* MAJOR SPOILERS *
So I was telling a writer friend of mine about the Act Two Climax & Third Act decisions the Coen brothers made for their film, No Country for Old Men. (“Okay, stop right there, MM. They didn’t make those decisions about the story. Everything in the film happened that way in the book.” The Coens are responsible for their film. They didn’t have to follow the book chapter and verse as they did, but they chose to do so. Everything we see in the film is the result of all the decisions the Coens made for their film, including the plot.)
Anyway, I told this friend of mine about the movie and Moss, the protagonist, who finds two million dollars of dirty money; about Chigurh, the brutally evil antagonist with the brutally evil haircut who is hot on his trails; and Ed Tom Bell, the concerned yet, ineffective, sheriff. And this plot, as it always must, leads up to the inevitable Act Two showdown between Moss and Chigurh. So what happens, you ask yourself as you watch the film... Does he kill Chigurh? Does he get to keep the money? Or will the Sheriff step in to hand down some old school western justice? We don’t see it. We’re robbed of the showdown. We learn that Moss is dead. He got killed in a scene that took place off-screen. All we see are the police cars, the flashing lights, and the yellow tape in front of two hotel rooms. Moss’s wife shows up, bursts into tears, and hugs Bell. That’s it. In the next scene, Bell visits Moss in the mortuary. We’re not even allowed to see his face. Then, Chigurh hunts down Moss’s wife and kills her when she returns home from the funeral. After that, he gets away. The last image is of Bell babbling in his dining room about his dreams. Fade out.
Do you know what my friend said?
“That is so wrong.”
She’s a published author, by the way. Did she say that because she only wants to watch formulaic films over and over? Hardly. Perhaps it was because those decisions are so outrageous, they go against everything we hold dear about storytelling? Hmm. Of course, there’s much more to the ending than what I wrote, but I believe this is how most people around the country are reacting to the film. I’ve read (and received) comments about audiences walking out of the theater put off by the anti-climactic ending. Immediately following the fade out in my own screening, I heard a teenage girl yell out, “What? What was that?” The fanboys have also been quite vocal about their displeasure. Mr. Massawyrm wrote, “But it is all wasted. Every bit of it. Because no matter how great everyone is, no matter how tight the dialog, hell, no matter how good the story is as it chugs along, it never makes up for the monumental suck that is the third act. Anyone who was hoping for the triumphant return of the Coen's are gonna be let down something fierce. It's like having great sex but never being allowed to cum.” So, apparently, audiences around the country are leaving theaters grumbling angrily about not cumming in a film that’s sitting pretty with a 96% approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.
What’s a screenwriter to think about these things?
I’ve seen the film twice. There have been good articles about it, but I don’t think they’ve really nailed the story (to my satisfaction) just yet. Look, the Coens are hucksters in the way they love to bend, break, and defy genre expectations. That’s what they live for. And need I remind you that before this production, they were still feeling the sting of two bad films under their belts (Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers) and they were looking to do something outrageous to get themselves back in the spotlight again. So what’s more outrageous than killing off the hero and letting the bad guy get away? It’s folly, my friends, FOLLY, I say, to attribute any deeper meaning to the film than that. They don’t care about making statements. That's not what they’re about. We already know from the podcast interview that what appealed to them most about adapting this book was the fact that the protag dies in the Act Two climax. Hell, that appeals to me, too.
The “No Country” novel bends genre conventions because it’s setup as a western / thriller but then it defies every expectation by ending as a tragedy. And tragedies are always moral tales because they emphasize the circumstances that lead up to the tragedy so that we will hopefully take those lessons to heart and avoid the same mistakes. This is a moral tale in the same sense that Barton Fink was a moral tale about the rise of Nazism and a warning to writers like Fink who sell out while telling themselves they’re doing the right thing “while the holocaust approaches and the nice guy next door turns out to be a monster.”
So how is this a moral tale? What the dramatic structure does, in essence, is condemn Moss for his greed and pursuit of a bunch of dirty money that he knows will bring him nothing but trouble. What they’re saying, basically, is that a good man (or even a halfway good man) who dabbles in a little evil has no hope of defeating those who are truly evil at their own game of killing for money. Despite the fact that Moss was a Vietnam vet, which perhaps fed his own self-deception about being able to deal with this, he was too inexperienced and too weak – he was too good, in fact – to compete with the likes of Chigurh. You may recall how Moss returned to the scene of the crime because he felt sorry for the Mexican asking for “agua.” Do you think Chigurh would’ve done that? Common sense tells you the poor man would’ve been dead by the time he got back there anyway, but hey, Moss is a decent man. While he’s knows he’s about “to do somethin’ dumber than hell,” he’s going to do it anyway, and he’s nearly killed for it. Yet, in a strange twist, going back was also the thing that almost saved him.
