No Country for Old Men Analysis-book vs movie Review

written by Laura J.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (2005)

No Country for Old Men directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (2007)

yt poll and dave request. no country for old men book vs movie ending explained

This is my second Cormac McCarthy episode-last year I did a book and movie comparison for The Road. Also, this movie was running against There Will Be Blood at the 2008 Oscars. They were also filmed at the same time and even at close proximity at times. There Will Be Blood is based on the book Oil! By Upton Sinclair and I did a book vs movie for it back in 2020! While I love both movies, I prefer TWBB and wish that had won best picture. But No Country is a great film as well.

Book review

Anyway, on to the book review! As said, I read The Road last year and I found that book to be a bit overrated. I liked it, but people talked so highly about it and I just didn’t think it lived up to the hype. Due to that experience, I went into the book a bit wary. But I am happy to report that I loved this book! Each chapter begins with Sheriff Bell sharing a story and his thoughts on life and the world, and right from the start I was pulled in. Like The Road, McCarthy’s writing comes across as pretty sparse, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t well written. I found it very atmospheric and engaging. It also has a lot of symbolism and gives you a lot to think about. There is a dream described in the end of the book (same as the movie) and I hadn’t felt emotional while reading, but with the book ending on that dream, I suddenly felt like I was going to cry!

I also want to shout out the narrator of this audiobook. He also narrated two of my other favorite books, Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey and Joe by Larry Brown. (The movie Joe is amazing btw and is soooo underrated! Go watch it!!! Watch it right now!!!!) I highly recommend all three books, and if you chose to listen to them, you are in for a treat because Tom Stechschulte is amazing! (I would recommend you physically read at least some of No Country and Great Notion though because both books are written in a unique way and you kind of miss out on that with the audiobook).

Movie review

I saw this around the time is came out, but unfortunately, I didn’t watch this or TWBB in theaters, I waited till they were available to rent and I will forever regret that. Ugh, what I would give to see TWBB on the big screen! Anyway, I don’t think I had watched this since then, and while I remembered some of the bigger moments, there was a lot I had forgotten about. I read a letterboxd review that said this movie has a sense of calm, despite the violence. This was such a great point. In the opening scene we see a man killed, yet Chigurh is so calm, and there is no music adding to the scene. It just feels so still. I loved the lack of music throughout this movie and its absence really helps set the tone! So many conversations between characters you could hear a pin drop.

The acting is superb, with Javier Bardem winning an Oscar for his clinically accurate portrayal of the psychopathic killer. I’ll be honest, I’m kind of tired to the psycho killers and don’t usually find them too interesting. The only expectation as of late would be Gone Girl, because that one does it in a more unique way I would say. Even though this trope isn’t a favorite, Bardem is still amazing and has a hairstyle that you will never forget.

Roger Deakins also won for cinematography, and he is someone I have mentioned before (The Shawshank Redemption book vs movie) because he is probably the most famous cinematographer out there!

From here on out I will be discussing the plot, and there will be spoilers for both book and movie!

Basic Plot

I’m going to go over the basic premise, which is the same in book and movie, and then I will get into the details and what is different from book to movie.

Llewelyn Moss is hunting when he comes across a drug deal gone wrong where all the men killed each other. He finds the money and eventually goes on the run because the people involved see his car and are looking for him. The guy in charge of this hires a guy named Anton Chigurh to find Moss and we see that Chigurh is a psychopathic killer. Sheriff Bell is an older guy who is trying to find Moss and Chigurh. In the end, Moss is killed by some Mexicans, who were also involved in the shootout/drug deal. Chigurh gets away, and Bell feels defeated by the end and has retired.

Chigurh

You could see each of these three main characters represent something and Chigurh represents fate/the world/evil. There are multiple scenes where he flips a coin and has the person call it to decide if he will kill them or not. He also kills out of principle, as Carson Wells says, “You can’t make a deal with him. Even if you gave him the money he’d still kill you just for – inconveniencin’ him. He’s a peculiar man. You might even say that he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that. He’s not like you. He’s not even like me.”

(By the way, so much of this dialogue is taken verbatim from the book!)

