Study Guide

No Country for Old Men Quotes

  • Violence

    "Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun."

    Talk about nostalgia. We're guessing Sheriff Ed Tom is one of those guys who thinks everything was better in the past: movies, music, and (naturally) crime. Back in those days, men were men and sheriffs were sheriffs, y'hear? Why, they didn't even need to carry guns! Yeahhhh, sure, Ed Tom. He may be reluctant to draw his gun, but we bet those old-time sheriffs weren't afraid to defend themselves—and we bet those old-time criminals weren't winning any Nobel Peace prizes.

    "Told me he'd planned to kill somebody for as long as he could remember. Said if they turned him out he'd do it again."

    Here, Sheriff Bell is recounting the story of a guy who (gasp!) seems to be a real psychotic piece of work. And, sure, he seems a little nuts. But we're pretty sure that insane, violent criminals have existed throughout human history. It takes some real ego to think that you're living in the first age to see truly meaningless violence.

    "I don't know what to make of that. I sure do don't."

    Killers. What is it with them, right? Ed Tom can't make sense of killers who want nothing more from life than to murder other people. He'd like to think that people are good deep down, but he just can't see how that's possible in a world filled with so many brutal killers. Hm. We're going to say that maybe it's impossible to generalize about human nature: some people are cold-hearted killers, while some people are pretty decent folk when you get to know them.

    "The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure."

    Oaky, we admit that it sure does seem like the world is a more violent place than it used to be … but it's probably not. Violence is frightening and meaningless no matter when it happens—and Ed Tom certainly isn't the first guy to think that kids these days are worse than ever.

    "Would you hold still please, sir?"

    Brrr. There's a chilling coldness to the way Anton Chigurh kills people that makes the murder just a little bit worse than it has to be. In this scene, he simply asks a man to hold still while he holds an air-powered steer killer to his head and shoots a needle into his brain. And the guy does it—because he trusts his fellow human beings. Welp, not any more (for about the .02 seconds he has left alive).

    "But that's what it took, you notice, to get somebody's attention. Digging graves in the backyard didn't bring any."

    Here, Ed Tom is relating a story about how no one noticed people digging graves in a crowded neighborhood until a naked man wearing nothing but a dog collar ran out of the house screaming. Well, sure, that's a terrible story … but AHEM what about the Holocaust? Or slavery? Gruesome things happen all the time, and people just look the other way.

    "Man killed Lamar's deputy, took his car, killed that man on the highway, swapped for his car, now here it is and he's swapped again for God knows what."

    It's clear from Ed Tom's list that Anton Chigurh has no regard for human life. He kills people and takes their cars as if he were mowing grass. And worse yet, he almost always preys on the people who are kindest and most trusting. To him, violence is less an active choice than a side effect. Now that's scary.

    "Yeah, he's a psychopathic killer. But so what? There's plenty of them around."

    After all of Ed Tom's moaning about the state of the modern world, here comes ice-cold bounty hunter Carson Wells to set him straight. Wells is unimpressed by Anton Chigurh's path of destruction. He knows that psycho killers are a dime a dozen in modern-day America (and probably always have been). All he cares about is making money by tracking them down.

    "Even if you gave him the money, he'd still kill you for inconveniencing him."

    Carson Wells tries to give Llewellyn Moss a crash course in all things Anton Chigurh, like how there's no way he (Moss) could ever make a deal with Chigurh because he has already made the mistake of annoying the man. It doesn't matter if he gives up the money. Chigurh will follow him to the ends of the Earth to kill him—not because he's an especially violent guy, but because he has a code to follow. See, Sheriff Bell? There is honor in the modern world.

    "You gave your word to my husband to kill me?"

    Carla Jean Moss doesn't understand Anton Chigurh's code of violence and refuses to respond to it. When Chigurh tracks her down so he can keep his word to her (dead) husband, Carla Jean is frankly baffled—and not interested in playing his silly coin flip game. But refusing to participate in a violent system doesn't allow you to step outside it. It's still going to get you—just like Chigurh gets Carla Jean.

  • Strength and Skill

    "Yeah, I'm gonna bring you something, all right. Decided to make you a project of mine."

    Here's Llewellyn Moss right after Anton Chigurh threatens to kill his wife. Strong? Yeah, we guess. He's definitely standing up for his lady, if that's the sort of thing you like. But—we're going to say it—isn't he being just a wee bit selfish here? Looks like strength doesn't necessarily equal smarts.

    "He won't [quit] neither. He never has. He can take all comers."

