No Country for Old Men – The Ending Explained

If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?

Yeah, I know. It happens to everyone. You’re waiting for the final showdown and then that happens. It’s an ending I’ve been thinking about for quite some time now, so here’s my take on it.

“Once you quit hearing ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, the rest is soon to follow.”

Sheriff Bell’s traditionalist attitude is the main target of criticism in the book and film. It’s parodied slightly in the discussion with the El Paso sheriff, where he laments the rise of “kids with green hair and bones in their noses” and dismantled by Ellis (you know, the cat man), when he describes a similarly brutal murder which took place years and years ago in 1909. Likewise, Wells and Chigurh are both arguably psychopathic killers and yet both address people by “sir” throughout the film, in spite of what Bell says.

Ellis from No Country for Old Men

It’s a pretty obvious theme – but worth bearing in mind when it comes to the death of Llewelyn. See, No Country for Old Men takes its name from the first line of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ by William Butler Yeats. The poem’s central message is that in order to be happy in old age we should abandon the world’s more primal pleasures and turn to the spiritual and eternal instead. This, then, explains the tonal shift that occurs in the final fifth of the story. Like a person, as the film approaches its end, its focus changes from the external to the internal; the money fades into insignificance.

And that’s why Llewelyn dies off-screen. This is the moment when the film reveals that the plot is not important. Nor was it ever, really. Rather than being a cat-and-mouse thriller, No Country for Old Men is a coming-of-age tale in which the real protagonist, Sheriff Bell, comes to understand his place in the universe.

Llewelyn Moss waiting for Chigurh

I actually think this story has something of a happy ending. When Bell details his final dream, I think it’s the inception of his self-forgiveness. He’s realised the goals he’d set himself were always too great and that, like lighting a fire, you can only produce so much warmth and protection in an otherwise cold and hostile world.

Or, as Carl Jung would have said, he learns “the sole purpose of human existence: to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”

Maybe it sounds like I’m trying to hammer hope into a strange, nihilistic ending – but this makes more sense when you consider that Bell was a WWII deserter in the book and never truly forgave himself for leaving his comrades to die, even though he surely would’ve died alongside them.

“If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

Before Carson Hwells finds out exactly how dangerous Chigurh can be, he is confronted with the question above. The funny thing is, in the context of this scene, Chigurh seems to be mocking Carson’s ability as an assassin. His principles led him to his death, therefore, Chigurh’s methods > Wells’ methods.

Chigurh No Country for Old Men

But let’s look at it from a different angle. How about we think of “the rule” as having a similar usage to “the law” (meaning “set of laws” rather than “one individual law”.)

The penultimate scene shows our antagonist incapacitated by a car crash. This represents an uncaused event: the traffic light was signalling red and yet – contrary to the rules of the road – the opposing vehicle failed to halt, smashing straight into Chigurh.

No Country for Old Men Traffic Light

Could it be, then, that Chigurh’s quote actually relates to the status of the universe? We tend to presume there’s this underlying simplicity to everything – but things may simply not be so. Maybe Occam’s razor is blunt. Maybe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony – but chaos, hostility and murder.

“You hold still.”

There are a lot of similarities between the three main characters of this film. All three men walk back into crime scenes, a lot of the shots are the same, there’s echoes in the dialogue. No two characters really appear in the same shot together (okay, Llewelyn and Chigurh kinda do – but it’s very brief and in the dark.) There’s a kind of ‘three parts of the same person’ thing going on. Llewelyn and Chigurh both suffer gunshot wounds in the same standoff, both get injured in what either is or appears to be a car accident, both hand over money for a shirt to dress their wounds. There’s probably tonnes more.

No Country for Old Men TV Similarities

No Country for Old Men Door Similarities

Could this be the directors’ way of showing the underlying reality of the story? Far from Anton being “a ghost” or some kind of contemporary grim reaper, he is just a man like Llewelyn and Ed Tom? People always describe Chigurh as a form of unstoppable evil, however, I think they ignore the fact that this story may be coming from the memory of Sheriff Bell – and may therefore be coloured by his feelings towards it.

“The same way the coin did.”

The final confrontation between Chigurh and Carla Jean seems like a fairly straight analogy for the dilemma of determinism: either CJ must accept her fate and be killed, which is no kind of choice at all, or she must resign to the randomness of the coin toss, in which case she still has no control over her outcome.

However, unlike the Texaco man, Carla Jean refuses to comply. I think this is an important aspect of the story. Many philosophers believe that the key to our freedom is our ability to do things for a reason, rather than some confusing ability to do otherwise. So, this could be seen as an intellectual defeat for Chigurh. Carla Jean chooses to die rather than play by Chigurh’s rules, demonstrating that she is free in ways that he is not.

Carla Jean Moss at the End of No Country

Well, alright. It’s worth saying that the book has a different ending, where CJ gets the coin toss wrong and is killed, so maybe I’m reading into this a bit too much. Actually, on that…

“Life is a tale told by an idiot,

Full of sound and fury;

Signifying nothing.”

No Country hints at notions like conservatism, nihilism, free will, morality but never says anything definitive. Maybe this is the point of the story. That, although it seems to be discussing something particularly profound, it is actually ‘a tale told by an idiot’ – a jumbled mess of happenings that cause you to look for a kind of depth which, on greater inspection, simply isn’t there.

In other words, part of the nihilism of the piece is that you can’t say anything principled about it.

If you liked this, you might also like…

Anton Chigurh, the Salamanca Twins, the Joker make up some of the most evil villains in years – so why do people like them so much?

How to Write a Good Plot Twist – a look at how two very simple scenes can conjure a multitude of plot twists and how to foreshadow an ending without giving it away

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143 Comments

  1. Excellent analysis. This remains one of my top favorite all-time movies, and you pointed out some symbolism and parallels I didn’t realize were there before. Great post!

    Reply
    1. Thank you very much. This is also one of my favourites by far. There’s something hypnotic about it which has stayed with me ever since I first saw it.

      Reply
  2. It’s interesting that you chose to analyze the ending of the film as opposed to the novel. The film is a beautiful piece of art in its own right, but it follows extremely close to McCarthy’s novel. There are a few very slight differences in tone if not in content that you may find of value. For example, in the final scene between Chigurh and Carla Jean, Carla Jean becomes far more emotional, almost hysterical, in the novel when compared to the film. This could potentially weaken your point about CJ’s character in that pivotal moment. It seems less like she is playing by her own rules and more like she’s reacting to the gravity of her predicament and her helplessness to it.

    I would be interested in what you think about the genre of the novel and film. I’ve read all kinds of arguments about where this narrative belongs but I tend to think it’s a postmodern warping or inversion of the Western genre, which makes it all the more interesting.

    Reply
    1. That’s very true. One thing I love about this film is that it inhabits a kind of twilight zone when it comes to genre. It’s kind of a western, kind of a horror, kind of a cat-and-mouse thriller, kind of a comedy (although I think I’m in the minority in thinking that.)

      Yes, the book’s ending does weaken the point about Carla Jean somewhat, although I conceded that. That’s part of the reason why I think this film really stays with you. It appears to be making rather obliquely profound statements about a number of topics – but you can never pin down exactly what McCarthy means to say, if anything. There’s something quite unconquerable about that.

      Reply
      1. It does occupy a strange genre space. I think a great symbol for its genre-warping is the airgun used by Chigurh. He carries no gun, which would have been Western genre-adhering. He carries a tool that designed to kill cattle. It still fits squarely into the Western paradigm as a farming tool, but it’s a strange inversion of the Western farming ideal.

        McCarthy’s choice to have Chugurh wield that thing is brilliant. That airgun alone speaks volumes about the nature of the novel and what it’s doing with genre.

        Reply
  3. Interesting analysis…although I do agree you may be looking a bit too much into it. I agree that the movie seems so simple, yet there are quite a few intricies hidden that make it a very complex tale. Never-the-less, good post…and thanks for reminding me why this remains one of my favourite movies of all time.

    Reply
  4. So awesome to read. I had been waiting for someone to do a careful study of the film that is rich in so many ways. A few of my friends passed up the film as overrated, but i told them they are overlooking so much. THNX

    Reply
  5. Man plans and God laughs. Excellent review! Missed most of the deeper meaning first time around (fixated on the cattle prod hype). Will watch, again, based on your review. Please lay low on the “Larry the Cable Guy” movies.

    Reply
  6. I love your take on this. Love the movie. Never thought about why Lewellen died off screen. I did get that the last scene was the point, but you really help me understand it more fully. Awesome.

    Reply
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  8. I love this movie, as twisted as it is. It has great acting and is thrilling beyond belief. You went into deep thought here and have me thinking. Great thoughts.

    Reply
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  10. I’m rather a Coen Brothers fan, so I bought the DVD, and it’s sitting in my pile for re-watching. Before I do, I think I’ll come back and re-read this post! Very nice analysis!

