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March 11, 2008

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My thoughts exactly, I thought the film was a perfect adaptation of s somewhat muddled work. I am fine with some muddle, because it is kind of an existential enigma. I would not want the movie to be cleanly one way or another, it is just that McCarthy accomplishes his muddle with a kind of literary laziness. I think the abitrary nature of the work is quite affected in its own way. The film was still a masterpiece, I think.

I'd suggest putting the spoilers after a jump.

In other words, Llewelyn’s downfall doesn’t result from arbitrary coin-flipping Nature, but from his choice to pick up a bag of drug money and run with it. That choice, in turn, triggers an irreversible and ultimately fatal chain of events. He acts, and the wheels of Justice eventually catch up to him. It’s quite the opposite of amoral coin flips.

Hmm. This strikes me as a bit off. I fundamentally disagree with the argument that I think McCarthy is making, but I also think that he makes it pretty clear that Llewelyn's real punishment is Carla Jean's death, which is the result of Moss' defiance.

In fact, Llewelyn gets rewarded for his nobility at first -- by returning to the man in the truck with water, he discovers that he's been "made," when he otherwise would have been tracked down and killed in his trailer with Carla Jean. It isn't until he really makes the choice to run with the wolves that the hammer comes down, even though he doesn't seem to make that choice for the wrong reasons.

The upshot, of course, is that Moss hasn't really done anything wrong at all except fight against drug lords, but the "new rules" punish him anyway. It's also clear, I think, that Chigurh isn't an impartial force of nature, but a psychopath cloaking himself in a veneer of inevitability -- that's the point of his scene with Carla Jean. That's important, because it underscores the notion that there's at least some moral valence in what Chigurh does, at least in his initial decision to act as the avatar of Death.

McCarthy's argument seems to be that the "new rules" leave no space for noble deeds ("no country for old men") -- you can't get ahead without giving in to all-encompassing ruthlessness, but if you aren't willing to do that, you get left out in poverty and a pointless existence like Bell's. There is a choice, but it leaves no middle ground for bravery, and no reward for heroism.

Isn't the bag of money itself the initial bit of randomness, Moss' shooting in the area and happening to see the trucks below the fated choice? Is Moss' fate a result of choosing to take the money or having the money arbitrarily be put in front of him? I think it's the latter, since Chigurh may have stalked him and shot him whether he took the money or not, just by virtue of witnessing the scene.

adam - isn't taking the money definitely not a noble deed though? (your point is well-taken about bell -- i hadn't thought of it in that way, and that makes the last scene with the retired sheriff more interesting)

publius, I just re-read the intro, and I really don't think that Llewelyn taking the money in the first place is immoral -- everyone's dead, and he's aware that it's drug money. Really, the only clearly "wrong" thing he does at that point is not helping the dying man, and he ends up saving himself later when he goes back to rectify that (because otherwise the tracker would have given him away).

The crucial point supporting that conclusion, I think, is that Wells offers Moss the chance to turn over the money and even to keep some of it -- and at this point Chigurh thinks Moss is dead, so if Llewelyn agrees, then he, Wells, and Carla Jean all go home. Of course, this requires an act of cowardice on his part -- both by giving in to the threat against Carla Jean and giving up the money to drug lords. Or, if not cowardice per se, it does require Moss to "give in" and take the route Bell's chosen -- that's the clear implication. Taking the drug money and all Moss' subsequent decisions don't really have a strong moral valence to them.

Rejecting Wells' offer is also a morally ambivalent act (there's really no good choice), but the point, I think, is that it's the only time Moss has the clear choice to either run with the big dogs or go home with his tail between his legs, and he decides to be a hero (or an antihero).

So the choice isn't between right and wrong, I think, which is why the story isn't really about "how Nietzschean amoral Nature collides with Man" -- in fact, it seems to me that Moss' choice actually accords with the Nietzschean heroic ideal, and he gets punished for it. The message there is orthogonal to Nietzsche's -- you have to be a superman to play the game, but the real choice is whether or not to play the game at all. In McCarthy's world, heroism is a liability.

If your problem with the coin flip is that it symbolizes "amoral Nature," then you should pay more attention to Kelly Mcdonald's character's refusal to call heads or tails, and her insistence that Chigurh is making the decision, not the coin.

I also think (and I haven't yet read the book) that part of the nature/choice/no country for old men subtext is that the idea that noble deeds and heroism are somehow part of the "old way" is itself a rather self-serving world view. Perhaps with old age comes not change, but clear-sightedness.

I've not read the book nor seen the movie yet, but based on what I have read by McCarthy and seen by the Coens, I get the feeling that they're all on board with the idea that in the end, all our categories fail. The world - including our secret selves - exists in a realm beyond what we describe and categorize, and beyond what any imaginable taxonomy can cover. Sometimes the break is really overt, like the crucial story-shifting crisis in the middle of Barton Fink or the shattering calamity that's the setting of The Road, and sometimes it's not quite so radical, but all these guys write stories where labels and the ideas behind labels fail. And that's the overall stance.

Chigurh wasn't amoral. The man was evil, pure and simple. I don't know how one construes him as a symbol of amoral nature. Amoral nature doesn't go walking around with an air gun. His violence was part scattered, but part vindictive.

He is in some ways just the mechanism of Llewelyn's downfall, whose story takes a straightforward tragic arc, right down to his final opportunity to save himself.

publius:

But that still takes on a moral edge - i.e., the consequences stem from the choice.
Well, sure. But the bottom line is that Moss' choice isn't between "right" and "wrong" or "heroic" and "cowardly," but between the permutations of those choices. I think McCarthy's whole argument is that heroism might trump cowardice (i.e. Moss repudiating Wells), but that the Chigurh-style psychopath approach in turn trumps heroism by punishing heroic acts (i.e. Moss repudiating Chigurh). That's the point of his whole discussion about the "new breed" of criminals that's come with the drug wars.

