No War for Old Men

Culture

Recently, the winner of the 2007 Oscar for Best Picture, No Country for Old Men, came to DVD, and I've had the chances to re-watch it several times since I first saw it at Cannes in May. We've also recently marked the fifth anniversary of the beginning of major combat operations in Iraq. And the one had me thinking about the other. Looking at any film for the presence of symbolism and metaphor for its times is one of those exercises so simple it can possibly slide over the line to simplistic, but even back in December (when I first wrote some of these notes below down) it was easy to see No Country for Old Men as a striking and cautionary tale about the challenges democracy is facing right now. And as we pass the fifth anniversary of the War in Iraq, I think we've all been thinking a lot, lately, about what exactly five years of this war -- a war ostensibly started to make us safer -- has actually done to eliminate the threat of terror. Over the months, my repeated viewings of No Country for Old Men led me to a very different reading of the film than the one I had at first, and increased my already substantial admiration for the film.

Of course, it's got to be said that the elements in play that led me to this perspective may not be intentional on the part of the Coens or Cormac McCarthy; at the same time, I think that how No Country for Old Men offers as many -- and as rewarding -- readings as it does is a great indicator of why it's going to endure. Tommy Lee Jones's Ed Tom Bell is a Sheriff, the classic Western hero (which is to say the classic American hero), but his time-honored ways and methods can't cope with the seemingly irrational Chigurh (Javier Badem). Josh Brolin's Llewelyn Moss isn't motivated by tradition or law; just capital and expediency. But he's not prepared for Chigurh, a man who can't be bribed or threatened or worn down or outrun.

Chigurh is inventive, bold and resolute; he has a value system, even if we can't understand it. He will kill on principle, and does not care if we find those principles hard to comprehend and accept. He also doesn't have much respect for the principles and codes of the West; as he asks Woody Harrelson's Carlson at gunpoint, "If the rule you followed brought you here, then what good was the rule?"

Ed Tom is the past -- tradition and honor. Moss is the present -- greed and self-protection. And neither of them can face what's coming, or are willing to. Ed Tom talks a mean game, and he's folksy as hell, but he doesn't really do anything to stop Chigurh from finding and killing Moss, and he doesn't go to Odessa to find Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) and keep her safe afterwards, either. Ed Tom can't even imagine someone using a cattle-killing gun as a murder weapon anymore than we could wrap our heads around the use of hijacked planes as weapons, even with warnings in advance.

Moss can run, and Moss can hide, but after a lifetime of thinking he's pretty damn tough, he finds out -- the hard way -- that he's wrong. There have been some theories put forward that Chigurh is the spirit of death itself in the film, but Chigurh isn't some ghost. He's shot by Moss, hit by a car; he's flesh and blood, just a man. Ed Tom or Moss could have killed him -- if they had been willing to "push all their chips in," risk their lives in the struggle, let go of the things they thought mattered.

In his essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, written during World War II, Orwell states, essentially, that England must win the war against Germany, and England can. But the essay's not a pep talk; instead, it's a serious critique of English society -- and a blueprint of how that necessary victory will also take a wholehearted revision of the entire fabric of English life: Eliminating class divisions so that fighting men can serve with honor as equals, regulating industry so that national defense and collective interest can't be put aside in the name of shareholder profit, changing England's relationship with its colonies so that England doesn't appear to be the same kind of exploitative overlord as Germany and Italy are in their colonies, and so on. Some of these things happened, some of them didn't, but Orwell's argument -- that new dangers and new enemies require new ways of thinking, new levels of total commitment and new perspectives on what we're really fighting for -- was fascinating and thought-provoking then, and now. And it's possible to see No Country in a similar light -- not as a revision of the Western or an endorsement of it but rather as a serious critique of the West.

Sheriff Ed Tom can't change who he is as a man or a lawman -- can't "put his soul at hazard" -- to stop Chigurh, and so he doesn't. Llewelyn Moss can't let go of his new riches to stop Chigurh, and so he dies. Sheriff Ed Tom and Moss (and, to some extent Carson) relied on historical reflexes and prior understanding to try and deal with a new type of present threat, and their inability to adapt -- their lack of either imagination or resolve -- led to their failure. And Chigurh may be wounded near the end of the story, but even wounded, there's no reason to think he's going to die, or stop; he'll keep killing anyone who crosses him, keep committing murder in the name of his philosophy and principles. But Sheriff Ed Tom gets to retire to his Texas ranch, do a little riding. Mission Accomplished. And yet he provides the final note of the film -- haunted by restless sleep, relating a dream to his wife at the breakfast table, a dream featuring a vision of Ed Tom's father riding ahead with a horn full of fire, "like in old times" as Ed Tom watched him go by. And Ed Tom might as well dream of the past, because a lack of imagination and determination and sacrifice means a nightmare still haunts the present. His father rode ahead with the fire. Will Ed Tom -- will we -- be strong enough to follow that example and do what will truly be required to keep the darkness at bay?

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