Coen Bros: No Country For Old Men part 1

HOW’S THE MOVIE? Let me say right up front, No Country For Old Men is, by a wide margin, the Coen Bros’ best movie so far. How good is it? This is how good it is: every movie they’ve done up until now, including startling masterworks like Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou, feel like student films in comparison. No Country For Old Men brings a brand new level of seriousness, a far subtler touch, an unexpected depth and a broad, expansive sense of humanity to the Coen universe. In adapting Cormac McCarthy’s novel, they scaled their visual vocabulary way back to match his bare-bones prose. No Country has little of the visual kinetics of movies like Raising Arizona or The Hudsucker Proxy. It tells its dramatic, extraordinary story mostly in simple, uninflected shots and has sequences of a suffocating level of suspense that Hitchcock himself could not have executed better. It has more respect and compassion for its characters than any other Coen movie and successfully brings an eerie, weary vision of human frailty to the screen.

So, yeah, if you haven’t seen it, I strongly suggest you go and see it. If you have seen it, feel free to peruse the following. I warn you: many key plot points, revelations and reversals are revealed within.

Many people are confused by the structure of No Country For Old Men. They expect the narrative to culminate in some kind of three-way showdown between the characters of Moss (the guy who finds themoney), Chigurh (the guy who’s looking for the money) and Bell (the sheriff). When that showdown does not happen, and the movie goes on for another half-hour, they get upset and feel cheated — as though the Coens have, out of sheer perversity, deprived them of their action-movie money shot, the release they require after 90 minutes of constantly-ratcheting suspense.

These people feel this way, I think, for two reasons:

1. They believe that Moss is the protagonist of the movie and therefore deserves more narrative consideration. But No Country, like Blood Simple and Fargo before it, has no protagonist — only characters we like and characters we don’t.

2. They are used to movies with three acts, and No Country has four.

The Coens knew that by revealing, 90 minutes into their 2-hour movie, that Moss is not a protagonist would be a major stumbling block for an audience, and they also knew that a movie with four acts is a riskier commercial prospect than one with three, and writers as skilled as the Coens could have easily tailored their adaptation to address these problems. The result would have been 100% more commercially successful, and cinema would have been given a cracking-good diversion instead of a sad, harrowing masterpiece.

(As it is, things turned out okay after all. No Country, with its budget of $25 million, is turning out to be the Coens’ biggest grosser so far, and that’s not counting international box office, where it should do quite well, considering the fact that it has probably less dialog than any Coen movie so far.)

STRUCTURE: The four acts of No Country go like this:

Act I: 0:00 to 29:00 — Introduction of Chigurh, Moss finds the money, goes back to the scene of the crime to give a dying man some water, gets caught by some people who have come to get their heroin, is chased into the Rio Grande. Chigurh is hired to retrieve the money, and promptly kills his superiors.

Act II: 29:00 to 1:09:00 — Introduction of Bell. Bell investigates the “colossal goatfuck” in the desert. Chigurh pursues the money. Moss packs his wife Carla Jean off to Odessa to stay with her mother while he deals with whoever is coming for their money. Three-way showdown in the Regal Motel between Chigurh, Moss and some Mexicans hired, unbeknownst to Chigurh, to also recover the money. Carson Wells, a bounty hunter, is hired by the Man Who Hires Wells (that’s his character’s name) to kill Chigurh and recover the money.  Moss retrieves the money and proceeds to the Eagle Hotel, where he has a second showdown with Chigurh, in which both men are wounded. Moss, in bad shape, repairs to a hospital in Mexico.

Act III: 1:09:00 to 1:35:00 — Moss and Chigurh repair their wounds and prepare for another round. Wells tries to get Moss to listen to reason. Moss hangs tough at first but then realizes he needs all the help he can get, and calls Wells — too late, as he has just been killed by Chigurh for interfering with his plans. Moss gets out of the hospital, recovers the money again and makes plans to meet his wife and mother-in-law in El Paso. Chigurh figures out Moss’s plan and proceeds to El Paso on his own, but not before stopping off to murder the Man Who Hires Wells.  Bell meets with Moss’s wife Carla Jean and tries to enlist her help in saving Moss. Moss arrives at the Del Rio Motel in El Paso and flirts with a woman at poolside.

This is No Country‘s most daring move — the Coens put a fade-out in the middle of a non-resolving scene, deliberately frustrating audience expectations of the big shoot-out and, unannounced, completely change the focus of their narrative with 27 minutes left to go in their movie.

Act IV: 1:35:00 to 2:02:00 — Bell arrives at the Del Rio Motel seconds too late to save Moss, who is gunned down by some Mexicans looking for the money. Carla Jean arrives at the motel just in time for Bell to tell her her husband is dead. Bell and a colleague commiserate about the state of things these days. Bell goes back to the motel to have a showdown with Chigurh, but does not, for reasons discussed below. Later, Bell visits his wheelchair-bound uncle, who reminds him that the violence that Bell has been cowed by is not new, it is endemic to the American experience and especially West Texas. Meanwhile, Chigurh goes to visit Carla Jean in Odessa, despite the fact that he has recovered the money and Carla Jean has done nothing to him. He kills her and feels pretty good about himself, but is then hit by a car in a totally random event. Still later, Bell retires, unable to face the escalating violence in the society he thought he loved. He relates two dreams to his wife.

