No Country for Old Men is a trifecta of cinematic genius that unites the writing of Cormac McCarthy (a Pulitzer Prize winner and writer of the 2005 novel from which the film was adapted), the acting of Javier Bardem (Oscar winner for best supporting actor), and the directing of the Coen brothers (Oscar winner for best director and best adapted screenplay). And that omits stellar performances from Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, and Gene Jones who plays a gas station proprietor in the coin toss scene—one of the great scenes in a film a generation, ranking up there with the Russian Roulette scene from Deer Hunter. These actors make this psychological thriller and drama come to life from the pages of such a quality novel that it is surprising. Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) stumbles upon a case full of cash from an apparent drug deal gone wrong. Anton Chigurh (Bardem) searches for the money under the direction of Carson Wells (Harrelson), with the Sheriff (Jones) in slow pursuit.
McCarthy, as he has done throughout his work, brings the southern grotesque westward. Place is as much of a character in No Country for Old Men as any person, and it’s difficult to imagine the story taking place anywhere else. The barren, quiet environment creates a sense of in-betweenness throughout the story. When Chigurh steps into the gas station convenience store, it is as if the characters converse in purgatory, where Chigurh is the devil incarnate, putting the proprietor’s life at the mercy of a coin toss. Chigurh, after finishing a bag of cashews, tells the proprietor to call the toss. “I didn’t put nothin’ up,” the proprietor says. “Yes, you did,” says Chigurh. “You been putting it up your whole life. You just didn’t know it.” This is what’s at stake in the story: random interactions and events are everything. Does every encounter have meaning or does nothing have meaning? It’s a story that interrogates the notion of nihilism in modern life.
Sheriff Bell (Jones) is the one character that attempts to determine whether Chigurh’s rampage has meaning. In the process, he is trying to determine whether his life, and the actions that he has taken, has any meaning—whether his life has made any difference. When considering good versus evil, he says, “Ninety percent of the time it takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people can’t be governed at all. Or if they could I never heard of it.” If he ends up believing in anything, it’s karma: “I believe that whatever you do in your life it will get back to you. If you live long enough it will.” A belief in God, however, is a different question altogether: “I always thought when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t. I don’t blame him. If I was him, I’d have the same opinion about me that he does.” It’s not that Bell doesn’t believe in God—he’s just never had an experience with God. So, he leaves the door ajar as an agnostic. After all, if he doesn’t believe in God, how could he blame God for not being in his life? This moment, and Bell’s character, emphasizes the uncertainty of everything, including meaning. And it is Chigurh’s existence, and the random acts of violence, that makes him consider this on the brink of his retirement, near the end of his life.
This year marks 15 years since the release of No Country for Old Men. When I rewatched it for the umpteenth time recently, it was Jones’s character—the Sheriff—that made the most significant impact on me. Maybe it’s because I’m another year older. Maybe it’s because I tended to see Jones as a stereotypical aging Sheriff who just wants to retire, rather than deal with a tragedy of epic proportions. But Jones, in many ways, is us: most of us exist in a gray area, trying to figure out whether our lives matter through the smoke of the tragic, forgetting about the good. And we are left maybe more confused and less sure the older we get. So, when you watch the film this year, focus on Sheriff Bell. “People complain about the bad things that happen to ’em that they don’t deserve but they seldom mention the good,” Sheriff Bell says. “About what they done to deserve them things.”