That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
-Those dying generations- at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
William Butler Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium
The sparse, often un-nervingly silent landscape of the Coen brother’s latest film, No Country For Old Men, is- as others have already properly noted- truly no country for old men- or for any man, in fact. From the desolate wind-swept panaromas of the West Texas borderlands at the opening of the film to the equally desolate panaromas of human depravity and violence, the Coen brothers present an unflagging and unsparing examination of just how dark human hearts can become, and just how dark and hopeless the world can appear to those caught in the ensuing maelstrom. The result is a gorgeous, unsettling and provoking film that has rightly earned considerable praise and consideration as of late. The cinematography is magnificent, the acting top-notch, but most importantly, the film has something to say, and what it has to say is worth listening to and thinking about.
Before I examine (some) aspects of the film in further detail, I must warn against spoilers- if you haven’t seen the film but intend to, you’d best not read further.
The film is set physically in 1980’s West Texas, at the border with Mexico. The border runs through the film, though more as background and plot device than as a central symbol (as it is in another movie featuring a West Texan Tommy Lee Jones, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada). The central landscape of the film, however, is the morally desolate country that lies like a cloud upon every part of the film’s physical landscape. The two landscapes- the spiritual and the physical- blend into each other, such as when Llewynn Moss peers through his binoculars at the circled pick-ups and prostrate bodies. The circled pick-up trucks, the drug job gone bad, also opens up another important symbol: the evil and the violent operating upon each other, and spilling out into the entire world around. No one is safe in this country. The highways, the arteries of any modern nation, are pervaded by the killer Anton Chigurgh, who moves like a disease from one automobile to another, sending the rejected host up in flames.
Yet Chigurgh is not an anomaly; he does not represent an exception. He is only the apex, the ubermensch who has emerged from the nexus of violence and evil, wielding his own inner logic and rationality as singular as his physical weapon, yet clearly related to the broader, chaotic and violent landscape he is a part of. While he seeks to create his own world, having rejected all other systems, he is not immune to the world- perhaps some small measure of hope. Moss wounds him with his shotgun, and he is badly injured in the startlingly random car-crash. He too is, ultimately, a part of the same “dying generation” as the rest. As a symbol, Chigurgh stands for death, death not as a pseudo-spiritual “part of life,” but death as the result of the Fall, death with all its satanic, destructive overtones lended to it in Christian theology. Indeed, Chigurgh as symbol-of-death is a very apt demonstration of what is meant by death being “the enemy.” Evil is not, as we would like to believe, merely some entirely random, unpersonalized force “out there.” Rather, evil- while truly chaotic and random- has its own internal illogical logic, its own irrational rationality, and is extremely personal, even while ultimately destructive of personality. Hence Chigurgh has no real purpose beyond his drive to destroy, to be the will-to-power for the sake of that power and nothing more. He does not care about money, or drugs, or sex, or any of those things. He has principles, but they are self-created principles.
Herein lies another reality that we moderns (or postmoderns rather) are uncomfortable with: Chigurgh is not evil because of drugs or money or guns, as a fellow law officer suggests to Sheriff Bell. Certainly, he reflects and embodies the violent world he is a part of, but the suggested things do not drive him, and are not the “cause” of his evil. They are the external manifestations of internal realities.
Chigurgh- and by extension death, evil, and the whole destructive environment- can be opposed. Yet none of the film’s characters succeed in opposing him, not ultimately. Moss is weighted by his greed for wealth and his own hubris, caught in the “sensual music” for the most part. Having become caught in the self-devouring world of violence, he must ultimately subcomb to it- not by Chigurgh’s hand, but in a sudden, off-screen act of violence delivered by nameless characters. The well-meaning and insightful sheriff is ultimately out-matched and concedes defeat, retreats.
Indeed, the symbols of decency- Sheriff Bell, the various elderly victims of Chigurgh, and Moss’s wife- are unable to stem the tide of evil. They are either oblivious to the dark world around them, or they are unable to find the means to confront it. Instead, the country is pervaded by drug-runners and the violence that swirls around them, respecting no borders at all. The two groups of young men in the film- the suggested heirs of the country in Yeat’s poem- are perhaps the saddest figures in the film. They are at once oblivious to the extent of the violent chaos around them, yet self-absorbed and nearly amoral. They stand staring at the destruction, responsive only to pleasure. The two boys who assist Chigurgh have some level of decency left in them, yet it is obvious (more so in the book) that they too are self-absorbed, a part of the amoral landscape.
If we are left with what is ultimately an uninhabitable country, is there any hope? The film only offers glimpse and slight possibilities- nothing to give any great motivation. However, the pervading theme- the brute strength of evil, and the seemingly insurmountable difficulty faced in confronting it- should serve as a reminder that indeed, no man can truly vanquish evil. We require, not the wise old sage (as valuable as he may be), or a postmodern antihero, but a New Man Who can fully defeat that very old enemy Death, in all its manifestations and across all countries.