The Times are a-Changin’ in “No Country for Old Men”

Introduction

 The first time I became familiar with “No Country for Old Men” in any format, was when I watched the movie by myself at the ripe old age of 17. The movie played through, Tommy Lee Jones finished his monologue with “And then I woke up,” the screen went black, and I sat up from the couch. “God, that movie sucked.” Seemingly, I had just sat through something poorly executed and meaningless. I mean, was there significance to each character? What was I supposed to take away thematically? Anton Chigurh got away scot-free aside from a baffling car accident? And Moss simply dies off-screen and away from the reader’s window? I am the wiser at this point and with the help of literary analysis, I have come to understand the book much better, and find it far more profound than I once did. Though, this essay is a reflection, I will impart both thoughts and lessons I have taken from “No Country for Old Men,” and elaborate on what I think and feel about the content.

Outdated Characters in the Modern World

I suppose a good starting point is the book thematically as a whole. An initial scan reveals the suggestion that life, often being brief and ending abruptly, has a way of informing its residents in many aspects, as does the slow deterioration of one’s self. While I think nailing down a theme for “No Country for Old Men” can be difficult, there are some clues that may help the reader understand what McCarthy is getting at throughout the text. Reviewer Walter Kern writes that the novel relies on sparse elements that create a cohesive whole, which include, “Too much temptation. Too little wisdom. Too many weak, bad men. Too few strong, good ones.” Yet, it’s covered in something else. Kern writes that it’s freedom and space to make poor choices to temporarily flee, as we see with Moss fleeing for his life with the drug money—the blood money.

“He sat there looking at it and then he closed the flap and sat with his head down,” McCarthy writes of Moss’s fateful decision. “His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead.”

So, then the theme it is tied to fate and chance, as one’s actions will see literal outcomes; however, I also think an important theme to consider plays into the title, which is that time moves on whether one wants it to or not, and, with that, people become outdated in their morality, philosophy and ethics as the years pass. In other words, relevancy is not permanent, and it can be inferred that one’s age dictates the currency of one’s life. I think this makes sense when one considers an older person who is attempting to dress in the current fashion—there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that, but it just looks off, because we have adopted what our own conscious understanding of fashion (and what is fashionable) and to whom it belongs. With that being said, the looming irrelevancy of all of our lives can dictate the meaning we derive from ourselves and our history.

  1. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell

Case in point, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. He believes people should be responsible for their actions and for their justifications; and, yet this concept evolves throughout the novel. The endless procession of horrors jostles Bell to the point that he retires disenfranchised due to his inability to exact any kind of justice in a world that no longer fits him.

“A few years ago and it wasn’t that many neither I was goin out one of these little two lane blacktop roads of a night and I come up on a pickup truck … so I hit the lights and whenever I done that I seen the slider window in the back of the cab open and here come somebody passin a shotgun out the window.”

During this scene, Bell is attacked by drug runners, who shoot at him from their truck, and he crashes his car and realizes that times have changed. No longer is the world full of innocent barfights that lead to a few minor scrapes, but now it has morphed into a landscape rife with murderous rampages, violence, and killing. While he reminisces in the book from what we can assume is the future of the events, the real change isn’t apparent until he visits Moss’s dad toward the end of the book and discusses his dreams with his wife.

To frame it another way, at the start, he is an honest, stalwart sheriff who is overseeing the civilians within his county (what could be defined as his flock). At the end, he doesn’t know if there is any reason to continue doing such a thing, as evil has forced its hand, the villain got away, and good people died. This is an interesting evolution as Bell reminisces about “better times” where kids used to play different games (better, more innocent games), and, as such, we see the theme of an evolving world taking place in a more literal way—in Sheriff Bell’s mind. Moreover, in meeting with Uncle Ellis and after having a thorough discussion about modern morality and ethics, Bell learns that these “better times” might have never existed, as men have always killed each other for the same reasons—or lack thereof. As Uncle Ellis states of Uncle Mac’s death, the violent times never went away.