    Reply
  11. Intriguing analysis. I’ll take it a step further and suggest that Chigurh’s accident may have been caused by chaos, but might also have been prevented if he were not such a meticulous assassin. Chigurh attempts to be aware of all things (checking his boots for blood, for instance). This is, of course, impossible, though he would not believe it so (until, perhaps, after the crash). He is carefully checking his rearview mirror after leaving the scene of CJ murder. Were he not so preoccupied with observing every detail, he may have notice the critical detail of a car racing toward the intersection.

    Elementally, this is a film about choices we all face and the consequences.

    Chigurh lives a life of violence. He will die a violent death, long before he reaches the age of Ed Tom (a man of conscience who tries to do right by others, even when he doubts he is capable). Llewelyn is the true object lesson here. He wanted to provide a better life for his family, but tried to take a shortcut that, deep down, he knew was wrong. He and his wife both paid penalties for his poor choices.

    Thanks for the essay. I enjoyed it. :)

    Reply
    1. That’s a good point. I suppose you could say this film’s about rules – and how you should live by them. On one hand you have the opportunist, Llewelyn, who appears to be thinking on his feet for the whole movie and often narrowly avoiding death; on the other, you have the determinator, Chigurh, who seems to be completely controlled by his own set of principles. Each man represents an opposite end of the spectrum and, ultimately, its failings.

      Reply
      1. Hey – really enjoyed your analysis and insights. Just finished watching it again, and was struck at your description of Llewelyn as an opportunist. Keep in mind that the chain of events which led to Chigurh successfully tracking Llewleyn began because of Llewelyn’s good deed of taking a dying man water. Had he not been tormented that first evening, it would have been nearly impossible to find the money with the transponder alone. Of course it’s not so simple, but by Llewelyn “doing right”, Chigurh found his car plate which linked Llewelyn and everyone else to all the carnage that followed. In a way, each character is trapped by his set of rules — rules which work until they don’t. The gas station attendent and the trailer attendant and the sherriff played by their rules and survived, while most of the others whose paths crossed Chigurh didn’t.

        Reply
        1. Hey John. Sorry it’s taken a while for me to get back to you, been writing an essay all last week and wanted to finish that first. Anyway…

          Hmm, maybe the word opportunist has negative connotations I didn’t intend. All I mean is that Llewelyn represents a guy who’s ‘playing it by ear’ the whole time. He sees an opportunity to become something more than he’s ever been and he takes it. Then, when his gut tells him he should go back and save the dying man – even though he knows the jeopardy he faces in doing this – he get his coat. He’s constantly operating from intuition, whereas Chigurh has his own set of principles and abides by them even when he doesn’t want to. So both represent absolutes: one follows rules absolutely, the other rejects them to the same degree – and, in the end, things go well for neither of them.

          Reply
      2. No I think its not about the rules set by human. Its about the chaotic rule set by nature itself upon us. The rules of men are shown irrelavent here by the scene of chiburg’s car accident. He is moving forward seeing the green signal. But accident

        Reply
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  13. Zetland dude, these ladies love you man. bet you didn’t know you were such a lady killer eh mate? they are practically jumping in your cyber bed… (and yes, i thoroughly enjoyed your analysis as well)

    Reply
    1. Thanks Jordan. Actually, I do believe that some of what I wrote is wrong (in that I don’t believe McCarthy or the Coens intended it.) Still, that’s often the sign of a good story for me – what you bring to them, they return with interest.

      Reply
  14. Moss dies off-screen because he doesn’t deserve to die. The same goes for Carla Jean, the girl at the motel by the pool, the hotel receptionist with the cat, the pick up owner, the accountant. I think the Coens wanted to spare us too much pain. However, the other undeserving dead, the strangled deputy, the stun gunned driver and the pick up driver shot initially in the throat, serve to highlight Chigurh’s sadism. In the novel there is more killing than in the film, but violence in written form is easier to take than screen violence.

    Reply
    1. Well, if characters die off-screen because they don’t deserve to die, then there are a lot of exceptions to that rule (as you note.) Besides, I’m not convinced the accountant didn’t deserve it. He was knowingly facilitating a criminal institution and seemed to be a fairly substantial part of it, to the point where he could explain his boss’s intentions to Chigurh.

      I think a lot of the off-screen deaths act as a kind of shorthand for the film. It’s like the Coens’ way of saying “you get the picture – he shows up, everyone dies.” Which is also why there are fewer on-screen killings as the film progresses. However, I think Llewelyn dies for two reasons: 1) to demonstrate the randomness of violence – and 2) to mark the shift from the external to the internal, as I say in the post.

      Reply
      1. You’re bang on about the accountant. I guess I felt sorry for him because he seemed so meek, even though he displays a certain coolness under pressure. Moss’s death also pulls at the heart strings, because there’s a lack of completeness. We lose our hero it what seems a trivial way, the Coens’ pull off a masterstroke here, most other film makers would have followed the book more closely maybe, and had some shitty flashback as told by a witness to the sheriff. There are areas where the book is superior to the film and vice-versa, but the Coen’s ending for me trumps the book’s.

        Reply
        1. That’s true. I can’t watch this film without hoping my copy has some sort of alternate ending where Moss does get away with it. Great description too btw. So many trivial killings.

          Reply
      2. Sorry I got confused while reading these comments. Greg said for him the Coen brother’s ending topped the books, it’s been a little awhile since I’ve seen the film, but I don’t remember the endings being all too different.

        Reply
        1. I guess it could be because of the medium. I think the film sets up more of an expectation that everything’s going to be alright and Moss’ll get away with the money, because that sort of ending’s more prevalent in movies. So it’s more shocking when the character we’ve been supporting is murdered 3/4 in.

          Reply
      3. The accountant being the “do you see me?” guy? I don’t think it’s a given that he dies. Anton is either messing with him (and he doesn’t seem like the messing with type), or he’s giving him the chance to pretend he never saw anything. Like what he says to the boys at the end. “You never saw me.”

        Reply
        1. True enough. He doesn’t seem like the giving-a-chance-to-pretend-he-never-saw-anything type either though. It seems like he only spares someone if: a) killing them would increase the likelihood of him being caught or b) they win the coin toss. Like he says, of the coin toss, it’s the best he can do.

          In the case with the boys, I don’t think he’s armed (from what I can remember) – but, even if he was, killing them might have resulted in him being charged with murder, which maybe wouldn’t happen if he just slunk away. In any case, it seems like a good tactic to kill the accountant, but a bad one to kill the boys.

          Reply
  15. I actually just finished reading the novel. A couple of times in the novel Sheriff Bell mentions that through his whole career he has been continuously shocked by the violence he has encountered. Violence has always been around but yet it still continues to gradually grow and amaze him. Chigurh symbolizes this. He has never seen a man like Chigurh ever, actually I think right in the beginning of the novel he refers to him as an Agent of Destruction. Meaning the reason why he’s so dangerous, is because the only thing that drives him is destruction. He is not fueled by greed, by God, by fear, by hate. Nothing fuels his actions but destruction. Also, Chigurh many times makes it clear that everyone has a path they take and that path is created by certain choices. Choices are 50/50, and the outcome is uncontrollable no matter what choice you choose. It can either turn out good or bad, we have no control over it. That’s why Chigurh is so dangerous, because he doesn’t see a point to anything, even life, because he believes outcomes are random and uncontrollable but we are forced to make choices anyways (symbolism for the coin). Anyways, Ed Tom says at one point, that everybody knows how violent America is, yet they still decide to live there and love the country. And this confuses him. The analysis of main importance here is that the protagonist is Ed Tom. He asks “Why do you people make the choices they do?” and the antagonist is Chigurh, who is only interested in the outcomes of choices. Moss only gets caught between these two. At one point in the novel, Moss has a chance to actually kill Chigurh when catching him off guard. At the time he didn’t know this would have saved his life, and his choice was to not kill Chigurh. Look at the outcome of that. Things naturally change, and Ed Tom who is now older knows that the world has changed too much for him, Chigurh represents this change. It is No Country For Old Men.

    Reply
    1. Nice point. I’d always seen Chigurh as intensely fatalistic and using the coin toss as a means of ‘double-checking’, like he’s throwing his decision over to some higher power.

      One thing I should add though, Moss isn’t killed by Chigurh in either the book or the film, so it’s not true that killing Chigurh would have saved his life.