In the classic morality play, the hero steals the money from the bad guys, and when they threaten him and his family, he fights back -- but Chigurh doesn't threaten the hero. He promises to kill Moss and take the money no matter what; the only choice Moss gets is between heroism and the life of his innocent wife. Essentially, this is a discussion about the moral response to hostage-taking, and McCarthy's point seems to be simply that Nietzschean hero-morality isn't equipped to deal with a Hobson's Choice.

And it doesn't address the coin-flipping emphasis, which is really what bothered me the most -- this idea of randomness and chance.
Well, that's also assuming that Chigurh is really being honest about the coin-flipping at all, and it's pretty strongly hinted that he's not. If anything, it's a red herring.

But I think that's oversimplifying the point of the coin just a bit. This is a bit tricky: the issue is whether Chigurh is inside or outside of himself. He clearly would have killed the store clerk, because hey, the store clerk just happened to be in the path of a psycho killer that day; he's simply following the nature of Chigurh. He's fulfilling his own narrative of himself as much as anything. The problem with Norma Jean isn't that she makes the wrong choice, it's that he's not supposed to give her the choice in the first place. He's supposed to be the agent of death, which means that he should kill her just to fulfill Moss' decision.

That's not to say that he's not immoral -- he has no compunction about killing her. The way I read it, Chigurh's unease is with his sudden realization that he let himself become part of the heroic narrative -- albeit as the villain -- because he's let his own agency leak in. He's not supposed to intervene; he's supposed to fulfill Moss' decision; Norma Jean isn't supposed to have a choice. He makes a mistake -- as soon as he pulls the coin out, he loses. He's just inserted his own decision into the mix. (Remember, even when he was recounting his "crisis of faith" to Wells, he was still basically acting like he was outside looking in.)

The parallel with Moss' decision is the choice to become a participant in the story rather than a character, if that makes sense. (This is really just straightforward Kant -- i.e., the distinction is between being an observer or a participant in the morality play.) To McCarthy, the danger isn't in which choice you make, but rather it's inherent in the very act of making a choice at all -- you either opt out of the game, or you play it as an outside observer like Chigurh manages to until the end of the story. If you try to make yourself into a player -- an independent agent -- you lose. The drug-war anti-morality eats you.

Again, I disagree vehemently with McCarthy's worldview, but I do think that's the argument he's trying to make.

I think bitchphd's got it. The thing is, beware of staking too much on any external description of what a character "represents. "It's one thing to say (not necessarily about Chigurh), "But this character commits crimes, how can he be said to represent justice?" -- and quite another to say, "But this character represents justice, isn't it a contradiction that he commits crimes?" The first version starts with an indisputable narrative fact; the second starts from an external observer's BS description of a theme, which is a shaky foundation for any conclusions to follow. Does it actually say in the book that a character "represents justice," "represents amoral nature"? How do you or anybody know what Chigurh "represents" but from synthesizing lower-level "facts on the ground" and coming to a conclusion that does not, strictly speaking, reside in the book itself.

It's an asymptotic game of representation. You say, "Chigurh represents amoral Nature," which suffices as an explanation until someone else comes along and says, "No, Chigurh represents Yankee knowhow and honor but in an otherwise warped and amoral landscape specifically known as 1980 Texas" (let's say; not saying that's really right). We throw out competing explanations and hope to get closer without ever attaining it, and indeed without being able to attain it because a work is always apart from any external description of its themes.

As bitchphd says, the randomness stems from Chigurh as a kind of offer, it's not inherent in the universe any more than Moss's desire to fool the unseen (at the time of pilfering the case) druglords. The chance part does not reside in the coin flips (an offer made consciously by one character, not "the amoral universe"), it resides in the car accident, which impinges on Moss not at all. Is stealing from druglords with great resources likely to end in your own demise? Yes. Does the universe care? No. Are these two facts contradictory? Not at all. Further, does the universe care if our narrative desire for a "showdown" between Chigurh and Sherriff Bell ever occurs? Certainly not.

In the movie anyway (haven't read the book), it's striking that the only times Chigurh ever shows any particular emotion is in connection with the coin flips. It's only then that he gets petulant (very slightly) and demands that others play by his rules etc. It's the only thing that animates him, that people abide by his BS sense of ethics.

My understanding of the plot (and I stand ready to be corrected) is that Llewellyn's return to the scene was the result of conscience, not fear (he went back to help the driver, not to silence him)*. The original "amoral" act (taking the money did not seal his fate, the "moral" act did. If viewed in this way, then the theme of arbitrary nature is upheld - good is not repiad with good, but rather (in this case) leads inexorably to widespread death and destruction.

* Perhaps I misunderstood this, or perhaps it is less ambiguous in the book.

I agree with Chris (we do have the same name, after all). It's returning with the water that seals his fate (in the film at least - haven't read the book), not taking the money in the first place.

Am I the only one who's seeing a proliferation of odd, undefined characters in this post?

No, I see them too. Mass hallucination, no doubt.

Hah! Way too advanced for me! I'm still trying to figure out if Chigur was in the room when Tommy Lee Jones walked in:)

bitchphd does get it.

The coin doesn't decide anything.

FWIW - did the sheriff get killed in the motel room by Anton, and the conversations that follow with his wife and the old man only reveries?

The movie varies from the book, with the sheriff not abandoning the pursuit till he comes upon the car wreck. Only then does he give up, knowing he is overmatched.
The movie takes the point of abandonment back to that room.

Think through the sequence in that room Does the sheriff make it out alive?

So that's my complaint Is No Country a story about choice and consequences, or is it a reflection upon how Nietzschean amoral Nature collides with Man. It seems like it can't be both, but Chigurh certainly has elements of both. Maybe I'm missing something basic, but these strike me as inconsistent metathemes.

Publius, you are certainly on the right track. The more I think about it, the more I appreciate how No Country is layered with similar themes. But in my view, they compliment each other. Think of No Country as a blended whiskey. It has two primary genres - the Western and the Thriller. It has a great chase. It is an homage to the very masculine, brutal Sam Peckinpah classics (Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Wild Bunch). It is a movie about free will. But it is also a movie about nature, and the inability of man to stop 'what's comin'.' It's about evil and how overwhelming it can be (so overwhelming, in fact, people just freeze and never think of running when they encounter Chigurh).