    Carla Jean stands by her man. She has total faith in Llewellyn's strength and skill, and we have to admit she has reason. As the movie goes on, though, and Llewellyn realizes that he's matched with baddies above his pay grade, her confidence drains away—and so does ours.

    "There just ain't no way."

    Moss lies in bed one night staring at the ceiling, thinking about the posse of drug dealers on his trail. Like you do. After a while, he realizes that there's just no way anyone could have ever tracked him as quickly as the Mexicans have. He jumps out of bed and searches his money briefcase to find a radio tracking device stashed in the cash. Okay, it's smart of him to figure this out. But he's also unfortunately too late: Chigurh has already found him. Better luck next time, dude.

    "You're not cut out for this. You're just a guy who happened to find those vehicles."

    Llewellyn just might have a bit of a hero complex. He's just an ordinary guy, after all—yeah, maybe a little smarter and tougher than your average bear, but still not cut out for taking on Anton Chigurh. In the end, he's just some poor sap who stumbled across the wrong botched drug deal at the wrong time. Being strong enough to survive Vietnam doesn't exactly equip him to take on pure evil.

    Man who hires Wells [asking about Chigurh]: Just how dangerous is he?

    Wells: Compared to what, the bubonic plague?

    Given that the bubonic plague killed about one in three people and that Chigurh, with his little coin-flip trick, should statistically be killing about one in two, we're going to go ahead and say that Chigurh is actually more dangerous than the plague. And Wells respects that. From one killer to another, he has to admire, just a little bit, for how deadly and resourceful Anton Chigurh is. But Wells has his own skill: a cocky sense of humor that helps him man up to the danger he's constantly up again. Too bad that he didn't also think to bring along a bullet-proof—er, steer-killer-proof—vest.

    "Look, you gotta give me this money. I got no other reason to protect you."

    You can just see Carson Wells doing some fake boo-hooing here with absolutely no sympathy for Llewellyn Moss. At the end of the day, Wells is a professional who cares a lot more about money than he does about other people—and he's got the skills to back it up, or so he thinks. This time, though, he's overestimated himself. Guess there's limit to human ingenuity, especially when you match it up against something that seems pretty darn inhuman.

    "I remember dates, names, numbers. I saw him November the 9th."

    Carson Wells has a mind for details. Well, you'd have to if you were working as a private mercenary. You wouldn't want to go after the wrong drug dealer by accident, now, would you? Success in this world is all about fitting your skills to your career—at least, that's what Shmoop has always said.

    Wells: We can stop that.

    Man who hires Wells: Seem pretty sure of yourself.

    For someone who's about to hunt down Anton Chigurh, Carson Wells seems pretty sure of himself. Big mistake. Huge. Despite all his skill, his confidence turns out to be undeserved. He barely even gets to throw a menacing glare at Chigurh before the psycho takes him out.

    Wells: You know how he found you?

    Llewellyn Moss: Yeah, I know how he found me.

    Carson Wells has been in this whole evading psycho killers game before, and he feels like it's his duty to tutor Llewellyn Moss on all the things he's done wrong in trying to avoid Anton Chigurh—like failing to notice the tracking device hidden in the money he stole. Moss is a proud man though and he doesn't want to be lectured on all the things he's done wrong. Give the guy some credit; he did figure it out eventually, after all.

    Llewellyn Moss: Never mind. I want a tent.

    Store clerk: What kind?

    Llewellyn Moss: The kind with the most poles.

    Llewellyn Moss knows how to make things up as he goes along. In this case, he leaves his motel room because he's convinced that a group of bad dudes have tracked him down. Now his only hope for recovering his money is to create a really long hooked pole and retrieve his money from a motel's air duct from the opposite side of the motel. Little does he know that his efforts accidentally lead Anton Chigurh to murder the three Mexican men who are after him. Sometimes you need a little skill and a lot of luck—and luck is one thing that Moss is out of.

  • Fate and Free Will

    "You know what date is on this coin? […] 1958. It's been traveling 22 years to get here. And now it's here. And it's either heads or tails."

    If we were going just on rhetorical prowess, we'd have to side with Anton Chigurh about the role of fate. He sure does have a poetic way of talking as though fate plays a big role in human lives, like when he tells the gas station clerk that the coin he's flipped has traveled 22 years to this specific moment to decide whether this man will live or die. But pretty words can be deceptive. Let's be honest: the coin has nothing to do with it. The killing is all on Chigurh.

    "You stand to win everything. Call it."

    When the gas station clerk asks what he stands to win from the coin toss, Chigurh answers "everything." In other words, the clerk will win the right to continue existing, which is everything. If he loses, Chigurh will whip out that nifty steer-killer and end his life for no good reason. Talk about high stakes—and pointlessness.

