Coen Bros: No Country For Old Men part 2

I repeat: this movie is quite excellent and I strongly recommend it. What’s more, I strongly recommend you see it before reading the rest of this entry, where much will be spoiled. Besides which you probably won’t be able know what I’m talking about for the most part.

The Coens’ movies rarely have anything good to say about capitalism, but there is nothing in their oeuvre that is quite as scorched-earth in its criticism as No Country. And you could say “Well, it’s just a movie about a drug deal gone wrong, let’s not read too much into it” but Cormac McCarthy’s novel makes the criticism of capitalism explicit; Sheriff Bell describes the rising tide of drug-related violence as “a breakdown in mercantile ethics that leaves people settin around out in the desert dead in their vehicles.”

Let’s review the plot of No Country from the point of view of The Man Who Hires Wells. The Man Who Hires Wells (Stephen Root) is a Texas businessman involved in a dope deal with some Mexican drug suppliers. He sends some men down to the Rio Grande to give $2.4 million to the suppliers in exchange for a truckload of brown heroin. The deal goes bad and everyone winds up dead. The suppliers send some men to recover the heroin. Those men happen upon Moss as he’s trying to give one of their dying compadres some water. They try to kill him but fail and Moss gets away. The Man Who Hires Wells hires Chigurh to recover the money. Two of his associates take Chigurh down to the “colossal goatfuck in the desert” to show him around and give him a tracker to trace the location of the money, which has a transponder hidden in it. So far, so good.

Chigurh takes the tracker and kills the associates, then takes off after the money himself. This is what is called The Entrepreneurial Spirit; Chigurh is, seemingly, going into business for himself. This makes The Man Who Hires Wells very angry and he, um hires Wells, a bounty hunter, to find Chigurh and kill him, and also recover his $2.4 million.

Chigurh finds the money, but it turns out that there is a second team of people looking for it, Mexicans who are not as skilled as Chigurh but who are far more numerous. That is to say, The Man Who Hires Wells has also hired a small army of unskilled laborers to compete with his expensive specialist. No doubt, it is his hope that his cheap laborers will kill his expensive specialist and save him a healthy chunk of cash.

There is a scene later on where Bell’s deputy says that the dead men in the Regal Motel “were Mexicans” and Bell asks if there is some question as to when they stopped being Mexicans. At first I thought this was some kind of morbid joke on the part of Bell, but when you look at it from the point of view of The Man Who Hires Wells, there is a political aspect to his decision to hire cheap laborers to compete with his cold-blooded assassin. Did The Man Who Hires Wells promise citizenship to his army of Mexicans, or were they already Americans? When did they “stop being Mexicans?” Or were they Mexicans up until the end of their lives, merely an example of management trying to replace American workers with cheap foreign labor?

In any case, Chigurh has to kill the Mexicans in order to eliminate his competition. (In the book, there are a whole lot more Mexicans that complicate the plot — they show up at the Eagle Hotel, tap Carla Jean’s phone line and show up at the Desert Sands Motel to kill Moss.)

Chigurh finds Moss, who, it turns out, is unwilling to part with the money. In addition, it turns out that, to Chigurh’s surprise, Moss is a pretty skilled laborer himself, trained by his country to kill (in the book we learn that Moss was a sniper in Special Forces in Vietnam). Moss wounds Chigurh and Chigurh, after healing up, kills Carson Wells as well. Then he travels to the city where The Man Who Hires Wells works, goes to his office and shoots him in the face.

(In the book, as the man lies dying on the floor of his office, Chigurh explains that he used birdshot to shoot him in the face because he was concerned about breaking the window behind him. How appropriate that our own Vice President, Dick “Chigurh” Cheney also used birdshot to shoot a man in the face, even though the man hadn’t double-crossed him in a drug deal.)

Why does Chigurh kill The Man Who Hires Wells? Because he disapproves of his hiring cheap foreign labor to compete with skilled experts for domestic jobs. “You pick the one right tool” is the way he puts it to The Man Who Hires Wells’s Accountant.

(When Chigurh has Carson Wells in his sights, Wells says “You don’t have to do this — I’m just a day trader,” an attempt to place himself in a different job category from Chigurh, a distinction Chigurh sees as irrelevant.)

After killing The Man Who Hires Wells, Chigurh travels to El Paso to get what he now considers his money. More Mexicans (subordinate to someone named “Acosta” in the screenplay, a name not found in the book) have already killed Moss, but they have failed to recover the money, leaving Chigurh to waltz into the Desert Aire Motel and fetch the money where Moss has hidden it.

