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The themes of hunting, death, and free will are, in some ways, the core of the movie filmed by the Coen brothers. The movie is oftentimes called a “cat-and-mouse” thriller, and the reviewers point out that the hunter becomes the hunted (Foundas par. 3). A literal hunt, such as when a man hunts an animal, is shown to the viewer before the beginning of the main plot. The famous scene where Llewelyn hunts pronghorns in the vast Texas desert is a clear allusion to what is going to happen next, i.e., the start of the hunting of the main antagonist Anton Chigurh. From the beginning, the directors of the film warn the viewer that the movie is about at least two things: hunting and death (which are entwined, most of the time).
Another hint toward the following massacre is Llewelyn’s “fight” with the dog that follows him into the stream; the character shoots the dog as it is jumping toward him. It seemed to me that the animals displayed in the movie were often pictured as subordinates or those who rely on a man’s decisions about their life. However, animal hunters are not the only ones in this film who freely decide who is going to live and who is going to die. Therefore, I believe that the subordinate position of the animals here only reflects the position of other men who will face another type of hunter using the hunter’s phrase, “Hold still,” just as Llewelyn does while he is hunting at the beginning of the movie (No Country for Old Men).
Using the dramatic pentad, one can get a closer look at the movie’s meaning. What is happening? A man stumbles upon what is, obviously, an outcome of a clash during a drug exchange operation. There are several dead people around and a car with a large amount of heroin. The man investigates the scene and can find the person who took the money from the scene – he is lying dead nearby with the case with two million dollars in it. The hunter takes the money, and from this moment on transforms into the hunted game. This situation could be likened to the typical hunting scenario where the unsuspecting animal takes the bait. The only difference is that the protagonist could hardly be regarded as unsuspecting as he is well aware of the kind of scene he has stumbled upon and that the money he has taken will be sought after.
Who are the agents? Moss – the taker of the money, Sheriff Bell – the person in charge of the local police department, and Chigurh – the hitman hired by the drug lords to find the stolen money, are all involved in the hunt. When or where do the events take place? The story takes place in a desolate county in Texas. How does the hunt happen? It is bloody and gory and resembles a massacre more than a hunt. It is not as much a rapid chase, but a coldblooded and slow pursuit. In this aspect, the hunt among people can be juxtaposed to that of animals because the latter is based majorly on the physical abilities of the predator and the victim (the winner is the one who can run faster and jump further) whereas the former is a competition of minds (the one whose mind is the coldest and the sharpest will be the last man standing). What is the purpose of this? Once again, the hunt among animals can be contrasted with that of people. In the animal world, hunting does not result from rage but is a natural process that helps one animal survive at the cost of another animal’s life. In the world of humans, hunting and killing one another is a crime as it is rarely done to survive. The true motivators of a human hunt are anger, revenge, fear, and materialistic benefit. In this film, Chigurh hunts other protagonists one by one looking for the money taken by Moss.
The three protagonists in the movie are Llewelyn Moss, Sheriff Bell, and Anton Chigurh. Although Bell and Chigurh never meet, they represent the opposite forces in the film, good and evil (as much as these definitions can even apply to the protagonists). As for Moss, he is a “neutral” character (more or less) who makes the wrong choice and, therefore, determines his fate. These men are “stoic, solitary figures who feel most at home in desolate landscapes,” as Foundas points out (par. 2). Chigurh represents a “near-cyborgian killer” – the true human huntsman – purposeful, goal-driven, dedicated, and unstoppable. His automatic and emotionless behavior is a sign that hunting is something he has been doing for time so long that it stopped being exciting.
At the same time, Moss is “an amateur thief”, a victim whose single mistake has put him into the course of events he was unprepared to face. Finally, Bell’s role remains undecided for some (Andrews par. 2). Is he a useless “good guy”? Is he a mere observer who cannot stop the bloodshed? According to King et al., Bell is a figure who experiences a transformation during and after the events (28). He does not carry his “conservative” views to the end but rather admits that he is not an old-timer but a person of his own time (King et al. 27). Therefore, the story not only revolves around the hunt, but it also pays close attention to the transformation of one of the main characters.