THAT ONE SCENE: Many people are confused by a crucial scene in Act IV. Bell goes back to the Del Rio Motel to have a showdown with Chigurh. He goes to the door of Moss’s room and sees that the lock has been punched out by Chigurh’s cattlegun — so he knows that Chigurh has been there. He studies the empty lock cylinder and sees movement within the room, so he knows that Chigurh is inside the room. And indeed, we see Chigurh is inside the room, with his shotgun, pressed against the wall, studying that same empty lock cylinder, where he sees movement from outside. So he knows Bell is outside and about to come in. So Bell knows that Chigurh is inside the room and Chigurh knows that Bell is outside the room.

Bell comes into the room and looks around. No sign of Chigurh, who could be hiding behind the door, but Bell does not look there. Instead he goes into the bathroom, where he notes that the window is closed and locked. So Chigurh must still be in the room, hiding behind the door. Bell sits down on the bed and sighs and sees that the air-conditioning duct cover has been removed and there are tracks in the dust within. This tells him, and us, that Chigurh has been here and found the money.

I believe that Chigurh is, at that point, still in the room with Bell, hiding, even now, behind the door. Why does he not come out and kill Bell? My wife had the answer for that — Bell has not seen Chigurh, who only kills people who have seen him (for what it’s worth, Chigurh’s phobia of being seen is not so pronounced in the book — it is largely an invention of the movie). What’s more, I think that Bell knows that Chigurh is in the room with him, and chooses not to face him, something hinted at from the very beginning of the movie, where Bell’s main preoccupation is whether or not he’s willing to put his life on the line to face “something I don’t understand” — meaning, Chigurh’s irrational, brutal psychopathology. Either that, or Bell cases the room, finds that Chigurh is not there, and breathes a sigh of relief that he’s gone and that means maybe he doesn’t have to face him.

There is another possibility, one which touches on yet another Coen mainstay, magic. In the scene where Bell commiserates with his sheriff pal, he mentions that he thinks Chigurh is a ghost, that he possesses some kind of supernatural powers. And in fact, in a sixth viewing, I noticed that Chigurh is not visible in the motel room, up against the wall, when Bell comes in, where we saw him just a few seconds earlier. It’s possible that Chigurh is hiding elsewhere in the room at that moment, but perhaps the Coens are suggesting that, under certain circumstances, Chigurh is able to summon the supernatural powers he pretends to have in other circumstances.

The book, for what it’s worth, makes it clear. Chigurh goes to the motel, finds the money, and goes out to his truck. As he’s getting ready to leave, Bell pulls up in his cruiser and checks out the room as Chigurh sits in his truck and thinks about whether or not to kill Bell, and finally decides not to. The Coens, in compressing the physical proximity of the characters, create a much more suspenseful scene (something they do repeatedly in this masterful adaptation) and add a layer of beguiling mystery.

Next, I will discuss the economic politics of No Country and gush over its many triumphs.
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13 Responses to “Coen Bros: No Country For Old Men part 1”
  1. seamusd says:

    Excellent analysis, as usual. I agree that this is their best film. It is anti-Hollywood in that it refuses to follow the template for violent action films, but instead insists on focusing on the humanity of all the characters–even the monster Chigurh. I like how, in a very violent film, much of the violence takes place out of frame, leaving much to the audience’s imagination. Such restraint on the part of the filmmakers is one of the most admirable things about this masterpiece. This film is head and shoulders above anything out there. It should run away with the Oscar!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Interesting — I read the scene with Bell and (possibly) Chigurh at the motel very differently. I thought that Bell looked through the busted lock, _thought_ he saw someone inside, _imagined_ Chigurh lurking within with a shotgun, waiting to attack, and realized for the first time just how outmatched and afraid he was in the face of such monstrous violence. When Bell goes inside, and sees the tracks in the vent, I read it as Chigurh already having been and gone, and Bell being relieved that he wouldn’t have to face Chigurh.

    — N.A.

  3. teamwak says:

    I really need to go and see this soon!

    Your not the first reviewer I trust who has said its the best Coens movie ever.

    Now if thats not a recommendation, then I dont know what is!

  4. jbacardi says:

    Frankly, I was angry after watching this, so I guess I fell into that trap of expecting to see some sort of resolution take place between Moss and Chigurh. Since I haven’t read the book (and I understand that this happens there as well, so they were just being faithful to the source material- again, something I usually always approve of), to me, it was a bait-and-switch and a cheat and I was more than a little put off. I can appreciate a film with ambiguities and mood-establishment and unconventional narrative, but I couldn’t understand for the life of me what they were hoping to accomplish by doing this. It’s like buying a Jaguar and taking delivery of a Kia.

