Many come to No Country for Old Men (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2007) expecting to see a film about incorruptible good versus unstoppable evil. In this, the film delivers. But where the film subverts certain expectations is in its ultimate resolution pertaining to the conflict between these two forces. Instead of concluding with a dramatic face-off between Anton Chigurh and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, or even between Chigurh and Llewelyn Moss, No Country for Old Men chooses to take an alternate and much more meditative route. The film does not seek to allow itself to fall in to the tropes of many modern action or thriller movies by way of providing a final, dramatic resolution. Resolution of the conflict between good and evil would subvert the overall goal of No Country for Old Men, and in a move that will upset many viewers whom are not listening to what the film has to say the film does not provide closure in the sense of the overall greater conflict.
What the film does provide closure on are the fates of its principle characters. Chigurh disappears into suburban America, Ed Tom retires, and Carla Jean and Llewelyn Moss do not make it out of the film alive. While the mortality of Carla Jean can be debated, it is the death of Llewelyn that causes the greatest stir when it comes to the resolution of events in No Country for Old Men. Llewelyn is not killed by Chigurh, the unstoppable force that has been dispatched to do so. Instead, Llewelyn meets his fate at the hands of a third party of Mexican hit men, whom have been barely developed by the film outside of their motivations. They are nowhere near the league of Chigurh, especially when it comes to how memorable they are. In this way, the conclusion of No Country for Old Men can appear to be anti-climatic, especially when it is considered that Sheriff Ed Tom and Chigurh never even meet each other. But if any of these characters were to kill each other, especially when it comes to the force of good that is Sheriff Ed Tom and the force of evil that is Chigurh, then the film would provide the one thing it could that would undercut its overall message. Good and evil are forces that are greater than any of the characters in No Country for Old Men; but because the film’s characters embody these forces, having any of them meet their respective ends would provide a resolution in relation to these forces that would not serve the thesis of the film.
Good and evil are more complex and eternal than the characters that represent them in No Country for Old Men. As Ellis recounts to Ed Tom in the film’s closing moments, evil has always existed, and so has good. The conflict between the two has been occurring for as long as they have existed as well. “What you got ain’t nothing new” Ellis tells Ed Tom. In this way, the film states that good and evil have and will exist forever, as well as that they will come into conflict against each other as long as they both exist. Llewelyn, though, dies by way of a hazard native to the “jackpot” that he has put himself in the middle of. It is not necessary that it is Chigurh that kills him, because Chigurh is just another symptom of this situation. Llewelyn is never classified as the defining force of good by the film, and in some ways the film even links him to Chigurh.
The established links between Llewelyn and Chigurh should not be overanalyzed to the point that they are considered equals in terms of motivations. In the same way, but on a lesser scale, the film also links Sheriff Ed Tom to Chigurh, as well as the former and Deputy Wendell to the two “executives” that Chigurh executes shortly after being taken to the scene of the drug deal gone wrong. All of these links serve to further complicate the status of all of the characters, but in the end their primary motivation is to tie good and evil together. Chigurh and Llewelyn both tell their respective preys to “hold still,” and the film shows both of these instances practically parallel to one another. Throughout the rest of the film their actions are often shown counter to each other in a comparative fashion. Llewelyn is not on the same level as Chigurh in terms of an overall lack of human empathy or even the raw brutality that the latter exhibits. But Llewelyn does leave a man to succumb to his wounds in the backcountry, and he is also shown to be a loner who has little to no use for anyone else. Neither of these actions or traits are outside the realm of Chigurh either, though little is. The primary purpose of these similarities though is not to condemn Llewelyn as a deplorable human being, but rather to establish him as a man who is nothing more than an object caught between a conflict between good and evil.
But Llewelyn is not completely innocent either. It is he who brings about the majority of the violence of Chigurh, and as a result of his stubbornness and greed many innocent people die. Notable among these is Llewelyn’s wife Carla Jean, but also various civilians that he comes into contact with, such as the hotel clerk or the man driving the truck that finds himself in the middle of the conflict between the two men. Both are killed in the same scene, and their presences are notable as they are the only other two people involved in the entire extended shootout sequence. Both men die because Llewelyn crossed their paths and they are telling of the large swath of destruction caused by the conflict between Llewelyn and Chigurh.
