I first saw No Country For Old Men in 2007 at the Cannes Film Festival. I was exhausted and hot and hungover, but even in that cramped screening room I knew that I was watching something profound. I was speechless for many hours afterwards, ruminating over the film and trying to piece it all together.
I’ve probably watched it ten times since then and with every successive viewing I’m more and more convinced that it’s one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen.
Part of why I think I like it so much is because of the mystery it contains. Particularly in the visual landscape. So many things seem like key pieces of the puzzle, shots that they let linger on screen that seem as if they must be important, they must contain some sort of meaning for the story or characters but what?
The one shot I’m especially thinking of is in the roadside gas station when Anton Chigurh is talking to the attendant right before he forces him to submit to a fateful coin toss. He unwraps a piece of candy and sets the wrapper on the counter. The camera pauses on it for about five seconds as the wrapper crudely unfurls, a seemingly loaded and significant shot, but why? What does it mean? I think that it means nothing, and I think that’s the key to the entire movie.
I used to think this movie was about a lot of different things; death, religion even terrorism. But I’ve slowly come to believe that the movie is actually about life itself and the utter mystery and randomness of it all. All the major events in the movie are totally random and the entire time all the people in this universe are left to try to grapple with the consequences. They’re all trying to cull some kind of meaning out of the fabric of the narrative and all end up coming up frustratingly short.
The inciting incident of the entire movie, Llewelyn Moss finding a briefcase full of money, happens completely by random. He was just out shooting deer on the prairie and happened to stumble onto the scene of a horrific crime which in and of itself seems to have occurred at random. Llewelyn was just in the right place at the right, or depending on how you look at it, wrong time and ended up with $2 million in his possession.
One of the more interesting characters in all of this is Ed, played by Tommy Lee Jones. He’s been around block a few times and is much smarter than he leads you to believe. He tries to use all of his experience and common sense to try to find some tenor to the mess that surrounds him. But even with his years of experience he can’t because there is no sense to be had. Him trying to figure out why Chigurh goes and shoots up a hotel is like trying to figure out why a coin toss lands on heads or tails. He assumes it’s because there’s a new breed of evil lurking out there, but as Ellis assures him, it’s always been this way.
Aside from Anton, Carson Wells is the only character who seems to understand the kind of nihilistic rules of the game that they’re playing. He’s brought in as a kind of last ditch stopgap to try to reign in this entropy. He’s dealt with Anton before and knowingly laughs when Llewelyn pretends to know how to best him. But even Carson falls victim to the chaos, blown away by Anton in his hotel room after repeating the common refrain of many of the victims, “You don’t have to do this”. Of course he doesn’t have to do it, but that doesn’t change a damn thing.
It’s easy to conclude that Chigurh is an agent of this elusive chaos, killing people based on the result of a coin toss, or sometimes even without it. He isn’t driven by anything and he seemingly has no motives, a suitcase full of millions of dollars doesn’t even entice him, he’s just there to fulfill some sort of destiny that people are “accountable” for.
But even Anton Chigurh is subject to the forces of randomness, he is struck by a car running a red light and almost killed at the end. What does that mean? What does Ed’s seemingly prophetic dream about his father at the very end mean? What does any of it mean? I don’t know and I am starting to realize that that’s ok.
Humans are on earth searching for meaning in it all, we see things that we think are important and call them signs or miracles and we put stock in what we may consider to be the meaning of life. But at the end of the day, objectively speaking, it’s all rather random and chaotic. Maybe those miracles and signs are just candy wrappers unfurling on the counter.