No Country For Old Genres: McCarthy, The Coens, and the Neo-Western

“Genre films essentially ask the audience, “Do you still want to believe this?” Popularity is the audience answering, “Yes.” Change in genre occurs when the audience says, “That’s too infantile a form of what we believe. Show us something more complicated.” And genres turn to self-parody to say, “Well, at least if we make fun of it for being infantile, it will show how far we’ve come.” Films and television have in this way speeded up cultural history.” – Leo Braudy

Traditional Western

Genre is often a rather nebulous classification, lumping various media into groups based upon a broad set of shared characteristics. Occasionally, a work defies these traditional classifications. Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2007 film adaptation of No Country for Old Men is such a work. The complexities of the film have made assignment from traditional genres difficult, often resulting in hybridizations of the Western/Thriller/Noir. No Country transcends these hybridizations, however, demanding a unique genre: the Neo-Western.

Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem)

Film scholars and critics define the traditional Western as one that operates within a direct morality, wherein hero and villain have well-defined roles and undertake specific tasks. No Country leaves these traditions of morality behind, focusing instead on the transformative nature of the American West and the new reality into which its characters are thrust. The emergence of an amoral villain in Anton Chigurh and aging hero Sherrif Bell’s inability to comprehend his opponent are chief among the redefining characteristics of No Country for Old Men. Additionally, the reordering of racial hierarchy and the film’s fatalistic conclusion are broad departures from the traditional Western. Though aspects of the traditional Western remain in No Country, they serve as indications of evolutionary change in the genre. Hero Bell carries a revolver, rides a horse, and wears a white hat, much in keeping with the traditions of Western film. His nemesis Chigurh, however, uses a silenced, semi-automatic shotgun, tracks Moss with a radio-transmitter, and wears no hat (only a bad haircut). Clearly the old ways are outdated.

Traditional Morality Outdated

Nowhere is the pace of change in the Neo-Western more evident than in the actions of Llewelyn Moss, an unsuspecting dupe who becomes the point of contention between hero and villain. Moss’s outdated morality betrays him when he returns to the scene of a drug deal gone bad to bring water to a dying drug-runner, and his underestimation of his adversaries and of technology repeatedly places him in harm’s way. Moss’s eventual recognition of these shortcomings reveals another tenet of the new genre: the heretofore triumphal Anglo of the American West is not matchless, and the redistribution of racial capital may leave whites out in the dark. Moss becomes a gross representation of the obsolescence of the traditional Western’s simple morality.

Elements of suspense and pursuit highlight the pace at which change takes place in the Neo-Western. For the protagonist of this genre, chief among his difficulties is reconciling himself amid an environment that is rapidly evolving around him. This phenomenon of change is an exponential evolution: the forces that impact Bell and Moss increase in frequency and intensity with the passage of time. The changes that have wrought this strange and terrifying new world are reinforced and exacerbated by the speed at which they take place.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones)

As the events of Moss’s flight take shape, Sheriff Bell is revealed as a man constrained by the morality of an erstwhile age, struggling and failing to cope with his rapidly changing environment. Bell’s concept of right and wrong is dependent upon his ability to quantify a perpetrator’s interest versus that of his (Bell’s) constituents. When situations exceed that simplistic framework, Bell’s comparatively sophomoric morality implodes. This implosion is ultimately the result of one man: Anton Chigurh. In No Country, Chigurh transcends the traditional villain, operating beyond the scope of personal or professional interest and instead within some ultimate, nihilistic game of chance. He operates with an exacting, almost robotic lethality — far beyond the moral parameters of the traditional Western.

Racial Reordering

Significantly, Chigurh also affects an exotic, foreign air, an aspect of his character that underscores a departure from the traditionally pro-Anglo racial ordering of the frontier. Also significant is the absence of an ultimate confrontation between hero and villain in No Country. Bell pursues Chigurh and Chigurh Moss, but there is no showdown. Chigurh escapes (essentially) unscathed after Moss is dispatched, and Bell retires in defeat. No Country’s tragic ending becomes definitive for the Neo-Western. The fatalistic conclusion is the product of the change that defines the genre. In the traditional Western, the protagonist was the harbinger of change, exerting his dominance upon his rivals. The fundamental shift to the Neo-Western occurs when the intruder becomes the intruded upon. Without the stabilizing framework of the traditional Western, No Country must be reclassified.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin)

The Western of yesteryear is typified by Anglo invaders exacting their will (often with the aid of Samuel Colt) upon the “savage heathens” native to the American West, violently and dramatically seeking to extend their dominion — regularly with the explicit approval of a monochromatic morality. The expectation of moral superiority is obsolete in the Neo-Western, replaced by either a less ethnocentric view, or perhaps more dangerously, the complete detachment from morality. The traditional depiction of Western characters was of individuals pursuing the extension of settler hegemony within a myopic and binary morality of good or bad, right or wrong.

