Spoiler alert: If you are one of the unfortunate few who have not seen the movie or read the book, do not read this review.
It’d be hard to open a book or movie with a more powerful scene than McCarthy does with No Country (and the Coen Brothers do with the movie, as the screenplay follows the book almost verbatim at this point). When the sheriff’s deputy turns his back on Chigurh, who he has somehow arrested and put under cuff and taken to the jail for processing, Chigurh rolls the cuffs under his legs to bring them around from being locked behind his back, and promptly sneaks behind the deputy to viciously wrap the short chain connecting the cuffs around the deputy’s neck, strangling him. The book described the deputy as dying when the chain cut through his carotid artery, spurting blood all across the room. It was actually a bit less gruesome in the movie, where the deputy died of asphyxiation, twitching on top of Chigurh until he was gone. Either way, it was a powerful way to introduce the main antagonist, Chigurh.
In only a couple of more pages, Chigurh uses the deputy’s stolen car to pull over a replacement vehicle. After the driver stops, thinking he’s being pulled over by a sheriff, Chigurh orders him out of the car and then kills him with a captive bolt penetrating gun—an air driven device (requiring Chigurh to ominously drag around a tank of compressed air) that fires a bolt two inches into a cow’s skull and then quickly retracts. It’s the sort of thing slaughterhouses employ to prepare cattle for slaughter, but it works quite well for the whole job of killing people. It doesn’t take long until the viewer or reader just naturally understands that Chigurh’s use of the device is appropriate to his point of view.
There is a minor incongruity in the opening scene, but one that only becomes apparent after the antics of Chigurh are more fully known: How is it that one lonely weasel of a sheriff’s deputy could have arrested Chigurh and brought him into the jail for processing?
Anton Chigurh, played by a Hispanic-looking actor, Javier Bardem, (described later in the book as ‘he coulda been Mexican’), with hair to his jaw line cut in something like a page-boy, appeared to be the classic villain. Time seemed to slow down when he was on the screen or the page. But he was no ordinary villain. Villains are generally intended to embody evil. Chigurh isn’t evil. He’s a thing far worse. He’s indifferent. He represents the relentless cycling of Nature as it afflicts mankind, dispensing Fate in a random and indifferent way. You can throw stones at the temple of Chigurh, but the temple has no obligation to acknowledge your efforts.
Killing for Chigurh is entirely pragmatic, yet serving purposes that no mere mortal could ever quite fully understand. Chigurh is the Hebrew God, but not the God of Moses who made himself available, if arbitrarily and capriciously, for human relationships. He’s more the God of the Torah, a mystical, distant entity whose name is so holy it can’t be spoken or written. Nobody in No Country really knows Chigurh. It’s doubtful anyone anywhere ever knew him. Just like nobody really knows Nature. Not even her most powerful force, gravity. Mankind has really no idea how the universe is put together. Its best effort so far, Einstein’s General Relativity, requires no less than 95% of it be invisible and undetectable for its explanations to work. Like Chigurh and the Torah’s Yahweh, it’s all steeped in mystery and mysticism. No one in No Country understands the forces animating Chigurh. At best, they only understand that they’re subject to them.
Josh Brolin plays the unfortunate Llewelyn Moss. Moss is on a more or less innocent hunting trip out in the West Texas desert near the Mexican border, scanning the horizon for the pronghorn antelope that populate the area, when he spies a group of pickup trucks haphazardly parked in a barrial (a word which McCarthy uses for which I could not find a definition in English—the best I could come up with was Spanish for something like a muddy quagmire in a desert area.) Of course he has to investigate. He finds a bloody scene, several bodies in the pickups and on the ground and one guy shot to hell but still alive and pleading with him for ‘agua, agua’. He tells the guy he ain’t go not agua and asks him what happened. It’s obvious this was some kind of drug deal gone bad. Moss shoulda gone from there directly to the police. But greed gets the best of him. He figures there might be some money or some drugs, but finds neither at first. When he finally finds the money on the last man left standing, the one who had made it to a shade tree he spies on the horizon, Moss’s life will never again be the same.
Moss represents man, or even society, in its youth—eager, impetuous, indifferent to the long-term costs and consequences of his/its behavior. His youthful exuberance will be no match for Chigurh’s relentless inevitability, but then, neither could Sheriff Bell’s (Tommy Lee Jones) insightful wisdom slow Chigurh down, not that he really gets close enough to try. Sheriff Bell is man in his maturity. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It is what man and all his creations are ultimately destined to become. Moss’s appetites ultimately get him and everyone around him killed, prematurely, before their time. Bell’s wisdom, and a little luck, keep him and his out of trouble, for awhile, but he’s short for this world anyway. This is no country for old men, but that’s okay, because old men aren’t gonna be around long anyway.
Chigurh twice uses a coin toss to decide or not to kill someone. Unless killing is demanded of the situation, which compels him to ruthlessly ensure its completion, Chigurh doesn’t care who dies or whether or not he has to kill them. He operates like Nature that way. There are certain situations when Nature demands a life. A parachute doesn’t open. A child is run over on his bike by a big rig. A soldier jumps on a grenade. A Vietnam veteran welder finds $2.6 million in drug money in the middle of the desert. A hit man is sent to kill a more prolific killer than he. Nature has situational inevitabilities. Sometimes somebody has gotta die. Chigurh makes sure it happens when it must. And doesn’t care otherwise, using the randomness of a coin toss to determine the outcome. Just like Nature, which only kills randomly, except when one of its principles of survival have been violated.
Chigurh gives Moss a chance to save his wife. He can’t save himself, Chigurh says, but if he gives over the money, his wife wouldn’t have to die. Moss makes his refusal while talking to Chigurh over the phone from the Mexican hospital bed where a gunfight with Chigurh landed him. Moss dies soon after. The last person Chigurh kills is Moss’s wife. And she never really had anything to do with any of it. But a promise is a promise. Uncharacteristically, Chigurh gives her a chance to save herself if she can call a coin toss correctly. She fails. He kills her.
The book and the movie end with Sheriff Bell reminiscing on dreams he’d had after his father died, after only barely beginning to piece together the tale of what all happened with Chigurh and Moss and Moss’s wife and the others:
But the second one it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night. Goin through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothin. He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up.
I’ve seen every movie the Coen brothers ever made, and this is their best. Yes, this is even better than O, Brother, Where art Thou? and The Big Lebowski. While I saw the movie when it came out, I only just read the book the last couple of days. It was a Christmas present from my daughter. The movie was true to the book, so the book is a masterpiece. In many cases, the movie dialogue is straight out of the book, including that last part. This is my first Cormac McCarthy book. It won’t be my last.