The movie starts with Tommy Lee Jones’ voice over. That’s misleading for two reasons: (1) He’s the sheriff. You’ve seen him in The Fugitive (or even Men In Black) and you automatically assume he’s going to be hot on the tail of the bad guys, closing in, making their lives miserable, giving them a taste of what it’s like to be hunted. That never happens. (2) Jones’ character, Ed Tom Bell is a third generation sheriff. He grew up hearing not only about his father and grandfather’s pursuits, but of their colleagues. Bell talks of law enforcement officers who did not even wear guns. He says he likes to hear their stories. Combine this with the movie title and you might conclude that this is no country for old men, because crime has gotten much worse than it used to be. Andy Taylor’s Mayberry once existed but is now extinct. But we soon learn the opposite is true.
He sent a man to jail for killing a 14 year old girl. They called it a crime of passion, but the killer told him it wasn’t passion. He’d been planning to kill someone all of his life and if he got out of jail, he promised Ed he’d kill again.
Evil is old. Bell knows it, so did his father and his father before him. Evil’s unreasonable, unpredictable, and inexorable. It’s not invisible, just unnoticed. It takes you by surprise or it comes while you’re waiting. You deserve it or you don’t. You grasp its logic or grapple trying. It’s slow, it’s fast, it’s inescapable.
Here evil is embodied by Anton Chigurh. With his pageboy, oxygen tank and deliberate reticence, his weirdness is obvious, but not frightening. Not at first.
We first see him being arrested and cuffed, but inexplicably, he’s not chained to anything. His movement is restricted, but not prevented. When the deputy turns his back while talking on the phone to describe his capture, Anton easily comes up and kills him from behind. Their bodies spin on the floor as Anton strangles. The blood swirls and the killer’s intensity is almost sexual.
He steals the deputy’s car, police lights whirring, he pulls over a motorist who thinks the oxygen tank by the “cop’s” side is strange, but not troubling. “What’s that he asks.” “Can you please step out of the car?” Anton replies and even though Anton is dressed as a civilian, the driver doesn’t begin to think anything is wrong, until perhaps the very end, when Anton raises the hose on the oxygen take and uses it to propel a lethal pellet into the man’s head. My friend thought it was a stupid weapon, but for a serial killer who murders more for psychological art than necessity, it’s perfect. Anton does not prefer this tank over a shotgun because it’s less conspicuous, as he has no trouble parading massive rifles in public places. Rather, the tank gives him the opportunity to watch the fear and certainty of death dawn, then spread, then end, while a gun or knife would have put his victims on instant alert, shortening the game. Cat and mouse is more layered, when you see the mouse just discovering he is prey.
Anton stops off at a gas station and, oxygen tank in tow, he teases the owner. Twisting his words, taking offense where none was meant, until the man soon realizes there’s no answer he can give this stranger that will keep him safe. Anton takes out a coin and asks the man if he’s feeling lucky. This moment was part of the movie’s famous trailer. Its tension is part of what kept me away from the film for 6 years. I didn’t want to know what happened when that coin stopped spinning. I can watch violent scenes, but don’t like seeing them approach. A shoe on the floor is nothing, compared to watching it drop, in slow motion. If you’ve never been assaulted, you can’t empathize with the injury, but hopeless, helpless waiting is something we’ve all experienced in one form of another and it’s stomach-turning. If the shark doesn’t get you, his theme music will. But things end well for this shopkeeper. Anton tells him to call the coin. He delays, saying how can he call it if he doesn’t know what he stands to win or lose. Anton insists. Head or tails? He chooses head. He wins. Anton gives him the coin as a prize, but orders him to keep it in a special place. Don’t let it mingle with all the other coins, because then it won’t matter.
I wonder about the shopkeeper though. He’s in an unpopulated part of Texas. Near the Mexican border. He’s got merchandise, money and few places to hide. If urban 7-Elevens are dangerous, surely isolated road stops are. How’d he protect himself before Anton? And if he didn’t, surely he knew that the day would come when he might regret it. Ed Tom Bell saw trouble on the horizon and this man should have seen it too, but instead of preparing for it, they both seemed to just wait to see what would happen when it came.