“They was seven or eight of them come to the house,” Uncle Ellis tells Sheriff Bell. “Wantin this and wantin that. He (Uncle Mac) went back in the house and come out with a shotgun but they was way ahead of him and they shot him down in his doorway. She run out and tried to stop the bleedin. Tried to get him back in the house. Said he kept tryin to get hold of the shotgun again. They just set there on their horses. Finally left.”

This excerpt is reminiscent of Chigurh’s macabre methods. While the killing of Uncle Mac seems devoid of emotion and meaning, one could suppose that such killing happened a lot in that particular area of Texas, and thus had historical value to the inhabitants. One could also surmise that Uncle Mac was so attached to the past, and the way things were done in his day, that his death was assured. But this is only my own inference.

  1. Llewelyn Moss

Furthermore, we see the theme of outdated values in Llewelyn Moss, who is truly a flawed character. While hunting on the flats of New Mexico, he stumbles upon money, which he then decides he will steal to better his own life. This action dooms him as far as the theme of the novel goes, as he is then pursued from the start of the novel by a drug cartel, a sheriff, an remorseless assassin, and another hired gun; and, he is finally left dead in the doorway of a motel after a shootout with someone from the cartel.

Sheriff Bell’s unveiling of Moss’s corpse is indicative of the dry means of killing in this part of the world:

“He (Bell) pulled back the sheet. Bell walked around the end of the table. There was no chock under Moss’s neck and his head was turned to the side. One eye partly opened. He looked like a badman on a slab. They’d sponged the blood off of him but there were holes in his face and his teeth were shot out.”

In this, we can see Kern’s point—Moss had the freedom of choice and the freedom to flee, which he chose not to do and thus killed himself and his wife in the process of his own wants. But, we must also analyze the “outdated values” argument. Moss is impulsive and is willing to follow his morality and ethics to the end to justify his theft. Moreover, he is willing to throw his life away, and he believes that, through simple ingenuity, he could survive and defeat the odds. Nevertheless, as we see, this is not the case. Moss is killed, the money is taken from him, and his wife, Carla Jean, is murdered likewise. Llewelyn’s outdated morals—morals he perhaps honed in Vietnam (and thus during a different older time)—ultimately get him killed. He is too reliant on the skills he hopes to use to defeat the cartel and Chigurh. As such, his morals are outdated and thus lack rational logic for modern problems, which in McCathy’s world means you will leave defeated or you will die.

  1. Anton Chigurh

Anton Chigurh is vastly different from both Llewelyn and Bell in his moral code. He doesn’t believe that life has inherent meaning, and instead favors fate as the guiding principal. In Chigurh’s opinion, one follows a path that leads them to where they are going rather than choosing their path. Destiny is destiny.

As Kern states:

“He’s a strict, conscientious, self-taught psychopath who vigilantly maintains his mental ill-health. He’s purged himself of all qualms and second thoughts so as to function smoothly in the world that Bell has grown unfit for.”

The march of time and “outdated morals” do not apply to Chigurh because his morality and ethical purity are made for a violent world. In other words, he lives strictly by his convictions, and he will not be deterred unless he is in an absolute dire strait, which isn’t often. As such, he is completely different from Bell in that way.

“… what makes Chigurh such a chilling antagonist is that by McCarthy’s reckoning, he seems like the right man for the times—an uncaring beast with no concern for anyone else,” Keith Phipps from the A.V. Club writes.

He is the right man for the right time, and he is playing a violent game—not an innocent one.

Llewelyn Moss is flawed, impulsive, and impractical, while Sheriff Bell is in over his head as times have moved on without him, but the world seems to reward people like Chigurh due to his convictions and his willingness to adopt the methods of the current climate. Somebody who has no want of sensibility, community, and capital—those things that tie Bell and Moss together—will benefit in the en—or, at least, that seems to be the suggestion.

