In Part 1, we observed the pervasive nature of death in the film No Country for Old Men. And so it is in real life, though I think we in the West tend to hide it away, shy away from it, avoid talking about it, avoid thinking about it. In No Country we’re confronted with the nature of life, death and suffering.
When you first watch No Country you may have found yourself a little stunned by Moss’ death in particular. Believe me, I was. I couldn’t believe it! (Might have been why I nearly missed the ending.) We follow Moss as he strains and he works and he musters all his courage to taken on this psycho only for him to be killed off-screen, like some supporting character! Seriously? No final showdown between Chigurh and Moss? Surely the Coens disrespected some rules of cinema and story, and certainly their audience! The moment still causes a lot of discussion on internet forums. (And look at me – 5 years later, still talking about it.)
Somewhere along the way we became heavily invested in Llewellyn. We watch him use his skills to track the money down; use his smarts to figure out how to keep the money safe, (maybe survival of the fittest) We can understand why a guy living in a trailer park would want to get millions of dollars: as the novel says, Llewellyn looks at the case and see “his whole life sitting there in front of him”. And we can understand his efforts to keep it. Who doesn’t want to get ahead?
But this is a man who also chooses money over compassion in the face of a dying man, hunts money figuring it’s already tainted, puts his own life and worse – his wife’s life – at risk. He joins this cycle of violence because of his own greed but we end up hoping that somehow he will ‘get away with it’? Why do we root for this character? Perhaps we see him as capable of taking down that villain…which is a good thing, right? Perhaps we think somehow in the course of the big score we hope the relatively good Moss defeats this significantly worse evil. Hopefully not many of us relate to Chigurh, except of course, when he chokes on the peanuts.
In that somewhat humourous encounter between Chigurh and the gas station proprietor, Chigurh asks the proprietor what’s the most he’s ever lost on a coin toss. He pulls out the coin and says to the proprietor to “call it”. The proprietor says he hasn’t put anything up. Chigurh goes further and says the old man has been putting it up his entire life (and now his life is on the line). But he didn’t know he was playing. We’ll get to more on Chigurh and what this scene means in part 3, but Chigurh’s coin toss is about what this old man trusts or hopes in – what he’s betting on – when he’s staring death i.e. Chigurh, in the face. There is a delightful dark absurdity about the scene (and Bardem’s performance) which you get after you get over your shock about Chigurh. You have to feel a little sorry for this old guy.
Really though, these are all questions for Llewellyn – what’s the most he’s ever lost on a coin toss? He’s putting up two million dollars. And his life. The biggest gambler of the story! And this is the game Chigurh will play with Llewellyn. Chigurh raises the stakes by a factor of his wife. Llewellyn stands to gain the world and lose his soul and trusts himself to take on any comer. The difference between Llewellyn and the old guy is that Llewellyn knows he’s playing.
Which brings us to Bell, the protagonist from whose perspective we see the story. He’s an old man too, on the verge of retirement after a life of service, and he finds himself failing in both of his goals to bring the wayward Llewellyn home, and to stop Chigurh. Bell is clearly a caring, compassionate fatherly figure, (warmly played by Tommy Lee Jones) but now age is outrunning his drive for justice. Bell says he puts his soul at hazard. But what is Bell betting on? And is anyone in this Country actually betting?
We’ll tie up these threads and the ending as we look at Bell in Part 3. Or will we?