A bonfire of vanities

An evil omen — of that there’s no doubt. After Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), hero of Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men, shoots and wounds a deer while hunting in the West Texas desert, he comes across a trail of fresh blood crossing at right angles the trail of deer blood that he has set out to follow. Looking through his binoculars, he sees a heavy black fighting dog limping away through the sagebrush. The dog glances back, unaware of Moss’s presence and perhaps looking out for a pursuer, and then continues on.

In medieval folklore, a black dog was one of the forms taken by the devil in his wanderings in the world of men; to the English, a spectral black dog was seen as a portent of death, as were the hounds that took part in the ghostly Wild Hunt of Herne the Hunter. In Goethe’s Faust, somewhat amusingly (to modern minds, at least), Mephisto takes the form of a black poodle, while in the 1976 film The Omen, Gregory Peck’s character is attacked by aggressive Rottweilers in the Etruscan cemetary where he has found the body of the jackal (another important member of this canine mythology) that gave birth to his adopted son and future Antichrist.

(spoiler warning) Yet religious symbolism is not the full extent of No Country‘s engagement with higher powers. As other reviewers have observed, the psychopathic hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) seems to embody a force that goes beyond the mundane, perhaps beyond even the human. He is both relentless and remorseless, and is motivated by things at least partly beyond our ken. As professional troubleshooter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) explains to the fugitive Moss, “You don’t understand. You can’t make a deal with him. Even if you gave him the money he’d still kill you. He’s a peculiar man. You could even say that he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that. He’s not like you. He’s not even like me.”

By the end of the film, Moss is dead and the money has been retrieved by its owners – yet Chigurh pays a visit nonetheless on Moss’s wife Carla Jean, because Moss had earlier rejected a deal that Chigurh had offered: to spare his wife in exchange for the money. Keeping her dignity, Carla Jean struggles to understand Chigurh’s reasoning:

CARLA JEAN: … You got no cause to hurt me.
CHIGURH: No. But I gave my word.
CARLA JEAN: You gave your word?
CHIGURH: To your husband.
CARLA JEAN: That don’t make sense. You gave your word to my husband to kill me?
CHIGURH: Your husband had the opportunity to remove you from harm’s way. Instead, he used you to try to save himself.
CARLA JEAN: Not like that. Not like you say.
CHIGURH: What’s done can’t be undone.

It is scenes like this one that has lead reviewers to see Chigurh as a metaphor for God, or Satan, or evil, or the Furies. Even Fate itself: when Chigurh flips a coin for the life of the proprietor of a gas station, he seems to be the agent of the man’s destiny. “You know what date is on this coin?” he asks. “Nineteen fifty-eight. It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And it’s either heads or tails, and you have to say. Call it.” Later, talking with Wells as he points his shotgun at his chest, he seems more like a philosopher-judge: “Let me ask you something. If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” Wells, seeing his life about to run out, is in no mood for reflection. “Do you have any idea how goddamn crazy you are?”

God, Fate, philosopher-judge. Yet when Chigurh pulls a coin from his pocket, offering to allow Carla Jean’s life or death to hinge on this trivial tool of randomness, the young woman sees through Chigurh’s grand metaphors and points a finger at the human being underneath:

CHIGURH: Call it.
CARLA JEAN: No. I ain’t gonna call it.
CHIGURH: Call it.
CARLA JEAN: The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.

Chigurh’s response, “I got here the same way the coin did,” seems weak and posed by comparison with Carla Jean’s simple statement of truth and moral accountability. At root, Chigurh’s image — both his fidelity to his obscure but lethal principals and his unsettling ruminations on fate, inevitability, and chance — is nothing more than a vanity. Far from immortal or godlike, in the movie’s penultimate scene Chigurh is hit and severly wounded in a fluke car accident. Could have been anyone. Happened to have been him.

Vanity plays a similar role with No Country‘s other male characters. Moss, who is just a welder, believes that he can outwit a drug cartel, a hired assassin, and the police. “Llewelyn would never ask for help. He never thinks he needs any,” Carla Jean tells Sheriff Bell not long before Moss is killed. Carson Wells, a former colonel who served in Vietnam, is certain that he can eliminate the “loose cannon” Chigurh. “He killed three men in a motel in Del Rio yesterday. And two others at that colossal goatfuck out in the desert,” the American businessman who hired Chigurh explains to Wells, whose response is relaxed and confident. “Okay. We can stop that.” But in the end, Chigurh kills Wells without even a fight.

The final and most profound vanity is Sheriff Bell’s. As a lawman with old-time principles, he is appalled at the violence around him, and he spends much of the movie commenting sadly on what he perceives to be a slide into moral anarchy, one he feels he should be able to stop. His pursuit of Moss and his witnessing of Chigurh’s crimes push him into despair and retirement. Yet his visit to his Uncle Ellis, a former policeman crippled in the line of duty, provokes an unexpected lecture about humility. Ellis tells him of his Uncle Mac’s murder in 1909 by seven or eight Indians, “Shot down on his own porch there in Hudspeth County.”

ELLIS: …What you got ain’t nothin’ new. This country is hard on people. Hard and crazy. Got the devil in it yet folks never seem to hold it to account.
BELL: Most don’t.
ELLIS: You’re discouraged.
BELL: I’m… discouraged.
ELLIS: You can’t stop what’s comin. Ain’t all waitin’ on you. …That’s vanity.

You can’t stop what’s comin. Moss couldn’t stop the Mexicans, though he thought he could. Wells couldn’t stop Chigurh, though he thought he could. Chigurh couldn’t stop the truck at the crossroads. And Sherriff Bell couldn’t stop any of this.

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport.
– William Shakespeare, King Lear

2 thoughts on “A bonfire of vanities

  1. Thanks for the thoughts on the movie. It’s some of the most insightful writing I’ve read on No Country for Old Men as well as McCarthy (although he’s one stepped removed here). I’d love to read about what you think of Blood Meridian and the Judge character in that book. The Judge and Chigurh seem to come from the same part of Hell, but Chigurh has a little more vulnerability.

  2. Hi Robert: Thanks so much for the compliment. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read McCarthy’s book — the movie on its own was powerful enough to get me writing about it, and I too will be interested to see how my ideas are confirmed or changed by the original story and its additional characters. And hopefully I’ll post on that too!

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