The thin line of civilization

Behind the Curve – No Country for Old Men (2007)

(Note: You’ll be happy to know that this article does not mention tomorrow’s election. I’ll just trust that you intelligent folks will make the right decision.)

Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, as well as the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, is most concisely described as a modern Western. Although I don’t feel that label does either of them justice. Both the book and the film are largely philosophical tales that depict a nihilistic view of the thin lines separating life and death, civilization and chaos.

The story is very cat-and-mouse, driven primarily by the pursuit of a briefcase full of drug money . The action revolves around three main actors: Llewelyn Moss, Anton Chigurh and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Moss is a blue-collar every-man who finds the briefcase by stumbling upon the bloody scene of a drug deal in the desert gone bad, Chigurh is a brutal hitman tasked with recovering the briefcase, and Bell is a retiring sheriff who is mainly concerned with finding and saving Moss from the deadly powers tracking him.

No Country for Old Men (2007)
No Country for Old Men (2007)

This is one of those movies where the villain steals the show. Chigurh is a chillingly pragmatic operative with very little regard for human life. He kills casually and efficiently, even when killing is not necessary to achieve his ends. Sometimes he kills just because it’s slightly more expedient, and sometimes the killing is even out of his way. Chigurh shows no human empathy or regret. He takes human life with the indifference of a man swatting a fly. Often you get the impression that he’s not a character himself, but a force of nature. Someone who cannot be bargained with any more than one can bargain with a hurricane.

But to me the heart of the story is Sheriff Bell. You see, Bell is a small-town cop who has gone his entire career without much real action. He seems to think that folks are mostly good people and that a lot of a sheriff’s job can be done without violence. It’s obvious he has never dealt with anyone like Anton Chigurh.

As the movie goes on, we see Bell become unnerved by the senseless brutality and violence of the mess he is uncovering. He realizes that it could soon be threatening his own life. This feeling culminates with Bell coming upon a hotel right after a shooting. He thinks Chigurh might still be in the hotel room. He knows he must enter the room. It’s his duty. But Bell also knows that he will almost certainly die if Chigurh is still there.

No Country for Old Men (2007)
No Country for Old Men (2007)

I won’t tell you how that turned out, but I’ve never seen a movie portray the fear of death more perfectly than Bell approaching that door. It was a precise crystallization of primal human emotion; the terrifying recognition of one’s mortality. It reminded me of those rare, dark moments when my mind understands that I will die and my consciousness will cease to be.

We humans think of our lives as valuable things. We think we possess some degree of safety against death. But all it takes is a relatively small amount of pressure applied to certain parts of our body and we’re gone. Our world ends. And if someone or something is determined to apply that pressure, there is very little that can protect us. Not God nor guns nor the laws of civilization.

We can die any time, at any moment. And it doesn’t matter to the universe at large. Our lives are nothing more than bio-electrical impulses held together by delicate flesh. We are insignificant specks living on a rock as it floats through an empty and uncaring universe.

Huh. I guess I’m feeling a bit pessimistic this week. Can’t imagine why.


Coming up:

  • Game: Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001) – Monday, November 14
  • Documentary: Best of Enemies (2015) – Monday, November 21
  • Book: 1984 (George Orwell, 1949) – Monday, November 28
  • Movie: The Imitation Game (2014) – Monday, December 5
  • Wild Card! – Monday, January 30

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