It's a lot of themes layered on top of a simple plot as their vehicle. I think it works really well. The movie set out to be a thinking person's thriller and it succeeded brilliantly. And for once, the Cohen's didn't ridicule their rural, dim-witted supporting characters.

I fixed the weird characters - i have no idea what causes that. anyone?

I'm guessing you're working on a Mac?

actually no - i'm not that cool (yet)

In the book, it is Moss' conscience that cause him to go back and bring water to the dying drug runner. His fate is already sealed, he just doesn't know it yet. The books ending is very different than the movies ending. IMO, the book is more bleak.
Chigurh returns the money and the sherrif retires to the love of his wife and visits his uncle out in the wasteland. Not much hope there IMO. In the movie, what happens to the money? It's not clear. Chigurh doesn't have it when fate really intervenes in the car accident. I think the Mexiicans have it as Bell gets to the motel, the Mexicans are running out after the pickup truck and I think they jumo in the back with a briefcase.

...or pasting in from a word processor?

Why can't it be both? Why can't fate be that complicated? A combination of events beyond one's control clashing/mutating with the choices one makes?

Certainly from God's point of view it must be, no? Why else would we have free will? And why else would we need God if free will was all we needed?

If McCarthy is guilty of a failing here, perhaps that's all it is: trying to see things through God's eyes.

As much as Chigurh seems to represent nature or evil, he's as vulnerable to both as anyone else. He gets shot, he's hit by a car, he clearly feels pain. He was simply the biggest bad ass among the set of characters presented, IMO.

Chigurh is pretty clearly intended to be cruel Nature. The Coens capture this symbolism quite well in the beginning with the broad sweeping shots of the Western desert expanse.

I'm not sure the story's as symbolist as that. Perhaps the Coens' opening shot is simply the establishing shot (more of an aesthetic than narrative statement). Chigurh is wonderfully monomaniacal, and, so, with referents like Ahab and the like, it's hard not to see him as symbolic, but the haircut gives him away as mere mortal (in the film at least). Were he to truly symbolize cruelty, he wouldn't have that comical edge, no?

No conflict at all, Publius. *All* your choices destroy you, because in nature, there *are* no good choices. Sooner or later, you die. The illusion is that you can make a good choice.

Chigurh's coin toss illustrates this by contrast -- the only "good choice" you can make is really dumb luck, i.e. no choice at all.

(Fwiw, Moss's wife should've taken the coin toss -- there was always the chance that she might've won. But she had too much pride to give Chigurh the satisfaction of winning the toss.)

"Chigurh'€™s whole coin toss business therefore symbolizes how quickly and whimsically amoral Nature can...come and take your life away."

But cf. this line: "You need to call it. I can't call it for you. It wouldn't be fair."

yep, i do paste - but i always paste

I didn't see the characters in question, but smart quotes are a common culprit when pasting from a word processor.

After looking at it some more, it looks like one of the culprits is the apostrophe.

Really, the only clearly "wrong" thing he does at that point is not helping the dying man, and he ends up saving himself later when he goes back to rectify that (because otherwise the tracker would have given him away).

I've only read the book but I disagree that going back was a good thing. In fact I still can't figure out the thinking since the thirsty guy is obviously going to die water or no, and he didn't go back until 8 hours later.

As far as rondom chance the book seems to argue the oppsite. True there are a million possibilities but there is only one outcome that follows from each choice we make. A single unalterable sequence of events. We ca nspecualte on how it might have turned out differently but what's the point since that is not what happened.

Norma Jean isn't supposed to have a choice. He makes a mistake -- as soon as he pulls the coin out, he loses. He's just inserted his own decision into the mix.

I also think Adam has it exactly right here. Pulling out the coin is like a bullet stopping midfight and asking whether you want it to go in your shoulder or your heart.

Also in the book she does call the coin toss, and loses.

Also in the book she does call the coin toss, and loses.

Good, that makes more sense. But she still tells him it's really his doing, right?

Here's another way of looking at it: we're naturally savage. The only choice you can make that's really a choice, then, is to resist nature & not be a savage. And that's what the sheriff sees people increasingly (?) failing to do -- to make the choice not to be savage. Except, as his friend points out at the end, people have always been savage.

I'm going to make a general comment. I love Obsidian Wings and enjoy the thoughtful writing here. I love movies, and enjoy the Coen brothers work a lot. I have not seen NCFOM yet, and am looking forward to it, and will have lots of opinions when I've seen it.

All that said, I'd rather like OW to not devote posts to movie discussion. There are plenty of places on the web for it, and there's enough to chew on at OW as it is.

That's just my personal opinion, and many will disagree, I'm sure -- but wanted to go on record....

Except for the Mariachis, there is no music..like life.

Now, I like a good gloom-jerker as much as the next person.

Every time I try to read Cormac McCarthy, though, I wind up thinking, "Now what did he ever do to be entitled to such cynicism?"

I haven't read the book and I saw the film long enough ago that some of the details have faded from memory. The impression I left with was that it was a post-quantum mechanics, post-chaos theory examination of free will.

As in Patricia Highsmith novels, the smallest, seemingly insignificant choices determine the arc and descent of the central character. In "No Country", when a choice becomes small enough it becomes arbitrary and its cause becomes unmeasurable. However, the result of the "choice" then causes a flapping-of-the-wings of-a-butterfly-in-Texas-causes-a-flood-in-India level of repercussion.

Of course, the existential conceit just becomes the premise for a stylistic tour de force.

"All that said, I'd rather like OW to not devote posts to movie discussion. There are plenty of places on the web for it, and there's enough to chew on at OW as it is. "

I'd prefer ObWi to post about Firefly all the time, but, you know, it's not my blog.

I had the same reaction after I saw the movie, thinking of it as essentially a pretentious Western, but a couple of months later have changed my view. If the movie had been more coherent (that is, if it settled the question of whether Chigurh deserved his fate) I think it would have been much more forgettable.