Meanwhile we see Llewelyn Moss out hunting in the desert. He comes upon a slew of dead bodies and abandoned vehicles. There’s one man still alive, bleeding, begging Moss for water. “I ain’t got no water,” he answers unapologetically. He notices that the man’s truck bed is full of drugs. They were transporting an illegal load across the border and obviously got double-crossed during the exchange. Moss asks the fast failing man who was the last one left standing. There was a fight, but it seems that that the attacked killed as many people as the attackers did. There are drugs, but no drug money. Where’d it go? Moss decides that whoever took the money would have gone to the shade. He sees a big tree in the distance and stealthily heads over. There’s a dead man there and a brief case. It’s loaded with money and Moss takes it and hurries off.
Back at his trailer home, he eludes his wife Carla Jean’s questions about where he’s been and hides the money, still in the briefcase, under his trailer.
I appreciate that the lead characters in this movie are all smart, but they do some really dumb things. This is one of them. This is a world where people where dirty jeans to a funeral. It’s hot and dusty and no one carries a brief case. Why would Moss have kept the money in there. It draws attention and it’s heavier than a back pack would have been. Plus, he seems to know that there’s $2 million in the case, but he apparently never bothered to count the stash. It’s a ridiculous point that runs the plot and I’d like to tell the Coens that they could have told the same story, only with a more believable cash container. But I guess avoiding the strange and unlikely has never been their strong suit.
Moss goes to bed, but then decides to return to the desert. He lets Carla Jean know that he’s going off on a fool’s errand and may never return. “Tell mama I love her,” he says as he departs. She reminds him that his mother is already dead. Oh, then he’ll tell her himself, if anything happens. He fills a jug of water before he leaves. So, did he return only to take water to the man he left dying? Did his conscious prick him? Is this gesture supposed to tell us that at heart he’s a decent man? Since he scoffed at the man and had no qualms about abandoning him in the first place, I’m not moved by Moss’ belated compassion, especially since the guy was in such bad shape that I’d hardly expect him to live for 12 more hours waiting for Moss to take pity and help him.
Moss finds his way back to the scene of the shoot out and the man he’d left in the car is now dead. He survived the first round of gunfire only to die later. You're never really spared, only suspended. Aqua came too late to save him. Moss sees vehicles in the distance and as they start shooting at him, he has to leave his truck behind. He makes it home wounded and tells Carla Jean that his truck is registered and can be traced back to him, the Department of Motor Vehicles opens at 9:00 a.m. and that’s how much time they have to get away. She needs to pack everything she can, because she’ll never see any of it again.
He puts her on a bus to her ornery mother in Odessa. But once his vehicle paperwork reveals his identity to the killers, they’ll know who his wife is too. They can easily track down her relatives, so sending her to this destination for protection was crazy. He should have sent her anywhere Greyhound goes where she would have no roots that could be trailed.
He sends her off and rather than getting on a separate bus himself, he gets a car and tries to lay low in the local area. He checks into a motel, but takes two rooms, one in back of the other. He hides the money in the hotel vent in one room, then makes sure he can retrieve it quickly from the adjacent room. The plan being the people on his tail will go to the wrong room and he can high tail it out of there from the other room, with the loot.
Ed Tom Bell and his deputy find the dead bodies in the desert. It’s a drug deal gone bad and when they see Moss’ truck Bell, who knows Moss casually, figures that Moss wasn’t involved with the drug sale, but took the money after things went downhill. The deputy wonders if Moss knew what he was getting into. Well, Bell reasons if Moss saw all the carnage that they did, it probably left an impression on, because it sure impressed Bell.
Anton is hired by the people who put up the money for the drugs to find the person who took it. Once he gets the assignment, he promptly kills the people who retained him, traces Moss’ vehicle registration and heads to Moss’ trailer. It’s empty, but reading Moss’ mail, Anton sees the number most frequently called on the phone bill. That number belongs to Carla Jean’s mother. So Anton immediately knows where to find the wife, but better still, he knows how to find the money. It seems that it was packed with a transmitter inside the brief case that Moss never bothered to rifle through. Once that transmitter starts beeping, it will lead him directly to the brief case. Anton opens Moss’ fridge, takes out the milk and sits down to drink it, watching his reflection on the black tv screen before him.
