Saturday, April 16, 2011

No Country for Old Gods

This is the opening section of an interpretation of the film No Country for Old Men, which appeared in the journal Perspectives on Political Science. The article, which is an analysis and explanation of the movie, can be found here.

William Butler Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium” tells of an old man who yearns to be part of something eternal in the face of his own approaching death. A perennial theme of artists and poets, at least until the advent of post-modernism, the narrator seeks immortality through art, and asks of the sages on a mosaic wall who stand in “God’s holy fire,”

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.

He’s coming from a country whose inhabitants do not contemplate eternal monuments, caught up as they are in the cycle of coming into being and passing away. This, the narrator says, “is no country for old men.”

The old man in the film No Country for Old Men is sheriff Ed Tom Bell, but unlike the narrator of Yeats’ poem, he cannot find a way out of this world. We hear Bell’s opening monologue over scenes of the desolate landscape of West Texas, as hard and beautiful a country as the United States has to offer. It is not the desolation of Texas that defeats Bell, but its harshness does offer a clue about his inability to find a home here. The novel by Cormac McCArthy almost seems written for the Coen brothers, and its prologue echoes the first scenes of the Coens’ first movie, Blood Simple, which also opens with images of the Texas desert and a narrator who explains that in Texas, “you’re on your own.” West Texas is large and sparsely populated, with the long Mexican border opening onto a savage wilderness from which almost anything might emerge. Even by 1980 (when the movie is set) it was a hard place to police, and Ed Tom is the embodiment of law and order in the land. A new form of disorder, in the form of vicious Mexican drug gangs, has appeared and shaken the foundations of this old order.

This new world is the country Bell finds unbearable, and the challenge of living in it is a persistent theme for McCarthy (as well as the Coen brothers), which is why so many of his books are set on a frontier. Bell’s family had been in Texas for several generations and he “always liked to hear about the old timers,” who seemed to live in simpler times. We find out later, though, that this nostalgia may be misplaced: the frontier had always been a wild and savage place that required enormous fortitude from its inhabitants. This country, his uncle Ellis tells him, “is hard on people.” It is not Texas, but the modern world, which nothing seems to be holding together and in which ‘you’re on your own’ that breaks Ed Tom Bell.

The young man in the film, Llewellyn Moss, who finds the money, is able to adapt to this world and, despite his premature death, is not broken under its weight. Where Bell sees only uncontrollable chaos around him, Moss does what he can to take hold of his situation, and shows great resourcefulness in the process. Despite his imperfections, Moss faces the challenge of the modern world head on and although he dies while Bell lives, he is the closest thing in the movie to a hero.

The villain, Anton Chigurh, conveniently dressed in black throughout the movie and undoubtedly its strangest character, believes himself to be in complete control of events and exempt from the chance that determines the fate of those around him. Early in the film, he sits on Moss’ sofa after breaking into his trailer home and stares oddly at his reflection as if experiencing déjà vu. Shortly after, Bell arrives and sits looking at his own reflection from the same spot. Both Chigurh and Bell drink from Moss’ bottle of milk. Just as each of these three men, who never share the screen, sits looking at the same TV, we are invited to compare them and how they make their way in the modern world.

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