The racial juxtapositions of No Country demonstrate perhaps the most striking change facing hero Bell. The successful encroachment of Mexican drug cartels and the brutal, unremitting pursuit of the exotic assassin Chigurh are indications that white westerners are now the old men of the country, and therefore the genre. This is the ethnographical essence of the Neo-Western: the promise of the frontier, of Manifest Destiny, of white, American domination is broken. The domineering settlers of the traditional Western failed to adapt and are being overtaken, just as they once overtook.

Inevitability of Change

The overarching theme of McCarthy’s novel and the Coens’ film is the desperation of an aging man who finds himself unknowingly and unwillingly part of a rapidly changing world. The nature of that change is not only definitive for the Neo-Western, but is further applicable to a wide range of contemporary American media: the exploration of the challenges of transition faced by the U.S. in a globalized world being the modern cultural manifestation of No Country’s thematic message writ large. The traditional Western demonstrated the inevitability of change, but change wrought by white settlers bound by a simplistic moral code and operating with the understanding that the promise of their future was everlasting. The Neo-Western illustrates that fixity is an illusion in the American West (and in the broader world), and that change is an inevitability for all.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. RosRalph

    I thought that this was an exceptional film up until the ending, when it all fell apart. I don’t have a problem with a curve-ball ending, but just because it’s non-conventional doesn’t mean it’s good. Maybe be it works in the book, but it doesn’t work on the screen.

  2. It’s a fantastic film, one of the best of recent years.

  3. Batista

    I thought their decision not to show Brolin’s death was brilliantly brave and was really crucial in shaping the killer as an omnipotent spectre. In retrospect the Woody Harrelson character was a bit superfluous. But all in all, it had me engaged and excited.

  4. JLaurenceCohen

    Great article. I think, however, that it’s a bit of stretch to say that the overarching theme of the film revolves around Sheriff Bell, since he is such a minor character compared to Llewelyn and Chigurh. It seems to me that the overarching theme is the randomness and absurdity of evil. The Coen brothers bring the flavor of Greek tragedy into the Western. I agree that Sheriff Bell is a figure of the impotence, or, at least, passing away of the Old West, but the central conflict is between Llewelyn and Chigurh, not between Chigurh and Bell. Also, I’m not sure that No Country really alters the racial dichotomy of the traditional Western, given that the villain, Chigurh, is non-white, and the heroes, however loosely defined, are white. Finally, although both of them survive, there is, in fact, a showdown between Chigurh and Llewelyn.

    • Moss is the point of contention between Bell and Chigurh. He is only the catalyst for the film’s action, not the vehicle of its theme. The racial dichotomy is altered because the binary is reversed – the white people DON’T WIN. That’s the point.

      Also, there isn’t a showdown in the sense of the traditional Western – there are no pistols at dawn for Moss/Bell and Chigurh, no dusty shootout in front of clapboard houses. Finally, Moss DOESN’T survive. He is killed by the Mexicans at the hotel (again, not a showdown, and again, a racial reordering). I don’t feel like that’s much of a stretch at all.

      • JLaurenceCohen

        I agree with you that it’s significant that the white people don’t win, except that this still leaves us with a racial binary that characterizes whites as civilized and non-whites as savage. The audience is more sympathetic to Llewleyn and Bell than to Chigurh. The nameless Mexicans who slaughter Llewelyn and the woman at the motel are just like every other “savage” Mexican character in typical Westerns. They don’t even have personalities; they are simply agents of mayhem. While it is important that Chigurh evades capture and is much smarter than Llewelyn or Bell, he is still a devious, non-white character.

        I agree with what you’re saying about No Country undercutting the traditional final showdown, I just don’t think the racial re-ordering is all that radical.

        Finally, I would argue that Llewleyn is more than a catalyst for the conflict between Bell and Chigurh. I think a big part of the film is re-casting the Western in terms that border on Greek tragedy. Llewelyn’s decisions are important because they reveal the folly of human action, the randomness of violence, and the impossibility of escaping fate.