Ed Tom Bell comes along so soon after Anton has left that the milk glass is still sweating. They just missed him and “that’s frustrating,” he exclaims. But also life-saving. When they entered the trailer, Ed instructed his deputy to have his gun drawn and ready, but what about Ed’s gun? He tells the deputy that he’d rather just hide behind him! But considering all of the dead people they found in the desert, their two guns would not have been enough to defend themselves against multiple shooters – or even one shooter with a powerful enough weapon. So, why DOES Ed go in without his gun drawn? Does he want to be like the sheriffs of old who didn’t wear one? Why. That approach only works if crime rates are low or the criminals easily outsmarted. Ed already knows that neither is the case in this situation. Does he just think death is inevitable and evil something that you can only defeat if you never meet it? Otherwise, don’t bother trying.
Ed takes a swig of the still cool milk and also looks at his reflection in the blank television screen. Are he and Anton both just playing roles? If Anton’s role is evil personified, what is Ed’s? He’s not justice. He’s chronicling wrong, but not correcting it or even warding it off. He’s not a narrator because the audience knows more than Bell ever does. Moss challenges Anton in this movie, no one else comes close. Jones’ great acting aside, one wonders what Bell’s purpose in the story is. Does he represent humanity? No more than Anton’s victims do.
Anton’s transmitter tracks the money to Moss’ motel, but the way it’s situated, hidden at a curve in the vent, it seems to be in a different motel room than the 2 that Moss has rented. Anton busts into that third room and finds three men inside who also have a transmitter. He blows them away. They were apparently hired to do the same job as he was.
Moss hears the gun shots and quickly runs away, briefcase in hand. At the next motel, he wonders how he was tracked and FINALLY looks in the briefcase and finds the transmitter. He removes it and I think maybe if he throws it out the window, Anton will think the money is across the street, but Moss knows he doesn’t have time for that. He calls down to the front desk and gets no answer, quickly concluding that the motel attendant has been killed. He sees footsteps outside his door and waits gun at the ready. The feet under the door move away. Was it a false alarm, a fellow guest who has now gone on down the hall? I hope so, but Moss knows better. The hall light is turned off, so that Moss can no longer see the feet under the door. Anton wants him to know as little as possible about when it’s going to happen. The door bursts open. Anton enters blasting. Moss throws himself out the window and runs down the street with his case.
There’s a chase and a satisfying turn when suddenly it is an armed Moss who is after Anton, rather than the other way around. He fires and hits Anton, ending the showdown briefly. Bleeding he buys an overcoat and beer from college kids and crosses the border into Mexico, pretending to be a drunk. I didn’t know that it was that easy for drunks to cross the border, without any proof of citizenship, but maybe so.
He throws the money over the railing near the immigration checkpoint and checks into a Mexican hospital. Anton doesn’t. He explodes a car to distract pharmacy employees, steals the drugs he needs and treats his own injuries.
In a high rise office in the business district, a corporate exec wants his $2 million back. He hires Carson Wells to find the man who has taken it. Carson tells him its easier said than done, because Anton will be after Moss too and Anton plays by a different set of rules. Money doesn’t mean anything to him. He has his own principles and adheres to them in a way that gives him a strange type of honor. Unlike the exec or Carson, Anton can’t be bought, which makes him all the more dangerous. Knowing this, Carson heads off after Moss anyway.
He says it took him only 3 hours to find Moss in the Mexican hospital and if he can find him, he tells Moss that Anton surely will. If Moss lets him know where the money is, he can save his life. Moss won’t. He’s willing to die. But is he willing to see Carla Jean die, Carson wonders. He knows she’s in Odessa and so does Anton. Moss is quiet, but unyielding. He gives Moss his card and tells him he’ll be staying in the hotel across the border.
All roads lead to Odessa. Ed Tom heads out that way too and tells Carla Jean to contact him when she hears from Moss. He can keep Moss safe, he assures her. How so? And why doesn’t he try keeping Carla Jean safe? Ed Tom may not know that the bad guys are after her, but if he knows that Moss will make contact with her you’d think he’d realize that others know the same. By keeping tabs on her, he’s closer to capturing both Moss and the killers, but instead of guarding them Ed leaves Carla Jean and her mother to their own devices.
