The entire plot of this movie hinges on a briefcase filled with two million dollars, so we're going to go out on a limb and say it's important. There's a whole lot of desire directed at the suitcase, from Moss's first greedy snatch to Wells's desperate desire to exchange it for his life at Chigurh's hands.
In fact, you can tell a lot about the different characters based on how they react to the money. Moss wants it, but he's not afraid to toss it when the cost-benefit analysis isn't going his way. The drug dealers and businessman want it enough to kill for it. Carson Wells just flat out wants it and sees it as a bargaining chip. And Chigurh… well, Chigurh wants it, but not as much as he wants to kill people. As Wells says, "He's a peculiar man. Might even say he has principles, principles that transcend money or drugs."
"Okay, Shmoop," we hear you saying. "But what does the money symbolize?"
Have the Coen brothers taught you nothing? Sure it could symbolize greed, or desire, and we're not saying it doesn't. But think about how the Coen brothers continually refuse to provide us with easy answers: no final showdowns, no big moral messages. In the end, the movie's moral seems to be about the essential randomness and life: there's only meaning and causality if you make it. And the briefcase full of money operates on the same principle: it symbolizes what you—"you" meaning the characters in the movie—want it to. It only has meaning because we assign meaning to it.
Like we said, no easy answers.
You might want to click on over to the side there and make sure you've read our thoughts on the symbol of the money, because we're about to say something really similar here: the coin might symbolize randomness … or it might symbolize the way we desperate want to assign symbolic meaning.
Think about this: in two different scenes, Anton Chigurh flips a coin to determine whether he's going to kill the person he's talking to. To him, the coin represents the randomness and risk of every single moment of human life. When the gas station clerk asks him what he's risking in calling the coin toss, Chigurh answers, "You've been putting it up your entire life. You just didn't know it."
But just when we think the coin symbolizes randomness, Chigurh turns around and suggests that the coin has some sort of predetermined fate attached to it: "You know the date on this coin? […] 1958. It's been travelling 22 years to get here. And now it's here and it's either heads or tails."
So is it fate or chance? Did bad luck bring Moss to that botched drug deal, or was he pulled there by some deeper force he couldn't even recognize? Is Chigurh compelled by forces he can't control, or is he just pushing responsibility off onto something (anything) else?
By the end of the movie, it's almost impossible for us to tell whether the coin symbolizes a deeper meaning or no meaning at all. Chigurh sums up this paradox when he says to the clerk, "Don't put it in your pocket […] It'll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. Which it is."
So on the one hand, the coin means everything. On the other hand, it means nothing. When Carla Jean Moss insists that "The coin don't have no say" and tells Chigurh to take responsibility for his killing, Chigurh can only respond, "Well I got here the same way the coin did." In the end, maybe the coin symbolizes the way human existence walks a knife's edge balance between fate and randomness.
And then again, maybe it doesn't.
Anton Chigurh spends a lot of this movie walking around with an air-powered steer killing device. Its primary purpose is making things dead by shooting a short needle directly into the skull. (At least it's less messy than a bullet?) But the steer-killer is a multipurpose tool, because Chigurh also uses it to punch out the locks of doors. Handy!
The only problem with this nifty device is that it looks awfully heavy and cumbersome to be toting around Texas. But when we see the damage he can do with it when busting into rooms, we realize why he bothers: not only is it an efficient killing machine, it does a great job of conveying his message.
Let's let Ed Tom explain how the thing works: "Shoots out a little rod about that far into the brain. Sucks right back in. Animal never knows what hit him." Ed Tom doesn't know why he's telling Carla Jean about this device. He says it's because his mind is wandering, but we think it might have something to do with his feels about how cold and robotic killing has become in the modern world. After all, to someone like Chigurh, people are nothing more than cattle—and the steer-killer proves it.
No Country has a lot going for it: great acting, great dialogue, star directors. It also has a great setting, with long, gorgeous shots of the West Texas landscape. In fact, the landscape is so stunning that you might not realize immediately that there's no musical soundtrack at all, just the constant sound of wind whistling through the sand of the hard and cracked Texas landscape.
In a sense, the landscape stands in as a symbol for No Country's worldview: the world is a barren and violent place that's full of death, but there's still some hard beauty in all of it. And that hard beauty is better known as the cracked and dry land of West Texas.