    "Anywhere not in your pocket. Or it'll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. Which it is."

    Does Chigurh believes the things he says or is he just playing games? Hard to say. He seems to have this complex worldview where everything is meaningful and at the same time, nothing is. Take the coin he flipped to decide whether to spare the gas station attendant's life. One the one hand, he says, it's super special. On the other hand, he admits that it's just a coin like any other. We may not know if fate or free will is guiding Chigurh's actions, but we do know one thing: players gonna play.

    Gas station attendant: I didn't put nothing up.

    Chigurh: Yes, you did. You've been putting it up your whole life. You just didn't know it.

    Chigurh sees all of human life as one big gamble. Life is something we risk every moment of every day without even realizing it. We hate to admit it, but he's kind of right: the truth is that any of us has the ability to die at any moment. Of course, the risks do go up when there's a psychotic killer on the loose. Just saying.

    "Let me ask you something. If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?"

    Anton Chigurh wants to come across as an impassive tool of fate, but he seems a little too stoked about how he's about to kill Carson Wells. Someone governed by an impersonal force shouldn't be this excited, right? He also takes a lot of pleasure in undermining Wells's code of getting as much money as you can. That's not nearly as noble a principle as Chigurh's, after all.

    "I ain't gonna call it. […] The coin don't have no say. It's just you."

    Carla Jean Moss may be a lowly retail employee, but she's one savvy lady who refuses to call Chigurh's coin toss and throws the biggest wrench yet into his belief that he's just the ambassador for some greater destructive force. For Carla Jean, there's no deep moral question to get tied up in knots about: Chigurh is responsible for his own actions, plain and simple.

    "Well, I got here the same way the coin did."

    Chigurh isn't having anything to do with Carla Jean Moss' claim that he is just an individual who's responsible for his own actions. He's prefer to think of himself as controlled by random forces traveling from place to place like a coin going from pocket to pocket. It's a poetic thought, but we're not really buying it.

    "Mister, you got a bone sticking out of your arm."

    Anton Chigurh believes that his life is controlled by random forces, but fate works both ways. It comes back to bite him when he gets randomly t-boned in an intersection by another car. But what can you do when destiny comes knocking? Chigurh knows what: despite the fact that there's a bone sticking out of his arm, he picks himself up and limps away.

    "It's the dismal tide. It is not the one thing."

    Sheriff Bell's cop friend in El Paso might be convinced that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, but he still believes that there is some larger force or "one thing" that should guide people's actions. Only problem is, it's awfully hard to in the modern world.

    "Well, sometimes I think he's pretty much a ghost."

    Sheriff Bell can't quite wrap his mind around Anton Chigurh as a fellow human being. For Bell, there's something supernatural about the way Chigurh kills people and disappears without leaving much of a trace. (Agreed.) He a tough time not thinking that Chigurh is some kind of demon who's been sent to kill people for no reason other than spreading evil. But we know better: Chigurh might be a nasty piece of work, but he's still just a guy subject to all the same rules of human life as the next guy. Right??

  • Memory and the Past

    "I was sheriff of this county when I was 25 years old. Hard to believe."

    Okay, so 25 was a long time ago for Sheriff Bell. But let's be honest: most people are going to remember being 25 pretty fondly. Doesn't mean things were actually better; it just means that he has the lovely glow of youthful optimism and good digestion to shed a rosy glow on life.

    "My grandfather was a lawman. Father too."

    Sheriff Bell comes from a line of police officers, and boy does he like to tell us about it. He likes feeling as if his job connects him the past generations because it makes him feel like he's contributing to something bigger than himself. Fair enough. And we bet if he went back and asked his dad and granddad, they'd have plenty of horror stories about those good old times to share.

    "Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun."

    One of Sheriff Bell's favorite old-timey anecdotes to share is that some of the county's early sheriffs didn't even carry guns when they worked. The courage and confidence in this kind of action—not to mention the suggestion that criminals were just nicer back then—makes Bell feel all warm and fuzzy. Today, though? He'd probably feel safer toting around a bazooka … or at least a portable steer-killer.

    "I always liked to hear about the old-timers. Never missed a chance to do so."

    Sheriff Bell sure is stuck in the past, and constantly asking for stories about the "old-timers" probably has something to do with that. Just check out the way he talks about "old-timers," too, as though they're a totally different breed from us degenerate modern-day folk. Spoiler: people are just about the same now as they always have been.

    "You can't help but compare yourself against the old-timers. Can't help but wonder how they'd have operated these times."