      Reply
      1. That’s a nice point and I apologize, I remember Moss dying and then a scene after where Chigurh returns the money to whoever hired him. But I forgot that Moss threw it over that fence into the field and didn’t have the full amount on him anymore. Anyways, I think the main point here is that some people just have murder in them, some people don’t. For Chigurh, murder was the only thing he knew and he exacted it so easily whereas Ed Tom doesn’t have murder in him. Ed Tom wasn’t a violent man, and after all of the violence he had seen, seeing Chigurh top it all made him just give up. Ed Tom actually says near the end that one of the biggest, if not the only reason why he quit is because he was afraid of Chigurh or just knew that Chigurh couldn’t be beat. Or at least beat by him, because he doesn’t have the violence him, especially even more so now that he’s an old man. Hence the title. I really don’t think Chigurh had really any belief in anything at all, that;s what made him so dangerous. I believe his way of thinking though, as I said before and you just said as well, he is fatalistic. We make choices but it doesn’t matter, because fate will have its way and we have no control over that. Therefor since ultimately our choices don’t matter, it’s the principles behind those choices that do. Chigurh did actually have principles and I think it was Wells who pointed that out. I don’t know, I could be wrong and so could you but I definitely don’t think there wasn’t any central, concrete idea or theme to the novel or the movie.

        Reply
  16. I have a different opinion about the end. It has to do with ´you can not escape you fate´. Sherriff Bell in the last scene explains to his wife, in the end scene, 2 dreams about his father weating for him in heaven. It is unaveable that he will be killed next by Chigurh. The end is not happy.

    Reply
    1. Well, a few responses:

      1. Why would Chigurh be coming to kill Sheriff Bell? The two never come into contact throughout the film, so it seems pretty likely that Chigurh doesn’t know about him. Sure, he probably knows he has a few policemen trying to bring him to justice – but that’s not to say he knows anything about them. Also, Chigurh kills Carla Jean due to a promise he makes to Llewelyn. But he makes no such promise regarding Sheriff Bell, so I don’t know what his motive to track him down would be.

      2. Chigurh gets pretty seriously injured at the end of the movie. I mean, he has a bone sticking out of his arm after the car crash. Do you really think he’d continue driving around the Southern States, killing people, after that? I think he’d want to travel far away, especially with some of the Mexicans potentially looking for revenge.

      3. Only one of the dreams is about his father waiting for him in Heaven. The other is about him being given a load of money and losing it.

      Reply
  17. What a great analysis. As I watched this movie for the first time as a 21 year old I knew there was a lot going on that I didn’t understand and like you said maybe the greater depth just isn’t there but still gives great insight into the film, bravo.

    Reply
  18. A few points:

    I agree that the story is a coming of age tale about Sheriff Bell finding his place in the world. But it is not so much about him thinking the world has changed, as it is his inability to confront his own growing obsolescence as an aging man.

    To me, Ed Tom is not only grappling with the arbitrary nature of the world and all its unforseen consequences, but also with the issue of death. He was a man who thoroughly lacked action and decision in his life, and this is where I agree about the three characters representing different ends of the spectrum. Anton on one end, entirely governed by his own rules. Sheriff Bell on the other, seeing no rules, and constantly in fear of the consequences to make any kind of action (he even sends one guy in first to check out the trailer, and spends most of the film sitting around on his butt drinking coffee and reading the newspaper). And then there is Moss in the middle, torn between the two and acting impulsively. He is, of course, the victim of the story.

    However, when Sheriff Bell heads back to the crime scene to confront Chigurh, he is soon faced with a decision. He could enter the motel room, and Chigurh could either be nor not be behind the door. Just like the flip of a coin, he is making a gamble, something he never wanted to do, but by opening the motel room door, he is confronting his own deepest fears. Whereas before, Ed Tom was a man who was “afraid of fighting dragons lest he become a dragon himself, and as he gazed into the abyss the abyss gazed back into him”, he is now a man who has embraced his own fate. The ending line “And then I woke up.” To me, signifies him reaching a moment of truth in his life and peering beyond the curtain. It is very nihilist, in a way, but while the film makes the point of our apparent lack of free will, we do at least have the opportunity to face our destinies and acknowledge them. Ed Tom is one who was previously afraid of “confronting something he did not understand”. Not anymore.

    Reply
    1. That’s a great comment. With your last point, I feel I should add one of my favourite quotes from the book, when Chigurh has Wells at gunpoint: “An hour later I was pulled over by a sheriff’s deputy outside of Sonora Texas and I let him take me into town in handcuffs. I’m not sure why I did this but I think I wanted to see if I could extricate myself by an act of will. Because I believe that one can.”

      Reply
  19. I never comment on stuff but I felt obligated for this one. You helped me with my essay so much. From reading the book and watching the movie in class, everything made perfect sense. Thank you so much! This is exactly what I needed!

    Reply
      1. I stole Matt’s comment because he said everything I wanted to say.
        Thank You

        I never comment on stuff but I felt obligated for this one. You helped me with my essay so much. From reading the book and watching the movie in class, everything made perfect sense. Thank you so much! This is exactly what I needed!

        Reply
          1. Nice article, I’m doing a paper on the ending of the film, I had to find an article and I found this. Now I have to cite this and I seem I cannot find the authors name. Should I just put “Zetland”? It would confuse my teacher though. Hopefully you can reply to this ASAP.

      2. This was excellent and seemed very scholarly and philosophical as well. I was actually intrigued by this film and just decided to see what people saw into it besides it’s scary characters and all. You did a fantastic job with providing angles of thought and understanding.

        Reply
  20. Great post. Last time I saw it, the overarching theme to me seemed to be “aging”. The world isn’t a cold dark place now because of an increase in crazy violence (after all, that stuff was happening even in 1909 and beyond), it’s a colder and darker place because you’re getting old.

    “You can’t stop what’s coming,” “All the time you spend trying to get back what’s been took from you, more is going out the door,” the emotionless unstoppable force who you’re “putting it up” against your whole life and who is guaranteed to get you in the end; all of that to me is about aging.

    The first dream is awesome in that it seems like he’s vaguely referencing and flippantly dismissing the plot of the movie (“something about a bunch of lost money”, paraphrased). The second dream seems to refer to trudging through the cold and dark of life, but eventually coming to a warm and light afterlife with deceased loved ones. Clearly hopeful. But then there’s “and then I woke up.” That line could signify a moment of enlightenment, it could simply be taken literally, or it could be the depressing realization that such ideas are nonsense.

    The performance is the key. Watch that speech again. Tommy Lee Jones’s delivery is stunning and devastating. To me there is little doubt, given that performance, that the second dream and “then I woke up” is not intended to be hopeful.

    Then again, it’s been over a year since I saw it. Hope to watch again soon.

    Reply
    1. Haha, that’s brilliant. I never noticed that about the first dream. As for the final line – yes, his delivery does seem to support what you’re saying. Then again, it could just be that he hasn’t realised the relevance of the second dream yet (so he’s just miserable about Moss and retirement, rather than the dream itself.)

      I guess it’s worth saying that the book is completely ambiguous as to what this final line means, since there’s no indication of how Bell delivers it. So, even if we agree that the film’s ending is not ambiguous, it’s just one interpretation of the original story.

      Reply
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  22. I think the line ” And then I woke up” is the single most important line in the book and film. The ending of this film is not hopeful, however the dream is, but like all dreams, it is simply that. that line is a summation of how our protagonist feels at this point in time. He has come to the realisation that his time has passed, that he can no longer deal with the harshness of the world, he has “woken up”. In the dream he is going through the harshness of life, the cold and the dark, to reach the warmth of his father by the fire. This is clearly Ed think about his life and what his afterlife might look like. However, he then wakes up. Its all a dream and that has affected him. His inability to deal with the new violence of the world has left him broken. The line tells us that Bell’s time has flown.

    Reply
    1. Not sure if it’s the most important line, but it’s definitely one of. I love it when an ordinary, throwaway bit of dialogue takes on this entirely new, monumental importance.

      Yeah, that’s definitely one way of looking at the ending and Jones’ delivery seems to support what you’re saying. On the other hand, it could just be that the dream marks “the inception of his self-forgiveness” and so he hasn’t fully realised the relevance of his dream yet. Note that this is even more ambiguous in the book, since there’s no indication of how Bell says his final line. Like CJ and the coin toss, it’s unclear whether he’s admitting defeat to his circumstances or transcending them.

      Reply
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  25. It is an existentialistic theme. Your will to make choices and suffer or enjoy the consequences of those choices. Heads or tails, steal the money and be hunted by death, not save your wife because you choose to confront CJ, not believing your fate from choice, becoming a sheriff and dealing with violence as a way of life, believing in the remote notion there is a heaven and afterlife as you get old and face death, and then you wake up knowing there is no such thing.