The opening of this movie gives us a nice narrative voiceover by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. And Ed Tom definitely remains the strongest voice of reflection and narration for the rest of the movie.
But the majority of the movie's perspective comes to us through the perspective of Llewellyn Moss as he tries to escape the people who are hunting him down, with brief detours into the perspective of the killer Anton Chigurh and Moss's wife Carla Jean.
In the end, though, we circle back to lose out with a speech by Ed Tom Bell, who gives us his final thoughts on what (if anything) we're supposed to take away from this film. It's fitting that a film called No Country for Old Men ends with an old man saying he's outgrown the world, right?
Joel and Ethan Coen showed us that Westerns aren't just for the glory days of black-and-white movie making. They bring back some of the great hallmarks of Westerns, like the street shootout between Llewellyn Moss and Anton Chigurh and the Texas Sheriff (Ed Tom) trying to restore order in his quiet part of Texas.
Throw in a cowboy hat wearing bounty hunter with a name like Carson Wells and you totally know you're in Western territory.
But the Coens aren't ready to give you everything you expect from a typical Western. In most Westerns, we get closure in the end when the good buy and bad guy have a final showdown and one of them loses. In this movie, there is no final showdown and we don't even get to see the hero die. In the end, we're stuck with Sheriff Ed Tom struggling to figure out what it's all supposed to mean.
The phrase "No Country for Old Men" comes from the opening line of a poem by W.B. Yeats called "Sailing to Byzantium."
The opening stanza reads like this:
That is No Country for Old Men. The young
in one another's arms, birds in the trees
--Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.
If you want a full analysis, you're going to have to head on over to our analysis of it, but we can do a quick summary here: basically, the line tells us that "that country" (which is unnamed) is a place for young and beautiful people who can still appreciate love and nature in all its passion. In contrast, the poem goes on to say, Byzantium is the right place for the old, somewhere they can turn their bodies (and their body of work) into aesthetic object. (Translation: they'll become works of art rather than bodies.)
Um, okay, so what does all this have to do with No Country for Old Men?
Well, tbh, we don't think the art bit has a lot to do with it. (We actually think that Cormac McCarthy might not have read much past the first two lines.) But those first lines are a perfect fit. We quickly figure out that the title refers to old man Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who figures that he's no longer cut out to deal with all the horror and violence he encounters as a lawman.
As his even older friend Ellis puts it, "This country is hard on people." We find out that Ed Tom is pretty bored and aimless after he retires from law enforcement, but that's just the way it is. It may not be much of a country for old men, but it's the only one they've got. There is no Byzantium, and there's no changing the violence that's inside every one of us. All we can really do (in Ed Tom's words) is say, "Okay. I'll be part of this world."
"And in the dream I knew he was going on ahead. He was fixin' to make a fire somewhere out in all that dark and cold. And I knew that whenever I got there, he'd be there. Then I woke up."
Whew. The Coens sure know how to end a movie, right?
Sheriff Ed Tom Bell has spent the entire film trying to figure out whether there's any deeper meaning to his life or to human life in general. Now that he's retired from law enforcement, he has a dream in which his father carries fire deep into a midnight desert until Ed Tom can't see him anymore. The image symbolizes the death of Ed Tom's father and Ed Tom's need to believe that somewhere on the other side of life, his father is still out there somewhere trying to create a fire against all the darkness and coldness of death.
Ed Tom can't see his father in the world of the dead, but he needs to believe that somewhere on the other side of life there's some source of brightness and warmth. It's a beautiful image of hope flickering amongst a background of despair. But … then he wakes up.
This last line might symbolize several things. It could mean that Ed Tom is waking back up to all the unredeemable horror of human life. Or—for you optimists out there—it could also mean that Ed Tom will take the flickering hope of his dream back into his waking life. As with just about everything in this movie, the Coens want us to know that the only thing giving meaning to our lives is what we choose to believe.
There's no getting around the fact that No Country for Old Men is a violent movie. Within the first five minutes, you watch Anton Chigurh strangle a police officer with the chain of his handcuffs and kill another man with an air-powered needle gun. You won't find much shocking in the way of sex or romance (seriously, this has got to be one of the least sexy movies out there), but there sure is a lot of blood.