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 set of 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.

It sounds like I’m trying to hammer hope 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 which cause you to look for a kind of depth which, on greater inspection, simply isn’t there.

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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Screenwriting. Film. Philosophy. Linguistics. Anything I find interesting really.

119 Comments

  1. 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. 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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  4. 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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  7. 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.

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  8. 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
  9. 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

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  10. 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.

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  11. 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
  12. 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
  13. 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.

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  14. 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
  15. 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
  16. 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
  17. 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
  18. 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
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  21. 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
  22. 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
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  24. 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
  25. 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
  26. 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.

    Reply
  27. 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 !

    Reply

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