    Reply
  26. Sheriff Bell is out of his jurisdiction, ‘off the radio’ and waking up to the realisation that this is no country for old men. He wants to know the time of death, not the year, the time – was it quick, how long did the guy have to wait for his demise. He doesn’t really get the humour in the neighbours being unmoved by gravediggers, but concerned by a naked man in a dog collar. His deputy does most of the deduction at the crime scene and his assistant carries out the background investigation into the cars – even when offered, Bell doesn’t take the opportunity to follow up in person (unless it’s to jaw with an old school cop like himself). He’s living on reputation – even if he is carrying it off very well.
    In the second dream, his father is the ‘young man’, Bell obviously having no memory of him since his death and outliving him by 20 years. His father realised it was no country for old men and Bell is going through the process of realising the same. And you can’t stop what’s coming – old age, senility, cats :-) and death – hell you cant even be bothered to make coffee more than once a week.
    And that’s all I have to say about that.
    Cormac Mcarthy is, in my opinion, much overated as a writer – but I will say that he seems fully aware of this in NCFOM – I read with interest the posts commenting on the insignificance of all the sound and fury. Whereas many writers can toss in a new plotline to reinvigurate a flagging narrative, Mcarthy seems adept at keeping his readers on their toes by flinging ‘deep’ and ‘meaningful’ philisophical constants in their path (anyone who has read ‘The Road’ should be well aware of this).
    That said, please don’t think I dislike this movie, but I think a lot of its appeal is derived from the skill of the Coens – it’s like Fargo turned up to eleventystupid and filmed without snow or pregnant cops – just be careful about reading too much into it – or should I say, don’t get sidetracked down Mcarthy’s intentionally unfathomable philosophical cul-de-sacs.

    Reply
    1. I completely agree with you. Actually, I’d say almost everything I like about this film can be traced to either the Coens or the much underrated Roger Deakins. I mean, the Coen Bros practically invented Chigurh – as the terrifyingly haircutted ‘determinator’ figure that we know him as today. I should also say that I’m not actually a fan of how NCFOM ends. I think the first hour sets it up as a complete masterpiece – and the Desert Sands shootout is probably the most suspenseful bit of filmmaking I’ve ever seen – but I constantly feel disappointed by the ending (…which I realise is kinda the point, but hell, it’s still disappointing.) Maybe it wouldn’t have had such a hypnotic effect on me if Llewelyn hadn’t been offed in such an indifferent manner – and maybe the Moss vs. Chigurh shootout wouldn’t be such a great scene if it were the first of many – but I can’t help but feel that they forsook perfection for unconventionality here.

      Reply
      1. Indeed – Had the previous hour or so’s viewing not been of the highest quality, I think you (like me) would have been more than just disappointed at NCFOM’s unpredictable ending. Two thirds of the way through, I had this film mentally tagged as one of the greats – and then THAT happened. The most recent similar example is probably the ‘cut-to-black’ at the end of Inception, and whilst I would not suggest that the two films are thematically or stylistically similar, it is interesting to wonder why the latter left me feeling invigurated and grinning from ear to ear at the audacity of it, whilst the former (NCFOM) just left me sitting in a dark room wondering if there’d been a power cut!
        I think the answer may lie in the fact that in the case of Inception, as convoluted and clever as it is, the one thing the makers had to do was complete the narrative – tell the story and close the loops! Once you’ve done that then by all means give me a philiosophical conundrum to ponder. In the case of NCFOM, (and sorry if I go back to bashing Caramac McArthy) the story was pretty much laid out for the Coens and refer to my previous post as to why this lead to all sorts of problems. Could it also be true that Messrs Coen had all THEIR fun in the first two thirds of the film?!
        I suppose if we take anything constructive away from this discussion it’s that the human psyche does crave that Pratchettesque element Narrativium – story, story, story – then feel free to cut to black.

        Reply
      2. I liked the ending. Here’s why:

        Chigurh postures himself as holding the power of life and death. He flips a coin as if attempting to inject some sort of randomness into his action. Carla Jean defies his posturing. He’s portraying himself as God.

        The “father” in the dream who is not talking is the real God. As in the dream, his presence seems absent throughout the film, but he promises he’ll take care of it. And he does, through the seemingly random traffic accident.

        Bell’s dream tells him it’s ok to retire and to spare his own life, because Chigurh WILL get taken care of.

        Reply
    2. Something about this comment got me thinking today. If I were to say “Hello to Jason Isaacs”, would that mean anything to you?

      Reply
  27. you are an extremely perceptive and incisive writer. i thoroughly enjoyed reading this and your Breaking Bad posts – may i ask which university you study in/plan to study in/studied in? and how you are/plan to use your talents in your career?

    Reply
    1. Hi Roger. And thank you very much. I’ve just finished Linguistics at UCL actually, and I’m job-hunting at the moment. Ultimately I want to be a screenwriter, and I’m working on a low-budget screenplay at the moment, but I’m really not sure what to do in the meantime. Obviously any advice would be very welcome here…

      Reply
    2. Did you have any advice for me here, out of interest? I’m from a very rural area, and the first of my family to go to university, so I’m not really sure what I should be doing nowadays…

      Reply
      1. Hey mate sorry just seeing this message now – I work in a completely different field so I wouldn’t be able to give any useful pointers; although the reason why I asked you initially was because I was just intrigued with what career path one would take in the arts. I think one day when I’m grey and old (maybe when I’m 32 haha) I’d love to explore filmmaking.

        I’d guess for you, it may be a good idea to start contacting film/media firms for internships or any entry level roles – I’m sure if you link them this blog, it will increase your chances. Also, obviously aiming for jobs in London would be ideal. Congrats on your degree – great uni. I’m just out of uni as well and it has been the toughest time ever so far – not easy coming out of Uni thesedays but I think with your talented writing you should do well – just get your name and writing out there more and contact these firms directly. Best of luck and let me know how you get on! roger.scholes18@gmail.com

        Reply
  28. The film is an allegory about Islamic Terror and its battle with the West. The ending is a head fake. McCarthy’s usual father son imagery and metaphor, where the father carries the fire, as in “The Road” (the hope for civilization) is mentioned, but the real point is the tree of life behind Bell. Immediately before that scene, Chigurh dissolves into that tree. The point is that Islamic Terror, which Chigurh represents, is part of the cycle of life, and can never be totally defeated,but nevertheless must be fought.
    You will notice the tree of life and knowledge throughout the film, and the last man standing is leaning against it (in a reverential position, with a shirt with grape clusters on it).
    The fruit of the tree of life was grapes, not apples.

    Heavy stuff I know, but all true.

    Reply
  29. Ok now this is what that ending really was, lazy! Sure in the book you are using your mental capacity to see the story for yourself so you can continue the story after the wreck however it suits you but in film that luxury isnt there! It must have a begining and an end for crying out loud. This was one of the best films to come out in the past ten years or so, to bad nobody had the stomach or fortitude to finish it.so much potential down the drain…. Book A+ Film 0% fail!

    Reply
    1. That’s ridiculous. If your approach to film is that you don’t have to use your “mental capacity” to fill in any blanks, you’re doing it wrong.

      Reply
  30. I agree with everything up until “The same way the coin did.”

    I think he is implying that he was minted. Like a coin is. Although the coin may be moving around from place to place in a seemingly random manner it came from a specific mint to serve a specific purpose. I suddenly realized after reading about the Jesuits, that Anton was a Jesuit assassin. He was raised from a child and tortured “minted” into the solid force of principle that he is. He isn’t after the money for himself. He is of a higher principle than money. He came to put back in order what was put out of order by the guy who hired Wells with the hidden floor in the skyscraper. Him interrupting the drug cartel shipments and hoarding the loot in a hidden floor, got him targeted by the worlds most notorious “special interest” group, one that is suspected of creating every war for the last 500years. The Jesuits.

    I could be wrong, I never read this theory about the movie anywhere. I totally put it together myself.

    Reply
  31. Once upon a time, a Carthusian , whilst writing in praise of silence and solitude, spoke of the “infinite reservoir of words”, a sudden sense of which can cause the garrulous to ponder.
    It is a great film, but as in the book, not one character has a foot in organised religion Critics, whilst able to recognise a well-cooked meal from pigs swill, nevertheless believe in no absolute truths away from the table or trough. . . .
    Maximillian Kolbe ‘s life was ended in even more nihilistic circumstances. . . at the hands of fully conforming psychopaths. . . but his death had meaning, because his life was full of transcendent meaning.

    Reply
  32. This movie is probably too deep for me. When the movie ended, I was like, “So, what’s the fricking point?” Had I read the novel, it would probably have made more sense to me. The movie is just confusing to me. I loved your analysis though. Very impressive and thoughtful. I guess I’m just not that deep :(

    Reply
    1. Ha, thank you Ahmed. Although I should probably say that I wrote this when I was washing out a grain silo, so I had a week on my own to think about it. Glad you liked it anyway.

