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
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.
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 Clearly the old ways are outdated.
Traditional Morality Outdated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 Moss’s outdated morality betrays him when he returns to the scene of a drug deal gone bad to bring water to a dying drug-runner, and his underestimation of his adversaries and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.
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.
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.
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.