Here's my example, to make the point more convincing. Take a look at "Charley Varrick," by Don Siegel, from the 70's (the movie he made after "Dirty Harry"). In a lot of ways the plot is similar to "No Country": a decent working-class man, a crop-duster pilot played by Walter Matthau, ends up with a shitload of money, due to a twist of fate.

Matthau isn't too worried about the authorities, but exactly as he feared, he finds himself pursued by a vicious hitman, played by Joe Don Baker, who will stop at nothing to get the money back -- and hurt or kill anyone who gets in his way, as much for the sadistic pleasure of it as anything else. Sound familiar?

Without giving away the ending, it's fair to say "Charley Varrick" is resolved more coherently. But although it's a terrific action movie finale, it's still much less compelling than "No Country..." precisely because "No Country..." didn't let us off the hook by giving us the ending we wanted.

As the producer Scott Rudin said of "No Country..", the great virtue of the story is that it embedded its thoughtfulness in an action movie plot.

This is what makes it more than just an action movie, in the end, even though in the end it's still a good movie.

bitchphd: The funny thing is, if I remember right, in the book she does call it.

In the novel, Moss has a chance to shoot Chigurh in the back but he does not (it's during the shootout right after Moss figures out how he's being tracked). That's a heroic act that will cost him in the end. The film adaptation omitted that crucial point, and I can't figure out why.

Also: the scene between Carla Jean and Chigurh, among other things, depicts the danger of one of America's most cherished virtues--sticking to one's word. Chigurh kills Carla Jean because he promised Moss he would. Like Carla Jean says, he doesn't have to. But he gave his word. His word leads to needless death. It's insane. And it's a damn good indictment of "sticking to one's word" regardless of conscequences.

Publius:

"So that's my complaint - is _No Country For Old Men_ a story about choice and consequences, or is it a reflection upon how Nietzchean amoral Nature collides with man. It seems like it can't be both ...."

I don't know. I'd flip a coin and run with it. It seems to me it could be both.

I saw the movie but haven't read the book. I have read much of McCarthy, most recently _The Road_. Also the Border Trilogy, and _Blood Meridian_. So, going into this movie I was ready for full-on McCarthy ---- an inexorable force moving in the universe that subsumes all petty choice and seems to make new rules, except that the old AND the new rules are temporal constructs ....

Human beings, formerly engaged in tender human interaction in _The Road_ find themselves now viewed by food for the other survivors after the calamity. The Judge in _Blood Meridian_ bears down on the Kid like the whale in _Moby Dick_ bears down on Ahab --- the seeming intentionality of the bearing down offers no comfort.

(Incidentally, when they make a film of _Blood Meridian_, the director casting the Judge would do well to set the corpse of Marlon Brando on a horse, give the horse a good slap on the flank, and see what happens.)

In the back of my mind, too, was curiosity about what the Coen Brothers would do with McCarthy material.

The Coin:

Porcupine_Pal: "The coin doesn't decide anything."

I offer the following, not as an answer, but as evidence in the film for whatever conclusions folks would like to reach.

In the early scene with Chigurh offering the coin toss to the store proprietor:

Chigurh: "You know what date is on this coin?"

Prop.: "No."

Chigurh: "1958. It's been traveling 28 years to get here. And now it's here. And it's either heads or tails, and you have to say it. Call it."

The coin is tossed.

Chigurh: "Don't put it in your pocket. It's your lucky quarter"

Prop.: "Where do you want me to put it?"

Chigurh: "Anywhere, not in your pocket. Or it'll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin, WHICH IT IS."

Now, the proprietor didn't make a choice. He GUESSED heads ... or tails with this coin he now figures must have been intentionally smelted in the Federal Mint 28 years ago, and transported via infinite pockets, cash register drawers, and monetary transactions to decide his fate.

Whether Chigurh murdered the proprietor or not on the basis of the coin toss, or on the basis of whatever he felt like doing in the moment, making sense of the murder eludes me, as does making sense of the proprietor not being murdered.

More:

Interestingly, to continue the coin theme, at the end when the Sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) pauses outside the motel room door and stares for many moments at the blown-out door lock, he enters the room and the last thing he sees is the open heating vent and laying there, having been used to lossen the screws, is a coin.

John B.:

Chigurh returns the money and the sherrif retires to the love of his wife and visits his uncle out in the wasteland. Not much hope there IMO.
Oh, don't sell it short -- it's way worse than that! Chigurh takes the money back to the DEA agent to whom it belonged in the first place (not the drug lords) and basically pays them to become the predator at the top of the drug-war food chain. And Bell reveals that the government then sets up some other poor guy to take the fall for Chigurh, who disappears utterly. They also very obviously blackmail one of the two kids who runs into Chigurh after the crash. The ending is just horribly painful.

Fledermaus:

I've only read the book but I disagree that going back was a good thing. In fact I still can't figure out the thinking since the thirsty guy is obviously going to die water or no, and he didn't go back until 8 hours later.
Perhaps, but it's still an act of mercy, and he's correcting something in accord with his own conscience. And he's rewarded for it, at least transiently -- if Moss doesn't go back, he doesn't find out that he's been made, and he gets found via the transponder and killed before he has a chance to run.


As to the Chigurh-Carla Jean scene:

In the book, Carla Jean does call the coin toss, and I prefer it that way, particularly because she initially refuses. That makes Chigurh uneasy, because if she refuses the call it, Chigurh has to kill her anyway, which is what he's "supposed" to do there.

But then, by calling the coin toss, she turns things around on him -- for that moment, he's the store clerk on the other side, because if she wins, then she survives by an act of mercy that it was his decision to grant in the first place. He knows that he's just interfered with the machinations of the universe. You can feel his relief when she loses and he gets to go through with what he's "supposed" to do anyway -- exactly like the store clerk's relief at winning earlier. And like the store clerk, he feels damned uneasy about it even as he leaves (checking his shoes for blood, etc.).

The beauty of the scene is that Chigurh inadvertently puts himself on the receiving end of the coin toss, and he knows it but can't do anything about it.