When he is looking for Moss, he tells Moss that if he surrenders himself, Chigurh won’t kill his wife, Carla Jean. But Moss thinks he can still find a way to defeat Chigurh and doesn’t agree. So, when Moss is dead, Chigurh then goes to Carla Jean to kill her. He tells her he has to because he promised her husband he would. She tells him he doesn’t have to, and he says the best he can do is toss a coin and have her call it. In both, she refuses to call it. She says that he can’t put it all on the coin, and that it is his decision to do what he’s doing. He says he doesn’t have a choice, because of those principles he lives by. Moss chose not to save her life by sacrifices himself, and now Chigurh has to kill her. Yet he will choose not to if she calls the coin toss and wins. Again, taking it out of his hands as though he on his own can’t change things. In the book she does say tails, but it had been heads so he shoots her. In the movie the scene ends before she calls it and we don’t know exactly what happens, but it does seem that he killed her.

Something that isn’t in the movie, is in the beginning we see Chigurh get arrested and then he kills the cop that arrested him. In the book we learn that he was arrested because some guy in a diner said something about him, so he tells the guy let’s take this outside basically, and he kills the guy. The cops are called and Chigurh lets himself be arrested because he just wants to see if he can escape, which he does.

Llewelyn Moss

Chigurh represents fate and the evil of the world we can’t stop, Moss represents the “every man” that is subjected to this fate. It’s interesting because when he took the money, after that he would have gotten away with it (assuming he found the tracker sooner rather than later). But it is when he chose to go back to help one of the guys who was still alive, that other people arrive and see his car and his life is then at stake. If he hadn’t been kind, he would have been fine. Another scene that reminds me of this is how at one point Moss is badly injured and asked for the jacket some guy he passes is wearing. The guys are jerks about it but Moss gets the jacket. Then at the end, Chigurh gets badly injured and asks a kid for his shirt and these two kids are much nicer to Chigurh. Chigurh is the bad guy, yet he ends up with the nice people whereas Moss, who is overall a good guy, ends up with the jerks.

One scene that isn’t in the movie at all is when Moss is driving, he picks up this hitchhiker who looks like she is 15 years old. They ends up spending a few days together and at one point she is saying how she is going to California to start over. Moss tries to explain to her why just going to a new location to “start over” doesn’t work. We read, “It’s not about knowin where you are. It’s about thinkin you got there without takin anything with you. Your notions about startin over. Or anybody’s. You dont start over. That’s what it’s about. Ever step you take is forever. You cant make it go away. None of it. You understand what I’m sayin?…I know you dont but let me try it one more time. You think when you wake up in the mornin yesterday dont count. But yesterday is all that does count. What else is there? Your life is made out of the days it’s made out of.  Nothin else. You might think you could run away and change your name and I dont know what all. Start over. And then one mornin you wake up and look at the ceilin and guess who’s layin there?”

This is such a great section! People can always start over, but you can’t “start over” by acting like the past didn’t happen. It makes me think of the AA 12 steps, a process that makes you face you past in order to really move on and “start fresh”.

Eventually he and this girl are the ones that are shot.

In the movie, he is in El Paso waiting for Carla Jean, he sees a woman at a motel pool that offers him some beer and she is the one shot along with Moss.

It’s interesting though because in book and movie we don’t even see Moss’s death. Maybe this shows in a way how insignificant he is because he isn’t even granted that scene. Showing the fatalist mindset that you can’t change fate and he was always going to die and it wasn’t even worth showing.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell

Bell represents the good in the world, the protagonist to Chigurh’s antagonist. Bell reflects on his life and the world throughout this book and starts to feel like he doesn’t belong in this changing world. Near the end of the book he starts to doubt the things he thought were true and says, “I feel like them old people I was talkin about. Which aint goin to get better neither. I’m bein asked to stand for somethin that I dont have the same belief in it I once did. Asked to believe in somethin I might not hold with the way I once did. That’s the problem. I failed at it even when I did…The other thing is the old people, and I keep comin back to them. They look at me it’s always a question. Years back I dont remember that. I dont remember it when I was sheriff back in the fifties. You see em and they dont  even look confused. They just look crazy. That bothers me. It’s like they woke up and they dont know how they got where they’re at. Well, in a manner of speakin they dont.”

Okay, so I know being in my early 30’s doesn’t make me old. However, for the first time I have been starting to understand people who complain about the world changing. The other day I went to a café I haven’t been to in a while, but I used to go there all the time in my early/mid 20’s. The inside was changed, and they now have an iPad thing where you place your own order without talking to anyone. The change in the layout and the change with the cashier made me feel sad. Not because I am against progressing technology, but because this was a place that made me feel connected to my past self. But now that it is changed, I don’t feel that connection as strongly. As I get older, my past self just keeps getting father and farther away and I feel more disconnected from her. Like when a friend keeps moving further and further away. I know that is kind of a tangent, but I used to think old people were dumb when they complained about not liking changes, especially when the changes were good. But I can kind of understand it now. Maybe it isn’t that they are against change as a whole, but that they feel less and less connected to their past, and if our past is who we are, then changes make us feel less and less connected to who we are or at least who we thought we were.