      Reply
  33. I just finished watching the movie and I have to say I was sorely disappointed with the ending. Actually like most people who have seen it, the downhill turn began with Moss’ untimely off-screen death. Yes, I get the fact that the story wasn’t about money and Llewelyn was all about the money, (and trying to keep it). But he was to us, the viewers, the protagonist, the hero of the story; the guy who overcomes setbacks and succeeds. By the end of the movie yes, we all come to realize that Moss wasn’t the actual hero of the story: He didn’t come to any kind of philosophical realization about himself or the world, (he didn’t get a chance to), but still, we spent three quarters of the movie rooting for the guy only to see a flash of him lying in a pool of his own blood in a seedy motel. Really? He didn’t even get a funeral but that screechy old woman did!?! Really!!??
    Okay, enough about that and on to other things… After reading all the posts discussing the myriad themes this story may or may not have I have to wonder, which is the philosophical truth either the writer or the Coens were after? Usually a coming of age story has to do with kids growing into adulthood but growing into old age, I like the twist. And one would think that is what the theme is especially given the title, but it might not be.
    Choices. Many have stated that the story is about choices, fate and the randomness of the universe. I have not read the book… yet, but I understand Sheriff Bell had deserted while in the military. (I wished the movie had mentioned that.) The Sheriff seems to have a problem with death that doesn’t just stem for his growing older. As a young man his fear of death drove him to desert his comrades. Throughout the show he seems astounded at the level of violence in the world but has it really gotten worse or has his advancing age only made it seem so to him: That death is looming ever closer? Or does he feel that he should have died along with the men he left behind in the army, and that he is living on borrowed time. Seems to me Sheriff Bell has a dark cloud hanging over his head through the entirety of the movie, like a man constantly looking over his shoulder, expecting to see death at every turn but is still afraid of it. The choice he made in his youth, the choice that saved his life still haunts him. I don’t believe he seeks forgiveness for that, I think he had accepted what he did and has learned to live with it. I will have to read the book just to find out exactly why Bell deserted. Fear of death is the obvious answer but what if that wasn’t all there was to it? What if Sheriff Bell abhors killing. In the beginning he talks about that boy he caught and who ultimately ended up in the electric chair. Bell speaks as if he killed the boy himself: He caught a killer but feels guilty for the boy’s demise. He also speaks about the boy’s attitude. That if he wasn’t caught he would have killed again. I think Bell almost envies the kid’s lack of empathy. Perhaps that is the Sheriff’s true failing… too much empathy. Every death he learns about seems to weigh on him more and more.
    Speaking of death, what of Chigurh? Can anyone say sociopath? If he wasn’t an enforcer for whatever illicit organization he works for he would be a serial killer, plain and simple. He likes to kill. He likes the power over others and I for one could see the air of superiority he had when he spoke to people. This total lack of empathy makes him the polar opposite of Bell. Does Chigurh have a code? Probably, but it will only truly make sense to him. The coin toss I liked, it was very reminiscent of Two-Face, one of Batman’s many villains. But Two-Face was a psychopath or at least half of him was and every decision he made he had to toss the coin. Chigurh’s coin toss game served only to amuse him, a bonus kill should the person guess wrong. If it was part of some code he, like Two-Face, would be tossing coins for every decision. No, with Chigurh it was “the best he could do”, meaning a person got the coin toss option only if their death wasn’t essential and it was still an exercise in his power over all us simple folk. I suspect he killed Carla more from her refusal to play his game then the ‘promise’ he made. After all he magnanimously gave her a fifty-fifty chance of survival! How dare she not play his game!
    There have been many ideas thrown out there as to the overall premise and I came to the conclusion the whole thing is an allegory about the endless struggle between good and evil, an epic battle, maybe even biblical. Ok, I’m not religious at all, in fact I’m a card-carrying atheist but even I can see the spiritual similarities. Bear with me…
    Bell is God. Nonviolent, sad old man who laments over the injustices of the world. He is a Sheriff, he has power but he uses it sparingly or not at all to fight the evil that is out hunting.
    Chigurh is the devil. A cold-blooded killer, he carries out his work without remorse. He kills almost everyone who crosses his path. Truly evil.
    Moss is man. Pursued by evil. Unlike Chigurh he is capable of remorse, (bringing the water to the survivor) as well as greed (obviously by taking the money). Unlike Bell he’ll willingly kill if need be but unlike Chigurh he does not get the same pleasure from it. He is clever, resourceful and unwilling to give in to adversity. Unknown to him he has an ally in Bell but does not get any direct help from him and is left to his own resources. He dies a meaningless death but not at the hands of Chigurh. In taking that money he signed his own death warrant and it didn’t matter who killed him. For Moss, like mankind, death is inevitable.
    But I still hated the ending!

    Reply
    1. Heh, you may be surprised to hear this, but I pretty much agree with you. I feel like I understand the ending, but everytime I watch No Country I kinda wish there was an alternate ending on the disc that I didn’t know about. Then again, I’m not sure what that ending would be – or whether this film would’ve had such a hypnotic effect on me, had it been more conventional.

      On this point: “Chigurh’s coin toss game served only to amuse him, a bonus kill should the person guess wrong.

      I have to say I believe Chigurh when he says it’s the best he can do. He’s very much a ‘clockwork orange’ in my mind, and his coin toss is like the closest thing he has to making a decision based on his own desires – a kind of cross between a procedural response and an individual act of will.

      Oh, one thing you might like, I remember someone saying that McCarthy likes to have a character representing ‘the father, the son and the holy ghost’ in each of his novels. Not sure how this idea stacks up against his other works, but it seems to make obvious sense here…

      Reply
      1. When Sheriff Bill discovers that Llewelyn was killed, and he has no power in El Paso to do anything about it, could that represent that this figure is in fact not omnipotent? (In regards to the religious notion presented ‘HM Fox’.)

        I’m not religious, but God was always expected to omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent etc. Maybe, this is a little weak, but one distant theme could be about expectations (such as expectations of God)? Everyone in the film seemed to expect something from someone – except Sheriff Bill really. If you watch closely, everyone practically expects someone to give or do something. The cry for water by the man in the car near the beginning, the commandment of people to play Chigurh’s game – the boy giving Chigurh his T-shirt – even the play on expectations to clean your house and make fresh coffee is used here (an old man doesn’t conform to the expectations once again.)

        I’m not in the frame of mind to go any further, but could you see any logic in where I’m coming from? The fact that no-one literally expects older people to do anything, so they’re tossed away from social life – yet they are still in fact living, causing them to conjure up the meaning of life in their minds? That could explain the title – the separation from aged people I mean. Even McCarthy’s typical father theme comes into play, ‘children’ of the world distancing themselves from parents (and God). I’m suggesting it’s a small, possibly unintentional theme that I have picked up on – but just like anything, if you have some reason to back it up – why can’t it be true?

        Reply
  34. Dear Zet, it is often quite difficult to seize the precise meaning intended by the author… a lot of the inner workings of a book or a movie translate into the screenplay directly from the subconscious of the author, or from his creative mind, and they don’t have to turn entirely clear and concrete in the process, as they pass from the dream to the art, and need not loose their symbolic form to inhabit either place. The sense of a book or a movie may not actually be all that clear to the author himself. I find your analysis very intelligent and it certainly shone a light on some areas of the film that I had not perceived. I don’t think the point here is to be right or wrong, but rather to explore the meaning of the movie from different perspectives. I stumbled upon your blog by chance and subscribed. Thanks for your very clever analysis! I would be curious to see what you thought of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

    Reply
    1. Well, thank you on both counts. I still haven’t seen Three Burials actually. It’s exactly the kind of film I’d like though, so I probably should soon.

      Reply
  35. There was a comment by a guy named Kenny about 10 posts up that mentioned something totally puzzling to me that I almost forgot about while reading everyone’s theories…Carson Wells tells Steven Root’s character (I cant recall his name if he had one) that he counted the floors of the building they were in from the outside and one is missing. Stephen Root’s character says “we’ll look into it.” What the hell was that all about?! please somebody help me understand

    Reply
    1. Sure, I guess there are three explanations here.

      1. Carson miscounted the number of floors to the skyscraper.

      2. The skyscraper is missing a floor because they don’t usually count 13 as a legitimate floor number, so a skyscraper with 99 floors really has 98.

      3. The criminal organisation Stephen Root works for is on a floor which has been kept secret because of its illegal activities.

      In any case, it’s probably there to show how cocky Carson Wells is, like he’s assuming that all the businesses in that building could be ‘missing a floor’ without even realising it.

      Reply
  36. Interesting. At first I assumed that he miscounted, but upon further viewings I thought maybe there was some meaning, I’d love to ask the Coens what the true meaning was, but it was probably something benign as you suggested. Also I should say that I visited a few sites looking for interesting analysis for this film and once I reached this one I found what I was looking for, your intial post, as well as everyone’s comments were just what I needed. Cheers!

    Reply
    1. Excellent, thanks for letting me know. Although you might have to ask Cormac McCarthy what the true meaning was (not that he’d tell you; he’s famously cagey about talking about his books.)

