Sergio Leone once described the Western as “set in a world in which life has no value”. Nowhere is this concept more readily recognizable than in No Country for Old Men where Anton Chigurh, the primary antagonist, determines the fate of his victims in a simple coin toss. Heads or tails. One means he gets to kill the person calling the toss, the other means said person walks away with his or her life. Life has no intrinsic meaning in No Country for Old Men, it is no more valuable than a speck of dust. That point is further hammered in with the death of the protagonist, which happens off-screen and in what some might describe as a rather anti-climactic manner. Chigurh simply shoots him. There is no monologue or long stand-off. The bad guy wins because he’s a professional assassin, the ‘good’ guy (who’s actually no more than a regular person whose blessing turns out to be a curse) loses because he’s not well-versed in the game he’s playing. Like most of the Coen brothers’ other movies, No Country for Old Men showcases the reality of the human experience, its complete absurdity (in the purely philosophical sense, as coined by Albert Camus) and our, at times, fruitless attempts at dealing with whatever comes our way. And, in a sense, that’s the very essence of the Western. The stakes are never particularly high. Win or lose, it’s usually only the protagonist and his family and friends that are involved in the situation. There is no existential threat to humanity or its way of life. It’s an intimate story that pits man against man, that’s what a Western is at its very core, once you strip off all the extra layers that are necessary for the creation of an easy-to-watch and at least somewhat entertaining plot. But No Country for Old Men goes further than most other films in its genre.
Let’s return to Camus for a bit. In the very beginning of his essay titled The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he details his philosophy of absurdism, he writes, “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide” (MS, 3). It is the decision whether to partake in existence, as it were, to indulge in life or to reject it and everything it has to offer, to reject oneself and to return to non-existence.
…The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job — not to be glorious. But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand.
You can say it’s my job to fight it but I don’t know what it is anymore. More than that, I don’t want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say, OK, I’ll be part of this world….
This is a transcript of the voice-over during the opening scenes of the movie. Sheriff Bell, a sort of secondary protagonist and in-universe narrator, is basically saying the same thing that Camus did more than 60 years earlier – a man has to agree to be part of this world. It’s his choice and his choice only. The whole monologue is a barely-concealed metaphor for life in general. We all know that, in order to appreciate life, we have to be fully aware of death’s constant presence, it’s the looming last stop at the end of the joy ride. Glory isn’t guaranteed, hell, it’s probably not even preferable to most people. But possibly the most human part is the last line of the first paragraph. It’s a vulnerable admission of fear in the face of something that is alien to us, something that we do not and cannot understand. And it’s what makes the movie so beautiful, as Tommy Lee Jones’s character struggles under the sheer weight of what he perceives as his approaching demise. Retirement for him is the second to last step of the ladder. But there is no clarity as he nears the end. No answer occurs to him.
There’s a scene in which Bell reads a horror story from the morning newspaper to his deputy, Wendell, who barely contains his nervous laughter. “That’s alright, I laugh myself sometimes,” Bell muses, “There ain’t a whole lot else you can do.” Wendell’s laughter isn’t out of amusement or ignorance, it’s desperation, acknowledgement of the extraordinary nature of what’s happening. This very response is also one that Camus has explored in The Fall, where the main character, Jean-Baptiste, often laughs during inappropriate moments, at times that most would find offensive or even horrifying. He laughs not because he finds his world particularly funny, but because he realizes that it is fundamentally absurd. In The Fall, laughter is the sound of the Universe judging man’s futile attempts at rationalizing his condition of constant suffering.
One last point that I’d like to discuss in regards to No Country for Old Men is the role of Anton Chigurh in the story. Much and more has been said in reviews and analyses about his violent and brutal nature, some have even gone so far as to misrepresent his character as a glorification of what they see as a culture of aggression and destruction. But it’s disingenuous to think of Anton as a manifestation of politics or any other aspect of the modern world. He represents something much more ancient. Anton Chigurh is the shadow of death. The point of his character is to act as a source of impending doom, a force of nature that cannot be reckoned or bargained with. All that matters in its face is chance. As Harvey Dent puts it in The Dark Knight, “The only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair.”. That’s exactly how Anton sees the world. He is merely an instrument, a function of the Universe. Death is a fact of existence, a constituent part of our reality, as paradoxical as that may sound.
Furthermore, Anton acquaints his victims with the thought of their own mortality before letting chance run its course and decide their fate. He looks them in the eye, enters their personal space, makes them uncomfortable, aware of his imposing presence. His shadow is often the focal point of some of his scenes, especially those that try to subtly reveal the power he has over whoever has had the misfortune of crossing paths with him. The laws of man do not bind him, for he only follows those that govern the Universe as a whole. Anton Chigurh is, for all intents and purposes, a personification of Death itself. He almost single-handedly drives the plot, just as the knowledge of our own mortality drives us to live our lives the way we want and to do with them as we please.
The final monologue sums up the story quite nicely.
Had dreams… Two of ’em. Both had my father in ’em. It’s peculiar. I’m older now then he ever was by twenty years. So, in a sense, he’s the younger man. Anyway, the first one I don’t remember too well but, it was about meetin’ him in town somewheres and he give me some money. I think I lost it. The second one, it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin’ through the mountains of a night. Goin’ through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin’. Never said nothin’ goin’ by – just rode on past. And he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down. When he rode past, I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do, and I-I could see the horn from the light inside of it – about the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold. And I knew that whenever I got there, he’d be there. And then I woke up.