I saw No Country for Old Men in one of the best possible ways: in an old, grand, one-screen theater from the 1940s, the last show of the evening (as it alternated with Citizen Kane), where the owners nuked real butter in the concession-stand microwave to pour over the popcorn. The velvety red seats with wooden armrests (before audiences got spoiled by cup holders), original architecture, and general chill through the old building coordinated perfectly with the circa 1980 Old West thriller unfolding onscreen.
Like another Best Picture nominee this year, There Will Be Blood, I thought No Country was a fantastic, mesmerizing film with great storytelling and powerful performances. But No Country also had an ironclad premise that seems so un-2008: good and evil were black and white.
Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff character, seeing the cold-blooded nature of the new drug smuggling unfolding in his once-peaceful neck of Texas, struggles with this evil from the very first frames of the film. His narration describes “this boy I sent to the gas chamber at Huntsville here a while back,” who killed a 14-year-old girl in what the press called “a crime of passion, but he told me there wasn’t any passion to it. Told me that he’d been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he’d do it again. Said he knew he was going to hell. Be there in about fifteen minutes. I don’t know what to make of that. I surely don’t.
“The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure,” the character, Ed Tom Bell, continues. “It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job — not to be glorious. But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. You can say it’s my job to fight it, but I don’t know what it is anymore. More than that, I don’t want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say, ‘O.K., I’ll be part of this world.’”
The hard-to-understand evil that forces its way into the sheriff’s rural world — Anton Chigurh, the hitman played so brilliantly by Javier Bardem — is unique among Hollywood’s bad guys. In Point of No Return, Harvey Keitel’s “the cleaner” character — disposing of not-quite-dead bodies with acid in the hot tub — equals Chigurh’s emotionless efficiency, but his character lacks the many layers of Chigurh — his interactions with plainspoken townsfolk, his coin flip over the life of a stranger — that were so fascinating and terrifying at the same time.
In fact, Hollywood has a history of creating hitmen who are meant to disgust us with their crimes but then become endearing or find redemption. In The Professional, hitman Jean Reno bonds with an orphaned girl played by Natalie Portman. In The Whole Nine Yards, Bruce Willis turns whacking into comedy.
And in one of my favorite films, Pulp Fiction, the hitman duo of John Travolta as Vincent Vega and Samuel L. Jackson as Jules Winnfield are arguably the film’s most likable characters — and characters whose fates are molded by the concept of redemption. After believing that God stopped a hail of short-range bullets from striking either he or Vincent while out on a job, Jules decides to give up the hitman life and go straight. He then puts this talk into action by deciding to spare a pair of restaurant robbers in his “transitional period.” Vincent mocks Jules’ conviction about divine intervention and his decision to give up contract killing. The moral of the story? Vincent is killed in a most inglorious way. Jules lives.
But Chigurh is a character who would have unceremoniously killed Pulp’s Pumpkin and Honeybunny robbers, along with the blustering restaurant manager and maybe the waitstaff, then would have enjoyed the rest of Vincent’s bacon before hitting the road. (Just nobody ask him where he’s headed, friendo.)
You leave the theater after No Country realizing the central message, intended or not: We may spend so much time trying to figure why people are bad that we fail to accept that some people are just bad — and should be dealt with accordingly. Like Ed Tom Bell wakes up from his dream, we, too, can wake from a false sense of security, difficult as it may be to understand the changing world around us.
Because Chigurh may have been fiction, but one look around the globe — from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who proudly admits to sawing off the head of Daniel Pearl, or Mohammed Atta, who commandeered a jet full of frightened civilians and plowed it into business people’s offices in his holy war — tells us that his character is far from make-believe.
Bridget Johnson is a columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News.