For a lawman, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is a lot of talk and not very much action. Maybe that's because he's old and winding down—or many because the Coens' wanted him to be the voice constantly asking (but not answering), "What does it all mean?"
When you get down to it, the guy never actually participates in any direct action. There's no final showdown with Anton Chigurh, no heart-to-heard with Moss, and no last-minute rescue of, well, anyone. In the end, all he gets to do is agonize over how awful the world has become and how overwhelmed he feels with it. When his deputy laughs at the story of graves being dug in a friendly couple's backyard, Ed Tom can only answer, "Well that's all right. I laugh myself sometimes. Ain't a whole lot else you can do."
Of course, that isn't really the only thing Ed Tom does. He's actually a pretty effective sheriff and detective—or, we get the feeling that he would be if he weren't up against forces he had no chance of understanding. The movie is full of little details that tell us what a sharp mind he has: he notices the fresh milk in Moss's trailer indicating that Chigurh had just left; he realizes that Chigurh is killing with a steer gun; and he's the one who spots Moss's truck in the first place. (Bet he wishes he'd just kept going…)
These little details tell us that, however much time Ed Tom spend dreaming about the past, he's also really good at his job. Tracking down a gang of drug dealers? No problem. But his basic competence makes it even more frustrating when he comes up against a force of nature like Chigurh.
Ed Tom is convinced that the world is sliding into total chaos. He draws a sharp line between The Way Things Used to Be (read: better) and The Way Things Are. Right from the beginning, we know this is a guy who lives in the past. He even opens the movie by telling us, "My grandfather was a lawman. Father too." Ed Tom is proud of this lineage: "I always liked to hear about the old timers," he says.
See, Ed Tom is what you would call nostalgic. He loves to believe that things were much better in the past. The problem is that you can't think the past was that awesome without also thinking the present is horrible. He closes his opening speech by saying, "It's not that I'm afraid of [today's crime]. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But I don't want to push my chips forward and go out… and meet something I don't understand."
And that's what Ed Tom fears the most—running into things he can't understand. But is the future (or present) really as incomprehensible as he things? Maybe—but that doesn't mean the past was all intact families and obedient children.
Toward the end of the movie, when Ed Tom struggles to make sense of all the violence he's encountered, he visits another old lawman named Ellis to look for counsel. Ellis tells Ed Tom a story about a brutal murder back in 1900, saying, "What you got ain't nothing new. This country's hard on people. You can't stop what's coming. It ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity."
Translation: Ed Tom is really philosophical, but he's also pretty self-involved. He spends more time wondering what the meaning of life is than he does actually getting involved in the activities of his sheriff's department.
Ellis basically tells Ed Tom that acceptance is the only way a person can deal with the violence and evil of the world. Evil always been here and it always will be, and anyone hoping to fight against it needs to accept that the world will still be that way when they die. If old men like Ed Tom are going to be whiny about it, then West Texas truly is No Country for Old Men. (See what we did there?)
Ed Tom opens the movie, so it's fitting that he closes it. The move ends when he tells his wife about his two dreams. The first one is vague, something about meeting his father in town and getting some money that he then lost. But the second is really something. In it, Bell and his father are riding their horses through the mountains at night. Bell's father rides past him and just keeps going ahead into the night without saying a word. He's carrying fire in an old horn the way people used to back when you couldn't just flick a lighter. In the dream, Bell knew that his father was riding ahead so he could go make a fire somewhere out amongst all the darkness and cold. And Bell knew that whenever he got there, his father would be there.
If you want our take on this dream, head on over to our symbols section. For now, we're more interested in why the movie ends with Ed Tom's dream. We already know that he's got a dreamer's take on the good old days—in other words, a not very accurate one—but in this dream, he seems to take that fuzzy, nostalgic glow and apply it toward the future. Is this Ed Tom's way of telling us that, no matter how grim the world is, good men (and women, we suppose) always offer a small light of hope? Is there room in this country (i.e. world) for old men, after all?