Chigurh is Nemesis, the Greek god of just retribution and the emissary of the gods to those humans who defy their fate. Llewellyn is the common man, a hunter whose fate is to hunt and to hunt cleanly. Llewellyn defies his fate when he abandons the hunt and his obligation to cleanly kill the wounded antelope to seek someone else's fortune (fate). (This is a subtle reference to the opening scene of La Dolce Vita when the hero ceases to follow the "statue of Christ.)
Nemesis' (Chigurh's) weapon of choice is the stun gun used by humans to kill beef cattle - the higher species executing the lower species as is fated by the gods - a perfect metaphor.
I found the movie a remarkable work of great film craft. Never read the book - I don't read cowboy stories.
JohnS

I agree with the view that it's a great piece of work, but it bugs me that the law enforcement types in the film seem like such dimwits. The first guy who arrests Chigurh and then leaves him sitting on a bench, turns his back on him, and makes a phone call? In any police department I've ever known, the FIRST thing you do with a suspect who's not going to be interrogated is put him in a cell. I know all works of fiction require a suspension of disbelief, but that was pretty steep.

John Schmidt:

"Chigurh is Nemesis, ......"

Maybe in McCarthy's literary universe, but remember now we have the Coen Brothers entering that universe, and these were the guys who said they had never read Homer when asked about obvious references in "Brother, Where Art Thou?".

But an elegant interpretation, nonetheless.

The coin and its toss:

Chigurh: "You know what date is on this coin?"
Proprietor: "No."
Chigurh: "1958. It's been traveling 28 years to get here. And now it's here. And it's either head or tails, and you have to say it. Call it."

The coin is tossed.

Chigurh: "Don't put it in your pocket. It's your lucky quarter."
Prop: "Where do you want me to put it?"
Chigurh: "Anywhere, not in your pocket. Or it'll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin, WHICH IT IS."

Interestingly, to continue the coin theme, at the end when the Sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) pauses outside the motel room door and stares for many exquisite moments at the blown-out lock, he enters the room and the last thing he sees is the open heating vent and laying there, having been used to loosen the screws, is a coin.

We know the mathematics of the universe but we don't know whether it knows us.

If you are a Coen brothers fan, you might want to check out this Guardian piece concerning Fargo and Takako Konishi. The ourobouros of imitation.

McCarthy's not my cup of tea, but I like the Cohen brothers. I read Suttree, All the Pretty Horses and something else and filed them away with Faulkner and O'Connor's Southern Gothic, that I can't stand.

As I Lay Dying refers to me in bed trying to get through that book.

MILLER'S Crossing is the best.

just watched no country for old men, it was unassumingly unconventional yet (thankfully) never over-the-top. the Coen bros. deserve their Oscars; well done indeed.

Chigurh is pretty clearly intended to be cruel Nature. The Coens capture this symbolism quite well in the beginning with the broad sweeping shots of the Western desert expanse. Chigurh'€™s whole coin toss business therefore symbolizes how quickly and whimsically amoral Nature can -- Fiddy Cent style --“ come and take your life away.

I interpreted Chigurh somewhat differently. To me he embodied primal violence - that random, brutal aspect of human nature that exists in everyone, and over which the veneer of civilization is papered. The coin flip is the arbitrary way in which this violence bursts from beneath the surface, the cattle gun the way we contain it in "civilized" ways (killing our prey with in an orderly fashion, with a minimum of suffering, but killing them nonetheless, just as our ancestors did) - the fact that Chigurh turns this tool of orderly mass meat production to murder and busting open locks (a symbol of social restraint) indicates that civilization can never fully tame it.


In other words, Llewelyn's downfall doesn't result from arbitrary coin-flipping Nature, but from his choice to pick up a bag of drug money and run with it. That choice, in turn, triggers an irreversible and ultimately fatal chain of events. He acts, and the wheels of Justice eventually catch up to him. It's quite the opposite of amoral coin flips.

I don't think so - remember that it's not taking the money per se that gets Llewellyn in trouble, but going back with the agua for the dying Mexican. So ironically, it's not a selfish act that does him in, but a selfless one. This is not, though, because there's some ultimate arbiter of justice (or injustice) in the universe. That's not Chigurh's role. I think it's very pointed that after spending the whole movie stalking Moss, killing countless other people while he does, he doesn't kill Moss - the nameless Mexicans do. Chigurh kills Carla Jean, who explicitly states her innocence. Violence isn't moral, it isn't immoral, it doesn't follow any human concept of justice or morality - it just is. In McCarthy's view as I take it human moral judgments cannot ultimately control the instinctual brutality of our nature, and sometimes unleash it unpredictable ways, as we see in Moss' story. The best we can do is, as Sheriff Bell's father says to him in the dream at the end, go out and build a fire against the darkness - try and light some small circle of our existence with law and rationality against the darkness of our nature. Sometimes, this fails, as embodied by Bell's inability to stop the slaughter around him. As an outlook on the universe/human nature, it's bleak as hell, but I don't think it's incoherent.

It's kind of interesting that, after the amount of time they spent poking fun at the German nihilists in The Big Lebowski, the Coens go on to win their first directing Oscar for a film that's so unremittingly nihilist. I guess it's an ethos after all.

I don't think so - remember that it's not taking the money per se that gets Llewellyn in trouble, but going back with the agua for the dying Mexican. So ironically, it's not a selfish act that does him in, but a selfless one.

This isn't accurate -- again, if he doesn't go back with the water, then he never runs, and more likely than not they track him down with the transponder and kill him. What does him in is turning down Wells' offer. What does Carla Jean in is turning down Chigurh's offer.

In McCarthy's view as I take it human moral judgments cannot ultimately control the instinctual brutality of our nature, and sometimes unleash it unpredictable ways, as we see in Moss' story.

As I take it, McCarthy's view is that liberal humanism makes us vulnerable to the implacable ruthlessness of a terrorist/druglord morality. But that's just me. All his Updike-ish waxing-nostalgic about the good old days really rubs me the wrong way. He does make the argument more convincingly than most, though.

