David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

No Country for the Coen Brothers

An ordinary guy finds a suitcase full of thousand dollar bills. There’s no one around. Instead of going to the cops, the guy figures it’s his lucky day and takes the money. Which works just dandy until the big bad motherfuckers who own the suitcase decide to come looking for it.

'No Country for Old Men' posterYou’ve seen that film a thousand times before, and it’s essentially the plot of Joel and Ethan Coen’s brilliant new film, No Country for Old Men (based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name). It’s one of the standard thriller plots that crawls out of Hollywood every five years dressed up in a slick suit of violence with a little flower of moral conundrum stuck to its lapel. The Coens have entertained a few variations on the suitcase-of-money scenario themselves (see Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and The Ladykillers).

Here’s the thing. No Country for Old Men took that dandy little thriller behind the woodshed and beat its ass bloody.

That No Country for Old Men is fiercely entertaining is not really the point. Some audiences can’t see past the offbeat humor and treat the Coen Brothers’ films like hip Quentin Tarantino trifles. Critics often fail to see the point too. They’ve labeled the work of the Coens nihilistic, or misanthropic, or just plain vicious. They call the Coens’ films empty exercises in technical virtuosity without soul or subject.

These critics couldn’t be more wrong. Joel and Ethan Coen have an ongoing subject, and it’s a subject that they discuss intelligently and with compassion. Their subject? The American Dream.

You know, the American Dream: the idea that any penniless schlub born in a broken-down shack can, through grit and hard work, one day become Andrew Carnegie, or Sam Walton, or Bill Gates. It’s a free country! Opportunities unlimited! There’s supposed to be a proper moral framework propping up the whole thing, but somehow in the latter half of the twentieth century it became all about the money. Americans are obsessed with the stuff, whether in the affirmative sense (money enables you to follow your hopes and dreams) or in the negative sense (money can’t buy you happiness). Either way, material wealth always seems to be the fulcrum around which the whole American moral universe teeters. Rather appropriate when you think about it, considering that the United States was largely founded by a bunch of rich white landowners who were pissed off at the King of England because their taxes were too high.

Regardless, the American Dream is what it is, and for whatever reason Joel and Ethan Coen seem to have chosen it as their topic. In film after film, ever since 1984’s Blood Simple, the Coens have been steadily dissecting this Dream. Analyzing it, tearing it up, and stitching it back together. Charting out the ways it can corrupt us and demean us.

Witness Fargo, the story of a dumbass car salesman whose shame about his inability to provide a better life for his family leads him to fraud, extortion, and ultimately murder. Witness The Hudsucker Proxy, a cartoony take on Frank Capra in which a naive dimwit strives to reach the top of a major corporation only to find himself the puppet of his corporate masters. Or The Big Lebowski, featuring a ’60s reject with no ambition higher than getting his rug back, who is nonetheless sucked into the scheme of a corrupt self-styled philanthropist to steal a million dollars. Or The Man Who Wasn’t There, starring yet another dim bulb who’s thrust unprepared into a world of ambition by his wife’s philandering and is ultimately undone by it.

What do all the Coen protagonists have in common? They’re all ambitious schemers dissatisfied with the status quo, looking for unorthodox ways to achieve that American Dream.

Ethan and Joel CoenAnd why not? You think the Carnegies, the Kennedys, and the Rockefellers got to their lofty positions by diligently punching the clock in a middle management job? You often hear the phrase these days that “well-behaved women rarely make the history books,” and it is, by and large, true. It’s certainly possible to earn a comfortable living on a middle-class salary with annual scheduled 5 percent raises. But to have Rockefeller money, or Perot money, or Gates money? The big American fortunes don’t come from middle-class salaries with 5 percent raises that are wisely invested. Some of them come from slave trading, bootlegging, war profiteering, and drug smuggling. Successful businessmen in this country often bribe law officials, extort politicians, oppress workers, and bully the competition.

The Coen Brothers protagonist sees a world that’s stacked against him. He’s stuck in a lower-middle-class rut with no upward mobility in sight. He’s not a venture capitalist or a bond trader or a software mogul. He’s (in chronological order by film) a bar manager, an ex-con factory worker, a middling Irish hood, a struggling screenwriter, a graduate of the Muncie College School of Business, a failing car salesman, an unemployed slacker, a convict sent up for practicing law without a license, a small-town barber, a high-powered attorney (okay, let’s just skip Intolerable Cruelty), and an itinerant con man.