    And I’m more than a little pissed off that I feel this way about what is otherwise a masterful film with magnificent dialogue and cinematography and full of wonderful performances before and after the non-resolution. Makes me feel like the one dummy in the room that just doesn’t get it.

    • Todd says:

      I think the best way to put it would be to say that No Country is about the problem of violence in America. By creating a dramatic, crisis-resolving “solution” in a third act confrontation, the Coens would be saying, in one way or another, that there is a solution to our national violence — either Moss would somehow turn the tables on Chigurh (which would imply that the answer to violence is more violence), or Bell would step in and save the day (which would imply that adherence to law and order is the solution), or else Chigurh would mow them all down and walk off into the sunset with the money (which would imply that we’re fucked).

      But there is no solution to the problem of violence in America, at least not one that can be found on a movie screen, and that is the point of Act IV of No Country. Bell is, in the end, fearful and haunted by the things he’s seen. Far from facing them down, he’d rather quit altogether. And then he finds that that doesn’t make him happy either.

      • jbacardi says:

        Oh yes, I can certainly see that point.

        Thinking about it on the drive home, I was thinking perhaps it’s also perhaps a statement about the inevitability of death, as personified by the impassive Chigur. And I thought in lesser hands it could have turned into something like Peckinpah-meets-The Terminator.

        Still, I think that if you spend an hour and a half setting up some sort of confrontation (and I’m including the novelist as well as the Coens), then it’s just not fair to drop it and move on, as if they have ADD or something. I was afraid for a minute there that the theatre had lost a reel of film!

        I’m sure I’ll see it more when it comes out on DVD, and I’ll see if I can come to terms a little better with it…

  5. craigjclark says:

    A question for you:

    If Moss hadn’t given in to the guilt that prodded him to return to the scene of the standoff to deliver the water, do you think Chigurh would have still been able to track him down?

    • Todd says:

      The short answer is yes, and maybe even faster, because if Moss did not know there were people after the money he would not have left town, been chased, and discovered the tracking device in the money.

      I suppose you could say that, eventually, Moss would have opened the case and found the tracking device, but given Chigurh’s single-mindedness, it seems to me that it would not have taken him long to trace the signal to Moss’s trailer.

      Unless, of course, Moss simply lives too far away from his hunting grounds, a notion supported in the script. He finds the bodies around noon but doesn’t get home ’til dark, and the “managerial” types complain that they haven’t gotten a signal on their tracker all day. So I suppose one could say that if Moss had not gone back to give the guy the water he’d still be alive today.

      The greater issue, however, is Moss’s action — his one moment of compassion is the thing that proves to be not just his undoing, but the undoing of his wife, Wells, and about twenty other people who’ve never even met him.

      In the book, Moss’s action stands as a contrast to a story Bell tells about his experience in WWII. Bell abandoned his squad when they were wounded because he didn’t want to get killed, and that decision has haunted him all his life, even though staying with his men would have meant certain death for them all. For Bell, his choice of self-preservation defines his life; for Moss, his choice of compassion, “putting his soul in hazard” for a complete stranger, ends his life.

  6. There are many things to say about this movie and I’m sure we will be talking about it for years to come…it is a mirror to hold up to the dreck that Hollywood tries to force feed us all too often- not that there aren’t good movies that have come out in the last 15-20 years, but this is a great movie and there are very few of those…

    But let’s talk about THAT ONE SCENE
    I’ve had a few conversations about it and it has been a sticking point for a few people- when I read your views I remembered what I thought the first time I saw it…that it has a very David Lynchian quality- is he there, is he not there? Is it magic?
    In a way it doesn’t matter- what matters is the confusion – it gets your synapses firing- the anticipation leads to the tingling in your spine as a viewer- which must be what Bell feels as he walks through the room into the unknown…
    and then the relief when the Boogeyman stays hidden in the shadows.

    • Todd says:

      It’s the one place where the Coens’ brand of magic realism, abundant in Hudsucker and absent in Fargo, asserts itself in this otherwise most fact-bound of movies, and adds a layer of mystery and spiritualism to what would be an otherwise routine (albeit brilliantly executed) crime thriller.

      • Anonymous says:

        The Overall Theme of This Movie

        I agree that one of the main themes in this movie is the problem with violence in America. Indeed, the Coen’s have often focused on the dark side of Americana.
        But I think the overall theme of this story is really about how each one of us moves down our own path to the inevitable conclusion that awaits us all. It’s summed up so well in the book during the dialogue between Chigurh and Wells just before Wells is killed. In the movie, Chigurh asks Wells, ‘If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?’ In the book, he then asks, ‘How does a man decide in what order to abandon his life?’ This one question said it all for me and we can see how each major character has this question put to him or her in this story.