He goes to visit an old family friend. His grandpa’s deputy, Ellis, who is now paralyzed. He asks him what he would do if he could confront the man who put him in that chair. Probably nothing. There wouldn’t be a point. Ed is surprised. Ellis says all the time you spend trying to get back something that’s been taken from you makes you lose even more. Hmmm. That’s one way to look at things, but Anton’s trying to get back money that’s been taken and he doesn’t seem to be suffering much. As the two men converse, Ellis recalls his Uncle Mac who was shot down on his own front porch in 1909. Ellis hears from Ed’s wife that Ed will be retiring. Ellis wants to know why. At first I think Ed will deny that it’s true, but he tells Ellis that he’s retiring because he feels overmatched. Well, that’s fine but I have not seen him really ENTER the match. He’s not stayed one step ahead of Anton or tried to catch up. He’s been content to follow him, rather than chase. Is he a coward? A man who has entered the wrong profession, one that he inherited rather than chose? I don’t know. The gas station owner that Anton terrorized with the coin had inherited that shop from his father-in-law. He married into it. Maybe we are all heirs to our own destiny, not something that we shape, but that those who shape US do. I don’t know why Ed is there or what I am supposed to learn from his perceptions. If he’s changed, dwindled, if he used to put killers away and now he can’t, then I need to see him trying and failing. I just see him watching.
Carson spies the briefcase that Moss tossed aside over the guard rail. He plans to retrieve it later. Although he was the one who told Moss just how close on Moss’ heels Anton was didn’t bother to watch his own. Back at his hotel Anton waylays him. He tells Anton he can get the money, says, “You don’t have to do this,” and Anton replies that’s what they all say. You don’t have to do this. Woody turns in a fine performance, sweating with fear, but never losing his used car salesman swagger. Carson’s hotel phone rings. Anton answers it, then casually kills Carson so he can give the caller his full attention.
“Who is this?” Moss asks on the other end. Anton knows that Moss knows who it is. He tells him to give Anton the money now. Then, he’ll still kill Moss, but he’ll spare Carla Jean. If Moss doesn’t surrender now, then Anton will treat Carla Jean as if she’s just as guilty as Moss is. Moss refuses. He says that Anton will go to Odessa, but Carla Jean won’t be there. Huh? She’s there in Odessa now. Who’s to say that Anton can’t easily get to wherever she might be in the future?
In the movie’s stupidest turn, Moss calls Carla Jean and tells her to go to El Paso where he will give her the money, put her on a plane and then he’ll confront Anton. Since Anton is, presumably, more concerned with the money than Moss (as far as Moss is concerned, even if the audience knows better), why does Moss figure that Anton won’t go after her, wherever he sends her? Plus, since everyone in the world already knows she’s in Odessa, how does Moss think she can get out of there safely and live long enough for him to put her on a plane to ANYWHERE?
Carla Jean wonders about her mother. She can’t just leave her behind. Sure she can Moss says, the old woman’s so aggravating that she’ll be perfectly safe alone. No one’s going to harm HER. It’s a funny line, but also shows how little Moss knows about Anton. He doesn’t just kill when he has to, for a purpose or to gain an objective. If Moss knew this would it make him more effective against Anton? Well, it didn’t help Carson.
Speaking of which, Anton heads to the skyscraper where the business exec who hired Carson is and kills him, angry that the guy hired another team of assassins and gave the transmitter needed to do ANTON’s job.
Carla Jean proceeds to El Paso on Moss’ orders. Moss charms border patrol by telling him he’s a Vietnam vet (Carson was too) and crosses back into the US. He gets to El Paso first. A woman by the pool flirts with him, but he tells her he’s married. Is that why he keeps looking around? Is it his wife he’s waiting for, the woman asks? That’s half of it. The other half is just him looking at what’s to come, he replies. Well, why did he arrange to have his wife meet him at the same place where danger would be? I don’t understand it. If part of him fears Anton’s arrival, how does he think she will be safe? She’s more worried about Moss and calls Ed Tom to El Paso too, because her husband is in over his head.
Here it seems like a piece of the movie is missing. It’s not the finale we expected, perhaps because this a movie about reaction, not action. Dusk comes we see a dead body floating in the pool. It’s the woman who flirted with Moss. Flash to an open hotel room, with a dead Moss inside. We don’t even get to see him lose. Carla Jean pulls up in a car, sees the yellow police tape and screams.
Ed Tom talks about what went down with the local police chief. The chief thinks that crime is different today and it all started when kids dyed their hair and stopped saying sir and madam. It’s not just one thing. It’s a whole tide of bad things that changes society for the worse. Ed agrees with this, only his history should tell him that society has always known the worst. The chief says that Anton not only killed Carson at the hotel, but the day before he’d killed the desk clerk. He must love to return to the scene of the crime.