Or is the fact that goodness only appears in dreams just another sign that we're all doomed?
Anton Chigurh is a serial killer with a heart of stone. Seriously, if there were a yearly award for Most Evil Dude, Chigurh would have it locked down for at least the next decade (probably because he would have killed the other candidates). He's so evil that, tbh, we're not even sure he qualifies as human. He certainly doesn't seem to have any recognizable human emotions or motivations—not even anger or hatred, or some weird sex thing. (Don't all serial killers have a weird sex thing?)
In fact, we were pretty tempted to demote Chigurh from Character and pawn him off on Symbols, where we'd at least have some chance of making sense of the guy. But what does the guy even mean?
In some cases, Chigurh seems to symbolize the randomness of violence, as we see in the two cases where he flips a coin and asks the other person to "call it." If the vic guesses correctly, s/he lives; incorrectly, s/he dies like an animal, literally. (Chigurh's weapon of choice is a steer-killing machine, and if that's not a Symbol, then you should probably take away our Licensed Film Analyst card.)
The problem is, it would be more accurate to say that Chigurh wants to embody randomness. But as Carla Jean Moss tells him at the end of the film, "The coin don't have no say. It's just you." And … she's right. Okay, so Chigurh has decided that the coin toss determines the outcome. But who determined what the coin toss means in the first place? That would be Chigurh.
Her refusal to call the coin toss clearly irritates Chigurh, but in the end he simply says, "I got here the same way the coin did." In other words, Chigurh believes that he has no free will of his own. He is an agent of chaos, someone (or something) outside the whole human system of cause and effect—or at least, he'd like to be. And that right there is just the teeniest bit of motivation that we need to start cracking this tough nut.
If you ask us, there's something a little off about an agent of chaos who lives by a strict moral code, even if his moral code does involve killing Carla Jean because he gave his word to a dead man. The guy's nothing if not consistent, is what we're saying.
Remember, Chigurh promised Llewellyn Moss that he would kill Carla Jean if Moss didn't bring him the briefcase full of money. We might think of this as a threat used for leverage, but Chigurh plans on following through on his threat even after Moss is dead and there's no practical reason at all for hurting Carla Jean. Instead, he just confirms Carson Wells' earlier claim that "you might even say he has principles, principles that transcend money or drugs."
In the end, what makes Anton Chigurh more than just a stereotypical symbol of absolute evil is the tightrope he walks between total order and total chaos. Consider this: when the gas station clerk calls the coin correctly—i.e. escapes death—he tells the clerk, "Don't put it in your pocket [….] Or it'll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. Which it is."
Okay, so … which is it? Life-altering symbol, or legal tender? Moral center of the movie, or just a coin to be dropped in the nearest vending machine for some aspartame-free Pepsi?
The constant tension between order and chaos gives Anton Chigurh a chilling darkness that makes him scarier than any horror movie slasher.
But the scariest thing might be that, ultimately, even Chigurh becomes a victim of pure randomness, caught in a horrible car accident just after he kills Carla Jean Moss. In the end, he's not a symbol: he's a guy. And even a guy who's as dangerous and controlling as Chigurh is just a mortal like any other person.
As Carson Wells aptly puts it: "Yeah, he's a psychopathic killer, but so what? There's plenty of them around."
No Country for Old Men doesn't give us much in the way of heroes, but it does give us Llewellyn Moss. And … we guess he'll do. We root for him and hope that he'll find a way to protect his wife and escape with the two million in drug money he finds out in the desert, although it's hard to really admire the guy, if you know what we mean.
See, the truth is that Moss is just a normal Texan who stumbled across a botched drug deal. He could be you, he could be us, he could be anyone who gets himself caught up in things way too big for him to deal with. Carson Wells tells him as much when he says, "You're not cut out for this. You're just a guy who happened to find those vehicles."
