Rescripting the Western in 'No Country for Old Men'

by Sergio Rizzo

13 January 2011

Cormac and the Coens 

The novel’s commentary upon conservatism...

One place to begin a more comprehensive reading of the novel’s commentary upon conservatism would be to consider the setting not only in terms of its Southwestern region but also its temporal location. In an unforgettable scene between the novel’s villain, Anton Chigurh, and a hapless storeowner in a life-or-death coin toss, the year is revealed to be 1980, thereby situating the story at the beginning of a decade that is defined by the Reagan presidency (1981-1989) with its nostalgic evocation of the Old West. In No Country for Old Men, however, the reality of the West at the beginning of the Reagan era has nothing nostalgic about it. People speed through the inhospitable landscape on desolate highways that connect a network of indistinguishable mobile home parks, shabby motels, gas stations, and diners. According to Bell’s italicized monologue, the land and its people are drowning in a sea of drugs, crime, and consumerism. Within an island of domestic space represented by Bell’s home (and to a lesser extent Moss’s) there is a brief respite from the ceaseless commerce that reduces community life to a perfunctory and fleeting exchange. The promise of the Old West built upon the dream of unfettered movement (“don’t fence me in”) and fantastic wealth (“hitting the jackpot”) has already gone bust at the dawn of Reagan-era America.

However, McCarthy’s critique of Reagan’s Old West founders due to the author’s inability to reconcile two distinct genres—the crime thriller and the Western. One would think the melding of these two genres should be an easy process since, as Robert Warshow in his classic essay on Western film “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner” points out, “the two most successful creations of American movies are the gangster and the Westerner: men with guns”. In No Country for Old Men, McCarthy tries to take advantage of this similarity. Warshow further explains, however, that the two genres offer two contrasting ways of valuing the violence that is central to both. While the gangster’s law of survival is to do it first and do it often, for the Westerner, Warshow says, “it is a crucial point of honor not to ‘do it first’; his gun remains in his holster until the moment of combat”.

Llewelyn Moss—the protagonist who discovers a briefcase with two million dollars of drug money and is being tracked by both Chigurh and Bell—observes this rule twice:  first when he gets the drop on Chigurh in his hotel room but decides not shoot him and receives a near fatal wound while running away; later one of the drug runners tracking him puts a gun to the head of a hitchhiker Moss has befriended and threatens to shoot her if he doesn’t lay down his gun. When Moss puts down his gun, the drug runner shoots and kills both the girl and Moss. The Western hero’s chivalric code gets Moss killed; however, it also redeems him. As in Greek tragedy, the reader learns of Moss’s death indirectly through a witness who tells a sheriff who in turn tells Bell what happened. The whole episode with the hitchhiker and Moss’s chaste brotherly concern for her—supposedly all the more admirable because she is “Kind of skankylookin” as the sheriff describes her—is a transparent device for recuperating whatever his character lost in unilaterally taking the money and putting the lives of his wife and others at risk. Similarly, when the sheriff relates how Moss died, the reader is reassured he died heroically. The sheriff tells Bell: “Accordin to this witness the old boy [Moss] fell down the steps and then picked up his gun again and shot the Mexican. Which I dont see how he done it. He was shot all to pieces”. Moss’s offstage Western heroism as he dies is meant to redeem his character flaws necessitated by the plot of the crime thriller.

Another formal problem with McCarthy’s attempt to combine the Western with a crime thriller has to do with their contrasting attitudes towards women. While not a feature of the crime thriller in general, the most distinctive woman of the genre is the noir’s femme fatale. In contrast to the femme fatale, the women in No Country for Old Men play the conventionally sentimental feminine roles of the Western. Carla Jean and Loretta, the respective wives of Moss and Bell, are an extension of the novel’s dual protagonist feature that McCarthy uses to critique masculinity in general and the masculine codes of the crime thriller in particular. However, whatever implicit or explicit criticisms the women make about their husbands or other “men with guns” they are made from the marginalized position of women within the conventional Western. “But the West,” as Warshow notes, “lacking the graces of civilization is the place ‘where men are men’; in Western movies, men have the deeper wisdom and the women are children”.