  5. Caitlin Ray

    Thanks for the article! This made me reconsider the ending, and how it made me uncomfortable (as did a lot of elements of the film) and how it may be because it pushes against the iconic American genre of the western.

  6. The ending has grown on me, but at the time I was dissatisfied with it. There just wasn’t enough time to adjust to the shift in narrative after Brolin’s death – the problem wasn’t not showing us his death, but rather that it was confusing exactly what happened.

  7. No Country is a terrific film, but can anyone honestly say that it’s better than Fargo? No, I thought not.

  8. Sessions

    People say that the film is a faithful adaptation of the book, yet there are differences. In the book the Tommy Lee Jones character, holds to the view that the America he knew as a boy is dead and this new America represents a terrifying decline and espouses it in his penultimate piece of narration. The final piece in the book is left to a dream about his father, a strong masculine presence who is not burdened by the doubts that torture the Sheriff. Only now the Sheriff realizes that this view of his father is pure illusion and that no man can every protect you in that way any more, if they ever could. By sacrificing this element of McCarthy’s book (which i’ve heard some people criticize for the folksy nature of the narrator) they leave the film feeling open ended and we the viewer struggle to understand what point if any the Cohens are trying to make, other than the random nature of violence and amoral nature of the world.

    • This film is an almost perfectly faithful adaptation of the novel, and my favorite of 2007. Cormac McCarthy is a brilliant American novelist, and transferring the imagery and milieu that is his calling-card is no small task.

    • The omission of Bell’s narration from the beginning of each chapter in the novel is one of the biggest drawbacks of the film for me. The Coens did well to include at least some of the sheriff’s commentary in the opening scene (and again as the film ends), but I agree that something is lost.

  9. Dar Yoo

    Although I’ve heard negatives about the ending, I welcome the fact it isn’t formulaic.

  10. Stephen Matthias

    Great article! I maintain that the ending is one of the greatest I have seen, even though many are often perplexed and even disappointed by it. His two dreams he mentions are clearly symbolic, especially that of his deceased father by a fire, waiting for the retired sheriff whenever he may arrive.

  11. I was intrigued by your thoughts on genre here…I agree with you that genre is constantly moving and changing, and No Country is such a fascinating example of an “updated” western. My thought is: while I’m not particularly tuned in to the modern western genre, I can’t think of many films in recent years that would fit the “Neo-Western” genre that you mention. Do you think that No Country is one-of-a-kind? Are there other films that might also be Neo-Western? Or Neo-some other genre, even?

  12. The film betrayed its literary roots, and much to its detriment, I think. What started as an exciting film (the scene where he is pursued by the dog through the river was quite memorable), with an excellent premise, eventually stuttered to a poor finish.

    • Betrayed its literary roots to its detriment? Could you elaborate? The scene you mention as “quite memorable” is actually one of the few in the film that isn’t in the novel.

  13. Both engaging and rewarding story.

  14. Lyndsay

    I think this film is all it’s cracked up to be and is both suspenseful and thought-provoking. A different kind of Coen Brothers film, but equally as welcome, if not more so.

  15. Beautifully shot, with terrific performances from everyone, full of tension and suspense, great action scenes and a though-provoking rumination on the inevitability and senselessness of death. Definitely merits the praise.

  16. Genres define film!

  17. Tatijana

    I still need to see this. I’ve heard such great things about it, but movies of a more serious nature have never really been my thing…

  18. This article offers really strong analysis, and its arguments are very compelling. This pieces scrutinizes No Country for Old Men at the same depth as one would expect from an academic piece, while avoiding the dull sonorous tone of that kind of writing.

    This piece does not definitively treat No Country for Old Men. JohnArthur does not talk about the lack of non-diegetic sound in the film, yet the score is a central ingredient in classical western films. He also makes no mention of the style in which the film is shot. The long wide angle shots of the desert and other western landscapes are certainly in keeping with classic western tradition. However other scenes are poignantly suburban – Moss buying socks in a department store – and indicate a significant departure from the classic western motif. Also repetition of certain shots make up important intersections between the three protagonists. For instance, all three main characters sequentially enter Moss’ RV and the camera points from eye height at the television. JohnArthur’s purpose is clearly to contrast this films narrative elements with older western films. But it always important to talk about cinematic elements when analyzing a movie.