With No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen give us another one of these would-be Andrew Carnegies in the form of Llewelyn Moss, a welder and Vietnam veteran (in an astonishingly understated performance by Josh Brolin). Llewelyn stumbles on the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, finds a suitcase filled with two million dollars of drug money, and naturally assumes, in that uniquely American way, that he can “take on all comers” to keep it. He knows full well that there’s no pot of gold waiting for him after retirement from the welding trade; if he’s going to make a move up the ladder, if he’s going to follow the American Dream, Llewelyn has to jump into this with both feet.

Unfortunately, this opportunity leads him into the path of some unidentified cartel that’s willing to go to the mat to get back their cash. Towards that end, the cartel hires a lone assassin named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Chigurh isn’t your typical hit man. He’s kind of like the Terminator, if the Terminator wasn’t such a sentimental, weak-kneed pussy. He’s like Hannibal Lecter’s evil twin. This dude is bad, and he walks around West Texas indiscriminately killing just about everyone he crosses with a big cattle gun.

Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in 'No Country for Old Men'You couldn’t think up a more classic American conflict than this. A laconic cowboy taking on an assassin hired by corrupt businessmen, in Texas no less. A fight against incredible odds. A good ol’ Southern boy raised with good manners against a Godless, thoughtless Mexican killing machine. Blue-collar worker up against the men with the big money.

Now, big spoiler here. So stop reading now if you don’t want to know how this ends.

Ready?

Llewelyn Moss loses. He loses badly, in fact — gunned down in a cheap El Paso motel, possibly without even getting a shot off himself. In this he follows in the tradition of Coen Brothers Protagonists like Fargo‘s Jerry Lundegard, who whines and thrashes like a baby as the police collar him; The Ladykillers’ G.H. Dorr, who persists in his elaborate heist to the death of him and all of his co-conspirators; Raising Arizona‘s H.I. McDonnough, who sheepishly owns up to his ineptitude and returns the baby of the furniture magnate he previously stole; and The Big Lebowski‘s Jeff Lebowski, who winds up sans rug, sans one of his best friends, and sans the million dollars he was promised (but with johnson thankfully intact).

The shocking thing about the climactic ending of No Country for Old Men is that the Coen Brothers don’t even bother to show it onscreen. Why?

Well, partially they’re just being faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name. But certainly this ending appealed to Joel and Ethan for a good reason: it’s the real ending. Of course Llewelyn Moss is going to get his ass handed to him. You and I — the ones who sit in traffic on the way to work every day wishing there was a way to leave the rat race behind — we read stories about idiots like Llewelyn Moss all the time. They’re the ones who you see doing the perp walk on the evening news, the ones who thought they could beat the odds, the ones who thought they could get away with it. You and I know that there’s only one place where a stubborn Texas welder with a shotgun can outsmart, outmaneuver, and outgun a Mexican drug cartel: Hollywood.

And most Hollywood directors are there specifically to indulge these fantasies for us. That’s why we fork over ten dollars every few weeks, so we can see the story of the guy who beat the odds. To see the promise of the American Dream fulfilled. Hollywood obliges by giving us that one-man-against-an-army scenario time after time on the big screen. After the lights come on, you’re going to go back to your middle-class job with your scheduled annual 5 percent raise, but you can be comforted that somewhere out there, some underdog beat the odds.

One of the reasons I love the Coen Brothers is because they refuse to play this game. They refuse to peddle the same bullshit. They know how the world works, and with No Country for Old Men, they give us a much-needed splash of cold reality. It’s very simple. You play with fire, and you’re going to get your head blown off by a cattle gun.

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  1. David de Beer on December 18, 2007 at 3:54 am  Chain link

    I liked Intolerable Cruelty. Pretty much like all of the Coen brother movies; in what they do, they are unique.
    I’ve got to see this one.

  2. David Louis Edelman on December 18, 2007 at 8:52 am  Chain link

    Oh, I liked Intolerable Cruelty too. But considering that, alone among their films, the script wasn’t written by the Coens, only touched up by them, it doesn’t exactly fit the pattern.

