Saturday, October 02, 2010

No Country For Old Men



I've been fascinated by the Coen brothers movie, "No Country For Old Men," watching it over and over, five times now. Then I got the book by Cormac McCarthy, which was even better and filled in more details. I've been trying to figure out what it means with partial success. The themes I see are free will versus fatalism, which leads to the larger clash of civilization versus barbarism.

The fatalism is illustrated by the antagonist, Anton Chigurh, in his use of a coin toss to determine whether or not to kill his victims. He has no passion invested in killing them but believes it is a matter of chance whether they live or die, just as it was chance that brought him to them. Nor does Chigurh have any moral qualms about killing. It's just part of his job, neither good nor evil, just something to be done. Carson Wells and Carla Jean Moss both tell Chigurh that he doesn't need to do this, to kill them. Chigurh rejects the idea that he has any say in the matter.

Chigurh first tosses the coin when he encounters the gas station proprietor who notices the Dallas plates on his car. He leaves it to the coin toss to decide whether he should eliminate this witness. When the toss lets the man live, he walks away unperturbed. It was the man's fate to live, not Chigurh's decision, as Chigurh sees it.

Carla Jean Moss refuses to play Chigurh's game, calling the toss, by saying that "the coin ain't got no say." In other words, the coin has no moral agency. It is Chirgurh's decision to kill her or spare her, not the coin's. Carla Jean represents free will. Chigurh, fatalism.

Carson Wells and Carla Jean Moss both tell Chigurh that he doesn't need to do this, to kill them. Chigurh rejects the idea that he has any choice in the matter, that he has any moral agency. Anton Chigurh is the coin.

Barbarism is the absence of moral agency, the Hobbesian state of nature, which is "the state of men without civil society (which state may be called the state of nature) is nothing but a war of all against all; and that in that war, all have a right to all things." In this amoral war, men pursue their aims without limit, recognizing no moral boundaries. Chigurh is an emissary of that Hobbesian state of men, of barbarism. That barbarism was the natural state of humans for a million years until they organized themselves into civilizations in the last few millennia, a barbarism that naturally re-emerges when civilization relents or retreats.

That retreat of civilization is what Sheriff Ed Tom Bell talks about with the El Paso Sheriff, that it all begins to fall apart when kids lose their manners. Sheriff Bell is a tragic figure in this story because ultimately he joins that retreat by quitting law enforcement in the face of rampant barbarism represented by the insanely violent drug trade.

Tom Bell feels like a fraud. He was a soldier, a hero of WWII, where he fought off an attack of Germans single-handedly, winning a Bronze Star. His guilty secret is that when night fell, he abandoned his position and slunk back to his own lines, leaving his dead friends behind. He was sure that, in the same situation, his father, a veteran of WWI, would have stayed and fought to the death.

His family had a tradition of standing up to barbarism. His Uncle Max was gunned down on his own porch, shot in his doorway by a pack of Indians in 1909, as he was going for his shotgun. His Uncle Ellis was shot by a criminal and confined to a wheelchair. They all faced down the barbarians without relent nor retreat. Tom Bell did not live up to their standard and feels himself a lesser man for it. Hence his dreams.

In the first dream Tom Bell says he and his father were in town, his father gave him some money, and he lost it. The town represents the civilization his forefathers built. The money represents his cultural inheritance. He lost it by surrendering to the barbarians.

The second dream is set outside the city in the wilderness. His father passes him in the dark on horseback, carrying fire to make the next campsite out ahead. The camp he will make in the dark wilderness is civilization. The fire he carries is his code of morality, without which there is no civilization. That campsite, that civilization, that moral code is a benchmark Ed Tom never reaches. He wakes from that dream short of that ideal set by his father. He's haunted by his shortcomings, by not measuring up to his father.

When Ed Tom confronts the unrestrained intelligent evil of Anton Chigurh and the chorus of mindlessly violent Mexican drug dealers, he feels overmatched. To defeat them, he feels that he would have to abandon his morality, to become evil to conquer evil, to "put your soul at hazard," something he's unwilling to do, a moral boundary he will not cross.

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8 Comments:

Blogger Faith said...

Great to see you blogging again!

Sun Oct 03, 04:46:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous Albion Wilde said...

Agreeing with Faith's comment. This is an excellent examination of NCfOM, an enigmatic movie. Your having read the book has shed light on, forgive me, its nuances.

Fri Oct 29, 06:38:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous Nindif said...

Fantastic analysis! I am also currently composing an analysis on NCFOM using the film and novel as sources of thematic information and inference. The story has fascinated and engaged me since i first saw it at the cinema in 2007.