    That being said, this article deftly pulls out pertinent thematic points, in order to make its argument. Moreover, the structure of the article makes sense, and the headings do a good job of organizing JohnArthur’s arguments into relevant categories. One mechanical change I would make is to switch the order of the last two sentences in the second paragraph under the heading “Racial Reordering”, in order to read:

    The traditional depiction of Western characters was of individuals pursuing the extension of settler hegemony within a myopic and binary morality of good or bad, right or wrong. The expectation of moral superiority is obsolete in the Neo-Western, replaced by either a less ethnocentric view, or perhaps more dangerously, the complete detachment from morality.

    This ordering better reflects the chronological change in western movies that JohnArthur is trying to prove.

  19. Violence is our national pastime. It always has been. The only thing that changes is one’s ability, or lack thereof, to render it with meaning. This is no country for men who think like old men.

    Bell, Moss and Wells all have a history of military service during wartime and engage in violence as necessary for reasons they justify to themselves. They view, or once viewed, violence as driven by a directive, sometimes moral but always inescapable in its necessity. These are aging men losing either their taste and/or facility for violence.

    But let’s be clear. This isn’t about chronological age, not really. This is about antiquated perspective. Recall Uncle Ellis telling Bell of Uncle Mac’s violent end in an obvious attempt to disabuse Bell of a romanticized nostalgia. Bell has such discontent with the loss of decorum in young people, a causal link, he posits, to our crumbling world. Well, isn’t Chigurh awful polite to the driver he pulls over (right before killing him)?

    Chigurh is neither young nor old. He’s immortal. He doesn’t wear a cowboy hat because he isn’t a cowboy; he’s an angel of death with a dark bob that hugs his face like the hooded cloak of the Grim Reaper. His scythe is a cattle gun (or captive bolt pistol) because humans, for Chigurh, are basically cattle, worthy only of a coin toss to determine their fate. Look at the crime scene: dead humans littering the desert floor with their dogs. We’re beasts of the fields.

    At a glance, it may seem the preponderance of violence lies with the Mexicans and the “exotic” Chigurh. However, it’s a white financier who puts all this violence into play. This isn’t a landscape of shifting racial dynamics as much as shifting perceptions. White and brown are locked in an eternal dance of death. It used to be land, now it’s drugs. The movie ends with Chigurh fleeing white suburbia after all… and barely in one piece at that.

  20. The picture that you are painting of the western seems to be that it is going in a bleak, dystopian direction, so as to create a new genre. Though this hypothesis can only be proven with time, I am more partial to the view that the genre is not a new one, but rather an evolution of a genre, as this would be consistent with some of the products in popular culture today, such as The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, and to a certain extent, The Fault in Our Stars.

  21. I am surprised that there is no mention of HBO’s Deadwood anywhere here, both in the article and in this comment section. Although it set in a different time period than No Country, Deadwood is a Western that portrays amoral and nihilistic characters. Deadwood also portrays the inevitable tragedy of change like No Country, with new, rival interests pouring into the town of Deadwood, reordering the established dynamics of the town. Deadwood does not portray the white populace of Deadwood in a positive light, a direct challenge to the themes of the traditional Western.

  22. Jonny Neeves

    In terms of the ending to No Country For Old Men, I’ve always enjoyed it on several levels. On the contextual point of how it serves the film: you’re looking at a man who has come to understand the almost inevitable process of what’s to come, and in many ways he recognizes his fate more than Llewellyn, who is being chased by something of a fate incarnate.

    I do especially like how it requires change in the viewer as well. It’s made more difficult by the juxtaposition of the Sheriff’s weirdly acceptant attitude and our non-acceptance at what isn’t a ‘traditional’ ending in any form. For the vast majority of people watching the film, they must change their perception of what constitutes an ending and change a somewhat innate human mentality of despairing at anything that appears difficult and nihilistic; ironically, I think there’s more hope at the end than nihilism.

  23. Joseph Cernik

    A good essay. I always enjoying reading how Westerns or Neo-Westerns are examined.

  24. Nicki Minaj

    big boobs?…

  25. Shia LaBeouf

    I aint ever seen two pretty best friends.

  26. Many years ago, a friend form work told me “No Country for Old Men” was a terrible movie and that I shouldn’t watch it. I, of course, watched it anyways. That person and I are not friends anymore.

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