Of course, everyone’s noticed how the Coens made connections throughout the film between Moss and Chigurh (they both pay a huge sum for a shirt that would hide their open wounds, they both shoot at animals that get away, they both say “hold still,” and they both have bad haircuts. Hehehe…). Those connections, I think, were meant to show that Moss’s actions were the beginnings of a personal descent into evil and the inevitable, awful end to that road, the worst outcome imaginable for Moss, is to become like Chigurh. They’re connected because Moss is headed down a path that Chigurh already walked long ago. (At least, that would be the only reason why I’d make connections like that.) Plus, we know that Moss isn’t about to give up that money. Thus, the road to hell is already laid out before him. At the end of that road is Chigurh – literally and figuratively. Ultimately, it’s better for Moss to die than to live with the money. It’s a great decision. Besides, imagine how miserable his life would be if his step-mother found out he came into money and was rich? Oy vey…
So Moss dies. This was actually setup a few times with Bell’s warnings to Moss’s wife that the man is “in over his head,” which we dismiss as typical, genre dialogue, but here Bell’s words are prophetic. Not only that, letting Moss die off-screen, I think, makes a cinematic statement about the sheer inevitability of his death. It’s as if they were saying, “It was so conclusive and so obvious he would die that it wasn’t even worth filming.” That’s how strongly they felt about how Moss had no chance at all against Chigurh. (Personally, I would’ve shown it. It’s a cheap trick to lead the audience on with a traditional thriller narrative and then pull the rug out from underneath them. Besides, showing Moss’s death would’ve punctuated the tragedy even further.)
Of course, there is evidence that what happened at the hotel was more complicated than a simple battle between Moss and Chigurh. The crime scene was a huge mess. It’s possible that the Mexicans had learned about the money and killed Moss first. Then Chigurh showed up, killed the woman by the pool, as well as the Mexicans, but then the heat became too much and he fled. (Remember all that shooting going on in the street when Bell arrived?) Then, Chigurh returned to the room later to collect the money, which is why he was in the room next door when Bell returned to the crime scene of the hotel room. (Chigurh was not in the same room as Bell. He was next door. When Bell returns to the crime scene at the motel, we’re shown two hotel doors and a yellow crime tape across both rooms. After Bell enters the room and walks around, he turns on the lights and sits on the bed. You can see the door. Chigurh is not in the room. He’s next door. He’s always next door. I suspect we caught him right before he was about to leave and he chose to wait it out in order to keep it quiet.)
But back to my point. Moss dies unexpectedly, and we, as an audience, emotionally cling to Bell, the ineffective sheriff, hoping that he will finally bring some justice to Chigurh. I love this trick of killing the protag and then clinging to a supporting character like Bell. Hey, who better to take down Chigurh than a bad ass Tommy Lee Jones in a big cowboy hat? His character even comes from a long line of old school lawmen. He was born for this moment, man! But, alas, those are pipe dreams. Bell is so gob-smacked by the horrors of Chigurh’s nature that he goes into retirement and babbles on about his dreams to his wife.
Chigurh would escape, only to be sidetracked temporarily by a car accident. Chigurh had the green light, didn’t he? This was out of his control, a random accident setup in the narrative by all those talks about flipping the coin and thus, subtextual conversations about fate and chance of which he would become a victim. (By the way, I didn’t entirely agree with Matt Zoller Seitz about Chigurh flipping the coin out of guilt. He was a simple gambling addict. He so perfectly inhabited evil and was such a masterful expert at killing people that the only way he could find vicarious thrills in life was by gambling with other people’s lives. It also gave him a sense of validation about what he was doing. He lived by a rule book, which is why he thought he had to kill Moss’s wife, but when it wasn’t in the rules in his mind, he left it up to chance to give him permission (and validate his need) to kill. You gotta love Moss’s wife for refusing to “call it.” She wasn’t going to play by his stupid games. She wasn’t going to give her life up on a coin toss, and let “chance” or “fate” decide if she lives or dies. She was strong enough to say “no” to Chigurh so that in his mind he knew that her blood would be on his hands because he chose to kill her outside of his own rules and without the thrill of a gambler’s rush.)