    Sheriff Bell is always looking for guidance on how to respond to modern troubles. For that reason, he wishes that some of the old-time sheriffs were still around so he could see how they reacted to modern problems. Our guess? They'd have reacted a lot like he does.

    "Your daddy ever tell you how Uncle Mac come to his reward?"

    Ellis wants to but Sheriff Ed Tom's nostalgic bubble, so he tells the story of how a man named Uncle Mac was shot and killed on his front doorstep by a gang of thugs. See? Senseless violence has always been part of human nature. Aren't we lucky!

    "They just sat there on their horses watching him die."

    As Ellis shows us, there will always be people who have no sympathy or concern for others, people who'd as soon kill you as flip a coin. All you can do is try to contain these people as best you can.

    "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."

    Ellis gives Ed Tom some real talk when he reminds him that there has always been senseless violence and there always will be. The whole world isn't waiting on Ed Tom to find some deeper meaning in life, and it sure hasn't saved all its violence for his lifetime. It was turning out violent criminals before he was born, and it's going to keep turning them out once he's dead.

    "You know, if you'd have told me 20 years ago I'd see children walking the streets of our Texas towns with green hair, bones in their noses, I just flat-out wouldn't have believed you."

    Ed Tom's friend from the El Paso police force regrets how far Texas has fallen in the past 20 years. He's a conservative man who thinks that dyed hair in children is the first step toward total anarchy. It's kind of hard to take the guy seriously on this point, since nose-bones might be a little cringe-inducing, but they're hardly a sign of the end times.

    "But I think that once you quit hearing 'sir' and 'ma'am,' the rest is soon to foller."

    Ed Tom's El Paso friend is convinced that the slow slide into total chaos begins with the little things. For example, he thinks that young people should call their elders by "sir" and "ma'am" and he's convinced that once society starts sliding on these little things, it's not long before everything will end in chaos. Um, okay, dude. We think this guy is finally out-nostalgia-ing Ed Tom, which is saying something.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints

    Gas station attendant: I didn't put nothing up.

    Chigurh: Yes, you did. You've been putting it up your whole life. You just didn't know it.

    Here, Anton Chigurh is talking to the gas station attendant, who says he didn't "put nothing up," i.e. didn't bet anything. Not the way Chigurh looks at it. He's convinced that human beings risk their lives every second of every day just by being alive. After all, every second you live is a second that you could possibly die. Gee, that's cheerful.

    "Anywhere not in your pocket. Or it'll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. Which it is."

    Wait, hang up—we're confused. On the one hand, the coin Chigurh flips has some sort of special relationship with fate. On the other hand, it's just a regular coin like any other. So which is it? For Chigurh, they're somehow one and the same.

    "Yeah, he's a psychopathic killer, but so what? There's plenty of them around."

    Carson Wells has the most laid-back philosophy of anyone in this movie. For him, there's nothing special about Anton Chigurh. He's just a particularly dangerous psycho killer. But who cares? Those people are a dime a dozen in Wells's world, and if one doesn't get you, then another one will.

    "If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?"

    Chigurh likes to taunt Carson Wells about his laid-back philosophy once he has a gun on him. It's clear that Chigurh is going to kill Wells no matter what. But even a cold-blooded guy like Chigurh can't help indulge himself in a little Evil Gloating, telling Wells that his entire worldview is useless because it has led him to such a shameful end.

    "You need to call it. I can't call it for you."

    Anton Chigurh is a psychopathic killer, but he still lives by a strict moral code based around the assumption that randomness is the only consistent force in human life. He expresses this belief by flipping a coin to decide whether he'll kill somebody, but the only way he can make the flip legitimate though is if he lets the other person call it. Anything else, according to his philosophy, would be unfair. Hey, we said he had a code.

    "The coin don't have no say. It's just you."

    When Chigurh comes to kill her, Carla Jean Moss refuses to participate in his messed-up worldview and won't let Chigurh believe he's acting randomly. At the end of the day, Carla Jean believes that Anton Chigurh is a human being like any other who's responsible for his own actions—and that just might make her his most effective opponent.

    "You know, if you'd have told me 20 years ago I'd see children walking the streets of our Texas towns with green hair, bones in their noses, I just flat-out wouldn't have believed you."

    Here you have a guy—Ed Tom's friend from El Paso—complaining about kids with green hair when there are people getting murdered by drug gangs all around him. Sorry, guy, but we really don't think aesthetic choices have much to do with it, so you'd better just take the world for what it is. (Now if all those gangs had green hair and nose-bones, we'd have another talk.)

    "It's the tide. It's the dismal tide. It is not the one thing."

