The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
No Country For Old Men

Written by James Zborowski.

Photo from the article In this Alternate Take I want to think about aspects of No Country for Old Men under three main headings.


The film begins with a series of shots of starkly beautiful near-desert landscape, over which we hear the voice of Tommy Lee Jones. His character, Ed Tom Bell, will not appear onscreen for quite some time (and not until the main business of the plot has been set in motion), but in this opening voiceover we learn that he is a sheriff, and we listen as he thinks about himself in relation to all the ‘old timers’ of his profession - some of whom didn’t have to carry guns - whose stories he seeks out, and as he muses over one of his cases in particular: the murder of a fourteen year old girl by a nineteen year old male who confessed that, given the chance, he would murder again.

Many Westerns (the films of John Ford are the pre-eminent example of this) tell a story of how the frontier undergoes a process of civilization. Guns are absolutely necessary to such a process, a fact that is usually hard to miss - but another, less thrilling but highly important, piece of Western iconography and civilization-building is the fence, which separates the ‘garden’ from the wilderness. If Tommy Lee Jones’s voiceover points to the limits of the process of civilization (there is still cold-blooded murder), and perhaps even its reversal (sheriffs are having to carry guns again), many of the images suggest that, at least in this place, the wilderness has barely been tamed at all: manmade structures stand lonely, surrounded by scrubby land; fences do not strongly separate (either physically, in the film’s world, or compositionally, in our view of it) the (very similar-looking) land to either side. The main exception to this ‘untamedness’ is the road that passes through the landscape, the blacktop which, in the flourish that concludes the movie’s opening sequence, the camera cranes up to survey as a police car whooshes over a small brow. (By the end of the next scene, the police officer will be dead, and the criminal we have just seen him apprehend will be on the loose again.) The wilderness has been tamed to the extent that one can now pass through it with ease.

Indeed, as well as being some kind of a Western, No Country is some kind of a road movie. If one of the film’s main triumphs is the arresting imagery that centres around the drug deal gone wrong in the desert, another is surely its depiction of the cultural geography of the road - with its filling stations and motels where service personnel meet a continuous stream of people passing through - and of the kinds of interactions and stories that can take place there. (One of the end credits in the movie is for ‘voice casting.’ Both the faces and names of the people Llewelyn and Chigurh encounter on their journeys are wonderful, across the board.)

Tone and response

One person with whom I have discussed No Country said that she thought the film was nihilistic - or something close - in its outlook. Such a stance could certainly be interestingly elaborated upon; as part of the elaboration I would wish to see a distinction made between what the film suggests can be done about that which it depicts (nothing, which is what invites a reading of nihilism) and its attitude towards this fact (which is, I think, serious and sorrowful - not adjectives associated with a common way of understanding nihilism).

The main thing I want to briefly discuss here is how No Country presents situations in which the eruption of violence is a strong possibility. There are two scenes, both involving Chigurh, which threaten (or promise?) to end in violence, but in fact do not. The first, discussed in my short review, involves a long, menacing conversation between Chigurh and a filling station attendant. By this point, we have already seen Chigurh kill someone to escape custody, then kill again to acquire a car (murder being essential to the first aim but far from so to the second). Seeing No Country three times at the cinema, I was interested each time to witness how the audience reacted to this scene in particular. As Chigurh becomes increasingly threatening and the attendant increasingly flummoxed, we can take the film to be asking ‘at what point does this cease to be funny?’ - especially given what we know about Chigurh. (The issue of the appropriateness of laughter in the face of awful events emerges explicitly later when Ed Tom reads a macabre news story to his deputy, who cannot help but laugh, then apologizes, only for Ed Tom to acknowledge, sadly, that he laughed himself.)

A little later, Chigurh wants a trailerpark clerk to tell him where Llewelyn works. She is a stubborn, overweight woman with a sullen demeanour, who refuses to help. We have seen so many variations on this scene in which the role being played here by the clerk is that of a petty villain, a jobsworth savouring her small authority and obstructing our protagonist. If in the previous scene the question was ‘is this funny?’ here the question might be ‘what do we want to happen?’ or ‘how much do we care about this woman?’ - and, by extension, ‘what does this say about us?’

At the end of one of the screenings I attended, I overheard someone tell her friend that No Country was the most gratuitously violent film she had ever seen, and that the violence was completely emotionless. (We have returned to something close to the nihilism argument/charge.) It is certainly true that Chigurh, the movie’s main perpetrator of violence, kills without remorse. It is also the case that the movie’s choices of presentation and construction mean that the acts of violence are not editorially ‘placed’ as decisively as one can imagine them being: there is very little music, and there are few moments where characters reflect upon and condemn violent deeds. There are some such moments though, typically involving Ed Tom. The attitudes he expresses to what he sees together with what I have taken to be the film’s desire to encourage us to reflect upon what is represented prevent No Country from being gratuitous or truly emotionless. Rather, what I would suggest we have is an interesting instance of a disjunction between the movie’s mode of presentation, and the mood that mode is intended to evoke in the viewer.

