No Country for Old Men (2007): The Devil Wears Progress

Our Take Two column offers second opinions and alternative angles on films and TV series reviewed elsewhere on Motion State. Head here for our Face Off between Fargo and No Country for Old Men.

“The setting is the Texas-Mexico border. The time is our own.”

This is how the synopsis on the back of the first edition of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men begins. One of these things is inarguable: we’re definitely in the Southwestern U.S. borderlands, weaving along the imaginary line separating Texas from Mexico. But the other bit — “the time is our own” — seems at the very least a strange thing to say about a story set in 1980. Then again, one could sit through the Coen Brothers’ meticulous 2007 adaptation and reasonably assume it to be set in the present day. Maybe the dusty West will always be stuck in time throughout the future of American film, a land pioneered from the 1800s but never truly transformed in the ensuing centuries. One of two hints in No Country comes when Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) references Vietnam explicitly, having served in two tours in 1966 and ’68; the other, of course, comes courtesy of the oracular Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who holds up a quarter from 1958 and muses on the coin’s 22-year journey into his hand.

But the ill-defined nature of time is more than just a peculiar facet of this bloody yarn. We mistake the time period for today, and yet in actuality it’s nearly forty years in the past; if the film centers on the concept of progress, then this curiosity becomes darkly ironic. As is the case with nearly everything by the Coen Brothers (and everything by McCarthy, for that matter), the assertion of numerous interpretations and readings usually leads only to more questions, more ambiguities, more uncertainty. This uncertainty is admittedly fitting of the landscape of the film, and of its inexplicable antagonist. But moreso than “Chigurh as Fate” or “Chigurh as Death” or “Chigurh as Capitalism,” the implication of Anton Chigurh as the living manifestation of Progress seems to make the death knell of No Country for Old Men ring all the louder.

Structurally, as Chigurh relentlessly pursues Moss and as Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) consistently arrives too late to do anything about it, the progress of the plot itself supports this theme of indiscriminate movement, of time as an unstoppable force. It’s the question with which Bell wrestles for the entirety of the film, feeling “overmatched” as the denizens of the new world encroach on his sleepy, routine existence. McCarthy’s dialogue for Bell lends a fair amount of exposition to that feeling, particularly in the opening and closing moments of No Country. But the Coens cue us visually, too, frequently showing characters in the same location yet separated by time:

“Progress,” it should be noted, is a term frequently used with a positive connotation, as in (per the OED) to “advance or development toward a better, more complete, or more modern condition.” But progress doesn’t always mean positive change for all people, even if there are parties involved who’d refer to a new state of affairs as “better,” “more complete” or “more modern.” As we noted in our review of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, which shares a similar theme, it’s often a matter of perspective: “progress often diminishes or demeans or even destroys whatever stood in the original spot.” For Sheriff Bell, progress toward a “more modern” way of doing things means the brutal extinction of his own ways.

Even if we don’t mistake this tumultuous 1980 for our own time, it’s a highly intentional post-war setting wherein the American public yearned for a new, progressive era. Jimmy Carter mused on progress himself in his “Crisis of Confidence” speech:

We’ve always believed in something called progress. We’ve always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own. Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy…Our progress has been part of the living history of America, even the world. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom; and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose. But just as we are losing our confidence in the future, we are also beginning to close the door on our past.

That speech, mulling the significance of America’s past, came on July 15, 1979, and about a year later the political campaign of Ronald Reagan — whose presidency would certainly mark “progress” of some sort, positive or negative — took an opposing, optimistic stance centered squarely on America’s future. That shift goes a long way to explaining Bell’s frame of mind, and his woeful inability to suitable confront the coming of Anton Chigurh.

And if American progress manifested itself in everyday life through any single frontier, it’s technology. The Information and Telecommunications Revolution, the Digital Revolution, the Third Industrial Revolution — these typically describe the post-1975 era in American technological advancement. For Bell in No Country, who notes he’s been sheriff since he was twenty-five years old, the onset of new tools and technologies explicitly threatens his existence. “I don’t know that law enforcement benefits all that much from new technology,” he says in the novel when offered new-and-improved police equipment. “Tools that comes into our hands comes into theirs too…I told the man I thought I’d stick with what I had. That ain’t always a good policy. But it aint always a bad one neither.”

Chigurh, conversely, meaningfully wields a newfangled piece of technology that seems to confound those who encounter it. It’s a new tool for slaughtering cattle, Bell surmises. If Chigurh represents unyielding progress, though, it makes sense that he’d find an even more revolutionary use for the airgun in slaughtering humans. He notes that “anything can be an instrument,” sounding like a pioneer on the frontlines of a technological insurrection. And at one point Chigurh even refers to himself as the perfect distillation of instrument design: “He picked the one right tool.”

The modernized aspects of Chigurh’s character also discount some of those popular, simplistic interpretations of “Chigurh as Death” or “Chigurh as Fate.” Superficially, the transponder he uses to track Moss is just another piece of gleaming technology that lends him an advantage over Bell. But we see the device gifted to him by two nameless men in suits, and eventually discover an entire corporate structure — complete with a supervisor (Stephen Root) and a “business” rival (Woody Harrelson) — at the root of Chigurh’s mission. The future of evil is hard enough for Bell to accept, still policing on horseback, but evil bankrolled by modern corporate interest is another story entirely.

Systems by their nature resist change, and “forward” progress is much the same. An object in motion will remain in motion unless acted on by another force. Chigurh’s car accident in the final moments of the film might seem at odds with a rendering of him as a metaphor for progress, or for any other nebulous concept. But progress can always be upended, and even something that seems complete can be subject to regression. Chigurh continues along his path after the accident, only momentarily knocked off his course forward, but it’s a reminder that the concept of inevitable progress is perhaps more frail than it appears.

In McCarthy’s novel there is an anecdote from Bell about a long-running survey given to town locals about the worst problems afoot in society. When the survey first came back in the ’40s, “the biggest problems they could name was things like talkin class and runnin in the hallways. Chewin gum. Copyin homework.” Forty years later, Bell says, the answers were horrifically different. “Rape, arson, murder. Drugs. Suicide….Forty years is not a long time neither.” In the end, it’s change that Bell fears. Progress and change aren’t the same, but progress does require change; if Bell is ever to accept modern progress, he’ll have to make choices that change his life forever. And Anton Chigurh, decisive as the flip of a coin, will be there to fulfill the consequences of those choices.

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