No Country for Old Men (R)

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This Best Picture of 2007 captures the bleakness of human existence with its harsh Texas landscape and pitiless villain.  Llewelyn Moss finds some money, takes it, and is ruthlessly pursued by Anton Chigurh.  The lines of brutality and brotherhood are hazy between them.  The movie seems to promote fate and despair, but it actually has glimmers of hope.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones, represents the old world.  His dad was a sheriff, and his dad’s dad was a sheriff.  He has wisdom and can see behind events to the causes of things.  He and his deputy arrive at the scene of a drug deal gone wrong, and the deputy exclaims, “It’s a mess, ain’t it Sheriff?”  Bell just replies, “If it ain’t, it’ll do ‘til a mess gets here.”  He addresses the moment, his work at hand.  He entertains no elaborate visions of justice but is aware of human frailty. Bell is contrasted with an impulsive, confident deputy who assumes his captive’s bolt pistol is an oxygen tank.  Just after hanging up the phone with Bell, saying “Yes, sir. I got it covered,” the deputy is strangled by Chigurh with his handcuffs.

Javier Bardem is the perfect actor for the hitman hired to recover the money.  He had just learned English before taking the role, and his aura as a foreigner adds to his terror.  He is as elusive as his silky dark hair and as sunken as his dark eyes.

The movie is punctuated by some fantastic minor characters.  When a convenient store proprietor asks Chigurh how the weather is “up there,” assuming he is from Dallas from the plates on his stolen car, Chigurh mocks his courtesy and calls his “friendo.”  Offended that the proprietor is prying, he asks where he lives and what time he goes to bed, rejecting the common gesture of friendship offered by the clerk, and scaring him into closing the store early.  He thinks himself stronger and more knowledgeable than the clerk, asking him, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, do you?”  Chigurh believes his cynical view of the world is more real and powerful.  When the clerk talks about where he raised his family, all Chigurh can comment is that he married into the house.  For Chigurh, life is a coin toss.  He demands the clerk to “call it” heads or tails, and he spares his life because he calls it right.  He tells him, “I can’t call it for you.  It wouldn’t be fair.”  Somehow it would be fair if he killed him for calling it wrong?  Chigurh’s determined logic hardens his heart because he doesn’t think of himself as a willing person.

When he comes to hunt down Moss at home, a woman in the office of the trailer park says to Chigurh, “I ain’t at liberty to give out no information about our residents.”  She gives this audacious answer twice, unperturbed by his threatening appearance.  Her loyalty, courage, and cast-iron hairdo point to a victory and a hope in the small town.

The setup might seem to drive a wedge between good ol’ innocent people and the satanic mass murderer, but Moss provides a humanizing link to Chigurh.  When he stays in a motel room, he hides the money in an air vent, opening it with a dime.  When Chigurh comes looking for the money, he also unscrews it with a coin.  They are both injured in a firefight.  Just when you hate Chigurh the most, you watch his leg bleed down his pant leg and see him dressing his wounds in a bathtub. His mortality links him with his victims.

This movie heavily blurs the line between good guys and bad guys.  A cab driver tells Moss, “I don’t want to get in some kind of a jackpot here, buddy.”  He can’t tell which side Moss is on, whether he is causing trouble or running from trouble.  He mistakes a “good” character for a “bad” one, and Moss only wins him over by waving a hundred dollar bill.  The moral ambiguity of the scene makes you question how well men can really know and judge one another.

The film also promotes the inscrutability of human nature.  It opens with Moss hunting an antelope and whispering, “Hold still” into the crosshairs.  He becomes the prey of Chigurh, whom he cannot control or understand.  Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), an arrogant cowboy of a consultant who finds Moss in the hospital and offers to help him claims a better understanding of Chigurh, but this does not keep him from being eliminated as well.  No one can comprehend Chigurh, but some can interact with him in a more redemptive way.

In the final coin toss, for the life of Moss’s wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), she tells him the choice is his, just like he told the clerk at the beginning.  He denies his responsibility in the choice to kill.  We hope his bitter resignation may be touched by human love and interaction near the end.  After he is hit by a car, a boy on a bike freely gives him his shirt, but Chigurh is untouched by his kindness and limps down the street.  He rejects the hint of salvation offered to him.

Ultimately, I believe the film is a new country for old men because wise, hopeful characters persist to the end.  When Bell tells his Uncle Ellis he feels “overmatched” and thinks the region has gotten more violent, his uncle replies that “thinking it’s all waiting on you, that’s vanity.”  The film doesn’t posit that the world has actually changed but that it has always been like this.  We look to our elders to interpret it.

Finally, Bell points to an eternal hope.  Over a cup of coffee, he tells his wife of a dream about his father.  They are going through a snowy mountain pass, and his father is carrying the fire ahead of him.  He says he knows that when he gets there his father will be waiting.

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