The horrible murders committed by Chigurh transform the killer into a boogeyman, one of the “most cold-blooded characters” in the Coen brothers’ movies (King et al. 206). At the same time, neither Anton, nor Llewelyn, nor Ed is the actual main protagonist, according to some critics (King et al. 206). It is death itself that interests the directors and is placed at the center of the movie. Its inevitability is obvious, and nobody can argue with that, not even the best killer Carson Wells, who is briefly (compared to other characters) introduced to the viewer and then removed from the scene by Chigurh. No animal or man can escape death’s grip that tightens when a hunt begins, and the fate of every participant remains unclear until a particular moment. Chigurh’s love for random choices made by the flip of a coin is only a reflection of the main thought: Death can choose randomly, and nobody will be able to flee; hunt is unpredictable the and in some rare occasions, the likely victim can become and unlikely survivor.
At the same time, this statement also provides the viewer with another thought: If we cannot choose and decide, do we even have free will? The answer to this question is given to the viewer by Carla Jean, Moss’s wife. Chigurh suggests that she take part in his favorite game, i.e., decide whether she will be killed or spared by the flip of a coin. Instead, Carla says “I knew exactly what was in store for me,” pointing out that Chigurh uses the coin to justify himself, while the choice is still made by him and no one else (No Country for Old Men). Therefore, it can be said that the real agent in this movie is death, and the protagonists are, in fact, side characters. It is about more than hunting for prey and money, because “the Coens show us the pain of gunshot wounds and reality of death” (French par. 8).
The violence and death become so overwhelming for the sheriff that he eventually decides to retire, admitting that “I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand” (No Country for Old Men). This phrase, although said at the beginning of the movie, becomes more comprehensible at the end, when the viewer has to ask him- or herself: Do I understand? The question is: Do we understand the growing violence, and should we accept it? Can we? If death is often accidental and unpredictable, if some (Anton) can decide whether they should kill an innocent person (Carla) or not, is there any chance that human beings can actually control their belief that the fundamental theme of the movie is not hunting or even death, but rather human beings’ inability to control their lives and make serious choices (the ones that define one’s life or death)? The absurdity of life and the pointlessness of choices are stressed by the Coen brothers in this movie, and the enormous amount of murder makes this statement even more grotesque (and frightening). In that way, the hunt itself is only one of many layers of the actual course of events that can be studied from many different perspectives.
The meaning of the movie can be described in three levels. The first or surface level is the hunt. At this level, the Coens show us the hunt between different characters: Moss’s hunt for an animal and then for money, Chigurh’s hunt for Moss and the money, and Bell’s hunt for Chigurh and meaning. At this level, it is possible to notice a chain that is very common to the world of animals. There, it is known as the food chain where the bigger and stronger kinds of beings prey on the weaker and smaller ones. The second level, or the mid-level, is the representation of death as the main character that is present everywhere, at any time and is not controlled by anybody.
However, one should not take Chigurh for the representation of death, since he is as mortal and fragile as everyone else is—the car accident scene proves it. If the Coens wanted to show Chigurh as the Grim Reaper, it is quite possible he would not sustain any injuries during the movie. But he does, which ultimately assures the viewer that even Chigurh is only a human being (although a very deadly one). The next and deepest level is the absurdity of life and the lack of any sense of free will in our existence. It is not the first (and not the last) time the Coens touch upon this theme that mixes absurdity, mayhem, and irony, but in this movie, the scale of pointlessness is at its widest compared to their other movies.
The viewer does not get any explanation after the main plot is over, and the last murder is not even explicitly shown, which makes the viewer wonder what the purpose of the movie is. In my opinion, the purpose is to point out the ridiculous meaninglessness of life that can be ended very swiftly and easily, whether you are an injured dog or a professional killer. Everybody is mortal, and nobody is free to choose his or her fate. It is a grim message; it is not lightened by even the smallest piece of hope. It is possible that this movie feels so odd and unfinished to modern views because we are trained to believe that everything we see must have some kind of balance, fairness, justice, and completion; in fact, most movies are constructed in this manner. However, used to taking the imaginary world on our TV and computer screens for granted, we often forget that life is not that balanced and fair. In this film, the directors chose to present reality as is, and this is why the film clashes with the viewers’ expectations. Thus, the viewer has to decide whether he or she understands or wants to understand this philosophy, just as Bell had to. The Coens allow us to choose—but only this time.
Andrews, Nigel. “Coen Brothers Tell It Like It Is.” Financial Times. 2008, Web.
Foundas, Scott. “Badlands.” LA Weekly. 2007, Web.
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French, Philip. “No Country for Old Men.” The Guardian. 2008, Web.
King, Lynnea Chapman, et al. No Country for Old Men: From Novel to Film. Scarecrow Press, 2009.
No Country for Old Men. Directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen, performances by Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, and Kelly Macdonald, Miramax, 2007.