Phil, don't you think they were just poking fun of the trappings of German nihilism, rather than rejecting it outright? Walter's "**** it dude, let's go bowling" strikes me as a just about perfectly calibrated hedonistic American response to pretentious European intellectual pessimism.

I think it's very pointed that after spending the whole movie stalking Moss, killing countless other people while he does, he doesn't kill Moss - the nameless Mexicans do.

Also, I don't know about the movie, but it's made pretty clear in the book that Chigurh killed Moss and the girl, and that he paid off the DEA agent in the end to pin it on the Mexicans.

Xeynon, that seemed pretty self-evident to me, too. I mean... "Ve are nihilists! Ve believe in nozzink!" is pretty clearly tongue-in-cheek. (I think Phil was being tongue-in-cheek, too.)

Ah, I'm giggling just thinking about it.

And apropos of nothing, isn't Flea an underrated actor? That guy gets the best parts -- his scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is just classic.

This isn't accurate -- again, if he doesn't go back with the water, then he never runs, and more likely than not they track him down with the transponder and kill him.

Perhaps, but it seems unlikely from the film at least (I haven't read the book yet). What tips Chigurh off in the movie that Moss is the guy who too took the money is the VIN number from Moss' truck Chigurh gets when Moss goes back with the water, so if he hadn't gone back, at the very least he would have had more time to disappear before he was tracked down. Perhaps Chigurh could have located him using the transponder, but it seems unlikely, since A.)he wouldn't know where to look (Texas is a pretty big place, and the transponder has a very limited range - in the movie it only works when Chigurh gets within 100 yards or so of the motel where Moss first hides the money), and B.)Moss likely would have thrown it away as soon as he found it, and without the desperation of knowing he would be tracked down and killed within a few hours if he didn't leave right away, he could have fled in a way that better hid his tracks. In this version, at the very least the two acts are equally causative of his downfall - which makes sense, given that the film's worldview seems to be that there is no ultimate logic to the causality of events, at least not one that conforms to human conceptions of justice or morality.

In McCarthy's view as I take it human
As I take it, McCarthy's view is that liberal humanism makes us vulnerable to the implacable ruthlessness of a terrorist/druglord morality. But that's just me. All his Updike-ish waxing-nostalgic about the good old days really rubs me the wrong way. He does make the argument more convincingly than most, though.

Don't you think the scene between Bell and his uncle nicely undercuts that sort of socially reactionary reading though? The uncle basically says that it's always been a violent world - reminding him of the robbery/murder in his grandfather's time - and that it's vanity for Bell to think he's the only one who's ever confronted this sort of evil or to think he ought to have the power to stop it. Again, might be rather different in the book though.

I don't know about the movie, but it's made pretty clear in the book that Chigurh killed Moss and the girl, and that he paid off the DEA agent in the end to pin it on the Mexicans.

This is totally different in the film - Bell, approaching the motel where Moss was to meet Carla Jean, sees the Mexican gang tear out of the parking lot, and pulling in finds the bodies of Carla Jean's mother, the woman by the pool, and Moss. Moss' death is off-screen, but it's pretty clear Chigurh didn't kill him - sounds like a rather important departure from the source.

(I think Phil was being tongue-in-cheek, too.)

As was I. I think in addition to being frickin' hysterical, "The Big Lebowski" actually works as a rather brilliant Coen self-parody/deconstruction of the noir genre and its implicit nihilism, if one cares to intellectualize it to that extent (though perhaps one does so at one's peril). Does the Dude believe in anything? Certainly it's not clear from the film. But he's got bowling, doobs, White Russians, coitus, Creedence, tapes of the Song of the Whale and the '94 League Finals, and his hatred of the f*ckin' Eagles, and that's enough for him. In other words, even Nietzsche (or Uli Kunkel) would have enjoyed life a bit more if he'd just lightened up a little.

I agree about Flea, too. I'd also give a nod to his work (alongside Anthony Kiedis, no less) as a nimwit motorhead in the Charlie Sheen vehicle "The Chase", which has to be one of the most underrated "so-bad-it's-great" cinematic guilty pleasures of all time. Highly recommended if you haven't seen it already.

but it's made pretty clear in the book that Chigurh killed Moss and the girl, and that he paid off the DEA agent in the end to pin it on the Mexicans.

I haven't seen the movie either, only read the book. But where do you get this? I'm certain the mexican killed Moss and the girl. Moss was a nothing, the DEA could care less about him.

Perhaps, but it seems unlikely from the film at least (I haven't read the book yet).

It's stated explicitly in the book -- Chigurh says before he runs into Wells that he figures that Moss is dead.

Don't you think the scene between Bell and his uncle nicely undercuts that sort of socially reactionary reading though?

I'll go back and read it again, but this isn't my recollection of it. There's a whole bunch of places in the book where McCarthy complains about the good ol' days. It shows up in his other books, too. I think he's smart enough to be conflicted about it, but there's definitely an undercurrent of excessive nostalgia.

This is totally different in the film - Bell, approaching the motel where Moss was to meet Carla Jean, sees the Mexican gang tear out of the parking lot, and pulling in finds the bodies of Carla Jean's mother, the woman by the pool, and Moss.

My recollection in the book was that Bell arrived on the scene some time after the killings occurred, and that much later on he went to follow up with the guy who'd been fingered for it and found out that he didn't really know anything. I'll double-check this one too, though.

I'm going to go watch the movie tomorrow, actually, so should be able to say more then. I started it tonight and it's already clearly quite different. For example, in the book, Moss doesn't shoot the antelope -- he misses completely. The fact that he lets the injured animal get away in the movie -- as mentioned above -- is a little bit weird to me.

O Brother is actually my favorite Coen movie, but Big Lebowski is a close second. :) I'll see where No Country fits in the pantheon soon ehough.

she had too much pride to give Chigurh the satisfaction of winning the toss

No, that's not it at all. It's that she's refusing to be complicit in her own victimization.