Anyway, back to No Country. Something we find out about Bell in the book that isn’t in the movie, is that he is a decorated war hero. But he has been keeping a secret all these years, that he didn’t actually survive an attack but rather he ran away and that is why he lived. When he was told he would be honored for surviving that battle, he told the guy in charge the truth. The man told him to never speak of it again, and to accept the award. This is an example of perhaps of the some of the lies our country is built on. Bell thinks the past was better, but if the past if full of lies, it must not have been as great as we had thought.

Bell tells Ellis about the war in the end of the book and he tells him, “…some part of me has never quit wishin I could go back. And I cant. I didnt  know you could steal your own life. And I didnt know that it would bring you no more benefit than about anything else you might steal. I think I done the best with it I knew how but it still wasnt mine. It never has been.”

He talks to Ellis in the movie, but this war story is left out.

A scene I want to mention is after Moss’s death, Bell goes back to the crime scene. There are two doors blocked off, and Chigurh is in one, but Bell apparently goes in the other one. This is a tense scene and you expect a final showdown. But then nothing happens. This could represent chance, or fate, like the coin. There are two sides of a coin you could choose, and there were two rooms for Bell to choose between. It also shows how you can’t stop fate and that is why Bell never has that interaction with Chigurh.

This movie is also considered a modern western, and it takes a lot of western cliches and flips them on their head and this anti-climax is a great example of that.

In the book we see that Bell continues the investigation into finding Chigurh before retiring, but to no avail. Whereas in the movie it is after this motel non-incident that he retires.

Bell’s dreams

Both book and movie end with Bell sharing two dreams he had, both which had his father. The first dream, his father gave him money but he lost it. This dream is just kind of me mentions and has a hard time remembering. But the money could represent Moss and even Carla Jean, he promised Carla Jean he would help Moss but, in the end, Moss was killed and even Carla Jean too. Bell might still feel guilt over this, but it might be more subconscious guilt since that dream didn’t seem to mean as much to him.

The second dream he is out riding with his father, who died when he was younger than Bell is now. So even though it’s his own dad, he is a younger man than Bell himself. Anyway, they are riding and it is dark and cold and his father is carrying fire in a horn. And Bell says, “And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up.”

We can guess that the fire represents something good, maybe goodness in general. They are riding in a cold, dark world, which is what the world is becoming for Bell. His father riding ahead with the fire, could mean he is riding to make the world a better place in preparation for Bell’s arrival in the future. Bell ends saying and then I woke up though, showing the unreality of this dream and that the world won’t get better. I also wondered if since his dad is dead, maybe the dad is carrying the fire into the next life, meaning that for Bell, here on earth, the world will be dark and cold. But that his dad is making his way ahead of him, ensuring that the next life will be better.

Some of the ideas here about how this book can be interpreted I got from this article because full disclosure, I didn’t know what to make of it on my own.

Book vs Movie

This book and movie definitely have a pretty nihilistic perspective. Bell’s actions don’t seem to mean anything because he is always one step behind and isn’t able to protect any of the characters. This isn’t a sentiment I agree with, but in general I found the book and movie very thought provoking. There is a part in both (though it is said under different circumstances) when Bell says you know the world is going down the tube when people stop saying sir and ma’am. I do agree with this where when we start to neglect the small things, the bigger things start to go undone as well and as a whole we become colder and more selfish.

As said early, I’m not against all change, and in some ways the world has changed for the better with a lot of things.

When it comes to which wins, this is one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to make! (Revolutionary Road being another contender in the “they’re both so good I can’t choose” category). I am tempted to say the book because it is written in a unique way while being so captivating and has such amazing passages. And lets me honest, basically everything that makes the movie great came straight from the book! However, I know that it takes more than putting the book verbatim into a script to make a good movie. It can be a difficult task to adapt a book as faithfully as they have done here, while managing to also make an incredible movie for both those who have read the book and those who haven’t. I also know that this is one where people tend to prefer the movie. It stays true to the book and just brings it all to life in such a brilliant way.

I did like the parts in the book with Moss and the hitchhiker, as well as Bell’s war story.