After getting his money, and after an appreciable interval of time, Chigurh travels to Odessa to kill Moss’s wife Carla Jean. Why? He has his money, she has done nothing to him. He does it out principle — he had promised Moss that he would kill Carla Jean and feels honor-bound to follow through. Money is money, and that’s all nice and all, but to Chigurh there are things beyond money. There is his craft, and his word, which no amount of money can satisfy. In this way, Chigurh finally escapes the snare of capitalism and regains his honor. For his reward, he is creamed by a station-wagon in a freak accident.

(It is worth noting that, in the book, the car that hits Chigurh is being driven by a bunch of intoxicated Mexican teenagers — that is, Chigurh, a high-level drug dealer’s goon, is laid low by the ultimate product of his business — a carload of inebriated teenagers, and foreigners to boot. This was, apparently, a level of irony too leaden for the Coens to include.)

Here’s a question: why did The Man Who Hires Wells put a transponder in the money? The thing that comes to my mind is that The Man Who Hires Wells intended, from the very beginning, to get the heroin, hand over the money, then send people to go get the money back. In fact, it would not surprise me to learn (the book does not make it clear) that Chigurh, from the very beginning, was hired to recover the money long before Moss ever stumbled across it. In fact, I would be willing to wager that that is why Chigurh is in the area when the drug deal goes down — he was, I’d guess, on his way to the job when he got pulled over by the deputy at the beginning of the movie. (In the book, Chigurh deliberately gets himself arrested just to see if he can extricate himself by an act of will.) If that’s the case, it explains why Chigurh kills the managerial types — he disapproves of their immoral business code, the “breakdown of mercantile ethics that leaves people settin around in the desert dead in their vehicles.” In his own demented way, Chigurh is a moralist, an strict enforcer of sound business practices. You don’t build a business by ripping off your suppliers — that’s just wrong.

NOW THEN: Chigurh’s ultimate destiny, economically speaking, is quite different in the book. Yes he kills all those people to get to the money, yes he kills his immediate superiors, yes he kills The Man Who Hires Wells. But in the book, once all those people are dead and the money is in his possession, Chigurh takes considerable pains to locate The Man Who Hires Wells’s boss, a mysterious businessman who put up the $2.4 million for the heroin deal in the first place. Chigurh doesn’t kill this man — rather, he returns the money to him and they discuss forming a partnership. Chigurh in the book ultimately does not mind being an employee, but he can’t stand all these middlemen who gum up the works and screw up the job through their greed and double-dealing. Apparently to Chigurh,the smart businessman doesn’t just pick the one right tool, he picks the one right tool and then throws out all his other tools.

NEXT: Chigurh — man or superman?
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14 Responses to “Coen Bros: No Country For Old Men part 2”
  1. craigjclark says:

    How appropriate that our own Vice President, Dick “Chigurh” Cheney also used birdshot to shoot a man in the face, even though the man hadn’t double-crossed him in a drug deal.

    That we know of.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I paid special attention to the scene with the Nervous Accountant — mostly because I know the actor who played him — but was, frankly, surprised at its inclusion in the final cut when the sole thing it seemed to achieve was to give Chigurh the memorable line, which you’ve cited, about using the “one right tool.”

    Now that your analysis is making me think, rethink, and (I’m certain) overthink the movie, I’m wondering whether there are more layers to the scene. (Of course there would be. A Coen cigar is never just a cigar.) What does it mean that, upon being asked who he is, the man first answers “Nobody,” and then, by way of clarification, “Accounting”? Is that his own drab view of his station, or is it the answer he thinks will somehow save him from this killer? If he, as an accountant, doesn’t “see” Chigurh, is Chigurh in some sense a flesh-and-blood version of a second set of books, an off-the-record extension of the Man Who Hires Chigurh’s corporate structure?

    You’re about five viewings up on me for this particular flick, Mr. Alcott, so if this scene meant anything to you, I’m interested to know. Or maybe it is just a particularly flavorful but ultimately unimportant cigar?


    • Todd says:

      As I will delve into with my next set of notes, it is vital to Chigurh that he not be “seen.” Who lives and who dies is based on who “sees” him. It’s all part of his god-playing fixation. The only people who see God’s face are people who are dead — therefore, if you have seen Chigurh, you must die.

      There are exceptions, of course — Chigurh sometimes takes breaks from playing God and lets “chance” dictate who will live or die (of course it’s not really chance, it’s just him playing God in another way).