      Reply
  37. Pingback: No Country For Old Men | amatheos

  38. Pingback: No Country for Old Men Blog Post | Engl329B Blog

  39. Hi, Zetland. Thanks for your interesting appraisal. I’m still puzzling over why I find NCFOM so unsatisfying. I suspect that its unconventional structure and the lack of a clear protagonist resulted (for me at least) in an absence of cathartic resolution. Perhaps it is rather ironic that a film concerned with rules should subvert dramatic convention itself and, in doing so, become problematic for many viewers? Perhaps that was part of the point!? :o)

    Anyway, you asked for advice on your career. Many years ago I was a script reader for repertory theatre companies in England. Directors get sent dozens of new plays each year and haven’t the time to read them all so are often grateful to find others who will read, appraise and return scripts with a brief synopsis. It was unpaid work but I learnt a lot about playwriting (good and bad!) and, who knows, it may give you an ‘in’ to a theatre or a director. If film is more your bag I’m sure producers are just as eager to share their burden. No doubt you’ll wade through a load of rubbish before finding a gem but, as a writer yourself, you’ll learn a lot about why things don’t work – which is just as important as why they do!
    You could try contacting the artistic directors of theatres specialising in new work and offer your services as a reader. A link to your blog will assure them of your abilities, I’m certain.
    I wish you the best of luck in the business.

    Reply
    1. Hey James. That’s a good idea, although I’m a record-breakingly slow reader, so I’m not sure anyone would pay me to do it. It’s definitely something I’d consider once I’ve found a full-time job anyway.

      Re NCFOM, I share your dissatisfaction to a point. It’s one of my favourite films, but I realise it’s earned that title purely because of the first 80 minutes. I think it’s just dissatisfying because Llewelyn gets killed in such an anti-climactic way, rather than any confusion over who the protagonist is. (I currently don’t know who ‘the’ protagonist to Game of Thrones is, but that doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of it.)

      Out of interest, can I ask what you do now?

      Reply
      1. Hi, again. As I recall, there was no set time limit to read, just the sooner the better, after all I was helping them out for nothing! The only script I ever read which I thought really had legs was a stage adaptation of the novel ‘The Secret World of Alfred Nobbs’. This was back in the late ’80s. To my amazement I read recently that there’s a film version being made. It only took 25 years to happen!

        Having seen NCFOM only last night (for the first time in many years) I’m still puzzling over it. It is obviously crafted with skill and care and the production values and performances are excellent across the board – yet we agree, it is unsatisfying.
        Most tragic dramas over the past two millennia have followed the Aristotelian principles of the Poetics, the reason being that they work! In this case those rules have been ignored and I think that is at the root of the film’s failings.
        It may be that I/we are so habituated to the Aristotelian dramatic norm that altering from its course is unnerving, confusing and disappointing in and of itself, but I suspect, rather, that the lack of cathartic release caused by the subversion of the genre in the movie’s denouement is a significant factor in my own dissatisfaction. Not witnessing Llwelyn’s death or resolving Chigurgh’s fate did leave gaping holes, the former especially as one had by then invested emotionally in him.

        Sorry, I can’t comment on Game of Thrones as I haven’t seen it. I recently watched all of Breaking Bad head to tail, start to finish, over six days (what luxury!) and loved it so read your posts here this afternoon with interest. What I found most fascinating was that we begin by empathising with Walt as protagonist in Series 1 but by Series 5 he has transformed (for me at least) into the antagonist. I can’t recall any other drama where the hero becomes the villain and really enjoyed the conflicting passions his transformation engendered in me. I still rooted for him towards the end despite his moral collapse but also despised his self-seeking dishonesty. I also found the series’ concern with the moral and physical consequences of our actions both admirable and fascinating.

        Since you ask, I left theatre for television in the ’90s, working as a stage manager/assistant director before training as an aromatherapist. These days, though, I renovate property in the Outer Hebrides and work as a guide during the salmon fishing season. Glorious summers. Cold, dark winters!

        Reply
        1. Oh, wow. Glad to say the film version has already been made actually, in case you’re interested in seeing it. It was Oscar-nominated in a few categories and, now that I’ve checked, has one of my favourite actors (Michael McElhatton) in it. Speaking of him, it would be perverse if I didn’t recommend Game of Thrones here. I couldn’t get over the idea that it would be completely awful, a kind of ‘made-for-TV’ Lord of the Rings – but it’s the best programme I’ve ever watched. Completely immersive and fascinating from so many different perspectives. You’d be doing yourself a favour to get it on DVD.

          Ah, that’s interesting. Property renovation’s something I’m finding myself increasingly drawn towards. Actually, I renovated this with my father a few years ago. I’m just not sure how to get into it (beyond working for parents).

          Reply
  40. Good morning, Zetland. Please feel free not to publish this reply as we’re wandering off-topic and I wouldn’t wish to hijack the No Country theme. Send me an email instead if you wish.
    Crikey! So ‘Nobbs’ is made and nominated, huh? That’s fantastic! I’ll look out for it at our little cinema in Stornoway but if that fails I’ll seek it out via my RaspberryPi – and Game of Thrones, too.

    I must say, your generation has my sympathy. This has to be the worst time to enter the workplace since the early ’80s when I graduated. I took single honours Philosophy and, while I loved it, it wasn’t exactly vocational! More by luck than judgement I found work as a stage technician at the Bristol Old Vic and that was my introduction to the biz. Both my parents had worked in theatre/TV but it had never appealed to me until then. However, I found that listening to a play night after night really honed my appreciation of a piece and that lead me into directing. Here elements of my degree were of great assistance in understanding the plays I worked on. Although I had a few small successes on the London Fringe I never broke into mainstream theatre and eventually succumbed the lure of a regular income from TV work when it was offered. This took me away from the stage and I never returned, somewhat to my regret. TV was all about money while theatre was about the art. Hey ho! Still, I was fortunate enough to work with many great actors over the years and still have a love of drama – and the path my life has taken since has been rich and rewarding.

    If you truly have a desire to write then I urge you to do anything in your power to learn as much as you can about the business. Take any job, however poorly paid, just to get a foot in the door. Even bad am-dram has a place if you can learn why it is bad! :) You mentioned that you are a slow reader but I wouldn’t let that put you off. Personally I find novels rather laborious but scripts I can fly through, perhaps because of the lack of necessary description? Even if you are slow so what? I suspect from your blog that you are thorough and perceptive, qualities far, far more important than speed. And why wait until you are employed to offer your services as a reader? Surely you have more free time now than you will then? Put yourself forward at every opportunity and don’t fear rejection. It goes with the turf in such an over-manned profession and is as much a fact of life as it is any true reflection of one’s ability – well, to a degree, anyway!

    Thanks for the link to your parent’s ‘cottage’. It looks very fine indeed. Without knowing where you live I can’t advocate entering renovation per se as the property market is currently all over the place depending on where you are and the required capital varies vastly accordingly. I would say, given the current state of play, gain as much experience working with your family as you can now, save those pennies and wait until you find a sure fire winner before branching out on your own. I know I always rejected my parents’ help in theatre and with the benefit of the years I was possibly foolish in my pride and determination to go it alone. These are hard times economically and I’m sure your folks love you dearly and want the best for you. If they can help you get to where you want to be, let them. It may lead you to independence more swiftly than if you reject their help now.

    Returning to ‘No Country’ …. there was a discussion above about the ‘missing floor’. I can’t explain it either but I do know that in a production of this quality nothing is inconsequential. When you consider that every piece of costume has been chosen for every character no matter how small their part, and every set, every car, every haircut/beard/etc. is there because of an artistic choice I find it hard to accept that something in the dialogue has no point. One can make of it what one wants but I doubt very much that any line in the film is pointless or accidental. Occasionally a cut scene can affect another to which it alluded but usually a script is so finely honed as to eliminate any redundancies before it reaches production. Fwiw, I took the line to mean that the floor was hidden on purpose due to the illicit activities within. While the 13th floor argument is logically feasible it has no dramatic purpose, so why include it if that is all it is, a mundane observation?

    Finally, you might be interested in an academic philosophical analysis of the Aristotelian theory of Tragedy by Augustus Boal in his book, ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’. As I recall, he gives a fascinating appraisal of the mechanics of dramatic form which may be of assistance to you in your own writing. Boal was a leading Brazilian theatre director giving him plenty of opportunity to put his theories into practice on the stage.

    All the best!

    Reply
  41. Pingback: No Country for Old Men | mcquillenc

  42. For a person going into film, Werner Herzog deserves the credit for your use of his line from his amazing film, “Grizzly Man,”:
    “The common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.”
    Respect for the elders, please!

    Reply
    1. Hi Jo. I have huge respect for Werner Herzog, although I think this issue is more complex than you’ve given it credit for.