The childlike passivity of Moss’s wife is obvious. Her concerns and feeble complaints about what her husband does are part of the woman’s conventional role in the Western to voice the ethical questions and emotional anxieties that are raised by the hero’s actions but must be repressed by him if he is to succeed in a place “where men are men”. The last time Moss and Carla Jean see each other, they play out their respective Western gender roles. In parting, Carla Jean says, “Don’t hurt nobody. You hear?” To which Moss replies, “I aint making no promises… That’s how you get hurt.” Of course, despite his attempt to protect himself by “making no promises,” Moss winds up dead, thus undermining this masculine logic. Likewise, Carla Jean’s death at the hands of Chigurh breaks with the conventional Western’s happy ending vouchsafed for the woman who, despite her concerns, stands by her man. While the unfair death of Carla Jean raises some doubts about Moss’s masculine heroics, its main effect is to illustrate Chigurh’s “principled” ruthlessness. Moreover, Carla Jean’s interview and execution by Chigurh allows her no heroic stature—if any thing, as she sobs and cries for her mother, she looks even smaller and more pathetic—unlike what happens to her husband when he dies. While one could argue McCarthy revises the Western to the extent that the male hero has no “deeper wisdom” than his female counterpart, in the character of Carla Jean he nonetheless maintains her childlike status.

In “The Making of No Country for Old Men” which accompanies the DVD release of the movie, the Coen brothers and members of the cast refer to numerous genres to describe the movie: action, horror, comedy, crime story, Western, noir, etc. However, at one point, Joel Coen tries to nail the film down by saying, “It is a dark story and the book is quite dark and that’s the defining characteristic of it [the film].” While his comment acknowledges the novel as the source of the film’s noir feel, the film’s combination of the noir with other genres, in particular the Western, is much more successful than the novel’s. The film’s success depends on the brothers’ ability to rewrite the novel’s reliance on the gender roles of the conventional Western.

Writing for Film Quarterly, Joan Mellen aligns No Country for Old Men with two other films set in the “iconic Southwest”, Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah (2007). As different as these three films are, she rightly sees them as “significant contributions to the political discourse of these times”. However, in pointing out that both the novel and the film version of No Country for Old Men rely on references to Vietnam in order to comment on the present, she misses the extent and substance of the Coens’ revision. She argues that the Coens, “constrained by the exigencies of commercial cinema,” are forced to mention Vietnam “only twice,” whereas “McCarthy’s uncompromising novel references Vietnam a number of times”. While McCarthy’s novel does allude to Vietnam more frequently, Mellen does not stop to consider how or why. One of the novel’s references she cites and that the Coens omit is spoken by Deputy Wendell (“It must of sounded like Vietnam out here”) as he and Sheriff Bell survey the carnage of the drug dealers’ shootout in the arid back country. However, watching the movie, the viewer sees no apparent reason why the Coens couldn’t have left the deputy’s comment in the scene. Instead, Deputy Wendell’s (Garret Dillahunt) dialogue references the Old West twice. First when he and Bell are viewing the shootout from afar: “OK Corral’s just yonder”; and again in their reconstruction of what transpired: “I think we’re looking at more than one fracas. Execution here. Wild West over there”. The Coens’ decision to replace the novel’s reference to Vietnam in this scene with two references to the Old West must be based on something other than “the exigencies of commercial cinema”. Upon rereading the book with the movie in mind, the reader begins to sense how forced the reference to Vietnam in this scene is, as are some of the other references to it in the novel. Indeed, much like Bell’s insistent veneration of his wife, the novel’s repeated references to Vietnam seem to be part of some larger message or urge that that the novel itself cannot explain or resolve.

The culmination of the novel’s analogy between Vietnam and the drug wars ravaging the towns along the U.S./Mexico border occurs when Bell visits Moss’s father to tell him that his son has died. Moss’s father, like Bell, is a veteran of World War II, and the father’s somewhat unlikely response to the news of his son’s death is to reflect on the differences between World War II and Vietnam:

... But aside from that they’d all done things over there [Vietnam] that they’d just as soon left over there. We didn’t have nothin like that in the war [WWII]. Or very little of it. He [Moss] smacked the tar out of one or two of them hippies. Spittin on him. Callin him a babykiller. A lot of them boys that come back, they’re still havin problems. I thought it was because they didnt have the country behind em. But I think it might be worse than that even. The country they did have was in pieces. It still is. It wasn’t the hippies fault. It wasnt the fault of them boys that got sent over there neither.

Thankfully, the Coens left this scene out of the film. Framing the Vietnam war in terms of paternal absolution—a move that is preceded by Sheriff Bell’s confession about his role in World War II to Uncle Ellis—conservative and liberal readers alike are encouraged to “just agree to disagree” about the tragedy of the Vietnam war. Behind the novel’s explicit and implicit analogies between various wars (the Indian wars, World War II, Vietnam, the drug wars, and implicitly the Iraq war) lurks the grand theme of McCarthy’s fiction: “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed.” At his best, in work such as Blood Meridian, McCarthy uses this theme to stunning effect, ripping away the myths that hide the full extent of our national wounds. In No Country for Old Men, however, his use of this theme is less successful, resulting in a reductive and “deterministic mythmaking”, as the critic James Wood calls it in his review of the novel.

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