No Country for Old Men: A Case Study in Morality
by Julian Singleton
The essay below was one originally written for my Advanced Forms of Drama class at NYU. I hope you enjoy this bit of content while I continue work on my analyses of Shame and Drive (expect the latter sooner than the former), hopefully followed by Lost in Translation.
After No Country for Old Men’s climax, the world-weary sheriff Ed Tom visits his Uncle Ellis, also a lawman, but retired after being shot and disabled. Ed Tom can’t make sense of the world around him anymore, a world where unthinkable crimes are committed by people seemingly without motive or conscience. Ellis responds with a story about how their Uncle Mac was shot in the back one night and died despite his last efforts to shoot back at his assailants. “What you got ain’t nothing new…you can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you,” he intones. “That’s vanity.” Ellis’ statement encapsulates the film’s basic moral credo: that despite one’s best efforts to prevent or control one’s fate, one cannot stop it, and to think otherwise is a vain and foolish act. An act, when applied to an age-old sense of ethics, that justifies whatever punishment the film sets out for them. No Country’s three main characters are governed by the belief that they can control their fate, but the film itself is governed by its own higher system of Ethics that reacts in turn to each decision the characters make.
No Country for Old Men is a useful film to take as a case study when testing the practical application of Ethics in enacted storytelling. By charting the series of choices made by the film’s principle characters of Anton Chigurh and Llywellyn Moss and applying them to the systems developed by Aristotle and Seneca covered in Ethics, No Country reveals itself to be a film that more than rigorously adheres to these systems but also actively testing these philosophers’ ideas against another moral system of its own.
Before launching into a series of escalating ethical dilemmas, Joel and Ethan Coen efficiently establish each character through scenes that hold no consequence to the main plot, actions simply undertaken for their own sake. Anton Chigurh, the film’s antagonist, is arrested by an officer who claims to “have the situation under control” before Chigurh quickly and brutally strangles him to death; his following escape, in which Chigurh quietly disposes of a motorist with a cattle gun, is far less brutal visually than the previous murder, but the efficiency of the act (and the person who perpetrated it) is infinitely more impacting. The former murder of the police officer will never be brought up again, and the murder of this motorist will only be mentioned in passing. In three short minutes, we know that Anton is capable of extremely brutal acts who will quickly dispatch anyone who inconveniences him in getting his as-of-yet undefined want. Immediately after this murder, we’re introduced to Moss, miles away, hunting antelope from atop a faraway cliff. He carefully adjusts his sight before taking aim, but fails to hit his target. The former scene ends with the same line of dialogue as the scene following it, “Hold Still,” establishing a connection between Chigurh and Moss, strengthened by Moss’ careful preparation before his shot. The important distinction made, though, is that Moss fails to hit his antelope target, where Chigurh managed to dispatch his two human victims with ease. Chigurh’s success renders him a terrifying force; Moss, on the other hand, is human in his failures, as well as in his choice of a much more ethical target.
The connection made between their equal capability not only functions as a setup for their inevitable conflict at the film’s midpoint, but also serves as a foundation for the film’s critique of traditional Ethical structure. Moss and his human actions serve as a textbook example of moral cause and consequence, with the pursuit of his morally-questionable desires serving to play into his ultimate downfall; the inhumanly perfect Chigurh, on the other hand, will operate on his own transcendental principles, serving as a counterpoint to Moss’ journey. Established as equally capable characters, Moss and Chigurh’s moral structures are equally tested throughout the film, providing a complex examination of the ethical structure established by Aristotle and Seneca.
Moss’ greatest decision both in terms of action and morality arrives after the death of Carson Wells, his attempted protector against Chigurh. In the first scene they speak together, Chigurh reveals he knows where Carla Jean is, and is on his way to kill her. He then makes Moss a deal: give Chigurh the money and he won’t kill Carla Jean, but he’ll still kill Moss. If Moss refuses, he’ll still kill Carla Jean, since Moss’ refusal leaves her “accountable.” Up until this point, Moss has been able to balance his wants–to keep the money, to keep Carla Jean out of harm’s way, and to survive the efforts of others to kill him. And, up until this point, all three wants have been unified through his actions: every one of his wants have gone hand in hand each other. This scene, however, forces Moss to prioritize those wants; his resulting choices, when compared to the priorities established by Aristotle and Seneca, spell out his inevitable failure as a hero. Having already bested Chigurh in the shootout at the Eagle Pass Hotel, Moss doesn’t choose to go with Chigurh’s offer, “the best deal he’s going to get” given the circumstances, but instead threatens to go after Chigurh himself after putting Carla Jean and the money on a plane.