Conclusion

Which brings me to one of the final scenes in No Country for Old Men—both the book and movie. Anton Chigurh is driving down the road in suburbia after killing Carla Jean and is t-boned by another car that runs a stop sign. He is left in bad shape, bloody, but is able to pay a bystander for their shirt and silence, and then he makes off into the night, as though he is some phantom of vengeance and retribution that can’t possibly succumb to his own rule set.

I’ve always found this to be the most confounding part of the book and movie, but now it makes sense to me when applying the “outdated morals” concept. Taking a step back, one can see how Chigurh simply leaves the scene of the accident, and gets away, which would literally mean that this really is “No Country for Old Men,” because evil perseveres in the face of justice. However, in applying the “outdated morals” concept, we must reflect on Chigurh’s confrontation with Wells and his unwillingness to take money in exchange for Wells’s life. In fact, he gives Wells a face full of shotgun instead of taking his money; but, this should be strange, because we then see Chigurh bribe two small children in order to ensure his own escape. Is he just being a pragmatist who is cleaning up loose ends? I think not. As the two boys ride their bikes to Chigurh, who is terribly hurt, he asks them for their help and gives them money.

“Chigurh thumbed a bill out of the clip and put the clip back in his pocket and took the bill from between his teeth and got to his feet and held it out … Take it. Take it and you don’t know what I looked like. You hear?”

But, why? If he is so sure of fate, wouldn’t it work itself out? In the novel, Wells asks Chigurh if he would take money in exchange for sparing his life, and Chigurh says it’s a good payday, but “It’s just in the wrong currency.” This, he says, shortly before outright murdering Wells. Nonetheless, according to Jack’s Movie Reviews, and what I think is an astute observation, the reviewer states: “As he passes the one-hundred-dollar bill to them, it is a passing of generations. It is him being weak. It’s him becoming an old man. And, as we know, this is no country for old men.”

There is no right or wrong in “No Country for Old Men,” in my opinion. There are no just actions or evil actions. There are just those who have outdated morals or ethical impurity and suffer from their own actions, and those who adhere strictly to a modern moral compass that ensures survival. Bell realizes he is outdated and is no longer fit for a world that has changed and left him in the past. Once, he used to break up bar fights, and suddenly he was being shot at by drug dealers, and then he was following in a destructive swath cut by Anton Chigurh. The world moved quickly and away from Sheriff Bell, and regardless of the amount of his ruminations—the world had changed.

No Country for Old Men is a book about changing times and how that has a lessening effect on one’s own immediate surroundings. Toward the end of the novel, Bell states that by trying to live by his own morals, he thought he was going to live his life the right way, or at least the way that he perceived was right.

“I thought if I lived my life in the strictest way I knew how then I would not ever again have a thing that would eat on me thataway.”

Perhaps it is a little about mental change as one gets older, too, and the realization that these moments you once lived are now just shaky memories. I recall reading an article about how unreliable our memories are, which is such a sad realization, because we hope those memories will remain with us and will in some way allow us to remain current and relevant in conversation. The thought that we generate parts of our own memories undermines our intellectual independence and renders us fragile before time, which is what I imagine Sheriff Bell feels in No Country for Old Men. He remembers better times, but maybe those times were never better in the abstract. He just remembered them as better days. 

Either way, I believe McCarthy wants us to believe that regardless of one’s morals—or their ability to survive, or their patience, or their violence toward others—everyone becomes outdated one day whether it’s through their own memories or actions. Yet, by understanding and accepting this, one can adjust their life so that the reliance on the past has less of an impact on the present and the future. At least this rational could help us rest easy with the knowledge of our own impending irrelevancy as time marches onward, and perhaps it could help us avoid Sheriff Bell’s disenfranchised conclusion…or Llewelyn Moss’s violent fate.

Works Cited

Cheuse, Alan. “McCarthy’s ‘No Country for Old Men.” NPR. July 28, 2005. Web.

Kern, Walter. “‘No Country for Old Men’: Texas Noir.” The New York Times. July 24, 2005. Web.

Phipps, Keith. “Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men.” A.V. Club. Aug. 16, 2005. Web.