Counter to Llewelyn is Sheriff Ed Tom, who never sees Llewelyn alive during the film and also never even lays eyes on Chigurh. Overall, Ed Tom is ineffective at curtailing Chigurh’s violence, but he does not incite any of it either. Like the “executives” that Chigurh executes for whatever reason, Ed Tom and Wendell are only witnesses to the larger portrait of violence playing out in front of them. They arrive too late to do anything other than comment on the dead dogs at the site of the shootout, and later Ed Tom drinks the same milk as Chigurh as both men contemplate on the state of things around them. While No Country for Old Men does not outright state the ineffectiveness of the law, it does highlight the brutality of the evil that they are facing and how that in and of itself is nearly impossible to counter. Llewelyn tries, but this leads only to the further destruction of the world around him and, in the end, his own death as well as the deaths of several of those around him.
None of this is to say that the film argues that evil should be permitted. It does appear that evil is unstoppable, and the film portrays Chigurh as much as he is able to do almost everything exactly as he pleases. “You can’t stop what’s coming,” Ellis tells Ed Tom, and what is coming is exactly what the film seeks to show. No Country for Old Men meditates on the changing of the world, of violence, but most of all what people must do in the face of these things. One thing that people must do, according to the film, is accept that evil does, has, and always will exist. Once this acceptance is made, a choice must be made as to what they are going to do in response to this evil. Llewelyn chooses to confront the evil, but at the same time he believes himself to be better than that which he is facing. He underestimates the unstoppable force that he has encountered and is choosing to fight, and this leads to the aforementioned deaths among other destruction. Sheriff Ed Tom, on the other hand, pursues and witnesses the evil he is presented with, but in the end he cannot stop it. But where Ed Tom also differs from Llewelyn is that while they witness the same evil, the former recognizes the power that he is facing and respects it. Between the two men though, Llewelyn and Ed Tom, a solution to the unstoppable evil is not found.
The closest that No Country for Old Men offers in terms of a solution is in the character of Ellis. Shot and crippled by a man when he himself was a lawman, Ellis sees the world for what it is: a violent place where good men often die. But Ellis does not hold this against the world. When Ed Tom mentions that the man who shot Ellis died and prison and then asks him what we would have done had the shooter been released, Ellis states that he would not have done anything, as there “Wouldn’t be no point to it.” This is the closest No Country for Old Men comes to explicitly stating that violence only begets further violence, but the film implies just that by way of the actions that play out within it. Much of Chigurh’s violence, though not all of it, is in response to actions committed by others. But none of this violence is in response to the actions of Ed Tom. Llewelyn, however, only further provokes Chigurh and in the end he is the worse off for it.
In the end, everything is simply a cycle that has been repeated many times before. Man, good or evil, can only stand and witness the events of each new cycle and how they choose to partake in it is will what ultimately decide their fates. Llewelyn chooses to try to take a piece of it for himself and fight the unstoppable evil. Ed Tom witnesses this and ultimately decides that he can no longer keep up with the world and so he retires. But as stated by Ellis, and also Ed Tom as he talks about his dreams about his father, nothing ever truly changes. Ed Tom’s family is a family of lawmen. Some have died in their profession and others have lived, but in the end they have all faced evil in their own time. In Ed Tom’s case, he has survived his brush with evil by way of not coming into contact with it directly. Instead, he bears witness to the actions of others and how the evil they encounter affects them. Few of them survive their encounter and, in another way, Ed Tom does not survive it either.
Despite this, evil does not win in No Country for Old Men, but neither does good. Instead, both forces simply continue on, moving forward in the world the best they can despite their clashes with each other and other parties. For evil to triumph it must defeat good, and the inverse is also true. Neither of these things occurs though, and this comes back to the final standoff between Llewelyn and his pursuers. In the end, Llewelyn is a third party, not aligned with evil or good, and because of his own flaws he brings about his demise. But because of his third party status, Llewelyn’s death is not a case of good being defeated by evil and so the count remains neutral. Chigurh may be unstoppable, and Ed Tom may be incorruptible, but in the end neither men are the entirety of their respective alignments. No Country for Old Men shows that the conflict will continue on, as it always has, and by refusing to kill either of its moral embodiments the film resists the urge to provide a sense of false closure to the greater eternal conflict.