Seneca’s teachings have already established two things: the value of human life (especially those of others) surpasses all possible wants, and that it is unethical to use others as a means to an end. Moss’ decision to go after Chigurh is one not fueled by the desire to protect Carla Jean (Seneca’s highest priority), but as we later learn out of a desire to both protect the money and best those in pursuit of him; as he explains to Carla Jean, “With you gone, and I don’t have the money, he can’t touch me, but I can sure touch him.” Moss continues straight ahead with this line of action, despite Carla Jean’s protests against leaving him as well as his complete disregard for Carla Jean’s annoying yet still cancer-ridden mother. He also refuses to answer whatever questions Carla Jean has about his whereabouts and motivations, something he has done to her throughout the film. By pursuing this action, Moss has clearly placed his desire for revenge and excess wealth above his desire to protect the woman he loves, in addition to disregarding a second human life.
It’s important to note that Carla Jean is still a priority at this point, so despite the despicableness of Moss’ actions according to these philosophers, he’s still worth pursuing as a hero. However, the film has established that any attempt to avoid one’s fate is “vanity,” and that small saving graces such as these aren’t enough to excuse characters from their fates. Moss is thus set up for his inevitable downfall: after he is tempted by another woman with the promise of beer, despite “knowing what it leads to,” he is gunned down by the Mexican cartel who originally pursued him, led to his location by the unwitting guidance of Carla Jean’s mother. If Moss had stayed morally “correct” from the start and refused to take the money, his death would have been prevented. If he had kept Carla Jean informed, his death would’ve been delayed. If he had gone with Chigurh and met his death, he would’ve saved his wife. Moss’ refusal to accept the consequence of his actions has, in true traditional form, led to his gruesome death as well as the death of those he loves.
Like others before it, No Country for Old Men has established itself as adhering to the moral principles of Aristotle and Seneca through the traditional arc of erring morality leading to downfall found in Moss’ character. But what differentiates this film from others that adhere to Aristotelian-Senecan moral structure is the presence of an alternate system of morality, embodied by Anton Chigurh. Chigurh primarily kills whomever he meets, but to a select few–a shopkeeper and Carla Jean Moss–he offers a coin toss, the competitor’s fate left in the hands of fate itself. The coin toss externalizes Chigurh’s belief that he is a “tool” of fate, without any personal connection to his killings other than to advance what he wants–as Carson Wells explains to Moss, “you can’t make a deal with him. Even if you gave him the money, he’d still kill you for inconveniencing him…he’s got principles, those that transcend drugs or money or anything like that.” While the two philosophies share the same ideas regarding consequence for one’s actions, Chigurh must view the outline of priorities for attaining eudaemonia established by Seneca and Aristotle as petty compared to his beliefs of predestination and chance. However, the arc of Chigurh’s character in No Country goes from one who sees himself as transcendent or unconcerned of the rules of the universe to realizing he’s just as governed by these rules as anyone else.
At the film’s close, Carla Jean Moss comes home from her mother’s funeral to find Chigurh waiting for her, ready to hold true to the promise he made to Moss when he refused to give in to his demands. Carla Jean refuses to admit her husband could be so cruel, and thus Chigurh offers her the seemingly arbitrary coin toss. Carla Jean still refuses to play, and it’s implied when Chigurh checks his boots in the following scene that he’s chosen to kill her.
It’s here that the dueling ideas of morality established in the film finally come head-to-head, and where the physically and morally-unstoppable Chigurh finally meets his match. Carla Jean has been the least prescient character in the film thus far–both Moss and Ed Tom have refused to tell her anything other than what she needs to know in order to further their own needs. She’s also the character who’s suffered the most, despite being one of the least active characters of the film: when she walks into the room, she’s lost her mother, her husband, and her faith and trust in Ed Tom to save her husband (and, by association, for order). She’s lost all her money and is on the verge of losing the last thing she has: her life. But through remaining true to her own principles of complete lack of vanity or self-interest despite her trials, she is able to retain the moral high ground against a man who’s sticking to the principles he’s established for himself. She knows that Chigurh’s description of Moss’ motives, despite being rooted in truth, isn’t the complete picture (“Not like that. Not like you say.”) and she knows that she has done nothing to fault Chigurh. Her trials have allowed her to become the film’s wisest character, able to expose Chigurh’s twisted sense of morality and judgment for what it is: a sham, an extension of his own selfish desire to kill. “The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.”
Chigurh refuses to acknowledge this, justifying his actions by falling back on the idea he is a “tool” of fate (“I got here the same way the coin did.”), but according to the world of the film, this is a damnable act–he’s refusing to admit that “it ain’t all hanging on him.” Because of this, Chigurh’s killing of Carla Jean is morally reprehensible in terms of societal views of killing as well as through the film’s construction of morality. One can imagine in the following scene that Aristotelian or Senecan Morality is driving the car that unexpectedly collides with his own, exacting a cosmic form of justice for Carla Jean’s unjust killing: this is the price Chigurh pays for refusing to admit his vanity. It’s funny to note that it’s after this accident that once-capable Chigurh finally asks for help, offering $100 to a nearby kid for his shirt so he can make a sling, then letting them go scot-free with the only request that they say “they didn’t see him”; when his own system of fate betrays him, he finally changes, abandoning his methods of controlling fate and playing along with the rules of the universe.