I saw No Country for a second time last night and I appreciated it much more than five weeks ago. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it the first time but now it’s in my Top 2 of the year — I just can’t decide if it should dethrone my personal fave, Tell No One.
I think No Country is better than There Will Be Blood though, which should be no embarrassment to PT Anderson. It’s only his fifth film compared to the Coens’ twelfth (or tenth, for purists who don’t count their work-for-hire Intollerable Cruetly or remake The Ladykillers).
Great as it is, There Will Be Blood has too many weak links, primarily by the name of Paul Dano but also in the bowling alley scene, while No Country takes literally no missteps. Not to mention that it’s visually beautiful: Virtually every color in the film is gold or green, or a sickly mixture of both, and even Chigurh’s face becomes a jaundiced yellow.
(Many SPOILERS following)
After the second screening it is finally obvious to me Anton Chigurh represents Death qua Death, moreso even than a generic Evil personified (though death is an evil). One of the key exchanges is when the accountant asks, “Are you going to kill me?” and Chigurh answers, “That depends. Do you see me?” He even calls himself a “tool” in the same scene.
Unfortunately I was not watching it through this lens last night so now I need to see it a third time! I had given up making sense of it after the first time, so I just “experienced it” last night and I’m glad I did because it’s probably the last time I’ll be able to enjoy it on an exclusively literal level. But that just goes to show how perfectly the movie works as both a suspenseful cat and mouse procedural and a touching meditation on death. Chigurh is not either human or supernatural, he is always both.
The Coens have their cake and eat it throughout the film, and the cynic who claims Chigurh can’t represent Death because we see him taking bullets out of his leg might as well say Bergman’s Death is a real human because we see him playing chess with Max von Sydow. Even Carson Wells says, “Do you have any idea how goddamn crazy you are?” To which Chigurh replies, “You mean the nature of this conversation?” The nature of the conversation is crazy because he is speaking to Death himself. But Carson says, “I mean the nature of you.” No Country for Old Men reminds us that all death is a product of evil, even death of natural causes, and Ed Tom Bell in particular reminds us to be outraged that death should exist at all.
But lest we think we are encountering Death on a new scale, more perverse than previous incarnations, Uncle Ellis reminds us that “What you got ain’t nothin’ new.” Like Sheriff Bell and the local sheriff in El Paso, every generation romanticizes the past and thinks its own problems are qualitatively different than those encountered by their predecessors. But actually “This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s comin’. It ain’t all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.”
Trying to stop What’s Comin’ is the vanity of Llewelyn, because you can never see it till it’s too late. He thinks he can hold off death by anticipating it, as if with his binoculars: in his last words on screen he says he’s “lookin’ for what’s comin’.” He means the money but the woman by the pool says wisely about What’s Comin’, “Yeah, but no one ever sees that.”
Even though the El Paso sheriff laments the cultural decline exemplified by “green hair and bones in their noses,” he admits that “none of that explains your man though”:
Roscoe: He is just a goddamn homicidal lunatic, Ed Tom.
Bell: I’m not sure he’s a lunatic.
Roscoe: Well, what would you call him?
Bell: I don’t know. Sometimes I think he’s pretty much a ghost.
Roscoe: He’s real, alright.
Bell: Oh yes.
Roscoe said he’s real as a contradiction to Ed Tom’s ghost comment, but they are both correct: He is a spirit and he is real.
The Coens have made an American Seventh Seal on the fiftieth anniversary of Bergman’s. When asked just how dangerous Chigurh is, Carson remarks, “Compared to what, the bubonic plague?” Black Death is exactly what Chigurh is, as the Coens are comparing their Ultimo Hombre to the pandemic killer in Bergman’s film. Chigurh even sports a Prince Valiant haircut to reinforce the medieval association, his challenger a sheriff instead of a knight. In biblical times he’s described as the Angel of Death and in later times as the Grim Reaper, so “in the parlance of our times” we might call him the Serial Killer.
Everyone who sees him dies. When Llewelyn claims to have seen Chigurh, Carson is surprised: “You’ve seen him, and you’re not dead?” But Llewelyn never saw him with his own eyes, he only saw a reflection of him in a store window at night. Everyone in the drug store is spared only because Chigurh creates a diversion so none of them see him. The two boys on bicycles do see him but at their age Death has no relevance to them. (Instead Chigurh leaves them squabbling over a blood-soaked hundred-dollar bill, setting into motion a fatal cycle like the one that has just concluded before us.)
