Walking away from the Coen Brothers film of No Country for Old Men, you may have a couple of questions. For instance, why is the film set in 1980? And what does it all mean? In Cormac McCarthy’s novel, it’s obvious why the story takes place in 1980. The reason is Vietnam. Most of the characters served there; it’s where they learned about the value of human life, or lack thereof.
The sheriff’s deputy, examining a crime scene that ended up in a shootout, says, “It must of sounded like Vietnam out here.” When Moss (played by Josh Brolin in the film) buys ammo, he thinks, “the box of shells contained almost exactly the firepower of a claymore mine.” The sheriff (the Tommy Lee Jones character) tells Moss’s wife that “he’s goin’ to wind up killin somebody,” to which the wife responds, “He never has.” The sheriff points out, “he was in Vietnam,” and the wife says, “I mean as a civilian.” That dry distinction—that killing in war doesn’t count—is ironic.
When Carson Wells (the Woody Harrelson character) is killed by Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in the film), Chigurh thinks about “the body of a child dead in a roadside ravine in another country,” as well as all the people he has assassinated, which underlines the point that killing leads to more killing. The sheriff thinks about how “I was supposed to be a war hero and I lost a whole squad of men. They died and I got a medal.”
COMMENTARY Editorial Director John Podhoretz has castigated the film as nihilist. But if you measure McCarthy’s ironic tone in the book, you might come to another conclusion. Possibly McCarthy is taking the extreme, Catholic stance that all killing is wrong, from capital punishment to war to abortion. The book takes place seven years after Roe v. Wade, five years after the fall of Saigon, four years after the restoration of the death penalty by the Supreme Court. It’s a year when the idea that state could sanction killing has begun to take root. The sheriff, in the book as in the film the voice of wisdom and restraint, expresses a sad resignation toward the death penalty from page one on, and a portion of the book that isn’t referred to in the movie might be the key to understanding McCarthy’s moral.
Remembering a conference in Corpus Christi, the sheriff thinks, “Me and Loretta…got set next to this woman, she was the wife of somebody or other. And she kept talkin about the right wing this and the right wing that. I ain’t even sure what she meant by it. The people I know are mostly just common people. Common as dirt, as the sayin goes. I told her that and she looked at me funny. She thought I was sayin somethin bad about em, but of course that’s a high compliment in my part of the world. She kept on, kept on. Finally told me, said: I don’t like the way this country is headed. I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion. And I said well mam I don’t think you got any worries about the way the country is headed. The way I see it goin I dont have much doubt but what she’ll be able to have an abortion. I’m goin to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she’ll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation.”
McCarthy has a vision of an America that fosters what Pope John Paul II called a “culture of death;” these men come back from Vietnam, where they learned to kill, then apply their killing skills on a country that is killing fetuses and condemned prisoners and will soon give the okay to killing old people and the weak. The remorseless assassin Anton Chigurh is the natural consequence of a culture of death: A harbinger of unchecked killing.