  3. Ken on December 18, 2007 at 5:38 pm  Chain link

    Hi David,
    I read your review with interest, as I am a big Coen brothers’ fan. Well, actually I read half of your review with interest, and didn’t read the 2nd half at all.
    And so a BIG thank you for telling me there were spoilers up ahead. I have had my enjoyment of so many films spoilt because of unannounced spoilers in reviews, and it really pisses me off.
    Thanks again, and I’ll come back and read the whole review when I’ve seen the film.

  4. Soni on December 18, 2007 at 9:44 pm  Chain link

    Huh.

    Never noticed that theme before (although I’ve only actually seen a few of their movies, so that may explain it), but now that you’ve laid it out, it is pretty clear. Nice review, nice insights. Thanks for giving me something to think about. You ever consider writing for a living? 😛

    I’m with the Coens. The American Dream (as seen on TV!) can go kiss my auxiliary burrito storage facility.

  5. David Louis Edelman on December 18, 2007 at 10:39 pm  Chain link

    Soni: Well, the Coens don’t exactly go out there and push this line. They like to play it coy, lying to interviewers, disclaiming all deeper intentions, acting goofy, etc. Kind of like Dylan used to do. Another reason I love these guys.

  6. DougM on December 19, 2007 at 1:21 pm  Chain link

    While I won’t quibble with your theory about the Coen brothers’ ongoing ‘American Dream’ motif, your tone implies that the American Dream is out of reach for most of the ‘Joe Six-Packs’ of the country. I disagree.

    I view the problem as one of perception rather than reality. Most people in this country have a distorted view of the ‘American Dream,’ and that is the essence of the problem. People want to SPEND money, not accumulate it steadily over time. How many times have you heard friends or associates say “if only I had a bigger house, new car, etc.” If only indeed.

    Read “The Millionaire Next Door” if you want examples of people who didn’t have to extort, steal or murder to acquire their wealth. They aren’t obnoxious like Donald Trump, either. They work hard, live below their means, and (usually) run an unglamorous business that meets a customer need.

    ***FARGO SPOILER ALERT***FARGO SPOILER ALERT***

    Furthermore, I think that everyone in Fargo (with the exception of the poor wife) got what they deserved. To me, the movie had a happy ending.

  7. Brian on December 19, 2007 at 1:28 pm  Chain link

    Excellent review – I’ve got this on my ‘must see on the next date night’ list.

    Thanks!

  8. David Louis Edelman on December 19, 2007 at 1:36 pm  Chain link

    I view the problem as one of perception rather than reality. Most people in this country have a distorted view of the ‘American Dream,’ and that is the essence of the problem.

    Good point. Thanks for the comment.

    I’ve got this on my ‘must see on the next date night’ list.

    As long as your date doesn’t mind seeing innocent people’s brains blown out by a cattle gun.

  9. Brian on December 19, 2007 at 4:31 pm  Chain link

    As long as your date doesn’t mind seeing innocent people’s brains blown out by a cattle gun.

    The first movie my wife and I saw as a couple was ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ – her idea. Our last date night movie was ‘The Mist’.

    She’s cool like that.

  10. tommyspoon on January 2, 2008 at 8:41 am  Chain link

    I just saw this last night for the second time. And even though I knew every twist and turn, the scenes at the Eagle Pass Hotel still creeped me out!

    I heart the Coens. Except “The Big Lebowski”. Never saw the humor in that one…

  11. mike on September 5, 2008 at 11:18 pm  Chain link

    Even, if, the desperate pursuit of the American dream(ala the Coens) is the main theme of their films this still doesn’t mean their treatment of the material isn’t glibly cynical.

  12. Winston Furlong on September 7, 2008 at 7:30 am  Chain link

    A basic problem with this analysis is the choice of Protagonist. Its not Llewelyn Moss, its Sheriff Bell. Here’s some rules for figuring out the protagonist is (mostly applies) :

    1. Appear first on screen
    2. Appears last on screen
    3. Carries the premise, the moral themes.
    4. Goes on a journey ( changes his world view, his belief system etc more than any other character)
    5. Is the one whose life is being made difficult.
    6. Does not die ( other than in horror movies and tragedies, but even so not before he/she has learnt something)

    Picking the wrong protagonist, gives a totally incorrect slant to “What the story is about” and whose eyes we see it through/ Peter Dunne’s great book ” Emotional Structure” clearly distinguishes, PLOT ( the intellectual and physical journey) , and STORY (the metaphysical, emotional journey).