But it's not fair to say that Llewellyn Moss is just some guy. He's been in the Vietnam War and he knows a thing or two about toughness and resourcefulness… and sawed-off shotguns. In fact, he lasts a lot longer than we would in the same situation. Unfortunately, that's not long enough.
Useful character trait #1: You'd think we'd have a lot to say about Moss, since we've just determined that he's more or less the hero of this movie. But … we actually don't have that much to say about him, mostly because he doesn't have much to say about himself. Moss is a man of action. We see him doing a lot of stuff: stealing money, fleeing his house, protecting his wife, stashing money, ditching money, and so on and so on. He's constantly on the move, sometimes in some really unpleasant situations.
But all of these actions don't add up to much in the way of character. All we can really gather from it is that he's all about self-protection. Taking the money is an act of self-protection (2 mill can buy you a lot of protection), and ditching the money is an act of self-protection. Even protecting his wife is just part of protecting himself.
Added to this, you never see him being loving or kind to Carla Jean, just kind of ordering her and pushing her around. Granted, he's in a rush to avoid the murderous drug dealers, but still. Deep thoughts and tender words are not this guy's M.O.
But at least you can count on him to do the right thing … eventually.
Useful character trait #2: Moss isn't exactly the kind of guy whose poster you want to put up on your wall, but he is a reasonably decent, honest man. (Except for when he steals a briefcase full of money, even if it is drug money.) He goes back to take water to the dying man and he's all about protecting his wife.
Sure, he might not do the right thing in a timely manner, but going back has to count for something, right??
Useful character trait #3: Llewellyn is clever. He thinks of things like stashing his money case in the air duct of his motel room and makes sure to keep a constant lookout for people who might be after him. He gets the drop on the insane Anton Chigurh at one point, badly wounding him in the leg. Carson Wells even points out that he's basically the only guy to come head-to-head with Chigurh and live.
But for all of his resourcefulness, Moss is the victim of his own pride. He could turn himself over to police protection at any time, but he doesn't: he wants to keep the drug money and fight his own battles. As Carla Jean tells Sheriff Bell, "He won't [quit] neither. He never has. He can take all comers." Carla Jean deserves some credit for standing by her man, but she's wrong here. In the end, he's outnumbered and outmaneuvered, slaughtered off-screen.
And by the way, if you were disappointed by the way the Coen brothers decide to have Llewellyn Moss killed off-screen by a gang of Mexicans who are barely in the movie, you're not alone. But that's just the thing: life doesn't always work out the way we want it to, and our heroes often turn out to be big fat disappointments.
So Moss is about the closest thing we have to a hero, except maybe Ed Tom. That means, no matter his flaws, we're invested in the dude and we want him to make it—or at least to die a satisfying death in a final showdown with his rival Anton Chigurh. (This is a western, after all.)
As it is, we get no showdown and no closure. In fact, Llewellyn ends up seeming—how do we say this?—downright unimportant. Which is exactly what the Coens want you to see. Like Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, you're supposed to wonder What It All Means, but not in a 2AM college dorm room sort of way:
In the end, Llewellyn Moss's life is less important than the questions that his death raises.
Carla Jean Moss is the loving young wife of Llewellyn Moss … and that's just about all we know about her.
Well, we do get a few hints about Miss Carla Jean toward the beginning of the movie, when her main role lies in asking Llewellyn as many questions as possible, saying, "What's in the satchel? […] Where'd you get the pistol? […] Did you buy that gun? […] What'd you get for that thing?" These questions tell us that she's curious, concerned—and probably not as dumb as she looks.
It seems like she and Llewellyn have a pretty stereotypically gendered relationship, since she shuts up as soon as her man tells her to and submissively agree to go visit her mother even though, as she says, she's :got a bad feeling, Llewellyn." She might have to put up with a lot, but she's proud of the man her husband is. She says to Sheriff Bell at one point, "He won't [quit] neither. He never has. He can take on all comers."
