What Use Was the Rule? A No Country for Old Men Retrospective
This retrospective of a 15 year old movie contains spoilers for said movie. If you have not watched No Country for Old Men, do not read this review. Go and watch the movie instead. It’s fantastic and is well worth going into spoiler free. This review also contains somewhat vague references to disturbing content on the internet that you may or may not have heard of. You have been warned.
On November 9th, 2007, No Country for Old Men was released to general audiences in the US. Almost immediately, it solidified itself into popular culture. Everyone who has been on the internet for more than a month has seen Chigurh’s bowl-cut wearing psychopath in the form of reaction images. But its influence is more than memes. No Country for Old Men has also joined the mighty few within the movie-lover’s canon that everyone usually watches too early when developing their taste, and then consequently writes off the entire film as “slow” or “pretentious” or “pointlessly existential,” especially in regards to the final monologue by Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell. Burgeoning High School movie-understanders aside, this film has aged incredibly well over the past 15 years, mostly due to its commentary on violence and Death in America that has always persisted, and likely always will.
Near the end of the film, Sheriff Bell heads to his uncle Ellis’s house, a building that stands alone in the desolate Texas desert, lashes of dust blowing in the wind. The two exchange words about Bell’s impending retirement from the police department over his feelings of being overmatched by the violence and the evils of the world. Ellis counters by saying the violence and evil is nothing new in this place. And that is certainly true of the Mexican crew that end up killing Moss at his hotel. But what of Chigurh? Is his brand of killing by chance not new? Initially it seems like Chigurh is a new breed of killer, and that the film is about a turning point in how violent America was becoming. It would certainly track, given that the original novel was written in 2005 and adapted only two years later, during another violent turning point in America’s history.
However, I don’t think that Chigurh is anything particularly new. The concept of Death through Chance is nothing new at all. It has been a motif throughout humanity’s different mythologies that Death is basically random, with the key difference being the tenet that some divine being can and will take you away from this world at any point, and there is no way of knowing when this will happen. But it is Chirgurh that decouples the divine from Death, since he kills at random to help himself, and for the contrived reason of “honor,” when it’s really just him killing because he can and is good at it. Much like how Moss hunts the pronghorns at the beginning of the film, he only does it for the thrill of the hunt.
That isn’t to say that Chigurh’ emergence doesn’t show a transition within American culture. But instead of some new evolution of the killer revealing itself, Chigurh is a reminder of Death’s loaded dice, the inherent Chance that goes into someone dying. Loaded dice that the internet has been all too eager to remind us of every time we Log On. Videos of car crashes, violent robberies, deformed babies, cruel and unusual deaths of homeless people, clowns stabbing people, police shootings, school shootings, industrial accidents, beheadings of the cartel and ISIS variety, suicides, and other graphic incidents that should have stayed within LiveLeak’s containment now flood the collective world wide web. And we can’t forget the 9/11 videos, the almighty big daddy of graphic internet videos, whose destruction was played on a loop in every school in September, and still is.
With regards to Sheriff Bell, just one drop of Death’s cold brew is enough to get him to retire from the force, as he is unable to stop Chigurh through the legal systems. Bell’s despair came from a singular instance of being reminded of Death’s true power and pure chance. What are we to make of today, where a fire-hose of random and graphic violence and death blasts our retinas as fast as it takes for us to scroll?
And this is where we come to ex-Sheriff Bell’s “pointlessly existential” monologue at the end of the film, where Bell explains two dreams he had the night before to his wife. The first dream is of Bell owing money to his father and neglecting to pay it, but it’s not very detailed. The second dream, where Bell details his father riding ahead in a snowy mountain pass carrying a horn full of fire, is much more interesting. Bell speaks of such hope and faith, that he knew his father had gone on ahead to build this fire, even though Bell had no way of knowing for sure. But then Bell woke up. The hope and faith that were felt so strongly are nothing but a delusion created by your subconscious, a delusion shattered by the cruel reality of waking up to reality, of being shown that your dream was just a dream.
The current social and political climate is one of unrelenting and permanent dread, like being on a bullet train as it’s crashing into some excessively gray building that happens to make ICBMs. We are reminded of the Reaper’s roulette wheel incessantly through our media. This is nothing new (see also the graphic suicide of Congressman Bud Dwyer broadcast uncensored across the country in the 80s), but it is becoming more and more common not because there’s more violence, but because we are seeing more of it ourselves. And this extends past the realm of graphic and deplorable violence. We see every hope for change within our political and social institutions tagged, bagged, and gutted in front of us in real time. We see members of the shadowy elite being brought to face the law’s unflinching eye, and then they get off scot free for their heinous crimes. Nothing changes, but everything gets worse. With this kind of stasis being beamed into us day after day, month after month, year after year, no wonder despair, and apathy towards such bleak events, is at an all time high. Because we are constantly reminded of how little we can do against these vile corporate behemoths who seem to have their fingers in everybody’s pies. And if we try to grab what we can from these conglomerates of greed and vice, we are systematically hunted down to get back what’s theirs, just like Moss. Even those who try to help us are put against the firing line, like lawyer Steven Donziger receiving 600 days of house arrest for daring to sue Chevron over oil spills in the Amazon rainforest. So why even try to help or improve the world at all, since it’s all going to be pointless in the end? The bad guys will win, the good guys will lose, everything gets worse.
When I was about 9 or 10, a baby mockingbird fell out of its nest on my roof onto the sidewalk. My family and I immediately took it into our garage as we tried to decide on what to do with it. After some deliberation, we decided to take the chick, as well as the nest with other healthy chicks, to a bird sanctuary, so that more mockingbird chicks would not be jumping out of the nest onto our sidewalk and hurting themselves. So we carefully pack the nest and the birds into our van and drive it out to the sanctuary. Mind you, this sanctuary is not some glass house aviary that you see on TV. No, this sanctuary was a man’s house, off a local road that winds and weaves into the desert like a black rattlesnake. It wasn’t tiny, but it was no mansion, just a regular looking house from the outside. But inside, cages big and small were splayed across the rooms. Bird perches were everywhere, with birds who could fly flitting through hallways, just days out from being able to go free. In the cages were the birds who could not mingle with gen pop. A red tailed hawk with a broken wing sat solemnly in its cage, waiting patiently to soar above the desert’s dust again. There was only one bird who would never go free from those walls: a blind Great Horned Owl, who stared off into some corner of the room you could never quite pinpoint. The key here is not that every bird is saved, far from it. Nature still dances indifferently to thousands of animals in this city alone. But, this man and the organization he was part of, were able to save as many birds as they were able to with the resources they had. The mockingbirds we brought were able to be rehabilitated and they are likely out in the skies today. Even the old house burning down a few years back was not enough to stop their commitment to saving all they can (all the birds got out okay from what I have heard).
Yes, hope is nothing more than a splendid mist, and it vanishes just as quickly. But that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. We may be reminded of the storm of unending heinousness that permeates our society every day by the media. But there is nothing wrong with trying to fight the constant maelstrom of chaos and pain that surrounds this world. You may be overmatched and underprepared, but blind owls still need somewhere to stay, they still need shelter from the storm.
Production Company: Scott Rudin Productions, Mike Zoss Productions
Streaming Service: HBO Max
Release Date: November 9, 2007
Reviewer Name: Liam Larkin-Smith
Date of Review: 11/9/22