Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men is a potent blend of drama, thrills, suspense, action and, yes, horror. While the scenes and characters all have their place and time, there is an almost transcendent quality to the movie, largely rooted in its psychological horror dimensions.
Countless debates exist about what is and what is not horror. Some people — such as myself — find these debates alternately interesting, laughable and annoying. A few simple points should be made here: (1) Countless movies have horror elements, and (2) some films considered “horror” aren’t all that scary. In fact, a fair amount of dramas have creepy moments that rival the best in conventional horror.
On that note, I’d say that No Country for Old Men is close enough to being horror — so close that this debate seems more useless than usual. While many would say, “No, it’s a ‘neo-noir’ thriller,” I would simply shrug my shoulders and say, “Okay, have it your way.” A rose by any other name…
No matter what we call it, No Country for Old Men is a modern classic, and particularly due to its memorable characters. While Javier Bardem’s “creeping death” portrayal of hit man Anton Chigurh is memorable, another great character is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). Frankly, Mr. Bell does very little in the movie, and that’s part of what makes it great. In a way, he seems to function as a semi-narrator, adding flavor and dry humor to the devastation in Anton Chigurh’s wake. One of Bell’s best lines? When surveying a crime scene, he says they died of natural causes. To clarify, he adds, “Natural to the line of work they was in.”
Bell also represents a stark contrast between normalcy and insanity, and traditional values versus “anything goes.” While one may question such a narrative, there is something to it in this context. Chigurh is not just a regular bad guy. He is something special. As he tracks down some stolen money, he has no problem stealing new vehicles along the way, and leaving the original driver dead. Most
fascinating is Chigurh’s reliance on a coin flip to determine if someone should live or die.
One should also mention Chigurh’s use of a captive bolt pistol (or “cattle gun”) to both kill people and break into places. See, this is yet another aspect of the movie which lends it significance as horror. Every great villain has some unique trait(s) — be it a weapon, their appearance, or some special power. Chigurh has at least a few memorable traits. (However, it should be noted that another memorable film, 1997’s “The Butcher Boy,” also utilizes a cattle gun for nefarious purposes.)
Of course, one should also note the other semi-protagonists in No Country. There’s Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), the welder and Vietnam vet being pursued by Chigurh (and apparently by death itself, if you see the signs). A man of few words, Moss nevertheless makes an impression, and is tenacious enough to give even Anton a rough time. There is also Moss’s wife, Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald), whose fate is left to chance.
Ultimately, No Country For Old Men is about inevitable death, random chance, loss of meaning, and even plain old age. There is a trail of death throughout, but all life ends in death.