    Here, Ed Tom's friend rejects Sheriff Bell's proposal that the world is falling to pieces because kids have stopped saying "sir" and "ma'am." It's not just one thing, he says; it's everything. The whole world is doomed, but it's not about declining social standards—it's just fate, like the tides. (Hm, sounds a lot like Chigurh when you put it that way.)

    "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. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, 'OK. I'll be part of this world.'"

    Sheriff Ed Tom Bell isn't afraid of dying; he's just afraid of having his entire worldview shattered. (Well, gee, why would you be afraid of a little thing like that?) He's afraid of having to look at all the evil around him and saying, "Yeppers, this is the world I have to live in." Sure, he'd like to believe in something better, but the evidence just isn't here.

    "The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure."

    Sheriff Ed Tom is an old man. He's not going to be around forever, whether he's taken out by heart disease or by some psycho like Chigurh. So death doesn't faze him much. But he is afraid that all the decency in the world is gone, and he's just leaving behind a big old mess.

  • Spirituality

    "You know the date on this coin? […] 1958. It's been traveling 22 years to get here. And now it's here and it's either heads or tails."

    Anton Chigurh doesn't exactly (or at all) believe in God, but does have deeply held beliefs: that chance and randomness have power over the world. But even he can't seem to get away from the idea that events can carry deeper significance, as we see here where he talks about the journey of one little coin to a small Texaco gas station. Random? Maybe. Meaningful? Definitely.

    "Told me he'd planned to kill somebody for as long as he could remember. Said if they turned him out, he'd do it again. Said he knew he was going to hell. Be there in about 15 minutes. I don't know what to make of that."

    Sheriff Ed Tom doesn't know what to think of a man who said he knew he was going to hell fifteen minutes before he died in the electric chair, and frankly neither do we. It just goes to show you that religious belief isn't necessarily going to keep you from being a cold-hearted killer.

    "It's all the goddamn money, Ed Tom. Money and the drugs. It's just goddamn beyond everything. What's it mean. What's it leading to?"

    Ed Tom's friend from El Paso seems to in the throes of an even bigger spiritual crisis than the one Ed Tom is suffering. What's the point of living is when the whole world is just one big bloodbath of money and drugs? It's a toughie, and the Coen brothers don't provide any easy answers.

    "I always figured when I got older God would sort of come into my life somehow. And He didn't. And I don't blame him."

    Sheriff Bell always thought that finding God was just a part of growing older, but it didn't work out that way for him. He actually has less faith as he gets older, since he's decided that the world is going to hell and that God has pretty much given up on him and humanity in general. We doubt that opinion is going to make him very popular at the nursing home.

    "If I was Him, I'd have the same opinion of me that He does."

    Sheriff Bell thinks that one of the reasons he has no faith is because God has judged him unworthy of His attention. Talk about feeling sorry for yourself. Want some cheese with that whine, Sheriff?

    "You don't know what He thinks."

    Sheriff Bell's relative Ellis isn't going to sit by and listen to Bell whine about how God has deserted him. The truth is that it often takes just as much faith to despair as it does to have hope. Sheriff Bell seems determined to think that the world is an awful place and assumes it's true because it's negative. But how can he know what God thinks? Isn't that the whole point of God?

    "It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job."

    Sheriff Bell isn't afraid of dying, as he makes perfectly clear when he walks into a crime scene expecting to be confronted by the psychotic Anton Chigurh. It's his soul he's worried about—and humanity as a whole. That's something that'll keep you up at night.

    "But I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard."

    Sheriff Bell isn't worried about dying. He's worried about committing himself to a certain type of faith only to find out that the world is just a big tangle of random violence. Notice all the language of gambling here? ("Chips" are what you bet in card games; "hazard" actually comes from the name of a game of chance.) You could definitely make the argument that Bell and Chigurh are both trying to figure out whether they believe that the world is really just a game of chance.

    "You need to call it. I can't call it for you or it wouldn't be fair."

    Anton Chigurh might be a psycho killer, but he still believes in some kind of fairness when it comes to judging whether people should live or die. Fairness—or some twisted kind of fairness—is his only moral (and spiritual) code. In this case, he thinks it's "fair" if he lets his potential victim call heads or tails on a coin toss. We think it might be okay to let fairness slide just this once and not kill the poor lady, but, then, we live by no code.

    "I got here the same way the coin did."

    When Carla Jean insists that Chigurh take responsibility for his actions, Chigurh deflects it right back. He argues that he's just randomly bouncing around the world in the same way a coin would travel from place to place, and that's his spiritual outlook on nearly everything: no God, no universal master plan, just good and bad luck.