This is not a review. This is a film buff’s take on the film No Country for Old Men, written and directed by the Coen Brothers, based on a novel, published in 2003, by Cormac McCarthy.
This entry is a jumble of opinion. It is not exhaustive: this is a subtle movie, with many layers of interpretation and emotional complexity, and I could go on at great length. But, I’ve already been over-indulgent. If you want to hear more, buy me a pint someday.
Be warned: this will contain spoilers. If you don’t know the movie, you won’t get much out of this.
[Read W.B. Yeats ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ the source of the title. I’m not being all that clever in what I am writing here; I think it is all there in the poem.]
I’ve never read the book. For an avid book reader like myself, I find that strange. I read The Road, enjoyed it, as much as a person can enjoy a book about utter despair and desolation. I suppose I appreciated it, more than enjoyed it.
My reason for not reading ‘No Country’ is pretty simple: I saw the movie first. I like it and don’t feel I have room in my brain for an alternate version of the story.
I have read a few message boards on what the movie meant. The subtext. The meaning of the hotel scene near the end, where Ed Tom hesitates in front of the door and we see Anton’s reflection in the blown out knob. That seems to draw everyone’s attention. Is Anton really there? If so, why is he suddenly not there when Ed Tom opens the door?
I’ve read a lot of explanations. Anton is death. He’s a ghost. He’s next door. I’ve never read a take on it that mirrors my take on it, so I’ll offer it up later in this ramble.
But first, some exploring.
This is a movie about Ed Tom. We open with his VO, we close on his face and on his lines.
It’s curious that this is a movie about Ed Tom because of everything that happens in the movie he is never a mover of events. He’s not even a witness, other than as a gatherer of evidence.
Mostly, Ed Tom relays stories to other characters. He tells Llewelyn’s wife about Charlie, shooting a bolt into a cow’s head [that story made up.] He relates to a deputy about something he read in the paper, a story about two hotel owners killing elderly tenants, hiding the bodies, and then taking and cashing their victim’s continuing social security checks. He wants to hear the story of his uncle’s death. He tells, at the end of the movie, two stories about dreams he’s had the night before.
Taking a step back for a second, I think we could agree (I hope that we could agree) that ‘No Country for Old Men’ is a movie about death. We spend two hours watching people die, observing corpses, ruminating upon death. We are constantly reminded of death through the images and dialogue.
Bluntly: this is a movie about the spiritual death of Ed Tom. At the beginning, he wants to live. At the end, he is ready to die.
There are no words spoken that didactically lay this out. It is all inside dialogue, a mental shifting within Ed Tom. And hence, his stories: it is how we learn the state of Ed Tom’s mind and the progress of his journey in No Country.
While Anton Chugar and Llewelyn Moss are central to driving the plot, this isn’t their movie. They exist to illustrate modern crime and how the nature of crime has changed. They are a backdrop. Catalyst.
Let’s take a look at the closing lines of the opening VO spoken by Ed Tom:
…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. But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say, OK, I’ll be part of this world….
“Meet something I don’t understand.” This is an interesting line. Obviously, in No Country, that is Anton. He’s a force that moves through the world, apparently reckless and without remorse. If there are any designs in his machinations, that are difficult to divine.
But this line, at its core: it sounds like an old man. How often have we heard, “I don’t get this generation”, “I don’t understand people any more.” At the pace the world changes, it is exceptionally difficult to fathom what quietly erodes and replaces the world we grew up in, grew comfortable in, and surrounded ourselves in, as we grew older. If Ed Tom’s life purpose is solving crime, meeting it face to face (and I believe it is, the opening VO establishes that) then his life is defined by his ability to fathom his life’s purpose. When he can no longer fathom crime, when he can say, “I don’t want to know”: that is a man turning his back on his life’s purpose, and his life.
Ed Tom is not there yet. He’s just laying out his terms for the audience. We know the beginning stance of his trajectory, the first dot in the connect-the-dot game.
The closing line, “a man would have to put his soul at hazard.” That seems to me to be a perfect definition of death. In this case, I do not believe that it means a forensic physical death, but a mental death: the loss of the will to live. If someone loses their soul, then they have no will or drive to live.
As I stated above, this is what we watch Ed Tom lose: his soul. He loses his will to live.
For me, the revealing moment of the film, and my favorite scene: where Ed Tom drives out to talk to Ellis.