The only two middle-aged people whom we know Chigurh does not kill are the man who wins the coin toss and the fat Desert Aire manager who “ain’t at liberty to give out no information about our residents.” She is the anomaly of the movie and resists Death through sheer force of will: “Did you not hear me? We can’t give out no information.” It seems odd that Chigurh would be intimidated by her because she is clearly afraid of him, but unlike every other bloke who treats him like an ordinary man, she sees right through him. She and Carson are the only two characters who appreciate his true nature, even if she just intuits it somehow and Carson is the only one who comprehends it fully:
“You don’t understand. 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. He’s not even like me.”
Death transcends human affairs like Llewelyn transcends the animals he hunts. Chigurh kills men like cattle, and immediately after we see him use his compressed-air bolt-gun for the first time, saying “Would you hold still, please?” the film cuts straight to an image of a deer through the crosshairs of Llewelyns rifle, as he whispers “Hold still.” Llewelyn’s shot injures the animal but doesn’t kill it, and he sees its spilt blood on the dirt, just as Chigurh later tracks the blood of an injured Llewelyn on the street. That’s when Llewelyn fires on Chigurh but it’s a glance shot, like Sheriff Bell’s story about Charlie Walser: “it’s a glance-shot and ricochets around and comes back, hits Charlie in the shoulder.” Like Verbal Kint says, “How do you shoot the devil in the back? What if you miss?”
When Llewelyn finally chats with Chigurh and it is, crucially, over the phone. Sight, yet again, is the key:
Chigurh: You need to come see me.
Llewelyn: Who is this?
Chigurh: You know who it is. You need to talk to me.
Llewelyn: I don’t need to talk to you.
Chigurh: I think you do.
There is no escaping the inevitable. Geography is irrelevant:
Chigurh: Do you know where I’m going?
Llewelyn: Yeah, I know where you’re going.
Llewelyn: You know she won’t be there.
Chigurh: It doesn’t make any difference where she is.
Death’s march is inexorable, as Carson tries telling him:
Llewelyn: He won’t find me again.
Carson: Not that way.
Llewelyn: Not any way.
Llewelyn can’t hear what Carson is saying. He persists in treating Death as if he’s just any ol’ person.
ED TOM and ANTON
Ed Tom Bell’s introductory narration is a sleight of hand. His story about the boy who killed the fourteen-year-old girl is not primarily about the incomprehensibility of the crime, it’s about the boy’s attitude in the face of death: “Said he knew he was going to hell. Be there in about fifteen minutes. I don’t know what to make of that. I surely don’t.”
When Ed Tom says, “I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand,” it might sound like it’s the degree of evil out there he doesn’t understand, but he had just said it’s not that which he’s afraid of: “The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it.”
What he is afraid of, what he doesn’t want to meet, what he doesn’t understand, is death. The subject is provided in the preceding sentence: “I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand.”
Carson may be cocksure of himself but he understands Death, which is why he’s more scared than anyone else of Chigurh when he meets him. Llewelyn doesn’t understand Death which is why he’s so foolhardy in threatening Chigurh: “Yeah, I’m goin’ to bring you somethin’ all right. I’ve decided to make you a special project of mine. You ain’t goin’ to have to look for me at all.”
Ed Tom begins the film not understanding Chigurh, afraid of what he doesn’t understand, and therefore perhaps too cautious. He is a passive character through the entire film, just following the footsteps of Llewellyn and Chigurh, and moments too late to protect Llewelyn. It’s not till after this that he finally pushes his chips forward to go out and meet what he doesn’t understand. When he approaches the motel room door with the possibility that Death awaits him on the other side, he has finally decided “to put his soul at hazard” and say, “okay, I’ll be part of this world.”
He crosses the police tape that warns DO NOT CROSS and is faced with a choice between two doors. He chooses one and Death is not waiting behind it. Chigurh was hiding behind the door in the room next door. (The vent wasn’t big enough for him to have escaped through it. The grille had been unscrewed by Llewelyn who was intending to hide the money in the vent.) The duality of the choice is reinforced by Ed Tom’s double-shadow cast by the headlights onto the wall.
So Sheriff Bell wins the bet and earns his chips back. After searching the room for Chigurh he sees the coin on the floor. It’s his lucky coin: he has won the coin toss and gets back everything he’s been putting up his whole life without knowing it.