This is how the West ends -- not with a bang, but with a compressed air gun.
Back in the Dark Ages when I was a film studies professor, I had a student take great umbrage at my showing Un Chien Andalou. No, it wasn’t the sliced eyeball or Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Freudian mélange of sex, death, and pianos that got his dander up. It was the sudden conclusion that refused to offer any explanation for the general weirdness that preceded it. “All movies,” he declared with the righteous indignation of the young and ignorant, “should have an ending.” Yeesh, he must have burst ten blood vessels at the finale of The Sopranos. And I hate to think what will happen if he sees No Country for Old Men. His head could explode.
For of course, he wasn’t really talking about an ending per se. Every film receives an ending as soon as the director says, “Cut!” in the editing room for the final time and the picture is locked. Some films just seem interminable. His error was one of semantics (let’s leave aside philosophy for the moment). In his emphatic, Hollywood-shaped opinion, all movies should have closure. All questions answered, all loose ends tied up in a neat little bow. He wouldn’t go so far as to insist all movies should have a happy ending, but then again, narrative closure does offer a measure of comfort and certainty. A romance is either eternal or done for good. Everyone learns something. The war is over. The bad guy is punished. We can enter our houses justified. The end. Certainty is nice, no?
Well, No Country for Old Men’s exceptionally non-“Hollywood” ending does offer one certainty, and it’s neither comforting nor nice: the West and all of its mythic possibilities have gone to hell in a pageboy hand-basket. If you’re focusing on the details of what narrative closure usually looks like, though, you’re likely to miss that message as well. Anyway, No Country for Old Men’s abrupt (yet not) end is the kind of thing that would be deemed sloppy were it not for the thrillingly controlled and meticulous approach the Coen Brothers have taken to adapting the Cormac McCarthy novel. The film begins and ends with Tommy Lee Jones’s experienced law man Ed Tom Bell holding forth on visions of the lost past and a portentous future of lawlessness and someone powerful passing him by. The sound design is so imbued with moments of palpable silence that the tiny noises we hear as Javier Bardem’s ultra-creepy boogeyman Anton Chigurh closes in on his prey (wind blowing through an open window, a light bulb being unscrewed) become truly scary. The wide open Texas landscapes, the characters’ cowboy boots and hats, the horses and guns, and references to promises being honored all seem to indicate that the three main men are on their way to the kind of climactic showdown we expect from a film featuring wide open landscapes, boots, horses, and guns. In other words, nothing in this film is sloppy or careless. So when the Coens systematically take apart our expectations in the final 20 minutes, attention must be paid. The West may be no country for old men, but it isn’t exactly hospitable to younger men (or women), either.
Indeed, the title is the first suggestion that the story is about an irretrievable loss of time and place. Assuming the mantle of Grizzled Western Wisdom from Clint Eastwood with aplomb, Jones’s Bell has seen it all, and he knows it’s just going to get uglier. He knows deserve’s got nothing to do with it. He visits another old (retired) lawman who expresses disbelief at seeing people with green hair. Regardless of his thoughts on punk hair dye, Bell shares the feeling that he no longer has a place in this new world. The story’s 1980 setting is quite expressive in this regard. Cell phones are still years away, but technology is advanced enough so that the bad guys wield small machine guns and drug money is electronically tracked. The open range is where the deer and the drug dealers play. And lest we forget, 1980 was the year an ersatz cowboy was elected president, helping to set the political stage for the Texan fakery occupying the Oval Office now. Speaking of hell in a hand-basket…. Anyway, the notion of the West embodied in cinematographer Roger Deakins’s burnished vistas, the ideal of both grand personal renewal and the power of civilization to overcome savagery, is dead in Bell’s Texas. That ideal has no chance of surviving Chigurh. Then again, nothing does. Look at his hair.
It’s tempting to snicker at the first sight of Chigurh’s utterly incongruous choice of hairstyle. He has the rest of the tightly wound western badass look down, from the super-dark denim to the oxblood cowboy boots. And no man in his right mind would wear his hair in a bowl-cut pageboy suitable for church ladies. It’s so girly. Then again, Chigurh is not exactly in his right mind. He’s more like Hannibal Lecter minus the food fetish. Rather than something to amuse, the hair becomes part of the terrifying package, along with the compressed air tank and the big gun with the coffee can silencer. It may not be green, but it is equally alien. It’s as alien as his indefinable accent and easily misinterpreted name. Everything about Chigurh says Alien, and I’m not talking about the illegal kind that can cross the local border with Mexico. Is it any surprise, then, that Chigurh turns out to be a veritable western Terminator? A timeless killing machine that won’t die?