This is ridiculous because we had not seen Anton exhibit a pattern of doing any such thing. In fact, in returning to the desert in the first place once he’d already had the money (and could not be traced to its source), Moss seemed more like he was determined to revisit the scene of the crime than Anton. Secondly, if there had been a murder there the day before, in a small town like that, surely there would be evidence of it remaining 24 hours later. Carson would have heard about the desk clerk being killed, known it was Anton and would never have returned to that hotel. He should have been on better alert anyway, but now that we’re told there was another murder besides his at that same location, there’s no excuse for him being caught off guard left.
This return to the scene of the crime plot device is just thrown out to give ED a reason to return to the El Paso motel. He does and stops outside the hotel room where Moss died. It’s still cordoned off with yellow tape. Inside we see Anton lurking in the shadows. Ed draws his gun (oh, he decides to use it THIS time) and enters with trepidation. The room appears to be empty. He goes into the bathroom, turns on the light. It’s empty, with the window locked. He sits on the bed, sighing in relief. He's missed Anton by minutes again, just as he did when he got to Moss' trailer and drank the still-cool milk. Back then, he said being minutes behind Anton was "frustrating," but was it? Was he thankful to have gotten there too late for a confrontation?
He looks down and sees the vent in the room. The cover has been unscrewed and lies on the floor, there’s a discarded coin beside it. We must assume that Moss hid the money inside that vent (as he had before) and Anton found it. But where is Anton now? He was too big to climb into the vent? Wasn’t he? How did he escape?
I assume Moss rented to hotel rooms this time as he had the first time and maybe we thought Anton was in the room that Ed Tom entered, when he was actually in the adjoining one.
Time passes. Carla Jean buries her mother who was surprisingly only 58 years old. For some reason she was portrayed as an older woman and I wonder if there's something significant about her true age. Carla Jean returns home from the funeral only to find Anton waiting for her. She knew he would come, but she doesn’t have the money. He says he will kill her anyway, he promised Moss he would. He promised her husband he would kill her?? Yes. Moss had the chance to save her, but chose to save himself. Even though Anton’s explanation is supposed to be perverted, I somewhat agree with what he says. Whether it meant giving up the $2 million or not, I think Moss unnecessarily put Carla Jean’s life in danger.
Carla Jean doesn’t beg. Anton offers her a way out. He’ll flip the coin and she has to call it. She won’t. She won’t call it. It’s him. He makes the choice whether she lives or dies. The coin doesn’t. Cut to the house exterior, Anton is exiting. He made the coin’s choice.
He is leaving in his car and is hit by a random car. He’s hurt badly, bone extruding from his arm. Moss couldn’t bring him down. Law enforcement didn’t catch him. Mercy never stopped him. But he’s driving away on a peaceful residential street when he’s hit by a car out of nowhere. There are police sirens in the distance. He waves down two boys and buys a shirt from one of them. Tells them they never saw him. Then, he’s gone, injured but alive. We don’t know why he didn’t kill them. He killed 2 men to steal their car. Killed two hotel clerks, but let the woman at the trailer office where Moss lived survive. Urgency doesn’t dictate his victims. What does?
Ed Tom is at home breakfasting with his wife. He’s retired and aimless. He had a dream. Two of them, both about his father. In one he had money and he lost it. He can’t remember the details. In the other, his father was still a young man, younger than Ed was. He was passing by with a horn of fire and he rode his horse into the distance and Ed knew that his father was going somewhere to make a fire out in that unknown dark and cold and when Ed got there, his father (and the horn of fire, I guess) would be waiting. This dream is reminiscent of Moss and his dead mother. He expected to go someplace where he could tell her he loved her himself. But in the end, Ed’s father offered him protection, something none of the other characters – except Anton – ever had.
Ed told Ellis that he’d always expected to find God later in life, but never did. Why does he think that? Because he feels there’s no justice? That right does not prevail over wrong? Maybe he wasn't overmatched by the criminals, but by the evil that propels them, so that good can never conquer bad. That might explain his lackluster efforts to apprehend Anton, but even so why retire? Death doesn’t approach when you’re overmatched, then halt if you retreat. It just comes anyway. He asked Ellis when his Uncle Mac died, after being shot on his own porch, while his killers casually looked on and watched him bleed? Was it right after he was shot or was it later? It was later that night and his Aunt buried him the next day. So, it seems that any escape is only temporary. Unhurried, unworried, death always catches up with you, which is the same lesson Moss learned.