuse the coin toss is the best thing the Coen Brothers did in a film which is half excellent and half a travesty.

    This simple act of defiance affords her a dignity which is in keeping with her character and makes her death in the film even more poignant than that in the novel. ‘I dont know what I ever done,’ she tells Chigurh, but she is already resigned to her fate. In a sense, she has been from the start. ‘I dont even want to know what you been up to,’ she tells Moss when he first arrives back at their trailer with the money and gun.

    I don’t think there is any ambiguity about what Chigurh does or would have done. He certainly kills her. On exiting her house, he lifts his feet and checks his shoes for blood, exactly as he does earlier in the motel. And so Carla Jean is right to call his bluff. If she had called the coin toss, he would have killed her anyway because ‘the accounting is scrupulous.’ It was her time.

  8. The treatment of Sheriff Bell.

    I understand that the nuances and complexities of a novel will sometimes be lost in a two hour film adaptation, so I don’t much mind that Chigurh is turned into a two-dimensional cartoon, complete with ridiculous hairstyle. He still works as a character in the film.

    But Bell is different. He is certainly far from heroic in the novel. His reactionary conservatism is not portrayed positively. He is shown to be a man out of sympathy with the times and harking back to a past that probably never was. But nonetheless there is a strong sense of goodness about the man. In the Coens’ film, he is used, for the first three-quarters at any rate, as a foil for their humour. His scenes invariably end with a comedic punchline. The Coens even script a couple of new lines for him that aren’t in the novel – ruining, in the process, one of the most important parts of the book, the meeting between Bell and Carla Jean. He is turned into a figure of fun, and I think that does a great disservice to a decent, honorable but flawed man. It doesn’t reflect McCarthy’s novel.

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