Whilst i think there is certainly more to the film, your concept of barbarianism and fate are well developed and supported by the source. Do you have any further insights into the story?

Wed Nov 03, 01:26:00 AM 2010  
Blogger Tantor said...

All the good guys have women. The bad guys don't. The bad guys kill women, like Carla Jean Moss and the unlucky woman at the pool. Anton Chigurh does not even seem to have any interest in women.

Women are symbols of life and civilization. Sheriff Tom Bell defers to his wife in the movie and calls her a better moral person than him in the book. Lewellyn Moss' motivation is largely to save his wife at the end.

The protagonists are other-directed to preserve their women and community. The antagonists are narcissists, out only for themselves and perfectly willing to murder anyway who blocks their path.

Wed Nov 03, 10:17:00 AM 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ed Tom also says "I don't want to meet something I don't understand." That is McCarthy's message to everyone in this book, their misunderstanding of Anton. He cannot be understood from that text alone, it is impossible to understand Anton without reading Blood Meridian. Ed Tom says he compares himself to the "old timers," but we know what McCarthy thinks of the "old timers" - they are people like Judge Holden - those who cut a "meridian of blood" across the country.

Anton Chigurh is indeciferable without Judge Holden... they are the same man:

"Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But the trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up the game, player, all.

***

This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.

Brown studied the Judge. You’re crazy Holden. Crazy at last.

The judge smiled.

Might does not make right, said Irving. The man that wins in some combat is not vindicated morally.

Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn. A moral view can never be proven right or wrong by any ultimate test. A man falling dead in a duel is not thought thereby to be proven in error as to his views. His very involvement in such a trial gives evidence of a new and broader view. The willingness of the principals to forgo further argument as the triviality which it in fact is and to petition directly the chambers of the historical absolute clearly indicates of how little moment are the opinions and of what great moment the divergences thereof. For the argument is indeed trivial, but not so the separate wills thereby made manifest. Man’s vanity may well approach the infinite in capacity but his knowledge remains imperfect and howevermuch he comes to value his judgements ultimately he must submit them before a higher court. Here there can be no special pleading. Here are considerations of equity and rectitude and moral right rendered void and without warrant and here are the views of the litigants despised. Decisions of life and death, of what shall be and what shall not, beggar all question of right. In elections of these magnitudes are all lesser ones subsumed, moral, spiritual, natural.

The judge searched out the circle for disputants. But what says the priest? he said.

Tobin looked up. The priest does not say.

The priest does not say, said the judge. Nihil decit. But the priest has said. For the priest has put by the robes of his craft and taken up the tools of that higher calling which all men honor. The priest also would be no godserver but a god himself.

Tobin shook his head. You’ve a blasphemous tongue, Holden. And in truth, I was never a priest but only a novitiate to the order.

Journeyman priest or apprentice priest, said the judge. Men of god and men of war have strange affinities." - Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian



Remember what Chigurh is finally told at the end: "The coin ain't got no say in this, it's just you."

Sat Jul 14, 08:37:00 PM 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The conflict in No Country is not fatalism vs. free-will. It's free-will vs. institutionalism.

Compare the Judge's examination of War as the ultimate "game" and Anton's flipping of the coin to decide who he kills. Carla Jean Moss' invocation of "The coin ain't got no say in this" echo's strongly Albert Pikes words in Morals and Dogma when Anton and Judge Holden are juxtaposed:

"Truths are the springs from which duty flows; and it is but a few hundred years since a new Truth began to be distinctly seen; that man is supreme over institutions, and not they over him." - Albert Pike

Sat Jul 14, 08:47:00 PM 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anton Chigurh doesn't believe in fate... he makes that very very clear to Wells: "If the road you followed lead you to this, then what was the use of the rule?" The coin is not an agent of fate, even Chigurh says "then it becomes just a coin, which it is."

The coin is Chigurh's rule, what its use is, I cannot say. The coin defers responsibility from him to the coin for his murder, but I somehow doubt that Carla Jean is telling Chigurh something that he doesn't know when she says "the coin ain't got no say in this." In fact, we know that Chigurh believes this because he did tell the other man, "then it becomes just a coin, which it is."

It goes back to what he tells Wells: "what was the USE of the rule?"

The use is for the victim, not him. It's easy for the audience to think that Carla Jean outsmarted Chigurh, but he kills her in the end regardless. She may not like the rule, but she is accountable to it, because he has the gun.

Sat Jul 14, 09:15:00 PM 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, rereading this... I think this is the worst interpretation of No Country I've ever read. You clearly aren't familiar with McCarthy's other books or you wouldn't have written this.

Sat Jul 14, 11:13:00 PM 2012  

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