Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
--William Butler Yeats
In Catholic Theology, evil has no real existence; it is a parasite, arising from a distorted notion of the good and making us pursue the wrong goals for the right reasons. We commit adultery by convincing ourselves that a real good is there (love or at least pleasure), we kill in the name of justice, lie in the name of truth. But we always end up killing truth and justice, love and even pleasure. In this sense, even evil has a kind of distorted rationality to it, a kind of twisted logic. But carried to its logical end, it destroys all reason and logic; it even destroys any real pleasure. What , then, does the world look like when the parasite infects the whole body, when we can no longer separate good and evil, when our personal wants are all, and other people are nothing but either tools or obstacles to those goals, to be used in the former case or disposed of in the latter?
This is the question that confronts the Coen brothers in their latest film, a faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. No, nor for young men either, or anyone else; it is the country of the mere anarchy that Yeats saw coming. The Coen brothers have dealt with the theme before, many times but most notably in the films Miller's Crossing and Fargo, two films that will surely be compared to this work.
The theme of the film is announced early on, as Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) describes a young killer he had once sent to the chair for killing a 14-year old girl. The papers described it as a crime of passion, “but he tolt me there weren't nothin' passionate about it. Said he'd been fixin' to kill someone for as long as he could remember. Said if I let him out of there, he'd kill somebody again. Said he was goin' to hell. Reckoned he'd be there in about 15 minutes.” The killer in this film is no misguided youth, but Anton Chigurh, a man of indeterminate accent and background, but a consummate assassin. Some of his murders can be explained in terms of money or professionalism, but by no means all. Sometimes, the fate of the people he meets depends on no more than a coin toss. This evil has no real reason; it is mere anarchy.
On the surface, the movie is about a drug deal gone bad. Llewellyn Moss, a country boy and down on his luck Viet Nam vet, who while out hunting antelope in the West Texas prairie, circa 1980, comes across a scene of carnage, with five bodies, a pick-up full of heroin, and a satchel with $2 million in cash. There is but one wounded survivor who begs for aqua. He gives the man no water, but takes the money. Later that night, he repents of his action and goes back to bring water to the dying man. It turns out to be a big mistake, as the assassin picks up his trail and the hunt is on.
We have many movies in which the lone hero, usually from the country, confronts, by his own wits and courage, the false sophistication of evil, and this movie starts out in the same way. We expect it to develop along those lines, and it does, for a while. But the movie also picks up on other “conventional ways of confronting evil, both from previous Coen brothers' films. One is the theme from Fargo, in which the law, as the embodiment of country virtues overcomes evil, and the other, from Miller's Crossing, in which evil is overcome from within, as it were, by the man immersed in the same evil he fights, but who is able to fight his way out. All three ways of dealing with the evil are tested, and all of them fail; Chiugh is triumphant even over the normal vicissitudes of life that overcome us all.
In the end, there is nothing but nihilism. Two old sheriffs (the “old men”) pronounce a bewildered judgment on the evil that confronts them. “When children no longer said 'yes ma'am' and 'no sir,' I reckon it was all downhill” (I quote from memory). In other words, as the small decencies declined, decency itself must disappear; when the "ceremonies of innocence" depart, then mere anarchy remains. The film offers no hope; in the end, there is only night and nihilism.
The performances from each member of the cast are superb, as is the sparse dialogue (this is a film of mostly silences) which displays a perfect pitch, more eloquent than music, which the film doesn't have. The Cohen brothers present an America in which our collective virtues are no longer strong enough to triumph over evil. It is a chilling vision, but in a day when disembodied violence is marketed as entertainment for small children, a virtual game played on a small screen, we must ask if Anton Chirugh is not a part of the “childhood” we have given to our young, and so have built a country in which there can be no place for old men and old verities, indeed, for any man or woman. The Coen brothers, like good prophets everywhere, have not so much “foretold the future” as “foretold the present moment.”