      I used Herzog’s line as a knowing nod to his fans – something which plenty of writers and artists do all the time. I mean, The Smiths were constantly borrowing quotes without citing their sources because 1.) to do so would ruin the flow of the lyrics, and 2.) it would spoil the connection with some of their audience if they then had to say “oh, by the way, this line was originally written by Leonard Cohen.” One thing I really like about Minghella’s films is spotting all the little references tucked within. But this enjoyment would be completely ruined if he had to point out whenever he was referencing anyone.

      Reply
  43. Thanks for clearing up some of this. Ive seen the movie several times, but found it difficult to understand. I dont read, so mabye the movie only summarizes a bigger story, but I always knew that the story was more about the Sherriffs struggle than moss’s. The one flaw i cant get past is how chigurgh gets doors open. Anyone who knows a thing about the mechanics of locks is gonna get distracted by that .

    Reply
  44. See, i actually pulled a more hopeful feel out of the end. When the sheriff was talking to the guy with all the cats (names are escaping me atm) he said a very seemingly psuedo-philisophical phrase that caught my attention. He says something along the lines of “i always heard god comes to you when you get older. He aint came to me yet, nor do i think he ever will. I dont blame him” maybe im just going on a limb here but i get the feeling his second dream was more spiritual looking forward than nihilism looking back. He is following what he assumes is his dad to a path of warmth and light (what i took as symbolism for heaven) and abruptly ended without revealing the true meaning of the dream to him. Perhaps god coming to him in his elder age as he claimed would never happen? Perhaps the true ambiguity is what he chooses to do with the dream from that point on.

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  45. I really agree with this article. I’ve been searching for a profound meaning in this movie for years but never could figure it out until I read this article. It makes perfect sense that, once again, the Coen brothers made a movie that has no real solid message but still entices you to look for one. Thanks for helping to finally set my mind at ease !

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  46. I hope this discussion isn’t completely dead and I didnt read every single comment in the discussion but I wanted to point out two parts in the movie that I thought were related. The sheriff talks to his deputy about the people that would kill and torture old people and then cash their social security checks. Them digging the graves didn’t raise any alarms but it took someone noticing a guy running away with a dog collar on to finally catch them. At the the end when Chigurh gets hit by the car (before he ends up walking away) I thought this was the “out of the ordinary” ending to his run of killings since the ambulance was on its way and then they’d find out who he was instead of getting caught at the crime scene or something of that nature. But then when he ends up getting away it kind of blew a hole in my theory aber I thought I’d still share it incase anyone else noticed this or had an opinion on it. Great review by the way.

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  47. Also I saw someone comment about Breaking Bad and I have to mention that pretty much all of us here in ABQ love that show more than anyone outside of the area can understand. I’m not sure why but it’s something that we’re proud of and that we feel apart of. They really included parts of Albuquerque that are very genuine and correct and in the sense that a city takes pride in a good sports team and feels proud of it that’s kind of how it is for us and Breaking Bad. It’s also fun to notice places you’ve seen before or drive by every day. I deliver to a hotel like once a week that was in a few episodes of the show. Blakes lotaburger is really popluar here and they use that in at least one episode. I know the exact area where Combo gets killed, I see the sandia mountains every day and its cool to see that in most shots. The carwash is a pretty popular one here in town. The pizza Walter throws on the roof is from Venezias and they really do have huge pizzas! Bryan Cranston was pretty involved in events here in town and made appearances at our local AAA baseball team games a few times. After they finished the last episode, at the area where he dies, they put up a billboard that had both Walter and Jesse on it and said “thank you Albuquerque we had great chemistry”. Don’t know why I bothered writing all this since it’s really unrelated to No Country for Old Men but I couldnt help it. Also, my dad was diagnosed with the same type of lung cancer a little over a year ago so I guess thats maybe why it seems more personal to me. I just hope my dad isn’t cooking meth haha but I do hear that they call him Heisenberg at work (has the same kind of beard too).

    Reply
    1. Hey, sorry it’s taken so long to write back to this. I got your comment when I was basically in the middle of nowhere, so it passed me by a bit.

      As someone who’s seen Breaking Bad three times now, that’s very cool to hear. It seems insane to think that Gilligan never intended for it to be set in Albuquerque. Everything about it fits perfectly – even the name ‘New Mexico’ sorta tells you where the storyline’s heading. Out of interest, is there anything that they ‘got wrong’ with Albuquerque? And do you see more people in the city these days (kinda like how Game of Thrones has turned Northern Ireland into a tourist destination)?

      Reply
  48. Hi Zetland.

    I came across your page while looking for misc tidbits on the film. Even with the bleak subject & ending, it continues to be one of my all-time favorite films to watch. I think I enjoy it so much due to it’s *nihilism* feel to it. Through the whole film, Sheriff Bell seems like he’s waiting for that higher voice to speak to him, to give him that answer that everything will be alright in the world, and he never hears it. So the more he follows into the Moss/Chigurh case, the more despondent he gets since he can’t seem to understand the lawless actions of the land. Like others have said, the world around Bell has always been like this, but the older Bell gets, it becomes more difficult for him to understand. To him, the present day evil in 1980 has morphed into a new breed, one that he cannot comprehend.

    Now for the ending…many interpret it differently, and I actually believe that’s what McCarthy & The Coens want to hear. Endings like that is what makes people continue to pick up a book & watch a movie again, like this one, so they can try to decipher the meaning for themselves. To me, the dream signals that his father is basically tell Bell that he is waiting for him. The father goes ahead of him with the fire to make a path for Ed Tom, then Ed Tom wakes up to nothing. To him, his life was all about being Sheriff, but now that this new breed of evil basically forced him to retire, he has nothing to look forward to. One hopes that things will cheer up a bit for Ed Tom, but you wonder if he will always be haunted by those dreams. Having the film cut off to black like that is very fitting, IMO.

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  52. “No two characters really appear in the same shot together (okay, Llewelyn and Chigurh kinda do – but it’s very brief and in the dark.) There’s a kind of ‘three parts of the same person’ thing going on.”

    And Sheriff Bell sees Chigurh in the reflection of the lock tube.

    This is the part, I think, most people get wrong and why the movie seems disappointing. You think “Oh, this is an excellent suspense thriller about a guy trying to score some money” and then all of a sudden the main character dies. Offscreen.

    But he wasn’t the main character. Bell is. He’s the only one with a character arc. The climactic scene of the movie is him seeing Chigurh in that room. He has two choices:

    1) Go in guns blazing and die like a hero; or
    2) Do what he does do: Pretend he doesn’t see Chigurh and live.

    Remember the whole strain of Chigurh telling people that they don’t see him?

    If evil is coming for you, you’re pretty much doomed. But you have a chance if you pretend you don’t see it. The price is your submission. You admit it can come for you at any time and your destiny is not your own. Also, you know that it’s out there wreaking havoc and you didn’t stop it.

    Bell’s realization at that moment, is that he’d rather live a coward than die fighting evil. And who can blame him? He can’t win, or at least there’s no indication that he can.

    If you look at the Coen’s oeuvre, you’ll see that cause-and-effect, and the inability of people to see or understand how they work is possibly the primary theme of their movies. Blood Simple? When Frances M. has defeated her enemy, she doesn’t even know who he is. In that sense, he has the last laugh. Llewyn Davis? The whole thing shows how detached Davis is from the effect of every action he takes. He understands nothing and ends up feeling victimized by it.

    The underrated gem of this is “A Seroius Man” which begins with a fable about a dybbuk, though without ever showing the audience whether the rabbi was a dybbuk or not. And then the entire movie shows how causes-and-effects appear to be related…but maybe aren’t at all. Larry Gopnik’s refraind “But I didn’t DO anything!”

    Even the noirish Lebowski is powered by one question “Where’s the money, Lebowski?” The joke being, there never was any money, man.

    NCFOM could’ve been a classic suspense thriller. It’s still a classic, just not in that genre.

    Reply
    1. “And Sheriff Bell sees Chigurh in the reflection of the lock tube.”

      But they still don’t appear in the same shot together. And I think it’s probably more likely that Bell doesn’t actually see Chigurh in the lock tube reflection – it’s just an incarnation of his paranoia. If you watch that scene again, there’s a close-up of the bathroom window (presumably the only other way out of the building) which shows that it’s been locked from the inside – and therefore can’t have been used as an escape route.

      I think you’re right about his realisation though. I really like your point about Llewyn Davis too. Actually, that’s made me want to watch it again quite soon. It’s funny how pro-Llewyn I was for the duration of the movie, but how much my feelings toward him changed the more I thought about it.

      Reply
      1. No, you’re missing the point about Chigurh: He didn’t =escape=. He was there all along and Bell knows it.

        Bell is =lying= to us.

        He knows he’s taken the coward’s way out which is to just Not See Chigurh.