In the end, Carla isn't just a yes-woman to Llewellyn's bad decisions. She realizes that her husband is in deeper trouble than he can handle alone and calls Sheriff Bell to tell him where Llewellyn is. That's a pretty bold move, even if it does come too late for Bell to save him.
Llewellyn's death isn't the only tragedy Carla has to face. Her mother dies from cancer soon after and then she returns home to find Anton Chigurh waiting to kill her. He offers her the chance to save herself by calling a coin toss, but she rejects the offer. Carla Jean has already lost the only two people she cares about (her mother and husband) and she doesn't feel all that willing to indulge Chigurh's dumb games. In this sense, you might say she stands up to Chigurh more effectively than any other character in this movie. She refuses to accept his worldview and engage with him, which no other character manages to do. In fact, refusing to answer might be even bolder than her husband's tactic of waiting up for him with a gun.
Carla Jean won't give Chigurh the satisfaction of thinking that he's some random act of chaos. Instead, she confronts him with the claim, "The coin don't have no say. It's just you."
The comment frustrates and maybe even rattles Chigurh, as a few ungrammatical words turn him from an agent of chaos into a delusional egomaniac. (See? We told you she wasn't as dumb as she looks.) Our question: is Carla Jean the one who can fight back because she's a woman? Or is there some other reason that this sweet Southern girl gets to say some of the movie's most important lines—even if she doesn't make it out alive?
Carson Wells is a bounty hunter hired by a bunch of high-rolling American drug dealers to kill Anton Chigurh. Sound like dream come true? Well, in the words of one character, Wells has led a "charmed life." The guy was a colonel during the Vietnam War and now he's a private mercenary willing to do anything his employer wants if the price is right.
We know from this little background that money is Wells's main motivator, and we see it in action when he tries to make a deal with Llewellyn Moss for the stolen drug money, saying, "Look, you gotta give me this money. I have no other reason to protect you."
Wells also seems to have a really, really laidback attitude toward the shocking violence he sees every day. When asked his opinion of Anton Chigurh, he answers, "Yeah, he's a psychopathic killer. But so what? There's plenty of them around."
In fact, in some ways, we can compare the two: they're both cold-hearted killers with a lust for money and an almost inhuman way of looking at the world. Unlike Chigurh, though, Wells is a reasonable guy with understandable motivations (like money). When Chigurh is about to kill Wells, Wells says to him, "Do you have any idea how crazy you are?"
He offers to give Chigurh the money, but Chigurh, in the end, doesn't care about wealth: he cares about his own wacky form of justice. In this case, "justice" means that Chigurh has to kill Wells, since Wells is supposed to kill him. In the end, even money is no match for psychotic genius.
Ellis doesn't show up until the very end of the movie, but his conversation with Sheriff Ed Tom Bell helps tie together the movie—or at least as much as the Coen brothers will allow. It's basically Ellis' job as an old-timer (even older than Ed Tom) to tell Ed Tom to stop whining so much and to accept the world for what it is.
While Ed Tom thinks that evil of the world is getting worse and worse all the time, but Ellis quickly reminds him, "What you got ain't nothing new. This country is hard on people. You can't stop what's coming. It ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity."
In other words, Ellis reminds Ed Tom that the world doesn't depend on what Ed Tom thinks of it. No matter what happens or how many psychotic killers it holds, it's going to keep on turning.
Loretta Bell only shows up twice in the movie and both times only in relation to her hubby. The first time, she sees Ed Tom off after he packs up her horse and heads out to the scene of a botched drug buy. Not much to say about that. The second time, she sits with him for breakfast after he's retired and asks him about the dreams he had the night before.
For the most part, Loretta plays the role of a sounding board for Ed Tom's final speech, where he reflects on the nature of hope and despair, chaos and meaning. Our biggest question here is why the Coen brothers slash Cormac McCarthy, chose to make the only two female characters not much more than backdrops to the story—but, hey, what do you expect from a Western?