He first kills the ideal of grand personal renewal when he decides to go after the $2.5 million in drug money that Josh Brolin’s laconic hunter Llewellyn Moss has already found. Moss is another man who’s seen it all—the end result of a drug deal massacre doesn’t ruffle him. He’s a Vietnam veteran who’s just trying to get by with his pretty wife Carla Jean. His decision to claim the drug money for himself seems more agreeably pragmatic than criminal, especially when he turns out to be the kind of guy who can’t sleep unless he brings water to a dying man. Plus he’s smart enough to make it through an encounter with Chigurh alive and know that Chigurh will keep coming for him, so perhaps he should trust Bell to help him after all. In other words, he has all the qualities that suggest he deserves the break the West can provide: he’s resourceful, he’s (relatively) honorable, and he isn’t needlessly violent, though he is willing to “take on all comers.” The Terminator, however, doesn’t abide by those genre rules. And Moss’s fate is handled in a manner that is guaranteed to piss off anyone who wants the clarity afforded by a climactic gunfight. The Coens offer clues about who is responsible for Moss’s end, but nothing is spelled out. Nevertheless, if Chigurh didn’t do it, chances are his corpse-laden search for Moss and the money drew the attention of whoever did. More than one character refers to Chigurh as a “ghost,” and his nihilistic spirit is all over this plot point. One thing, though, is clear: the money (and all it suggests) has vanished.
The film could have ended here. After all, the nominal hero is dead. But it does not. Chigurh still has to terminate hopes for civilization to tame savagery. Bell arrives at the scene of the gunfight-that-wasn’t too late. All Bell is left with is a bloodstain on a motel room floor and the realization that the mess truly has arrived. Now, given that Bell has pursued this case in his own sardonic yet devoted way when he could have already retired to his horse farm with his smiling wife, here’s what one might expect to see: Bell promising the distraught Carla Jean that he’ll get justice for her. Then doing it. Here’s what we do see: Bell visiting that aforementioned retired friend at his isolated, cat-filled shack out in the sticks. They talk about how the times they are a changin’. Bell looks out his friend’s window at the open field. Is he really going to retire, i.e. give up? But, but he’s the sheriff…he’s Tommy Lee Jones…say it ain’t so.
The Coens have one more thing to show us before they answer that question. Chigurh comes for Carla Jean, and proceeds to concisely pervert any of the morality left in the idea of keeping one’s word. Chigurh explains that he made a promise to Moss. Now, even if you’re not versed in The Wild Bunch, you probably still have some clue that keeping a promise is usually the thing that elevates outlaws beyond the moral morass of mere savagery. As Carla Jean defiantly observes, however, this is one promise Chigurh has no reason to keep. Killing her has no punitive value for a deal that wasn’t honored. As with so many hardy wives and women in the West, Carla Jean becomes the voice of reason and civilization. She even refuses to play Chigurh’s psychotic coin toss game. We don’t see what happens to her. After two celluloid hours with Chigurh, we don’t have to. We do see Chigurh dodge even the kind of random karmic punishment that is often of a piece with the absurd Coen Brothers movie universe. He really is the Terminator.
The film also could have ended here. Not exactly a happy fuzzy ending, but we could at least imagine that Bell is still on the case. But it does not. Bell makes one last appearance. He’s at home with his wife, and their dialogue makes it crystal clear that he has in fact retired. He’s given up. The camera holds on him as he describes two dreams he had to his wife. The first concerns money. The second is about his dead father, who had also been a sheriff. His father passed him on a path and Bell was left with the sense that his father would always be up ahead waiting for him. No analysis of the dream is offered. Thus, the man stomping out of the theater where I saw it, fuming, “What a farce!” Yeah, thinking’s hard, huh. Considering that Bell opened the film by musing that his law enforcement progenitors wouldn’t know what to make of the violence nowadays, not to mention all of the references to Chigurh as a ghost, it’s not that tough to figure out why Bell’s dream matters, or why he’s chosen this path. He’s never going to be able to do what his father did as far as law and order because there’s always going to be a specter that’s ahead of him. Or a Terminator. If he’s going to survive in this country, a good man has to give up. I suppose this is how the West was lost.
Guy Movies is a biweekly analysis of machismo cinema from the perspective of a woman.