Structure (and the ending)

No Country is quietly audacious in its structure in many ways. Its three main characters are for the most part kept separate. Llewelyn and Chigurh share a gunfight and a telephone conversation. By the time Ed Tom reaches Llewelyn, the latter is already dead. Ed Tom enters a motel room that Chigurh is hiding in, but Chigurh slips away. Furthermore, a significant proportion of the film’s screen time is taken up by scenes involving only one character - and without music, voiceover or (with one brief exception) talking-to-self to provide interest or explication. A large part of the interest of these (and other) scenes is provided through a combination of aspects of detective movies and what are sometimes called ‘procedurals.’ No Country is full of clues. Near the beginning, an injured dog and a trail of blood lead Llewelyn to the aftermath of a shootout, which is in a sense a big set of clues about what happened. A large part of Llewelyn’s attempt to make a ‘clean getaway,’ to borrow the film’s tagline, involves him trying to erase any clues to his whereabouts - clues which Chigurh and Ed Tom (always one step behind) are intent on discovering. Whether in the desert or the city, the main characters are using the skills of hunter-gatherers, or trying to second-guess the use of such skills by others. In terms of ‘procedure,’ we get engrossing passages where, for example, Llewelyn stashes the money in a motel air duct then retrieves it from a different room using a device fashioned from a wardrobe rail, wire coathangers and tape, and where Chigurh uses an elaborate method to blow up a car so that he can steal pharmaceuticals during the ensuing panic and then dress his gunshot wounds in a motel room.

The aspect of No Country’s structure which most strongly violates our expectations is undoubtedly its ending. We dissolve from a scene which concludes with Llewelyn being propositioned by a woman at the poolside of a motel to Ed Tom driving up to that motel as gunmen are making a getaway and finding Llewelyn shot dead inside. After this there is a scene where Chigurh kills Llewelyn’s wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) , and two much less plot-related scenes involving Ed Tom: one where he visits an elderly, wheelchair-bound relative; and another (the final scene of the movie) where he tells his wife about his dreams. In terms of structure and of pacing, this is certainly an odd set of decisions. However, one way to begin to get a handle on what is going on might be to ask the question ‘whose film is this?’

If we take No Country to be a film which tells the story of Llewelyn’s attempt to get away with the money (as the tagline invites us to), we will almost certainly feel cheated by the way his death is handled. Throughout the film, it is Llewelyn to whom we are most likely to be emotionally attached: he is a likeable character who suffers and is frequently placed in mortal danger. Ed Tom might be just as likeable, but we don’t spend as much time anxiously hoping he will survive. Our relationship with him is forged in a much less intense crucible.

Thinking of Chigurh as the central character is interesting. As much as Llewelyn, it is Chigurh who drives events forwards, and we spend similar amounts of time with both characters. Indeed, it is Chigurh, the villain, who achieves his goals and escapes punishment at the end of the film. (We are not shown the moment where Chigurh retrieves the money though. Instead, we see, with Ed Tom, on the floor of Llewelyn’s motel room, an air conditioning duct grille, removed with one of Chigurh’s fateful coins, which he has left behind.)

Ed Tom, though, gets the movie’s first and last words, as it were, and is probably the closest thing the film has to what is often termed a ‘moral centre.’ If the film is thought of as the story of his involvement in events and reactions to them, of his attempt and failure to help Llewelyn, always arriving too late, then both the treatment of Llewelyn’s death (we arrive, with Ed Tom, too late) and the coda sequence seem more justified.

Although privileged in the ways described, though, Ed Tom is not an archetypal protagonist. Like Marge (Frances McDormand) in Fargo (1997), he first appears around half an hour into the movie, setting off from home and astutely reconstructing events at a crime scene. However, Marge goes on to ultimately solve the case, and her home life and pregnancy are a crucial and fully-developed contrast to the chaos of the rest of the film’s world. Ed Tom follows clues but never gets ahead of events or catches the killer. He is an old, childless man: he offers nothing to look forward to. Considering Jones is the movie’s top-billed star, his character drops out of sight for surprisingly long stretches. We see little of his wife or his home life, only seeing the inside of his house (and then only the kitchen) in the film’s final scene. (Interestingly, we see neither Llewelyn nor Carla Jean in their jobs before the money is discovered - although we later learn that Carla Jean worked at WalMart and Llewelyn was a welder. The possibility of making the film a story about a dissatisfied couple escaping their dead end jobs is thus minimized.)

The film’s treatment of Ed Tom, the extent to which it allows him to get into the movie, may be consistent with its thematic concerns, but one can still justifiably complain that this results in problems for the film’s structure and pacing which could have been solved a little more elegantly. The way the film hesitates between its three main characters, privileging each at different points and in different ways, can be thought of as a deficiency and as being inextricably bound up with the film’s achievements. It is a feature that is in itself perhaps unsatisfactory, but which is also central to some of the things about No Country for Old Men that are most interesting.

This Alternate Take was published on February 17, 2008.

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