      As far as I can tell, the Accountant is there for two reasons:

      1. For Chigurh to ask “Why did The Man Who Hires Wells give the Mexicans a tracker?”

      2. To give Chigurh another chance to spell out his rationale for killing/not killing people (ie, he doesn’t kill Bell later because Bell has not seen him).

      It’s funny — in the book, Chigurh, while in one of his spiraling philosophic moods, often goes further than he does in the movie, and when he goes further he always ends up talking about how one’s actions add up and up and up until one day there is a “final accounting.” I wonder if that’s why the Coens made the Man Who Hires Chigurh’s associate an Accountant (“Nobody — Accounting” indeed), and I wonder if that’s why Chigurh has that secret little smile on his face as he talks to the guy — it’s his own private joke that, here he is, at the moment of final accounting, and he’s about to kill the accountant.

  3. I’m one of those people who loves your Coen commentary so of course I’m loving this. I have to bring up, though, that I was quite sure Root’s character is named “Man who hires Wells” not Chigurh.

  4. Anonymous says:

    What does Chigurh want?

    So in the book he gives the money back to the top guy, taking some effort to find him, and I’m wondering if it isn’t so that Chigurh can keep doing what he’s supposed to do — cleaning up the ethics of business in his own twisted way. He’s already cleaned up those on the bottom rung of this drug scheme. Then he cleaned up the Man Who Hired Wells, because, once you get the small fry you follow them up to the bigger fish. So, what if giving the money back to the biggest fish is just a matter of following the same progression? Note that Chigurh didn’t just return the money, he also discussed the possibility of a partnership. And that makes the suitcase full of cash Chigurh’s seed money in a new venture — that of buying his way into business with the top guy. So then does this top guy realize that Chigurh’s real business is, “I’m going to measure you and judge you and if I find you’re like the others, I’m going to kill you too?” After which he will no doubt find out who is above this guy.

    So I don’t think it’s a matter of Chigurh minding being an employee, as long as he’s the one good tool. He’s an employee the way cops go undercover, pretending to be whatever it is they need to in order to set things right.

    That’s just my notion of why Chigurh he does what he does at the end of the book, so that his life and purpose as he has constructed it can go on and on. After all, gods don’t take a suitcase full of cash and retire.

    Bill Willingham

    • Todd says:

      Re: What does Chigurh want?

      Or, we could say that Chigurh, in worshiping Mammon, understands that if you try to become a maverick (ie, steal what is not yours), that will only make Mammon angry, and you will be punished for it just like Moss is punished for it. Whereas if you are The One Right Tool, you can have safety, security, and enough money to live on for the rest of your life. Either way, it’s a smart move on Chigurh’s part.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Minor correction: Desert Aire is the trailer park. Desert Sands is the motel.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Where’s the dope?

    I’m probably just missing this, but what happened to the heroin? It was there when Llewellyn first found the massacre site. It wasn’t there when Ed Tom and his deputy were there the next day. I don’t think Llewellyn could have taken it (logistics). The next people to show up were the Mexicans (when they slash Llewellyn’s tires). If they took it, why does the Man Who Hires Wells later say the Mexicans are missing their dope? Did someone come along between Llewellyn’s 2 visits to the site and take the dope? Next to visit the site is Anton with the 2 businessmen. Did Anton kill the 2 buisinessmen with him partly so he could take the heroin? Doesn’t really fit Anton’s character, for him to steal the dope. I haven’t read the book yet, obviously…

  7. pjamesharvey says:

    Look at what money does to the supporting characters too.

    Moss offers someone crossing the border 500 bucks for his jacket, and this person is not satisfied enough with the deal until he gets the money in his hands. On sensing the potential for profit, another chap in the group asks how much money it’s worth when Moss asks for the beer as well.

    The young fellow at the end on the bicycle has no trouble giving his shirt to Chigurh for free, but once he has got the money, on Chigurh’s insistence, he refuses to split it with his friend and they have a small quarrel about it.

    It seems that money is a corrupting influence.

  8. gordwick says:

    I haven’t got the chance to see the movie yet and I don’t need further recommendations for it. I’ll watch it the first time I get my hands on it, I find it interesting, drug related movies are always interesting, they show us a part of the reality, perhaps this movie will help me have a cleared view in Mexico and drugs. I wouldn’t recommend it thought to people in drug treatment center, they might get confused.

  9. ominousred says:

    Thanks again…

    For the awesome breakdown. I would connect the dots myself but I have a tendency to add my own dots and I fear that I will miss the intended concepts and meanings. I like to be spoon fed the info.