Think of the psychological aspect of, say, Sophie's choice. Or the situation where a torturer says "if you do X, I won't hurt your kids; if you don't do X, I will." It's a totally false offer, one that's specifically intended (consciously or no) to fuck with the victim. If you go along with it, then you're agreeing to your own torture (or possibly, in Carla Jean's case, her own death).

Of course, it makes sense logically for her to take the 50% chance. Though for all she knows it's a bullshit offer. She has no leverage to make him uphold his end of it, after all, if he decides to change his mind. In terms of emotional satisfaction for the audience, though, it makes more sense for her to refuse to enter into his game.

(In terms of potential themes about the ultimate irrelevance of choice, honor, etc., though, it makes more sense for her to call the toss, precisely *because* it undermines the audiences faith in her integrity. So I can understand why McCarthy would have her do this in the book, and why the Coens wouldn't do it in the movie.)

Chigurh kills Carla Jean because he promised Moss he would.

No. He kills her because he is a killer.

I think the movie (at least) really wants us to realize this; that the "reasons" people give for things are, on some level, rationalizations, and that the entire process of making meaning out of stories ("*why* does Chigurh kill?") is always somewhat arbitrary. Hence the musings about how the violence "these days" doesn't make any sense.

That said, it is also true that Chigurh's "reasoning"--I have to kill you b/c I told your husband I would--is very in keeping with the old western movie ethos of a man being no better than his word. And it's pretty neat how this movie overturns our idea that that's heroic by forcing us to see that the consequences of that sort of thing can be just as violent and disruptive as the chaos that "honor" is supposed to control.

There's a whole bunch of places in the book where McCarthy complains about the good ol' days. It shows up in his other books, too. I think he's smart enough to be conflicted about it, but there's definitely an undercurrent of excessive nostalgia.

The movie has its share of that, but it's entirely in the words of Bell, so perhaps it's easier to see the penultimate scene as undermining it (as well as chalking it up to narrator bias).

I'm going to go watch the movie tomorrow, actually, so should be able to say more then. I started it tonight and it's already clearly quite different.

It seems like they changed quite a bit. I'll be interested to hear your take on the differences.

O Brother is actually my favorite Coen movie, but Big Lebowski is a close second. :)

O Brother's underrated, I think, but I'd rank it 5th on the list of the ones I've seen - behind Lebowski, Fargo, No Country, and Blood Simple. That's more a comment on the quality of their body of work, though, because it's a very good movie. Still need to see Raising Arizona and Miller's Crossing as I've heard both are among their best work.

I think you all need to start studying Nietzsche again, cause if you think he's a nihilist you didn't understand much of his thought. Nihilism for Nietzsche is a fase we have to overcome, it's the starting point of his philosophy. His theory of morality is a reaction to Schopenhauer's decadent nihilism (see aphorism 5 in the introduction to 'on the genealogy of morality). Nietzsche asks himself how we can live in a world with no god, with no right and wrong and not say no to life. If you want to call him a nihilist you have to call him a life-affirming nihilist.

If you want to read more about Nietzsche I suggest starting with Walter Kaufmann's 'Nietzsche. Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist.'.

Yeah Michael, I know Nietzsche wasn't strictly speaking a nihilist, but he did pretty much torch all the inherited value systems of western civilization and then went insane trying to construct some sort of meaningful life atop the ashes, and he was obviously the spiritual forebear of the self-described nihilists in "The Big Lebowski", so I think it's okay to apply the term a bit loosely here.

As far as life-affirming nihilists go, I'll take the Dude. ;)

This is totally different in the film - Bell, approaching the motel where Moss was to meet Carla Jean, sees the Mexican gang tear out of the parking lot, and pulling in finds the bodies of Carla Jean's mother, the woman by the pool, and Moss.

Slight nitpick here: Carla Jean's mom is in the cab with Carla Jean when she arrives in the cab at the motel and is met by Bell, no? At least that's how I remember it -- they are coming in the cab directly from the bus depot. The Mexicans got there ahead of them because her mother talked to the man at the bus depot who helped her with their bags. That's why Bell arrives to find Moss's body in the daylight -- in my reading, shortly after the scene with Moss and the woman at the pool -- and Carla Jean and her mom show up by the time its already dark.

You might be right, Phil - now that I think about it, I'm not sure if it was Carla Jean's mother or another person - I just remember there being two victims beside Moss in that scene.

I'm following a course on Nietzsche and this discussion has given me an idea for an essay.. maybe I could show how the Dude is an Overman (Übermensch) and that you don't have to think of Nietzsche as some cranky, dark old German pessimist.

:D

It's worth noting that while McCarthy's characters and sometimes the narrative wax nostalgic for the good old days, whenever he writes a story set in what would be another story's good old days...those days in fact suck too. And of course this extends into the future with The Road, where we're the good old days now. I think that he's strongly aware of his own tendency to nostalgia and committed to subverting it.

Slight nitpick here: Carla Jean's mom is in the cab with Carla Jean when she arrives in the cab at the motel and is met by Bell, no? At least that's how I remember it -- they are coming in the cab directly from the bus depot. The Mexicans got there ahead of them because her mother talked to the man at the bus depot who helped her with their bags. That's why Bell arrives to find Moss's body in the daylight -- in my reading, shortly after the scene with Moss and the woman at the pool -- and Carla Jean and her mom show up by the time its already dark.

OK, mystery-solving time. The issue of what happens at the motel is intentionally vague in the book, but it's really fun to puzzle through. This is basically what happens. (As an initial point, Carla Jean is supposed to meet Bell at a different motel, and Bell only sees Moss in the morgue -- afterwards, he goes on to his original meeting with Carla Jean and tells her.)

Chigurh was on his way there, too -- clue one is when he finds the Sheriff's number at Carla Jean's house -- meaning that he's the ambiguous "man" who's tracing the line later, because he's the only one who knows to do so. After Carla Jean calls Bell, Chigurh is the one who hears it and drives off in the Barracuda.

