The 2007 movie No Country for Old Men has everything you’d expect from a Coen brothers movie: fate, conscience, plans gone awry, violence, and dry humor, plus Javier Bardem as a ruthless hitman. A producer friend of the Coens, Scott Rudin, purchased the movie rights to the original book by Cormac McCarthy back in 2004 and soon after suggested a film adaptation to the Coens. Joel Coen tells Steve Weintraub of Collider that he and Ethan had “read other Cormac McCarthy books just for pleasure and liked [the writer] a tear,” but No Country for Old Men drew their attention in particular.
In an interview with Chud, Joel and Ethan expressed that their curiosity about the story had to do with how unconventional it was and how it couldn’t be adapted into a regular “Hollywoodized” movie. McCarthy’s novel follows an illegal drug deal gone wrong in the rural back country of Texas. His style in the book is more minimalist than in his other works because the story actually started as a screenplay.
The book No Country for Old Men contains a subtle undercurrent of humor but also depicts unconventional brutality. McCarthy’s work shared a fearlessness that Joel and Ethan Coen often insert into their movies. In their discussion with Chud, Joel says that “when [they] make a movie [they’re] aware they might not be making it for everyone,” but just enough people who are interested in being satisfied and frustrated at the same time.
Just as the Coens predicted, some critics were displeased with the film’s offbeat structure and characters when it was released in 2007. Critic Andrew Sarris of The New York Observer called the collaboration between Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers “a match made in hell,” and many viewers were baffled by its seemingly arbitrary ending. Despite these reactions, though, No Country for Old Men scores an impressive 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. So whether you are satisfied or frustrated by the film, confused, or simply curious, here is the ending of No Country for Old Menexplained.
A Brief Summary
Let’s take a look at the film in its entirety to then understand its highly debated ending. No Country for Old Men opens in the year 1980 and shows the shockingly evil Anton Chigurh, a hitman played by Javier Bardem, in police custody. Chigurh escapes by strangling a sheriff and murdering a stranger to steal his car, which he drives to an isolated gas station. Chigurh flips a coin to decide whether the gas station owner should die, and commonly uses this technique to determine his victim’s fate throughout the film.
Meanwhile, a man named Llewelyn Moss, played by Josh Brolin, is out hunting when he comes across the scene of a drug deal gone bad. Amid the wreckage and dead men, Llewelyn discovers a briefcase of two million dollars and takes it home where his wife, Carla Jean, portrayed by Kelly McDonald, is waiting.
Nervous that someone will be looking for the money, Llewelyn sends Carla Jean to stay with her mother, and he goes to stay in a motel in Del Rio where he hides the briefcase. Chigurh has been hired to retrieve the money and, after searching Llewelyn’s house, follows the briefcase’s tracking device to his motel in Del Rio. Terrell County Sherrif Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones, investigates Chigruh’s break-in.
The Fate of Anton Chigurh and Carla Jean
Once Chigruh arrives at the motel, Llewelyn retrieves the money from its hiding place in a vent and moves to another hotel in Eagle Pass. Shortly after Llewelyn discovers the briefcase’s tracking device, Chirgruh finds him. There is a shootout but Llewelyn survives and stashes the money once again, planning to meet Carla Jean and hand off the briefcase to her.
Sheriff Bell visits Carla Jean and promises to protect Llewelyn in exchange for information. Carla Jean’s mother accidentally reveals Llewelyn’s location to a group of Mexicans who find Llewelyn at Eagle Pass and shoot him in the parking lot. Sheriff Bell discovers Llewelyn’s body and visits Llewelyn’s room where the money has already been retrieved by Chigurh. Shortly after, Sheriff Bell speaks to his uncle about his plans to retire and leave the violence behind.
Sometime later, Carla Jean arrives home to find Chigurh hiding in her house and challenges his coin toss, telling him not to blame luck for his choices. He spares her, and as he is driving out of her neighborhood, a car crashes into him and leaves him severely wounded. Chigurh stumbles out of the wreckage, limping and bleeding, and pays two young boys to keep quiet about what they saw before he hobbles off into the distance. The very end of the film features Sheriff Bell recounting two dreams to his wife, one about losing some money his father gave him, and the other about him and his father horseback riding through the snow while his father led the way through the darkness with a torch.
The Ending of No Country For Old Men, Explained
So, who is the main character, anyway? There are several characters to follow here, and much of the film’s attention focuses on Llewelyn’s escape from Chigurh. But neither Llewelyn nor Chigurh delivers the underlying message here. We can conclude that while we watched the events that led to Sheriff Bell’s retirement more than Bell himself, the story is about Bell’s perspective of violence; he is representative of the titular ‘old men.’ This is illustrated by his two dreams. The first dream, in which Bell loses the money his father entrusts to him, seems to express his guilt over the outcome of Llewelyn’s case. Bell was assigned a task to protect something and failed. He seems disconnected from the meaning of the dream, which suggests his unconscious guilt.
The second dream appears to represent Bell’s past, where good and evil, light and dark, were always clear. In the vision, Bell rides on horseback with his father on a snowy night, who leads the way with a torch. The torch seems to represent values and the black-and-white moral perspective of Bell’s past which he hopes will be carried into the future. However, Bell remarks that he is now as old as his father in the dream, and appears doubtful that the definitive lines of good and evil will be carried into the future.
America is no longer a country for old men like him, nor postmodernism and nihilism take hold of the culture. Interestingly, No Country For Old Men is often called a nihilistic film, but it really seems to be about an older, more ethically unambiguous person lamenting the chaos and nihilism that the country is headed towards.
What’s the Point of No Country For Old Men?
There are some complaints that the ending and overall structure of the film are anticlimactic. Critic David Denby of The New Yorker comments that after seeing Llewelyn “escape so many traps, we have a great deal invested in him emotionally, and yet he’s eliminated, off-camera, by some unknown Mexicans. He doesn’t get the dignity of a death scene.”
That same kind of arbitrary, anticlimactic, spontaneous violence happens to Chigurh himself. The villain of the film, Chigurh seems to be symbolic of fate, chance, and the chaos of life. He makes decisions based on a coin toss, and seems almost superhuman in his abilities. He is practically an incarnation of the violence inherent in the universe, but even he is susceptible to chance, as his car is plowed into by some anonymous character. Like Llewelyn, his ultimate fate is out of his hands, and he’s at the mercy of blind chance. The odds of a coin toss are even too good for this world.
Although the story is told in an unconventional way, refusing to give the audience the satisfaction of traditional narrative moments and resolutions, No Country For Old Men remains a powerful, thought-provoking piece. It is frustrating, just as the Coens wanted. According to Padraig Cotter of Screen Rant, the work is a “poetic summation” of the Coens’ core themes and reflects the violence and change we see in our own world, where soon, there might not even be a country for young men, or anyone else for that matter. No Country for Old Men is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.