[Did I just skip most of the movie? Yes I did. If I went into each scene of Ed Tom talking and sketched out each point of his inflection we’d be here till 2014. Again, buy me a pint.]
In this scene, we learn a lot. A tremendous amount. What do we learn and how do we learn it?
• We learn that Ed Tom is obsessed with death. He asks how his grandfather died (‘Uncle Mack’ to Ellis). He then asks, “When did he die?” and is not interested in a date: he is interested in how long the grandfather lingered before passing. Ed Tom is interested in learning about the pain, the ‘reality’ of a death.
• We learn that Ed Tom retired / quit his job because he feels “outmatched”. I think, ultimately, this points to an overwhelming fear of death. But why this fear, now? Because he can sense it is near, in one way or another (Anton, or old age). By quitting his job, he is attempting to prolong his life, to eliminate one possible type of death (in the course of his job). But the other type, natural death of old age … that is still there, looming. That leads to …
• Ellis’ closing statements: “Whatchya got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” Ellis completely and utterly divines Ed Tom’s intentions behind his visit and his line of questioning. It is why Ed Tom seeks him out in the first place: to hear the truth, to play his thoughts off a sounding board, a sage. Ellis arrows in on it: Ed Tom has become mortally afraid of dying, and the retiring (“quiting” to Ellis) is a product of that. BUT. You can’t stop what’s coming. That is the lesson that Ed Tom has learned, and Ellis just drove home: but until then, Ed Tom hasn’t internalized it yet.
[Allow me to gush: I love that scene. It’s sublime. Low key, well acted, well directed, and exquisitely written. It is the keystone of the film for me.]
And finally, the end scene. Another sublime bit of work which I feel reinforces the ideas above, this time in Ed Tom’s own voice, via his subconscious. To have Ed Tom say something like, “You know, I feel it is coming near. Death. I’m ready.” would be silly. But, to have his subconscious tell him and us just that, to say that perhaps there is a wish there, and that the end of death might not be as cold as he imagined … that is powerful stuff.
The first dream, about the money, alludes to the story we just witnessed: it is easily dismissed. Why? Because it is not that important. It is literal and not important to Ed Tom. And it is the storytellers telling us that it wasn’t that important either.
But the second dream, the dream about the father on horseback, carrying the fire into the darkness, ahead and waiting for Ed Tom. That is death, and in that death Ed Tom now sees a loving and welcoming presence. He might not have had God come into his heart, but he has a kernel of hope in there that there is another side to it all. That is his subconscious preparing him for the end. Softening it with thoughts of a little warmth.
This last scene has Ed Tom at his most unguarded: he is in his own home, in his kitchen, talking to his wife. He is without pretense. He is sad, incredibly sad. And why? Two things: one, he understands what his dream means. That he is mentally preparing, that his soul has gone, the fire extinguished, and he will die. And two: he woke up. He wakes to find that he wants to be on a camping trip with his father, in the cold and darkness, because there is a fire there, and companionship.
Ed Tom wants that. Why else would he be so crestfallen on waking and finding that he was still alive, and that the dream was not a reality?
If you watch Ed Tom’s right arm before the cut to black, it is beginning to shake. He’s a man on the cusp of losing it. I never saw that before I was writing this piece. Tommy Lee Jones is subtle, the Coen Brothers are subtle, I just wanted to make sure. I went back to see exactly how crushed Ed Tom is at that moment and wow, Ed Tom is about to fall to pieces.
It is devastating. I sensed it, but I never saw it. Actually seeing the arm shake is like taking a punch to the nose, even as the final cut to black is like a slap.
“And then I woke up.”
How incredibly unhappy Ed Tom is to find that he is still alive.
And finally to close with the riddle: what is Anton doing in the room that he ends up not being in?
I don’t think Anton is there. I think we are witnessing Ed Tom’s projection of fear and death. I think Anton is imagined by Ed Tom, and that mental projection disappears once the door is opened and Ed Tom knows that the room is empty. Prior to opening the door, Ed Tom has conflated death and Anton Chigurh. As the audience, we are witnessing his mental projection of this confusion: we feel his fear, as well as the relief when that fear turns out to be unfounded. Because, through the last hour and a half, we too have come to equate Chigurh with death. [Which is also the reason for Chigurh to be smashed up in the car crash: the Coen’s are making the point, yeah, we confused the issue for you and Ed Tom, but listen up: Chigurh is NOT death, so don’t get too carried away.]