        Heh, that’s why it’s such a depressing movie. (Not really, in my opinion, but it’s not a hero’s tale.)

        Reply
        1. This is just your conjecture though.

          Firstly, there’s nothing to say that Chigurh allows people this “coward’s way out”. Sure, there’s the accountant – but we never find out whether he gets killed or not. The “do you see me?” line could just as easily be Anton’s way of saying: “of course I’m going to kill you, I’m here, aren’t I?” (I mean, the accountant isn’t even in the book, so I figured this was just the Coens injecting their own dark humour into the script.)

          There’s also the children, who Anton pays to keep quiet. But this is just after he’s suffered a car accident which has left him with a bone sticking out of his arm. And killing two kids in the suburbs is probably just going to take time and attract unwanted attention. So buying their silence is the next best thing.

          Besides, there are plenty of instances where Anton could offer his victims the coward’s way out, but doesn’t. And why would he offer that to a sheriff, of all people, who’s probably best aligned to pass on his details to the police? No, it’s a really cool interpretation – and something I think would work really well as the ending of another film – but I just don’t see any real evidence for it.

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          1. “This is just your conjecture though.”

            Well, you may have been doin’ some conjecturin’ your own self here….

            “(I mean, the accountant isn’t even in the book, so I figured this was just the Coens injecting their own dark humour into the script.)”

            You’re saying that they put this in for larfs? And it doesn’t relate to anything else?

            “And killing two kids in the suburbs is probably just going to take time and attract unwanted attention.”

            Heh. So, like, when he threatens to kill the clerk at the convenience store? Or blows open Llewelyn’s door in the hallway of that rather large hotel? Or chases him through the street shooting at him? Or kills Merida…er, Carla Jean?

            “Besides, there are plenty of instances where Anton could offer his victims the coward’s way out, but doesn’t.”

            Are there? I haven’t seen this recently, but it seems like there are only a few kinds of people he runs into:

            1) Those who hire him to kill,
            2) those he’s hired to kill,
            3) those he runs into incidentally in the course of his regular business (killing and the cleanup thereof),
            4) and those he chooses to kill at random.

            Group 2 is dead, as is Group 1 if they piss him off. Group 4 gets the coin toss. Group 3 gets the option to “not see” him.

            “And why would he offer that to a sheriff, of all people, who’s probably best aligned to pass on his details to the police?”

            Well, since Bell IS the police, there isn’t a matter of passing on details, right?

            I don’t think he offered it. I think the instant Bell knows Chigurh is in there, he knows he’s defeated. He just goes and sits on the edge of the bed.

            But I don’t think Chigurh is a literal person, either.

            “No, it’s a really cool interpretation – and something I think would work really well as the ending of another film – but I just don’t see any real evidence for it.”

            You can check out IMDB for a debate on the details.

            Either Bell is lying, or that scene—the climactic scene of the film, which was not particularly technically challenging—is =chock full= of mere continuity errors.

            It’s possible they figured nobody would care or notice, or meant to the tweak the people who would, and unreliable narrators are very difficult to do in film effectively.

            But note that if Bell is imagining Chigurh in the reflection and he’s charging in heroically only to find him not there—well, Tommy Lee and Carter Burwell really downplayed that dramatic moment.

          2. You’re saying that they put this in for larfs? And it doesn’t relate to anything else?”

            Yes. This is the Coens after all. And if it were so important, it would have been in the book.
             

            Heh. So, like, when he threatens to kill the clerk at the convenience store? Or blows open Llewelyn’s door in the hallway of that rather large hotel? Or chases him through the street shooting at him? Or kills Merida…er, Carla Jean?

            He doesn’t have a bone sticking out of his arm for any of those scenes. The attention is unwanted in his final scene because: he’s just been incapacitated in a car crash, he doesn’t appear to be readily armed, he’s in a neighbourhood in broad daylight and public services are on their way (you can hear sirens growing in the background – probably an ambulance, but still, full of potential witnesses.) Basically, he’d almost certainly be caught if he sorted to violence here – and he’s under no obligation to do so – so he just pays the kids off and slips away.

             

            Are there?

            There’s the guy who gets carjacked and killed with the CBP at the start. And the Desert Sands Motel receptionist. Neither of them get the opportunity to ‘not see’ Chigurh.

             

            Well, since Bell IS the police, there isn’t a matter of passing on details, right?

            Well, passing on his details from the individual (Bell) to the institution (the police force), which is obviously what that meant.

             

            I don’t think he offered it. I think the instant Bell knows Chigurh is in there, he knows he’s defeated. He just goes and sits on the edge of the bed.

            If Chigurh were there, Bell would have died the same death as those Mexicans – especially since he turns his back on Chigurh/no Chigurh to enter the bathroom. Also, there’s so sign of Chigurh in the scene where Bell pushes the door open. I know it’s dark and all that, but I watched it on blu-ray and I’m pretty sure I’d have been able to make something out if they’d asked Bardem to stand there.

             

            But note that if Bell is imagining Chigurh in the reflection and he’s charging in heroically only to find him not there—well, Tommy Lee and Carter Burwell really downplayed that dramatic moment.

            Which is hardly surprising, given that No Country for Old Men is a purposefully anti-climactic film.

  53. Thanks for a very perceptive and insightful analysis of a great movie–and an even better book. I wanted to offer a couple of my own observations:

    1) Major events (especially the deaths of major characters) occurring “off-screen” and with little or no explanation are a recurring theme in McCarthy’s work (The Kid in Blood Meridian, the brother in the border trilogy, the disaster in The Road). For me, the effect of this device has been to further immerse me in the text, as it signals that the author is neither omniscient nor omnipresent–he’s a “co-conspirator” experiencing events in real time right along with the reader. Maybe I’m alone in this reaction, but it’s an interesting and disorienting device nonetheless. I just finished rereading Blood Meridian, and I’m pretty sure I keep coming back to it because a part of me is convinced that THIS TIME I’ll actually learn what happens to The Kid.

    2) Although the movie is pretty faithful to the book, Chigurh’s encounter with Carla Jean is quite different. In the book, she calls the coin toss and calls it incorrectly, leading (again, “off-screen”) to her death. I found this interesting because, when I read this, I couldn’t help but feel a kind of guilt–I couldn’t escape the feeling that she called it wrong BECAUSE the gas station attendant called it correctly. This is, of course, a fallacy (the outcome of any coin toss is not dependent on the outcome of the previous toss), and realizing this for me reinforced Chigurh’s weird fatalist/random worldview.

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  54. i keep going back to the scene when bell and his deputy went in moss’ trailer. he didn’t pull his gun (just followed the deputy) and he looked at the reflection in the tv screen as did chigurh. trying to figure out what that means?

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  55. After several viewings now I am still really no closer to knowing what it really ‘meant’…and that, I think, is the point. The film see-saws almost manically between chaos and order, between pure chance and logical action/reaction.
    Llewelyn stumbles upon the aftermath of the shootout entirely by chance…or does he? If his aim had been better he would have dropped the deer he was hunting and never would have encountered the crime scene. so what at first appears to be a random occurrence is actually a consequence of the character’s earlier action.
    This pattern remains consistent right through to the final scene – now, here’s where I may be off base, because I assume that Ed Tom retrieves the money from the motel room in the end. His dream is his way of dealing with the knowledge that Chigurh will eventually and inevitably catch up with him. He has retired from law enforcement, ostensibly o escape the random violence and meaningless deaths, and yet the rest of his life will be spent waiting for death to come for him.
    So what does it all mean? What is the film saying? As far as I can tell, the film is a meditation on the interchangeability of chaos and order.

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  58. Of all the interesting themes/motifs in NCFOM, the one that I personally find most central (and pervasive) is “MONEY”. The variety of references to money in the movie are almost endless: The suitcase full of money that led to the desert shootout, and to Moss’s ultimate demise. The blood-stained money Moss hands to the Mariachi singers. Coins used as screwdrivers, and coins used to decide whether someone will live or die. Cold hard cash to get a hotel desk clerk to break his normal rules, or to get a cab driver to do something that he expressly stated a minute ago that he didn’t want to do. An attempt to avoid death (in Carson’s case) by offering a trip to (where else?)–the ATM. When Moss sees a coat he wants, he hands the boy on the bridge money–but the boy, in his greed, only wants more. When Anton needs a shirt for a splint, he hands over money, leaving two young boys arguing over who will get what share. I find it so interesting that in Ed Tom’s last scene, one of the two dreams he describes actually involves money. But notice how unimportant it seems to Ed Tom–he dismisses the fact that he “lost” the money (in the dream) in a very casual and offhand manner, as though it were some trivial thing that doesn’t even warrant further discussion. In my opinion, that’s probably the closest the film ever comes to expressly “spelling out” what separates a man like Ed Tom from many of the other people who populate the story.

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