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‘No Country for Old Men’ and 40 years of Reagan’s America

USA PoliticsEconomic CrisisCulture

Still from the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men. Image courtesy Miramax Films.

To many politically engaged film fans, this year might seem an odd occasion to revisit Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2007 thriller No Country for Old Men. Indeed, the timing bears no relation to the release of the film itself, but rather to the year in which it is set. Based on Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant 2005 novel, the film takes place in 1980, a year that would arguably change the fabric of American society for years to come, and that both determined the nature of modern US capitalism and broke with the long-held economic consensus of the mid-twentieth century. It was also the year that Ronald Reagan was elected to office. At this point, I would imagine many readers are puzzling over whether they and the writer of this article have watched the same film. I would argue, however, that a compelling interpretation of the film is as a timely prophecy retroactively heralding the neoliberal model that Reagan and his ideological allies implemented throughout the 1980s.

First, consider the historical context of this shift. Following the Great Depression and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, the US followed a generally Keynesian theory of economics. This consensus maintained that a combination of stricter regulations, higher taxes on the wealthy, and strong government investment in industry and communities would boost productivity and prevent another financial crash. Accompanied by the hugely significant introduction of welfare programs like Social Security, unemployment insurance, and benefits for the disadvantaged, the reforms of Roosevelt ushered in an era of what might be considered communitarianism. Reinforced by successive presidents and best epitomized by Lyndon Johnson’s vision of a “Great Society,” the public grew to value and actively participate in their communities, fostering a sense of relative stability and civic responsibility to one another. Despite the myriad flaws that persisted throughout the postwar era and to this day, Roosevelt’s America certainly featured a more humane form of capitalism than its successor.

Reagan’s regressive revolution

After assuming office 40 years ago, Reagan systematically broke down this established Keynesian order, opting instead for an ideology of rugged individualism, financial deregulation, and austerity. As his British counterpart, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, claimed: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” This neoliberal ethic would dominate the 1980s and ultimately lead to a steady atomization of communities.

Given this context, what does neoliberalism have to do with No Country for Old Men? First, we must assess the opening of the film. Rather than introduce their protagonist, the Coens instead begin with a series of Texas vistas as a backdrop to the county sheriff’s opening voiceover. After meditating on tradition and his family’s history in law enforcement, the “lawman” turns his eye to the coming tide of nihilistic, dispassionate crime: “It’s not that I’m afraid of it … but I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand.” Of course, some may construe this sentiment as a lament for the loss of traditional black-and-white morality, but arguably this is both a simplistic and conservative interpretation.

What is it, then, that our sheriff is so afraid of? Here we look to the horrifying entrance of Javier Bardem’s hitman, Anton Chigurh, the embodiment of this threat. Dressed all in black and sporting what is perhaps the greatest haircut put to screen this century, his origin completely unknown, Chigurh has no backstory, no known motive, and no personality. He is an inhuman entity—an idea ripping through the close-knit fabric of small-town America.

We must also address the story’s two other main characters: Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a struggling welder who stumbles upon a suitcase of Mexican drug money, and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played with weary sensitivity by Tommy Lee Jones. Both of these characters, in their respective arcs, illuminate a specific experience of Chigurh’s nascent laissez-faire capitalism. Where Jones’s lawman—raised in a time when “some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun”—assesses the new terrain with most of his life behind him, Brolin’s welder is forced to navigate it alone. When Moss by chance acquires this suitcase of cash, he decides to keep it not out of greed or entitlement but necessity. He understands his class circumstance as inescapable and is thus propelled into a blind, careless opportunism. Moss doesn’t contemplate the danger he is putting himself and his family in; such considerations are secondary to the prerequisite of success under neoliberalism: ownership of large quantities of wealth.

Coin toss, our loss

This strikes at a key facet of the film. Behind every moment, including even those with little significance to the plot, is a single, looming influence—money—which manifests in two pivotal ways. First, the plot’s central object, Moss’s suitcase, is stuffed with about $2 million in drug money. It is the reason for the chaos that ensues. Second, money—or, more specifically, the symbolism of the coin—is the manifestation of a terrifying new determinant in the local people’s lives. The infamous coin-toss scene is the first and most horrifying demonstration of this. When Anton Chigurh kills, his actions are not rooted in personal enjoyment or insanity but in the unemotional flip of a coin. “What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?” Chigurh asks the bewildered shop owner. For the inhabitants of this tight-knit Texan community, the question is absurd. How could one’s well-being—or one’s life—be determined by something so arbitrary and uncontrollable? Indeed, throughout the film there is a crushing realization, expressed most tragically by Sheriff Bell, that the safety net and community provided by the old system is gone. Now, there is nothing but the untameable will of the free market.

However, even as Sheriff Bell and the rest of the locals are passive participants in this shift, Llewelyn attempts actively to engage it—to beat Chigurh at his own game. Only, from the moment he partakes in this struggle, our welder makes a terrible, ultimately fatal mistake: he fails, continuously, to abandon his humanity. His first error—the one that kickstarts the chase—is returning to the crime scene to care for a dying man. The final result of this basic act of empathy is Moss’s brutal demise at the hands of an unknown gang. His death is not even accorded the respect of being shown on screen. In the wake of this chaotic violence, the Sheriff retires, baffled and woefully ill-equipped to deal with the new circumstances. His empathy and close relationship with many of the residents is rendered useless in a society that values neither.

The most subversive and, perhaps, controversial part of No Country for Old Men comes with the ambiguous, anticlimactic final monologue. Delivered by the Sheriff after having failed to stop Chigurh, the speech recounts two dreams of his father. Many interpreters skip over the brief first dream, but it demands closer inspection. In Tommy Lee Jones’s lilting southern drawl, the Sheriff describes going into town with his father and being given some money. Before long, however, he loses it. Maybe this is reading too much into it, but it’s worth considering that Bell is imagining or, indeed, remembering a world in which money was not the sole determinant of one’s fate. In this fantasy, he enjoys the rare privilege of being careless. The second dream presents another nostalgic vision. The Sheriff describes riding through a harsh, wintry environment. His father goes on ahead to set up camp. However, rather than evoking the common fear of being alone in “all that dark, and all that cold,” the vision is comforting to him, a promise of unwavering security and familial warmth: “I knew that whenever I got there, he’d be there.” In this dream, no matter how precarious or unknowable the future seems, he knows he will never be neglected or cast away.

“You can’t stop what’s comin’”

Finally, we are hit with the Sheriff’s tragic final words: “Then I woke up.” For Sheriff Bell, the world which he remembers and understands has gone. He must come to terms with the spectre looming over America: neoliberalism. As his ex-lawman uncle warns toward the end of the film, “you can’t stop what’s comin.’”

On the fortieth anniversary of Reagan’s inauguration, it is worth contemplating the lasting effects of his administration’s policies on communities throughout the United States. No Country for Old Men presents this shift as a modern reincarnation of the inhuman brutality, rugged individualism, and amorality of the Wild West. With today’s unprecedented socioeconomic inequality and rising unemployment, and a steady march toward violent right-wing populism, it is an analysis that grows only more prescient with time.

Noah Sparkes is a UK-based culture writer and critic specializing in film, TV, and music. He has a particular interest in the intersection of culture, politics, and history, and has written for a variety of progressive outlets.

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