    What lifts NCFOM from the other plain old “character finds a suitcase full of money stories” is Sheriff Bell who embodies the inherent horror in “The American dream is becoming a nightmare” premise. Take out Sherriff Bell and its a nothing movie.

    All of this is underlined at film’s end, when Sheriff Bell tells his wife of a dream turning into a nightmare and his last line ( the last line of the film) is “And then I woke up”. A beautiful irony cos unfortunately, in America today, we might wish we could, but cannot just wake up and breathe a sigh of relief that’s its all over.

    Beware the charismatic antagonist. Its tempting in films like this to lean towards more charismatic characters as whom the story is about. Chigurh and Llewelyn dominate screen time, but their function is to make Sheriff Bell’s life difficult and test his character to its core. They are functional characters in that sense, doing what they know how to do, without self revelation or epiphany.

    btw Jerry Lundegard is not the protagonist in Fargo either. Think about it.

  13. David Louis Edelman on September 7, 2008 at 2:59 pm  Chain link

    mike: Well, glib cynicism is one thing. I can understand people disliking the Coens’ films on that score. It’s the people who think their films are purposeless that irritate me.

    Winston: I think you’re onto something here, but not sure I entirely agree. Yes, you’re right that Sheriff Bell is in many ways the focal point of the movie. But I don’t think it’s because he’s the protagonist; it’s because he’s the narrator.

    No Country is essentially a story told by Sheriff Bell. It’s the story he’s telling to justify his retirement. He doesn’t really have much of an impact on the Llewelyn Moss/Anton Chigurh conflict at all; he’s mostly an outside observer. So I think it’s really a case of Sheriff Bell choosing to tell a story about the American Dream, as I discussed above, for reasons you outline.

    The Coens have done this postmodern narrator thing before. You remember that Big Lebowski is narrated by the nameless cowboy, and Hudsucker Proxy is narrated by the black guy in the clock tower. You’re right that this framing gives the stories an extra level of depth that the standard suitcase-full-of-money story doesn’t have.

    And btw, that last scene with Sheriff Bell talking to his wife always makes me cry like a baby. It’s a man at the end of his life trying desperately to measure up to his father’s standards, unsure if he can. Hell, I’m tearing up right now just thinking about it.

    As for Fargo: Yes, I think you’re right in part that it’s largely Marge Gundersen’s story. But again, like No Country, it’s in some sense a framing device. Marge observing someone else’s story for the purpose of reflecting on her own life. A more complicated case, structurally speaking.

  14. Dr Pauline Kiernan on September 29, 2008 at 12:17 pm  Chain link

    Thank you, David – a post full of insights. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Coens’ No Country For Old Men lately, as I’ve been writing about it on my site. I think there’s a nice irony that the ending has caused a never-ending debate that still rages today.

    Instead of the conventional high-wire tension of the final, cathartic shoot-out between good guy and bad, in a dramatic, often ‘epic’ setting, the villain is still alive and Sheriff Bell sits, sad and weary, in the small, domestic space of his kitchen – talking. In one almost completely static shot, he delivers a lengthy monologue about the dreams he has dreamt.

    It is the quietest, most intimate of scenes. And it is the final one. Anti-climactic, anti-dramatic. Five simple words, before the screen goes back. ‘And then I woke up’.

    Faced with a story that takes us out of our comfort zone into the unfathomable and then leaves us there, is disturbing.

    You could call No Country For Old Men’s ending a cruel joke – playing with the audience’s feelings. And it is cruel.

    We’ve been denied the catharsis of watching a David slay Goliath. And if we don’t like it, tough.

    That there is no consoling denouement in the movie is perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the experience.

    The movie holds up a mirror to a world in terminal moral decline and refuses to soften the dark, apocalyptic nightmare for us.

    In keeping with the uncompromizing moral theme, it’s an uncompromoizing ending that refuses to give us an ending.

    It may leave us in the bleak wilderness, confronting our most profound fears. But to stay truthful to the moral theme of the story, could it really have ended any other way?

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