So, clue two is the Barracuda, which is almost certainly Wells' -- note that Chigurh takes Wells' car (not the Ramcharger) after killing Wells, and specifically looks under the hood before driving off for a reason that's not explained until later, when Bell asks at the hotel whether the Barracuda has any horsepower and the officer tells him it's got a sidewinder under the hood. (This is also the only way of explaining what happens to Wells' car after Chigurh takes it.)

Also, in the interim, it's intentionally left unclear what car Chigurh is driving or what happened to Wells' car -- at least, until Chigurh is back in the Ramcharger after Moss is killed (he's driving it when he goes to retrieve the satchel), whih is immediately after the Barracuda is left at the hotel.

The Dodge is also the car that Chigurh's driving when he's in the accident, although there it's described as a "Dodge" -- though Bell later finds out that it was bought in Mexico and unregistered (which jives with the fact that Chigurh originally took it from the two drug-runners when he first found Moss' truck). So the car-switching is clue two that Chigurh is the one that kills Moss.

(Also note that there's a brief scene where someone pulls the Barracuda into a car wash and cleans blood off the windshield -- which is a clear parallel to the first time Chigurh kills the driver with the stungun. The likely implication is that the state trooper pulled Chigurh over for driving top speed toward El Paso to catch Carla Jean, and Chigurh killed the trooper with his stungun and burned the car, but that all happens off-screen.)

Clue three is the Mexican that Bell goes to visit on death row near the end of the book. Bell wants to know if this is the same guy as Chigurh -- he knows that he's supposed to be dark-skinned, speak English, etc. We know that he's superficially similar to Chigurh, and that he's taking credit for killing the highway trooper and burning the car right before the motel killing, and the lawyer implies that they're closing the case and that Bell is the only one who thinks there's another "mystery man" out there. (It's also strongly implied that the lawyer knows better and is probing Bell to see if he needs to be shut up as well.)

At this point, Bell's talked to the witnesses in the accident and is almost certain that it was Chigurh -- but that the guy taking credit for the killings was in jail at the time. Bell also knows that the hotel was broken into (when Chigurh took the satchel), so he's already suspected it for a while.

What cinches it is when the Mexican tells Bell that he shot the trooper between the eyes before burning him in the car. At that point, Bell knows that this can't be the guy, because he doesn't know about the stungun. But he doesn't tell anyone about it -- he admits to the lawyer that it's too big for him, and the second to last chapter is Bell going out to his truck and admitting to himself that he's been defeated.

The final potential clue is in the third- or fourth-to-last chapter, when Bell explains that "we're being bought with our own money" and that even law enforcement is in on the game. At that point it's clear that he's figured out there's been a cover-up protect Chigurh, who slipped the noose and later killed Carla Jean, which Bell feels responsible for. This also contextualizes Bell's last words with the lawyer, about Mammon, and Chigurh being too big for him to handle.


So then, the only question left is: who tipped off Chigurh to Moss' hiding place at the hotel? The answer to this one is pretty simple, if a little disappointing -- Moss hadn't reached his destination yet, and only one other person knew where he was. And conveniently, he left that person alone for a while just before to go buy beer, and that person is suspiciously more well-informed about him when he returns. (Sadly, it's implied that he's well aware of it, too.) The final location of the bag also seems to give this one away.

No Country . . . Actions and consequences are simply fact. If there's a moral component, humans put it there. Humans seek coherence as well. We can play with change, getting old, the psychic landscape and how much drape one should allow for jeans to cover boots.

No Country . . . Actions and consequences are simply fact. If there's a moral component, humans put it there. Humans seek coherence as well. We can play with change, getting old, the psychic landscape and how much drape one should allow for jeans to cover boots.

A little experiment:

1) Watch all 5 (short) parts of this excellent series by Vice TV: True Norwegian Black Metal: http://www.vbs.tv/video.php?id=769427891

2) Primer on LaVeyan satanism, the obvious philosophy of Gaahl: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LaVeyan_Satanism

3) I rewatched "No Country For Old Men" this past weekend with the above in mind, and found it to be tremendously fruitful. Watch the Norwegian Black Metal documentary, read the article on LaVeyan Satanism, and pop in No Country. I would love to hear what you all think, and will spare you my reflections, except to point out the obvious connection between Anton Chigurh and a kind of interpretation of Nietzsche's Overman or Gaahl-esque figure. And throw out a few questions:

What happens in a world in which God is truly dead and one is one's own god? In which one can make any system of valuation that benefits oneself? In which one's property goes so far as to include one's own appearance, and anyone who has "trespassed" by appropriating that property through viewing another can be justifiably punished (according to the rules of punishment set by the person who creates the values)? These all seem like very logical extensions from a very radical Nietzschean individualism combined with a very radical capitalism.
Watch Chigurh with this in mind, think about Tommy Lee Jones' perspective, and I think you see a very different movie.

No need to go so far as symbolism & whatnot. Much of the movie ties together nicely and is exceptionally thought provoking by considering such questions, and by considering the possibility that Tommy Lee Jones' dream is just a dream. There may not be anyone waiting ahead in the darkness, in the night. It is just us riding along. Alone.

I stumbled across this blog after watching "No Country for Old Men." What I'm reading here is a maybe one person who really got the point in the movie. So why does Chigurh kill? Who really cares? This movie/book (haven't read the book but will in the next few weeks) is about Sheriff Bell (T ommy Lee Jones). He's a sheriff stuck in his ways and isn't interested in what's going on because he can't keep up with it.

The rest of this babble is ultimately amusing. I've laughed several times reading this over. If you don't understand the movie or have questions left over after the end you've missed the point, and I'm not going to spell it for you. It's right there, there's no deeper meaning, there's no "Why does Chigurh kill?" He kills because he's a killer, Llewelyn runs because he has drug money he wants to keep because he's been broke most of his life. It's a great piece of work and looking for hidden meaning is really spoiling the work.

Some films dig deeper into a more complex meaning but this isn't one of them. This movie deals a lot about what it is to be a man, and if you're looking for more you really should be looking in the mirror and asking yourself if you are a man or you understand them. I'm not talking about the typical Alpha male complex, I'm just saying when you can look yourself in the mirror and say "I am a man" you can really understand what this movie is about.

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