By the way, there are some legitimate complaints to be made about the characters. They could’ve had more depth. I liked what Stephen Hunter said in The Washington Post:
“You can't say it cuts to the chase. There was never anything to cut from to the chase. It's all chase, which means that it offers almost zero in character development. Each figure is given, a la standard thriller operating procedure, a single moral or psychological attribute and then acts in accordance to that principle and nothing else, without doubts, contradictions or ambivalence. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), the laconic vet who finds the stash, is pure Stubbornness. His main pursuer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in Robert Wagner's haircut from "Prince Valiant"), is Death, without a pale horse. Subsidiary chaser Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is Pride, or possibly Folly. Tommy Lee Jones appears in the role of Melancholy Wisdom; he's a lawman also trying to find Llewelyn but not very hard. He'd much rather address the camera and soliloquize on the sorry state of affairs of mankind, though if he says anything memorable, I missed it.”
But back again to my point about Bell. The fact that Bell doesn’t give us any justice in the end cuts the heart even deeper than losing Moss. Why would they do it this way? They already bent the rules by killing the protag. Wasn’t that enough? Did they really have to let Chigurh get away, too, and make us sit through ramblings about loss of money or love of a father from a weak, emasculated, old man who can’t do his fucking job any more? This decision about the ending and Bell is, I think, rooted in not only the motivations of the Coens to do something outrageous for the sake of attention but also the motivations of Cormac McCarthy. You can get away with a lot more in a novel than a screenplay because you can write beautifully about things happening off-screen and the reader won’t mind. That doesn’t usually translate into great cinema. But the final scenes in the novel could have been more about McCarthy than it was about the story itself and could have been about McCarthy’s identification with Sheriff Bell’s inability to come to terms with the evils of the modern world, of a longing for a time past when men had honor and codes of conduct, and a desire to hold dear what’s truly valuable in this evil world. In one review of the book, William Deresiewicz said of the ending:
“As the novel nears its end, however, Bell’s very doubts about the value of his life’s work become the excuse for an affirmation of timeworn verities: the endurance of truth, the existence of God, the nihilism of unbelief, the goodness of the old ways. The sheriff is clearly McCarthy’s mouthpiece here, and so we find the erstwhile apostle of ignorance giving us chapter and verse about what to believe and how… What Bell is confronting, we’re told again and again, is a new kind of evil. Apparently the Old West, like the rest of human history, was just one big family. Like Waugh, again, McCarthy has forgotten that his critique of modernity is only a subset of his critique of humanity. And the problem with the present, apparently, isn’t just drugs, it’s also abortion, kids with green hair and the loss of good manners. McCarthy the conservative has conscripted McCarthy the artist for service in the culture wars, and the result turns out about as happily as such arrangements usually do.”
Personally, (thanks to Jim who pointed this out) I think Bell’s dreams were nothing more than a hint at what would be McCarthy’s next novel, “The Road,” “a post-apocalyptic novel about a father carrying the fire to keep his son alive in a world of desolation.”
Which means that those dreams were not really about the story.
When it comes to the ending, I think you have to ask yourself, “By going against convention and denying everyone the satisfaction of justice, what truth is being illuminated?”
And anyone who really tries to search for that answer as it relates to No Country For Old Men will go down a thought process that dabbles in extreme nihilism that will never be true.
But you see, it was never about deeper meaning or making nihilistic statements about the world. It was about doing something outrageous and whatever people got out of it, they got out of it. But defying conventions makes statements whether it’s intended or not. And the nihilistic statements that are inevitably being made with this ending are wrong and critics should’ve been more vocal about it. But the Coens are forgiven because the first two-thirds of the film are so undeniably spectacular. On the other hand, the ending offers a crumbling, smalltown midwest authority figure that cannot come to terms with the bigger contemporary evils of life, left floundering and failing, which practically strokes the snobbery of big city movie critics who can’t help but agree ("Yes, that's true! That's true! No smalltown midwest authority figure could possibly be smart enough to grasp the contemporary evils of our time!"), and they can use their positions as all-important critics to explain to the benighted masses (which they have failed to do, I might add) why we should love a story where the "hero" gets killed and the "bad guy" gets away and there is no "justice" in this world except cosmically hilarious moments of "chance." Is it any wonder people today won’t listen to critics?
Only the Coens can get away with that. I have one piece of advice to give to newbie screenwriters who might be studying this script:
Don’t try this at home.