One thing bugged me after watching the highly acclaimed movie "No Country for Old Men" - Why is it called so? I tried to analyze the plot and the sequences and the climax, but I could not understand the significance of the title. How is the title related to the movie?
First of all, the movie is based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy.
Numerous times in the course of the movie you can see Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) expressing his thoughts on a moral corruption in society nowadays and often compares it to the time of his predecessors ("oldtimers"). One example quote taken from IMDB:
I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five years old. Hard to believe. My grandfather was a lawman; father too. Me and him was sheriffs at the same time; him up in Plano and me out here. I think he's pretty proud of that. I know I was. Some of the old time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lotta folks find that hard to believe. Jim Scarborough'd never carried one; that's the younger Jim. Gaston Boykins wouldn't wear one up in Comanche County. I always liked to hear about the oldtimers. Never missed a chance to do so. You can't help but compare yourself against the oldtimers. Can't help but wonder how they would have operated these times. There was this boy I sent to the 'lectric chair at Huntsville Hill here a while back. My arrest and my testimony. He killt a fourteen-year-old girl. Papers said it was a crime of passion but he told me there wasn't any passion to it. Told me that he'd been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he'd do it again. Said he knew he was going to hell. "Be there in about fifteen minutes". I don't know what to make of that. I sure don't. The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, "O.K., I'll be part of this world."
Even though Sheriff Ed Tom Bell doesn't appear on screen very often (compared to Chigur and Moss), he is the narrator and the protagonist of the movie. So, the title refers to the moral decline that gave birth to evil (Chigur) and depraved (Moss) individuals and made modern society unsuitable for "oldtimers".
- Wikipedia page on themes and analysis of the movie has a nice set of references
- The novel itself took the title from a poem Sailing to Byzantium (
That is no country for old men...)
The title refers to the idea that the nature of evil has changed, and old value systems no longer apply. Both the movie and the book versions of No Country For Old Men repeatedly touch on how the aging-sheriff protagonist feels he's no longer a match for modern criminals.
Going a little deeper, I believe the title is a commentary on geopolitics in the post-9/11 era. IMHO, evidence suggests Cormac McCarthy wrote the book as a support of the US occupation of Iraq:
-book published in 2005, approximately two years into US's occupation of Iraq, at a time when many critics wanted to bring the troops home
-in book, sheriff tells a shameful story from World War II, when he "cut and ran" from a battle -- the exact terminology used by George W. Bush and others beginning in 2004 to disparage the idea of ending the occupation prematurely
-Sheriff Bell's character was competent in his prime, during the Cold War period leading in to the 1980s -- which could represent how the US policy of peaceful brinksmanship kept the country safe when the opponent was the USSR
-Chigur's character would represent America's opponents post-9/11, which supporters of the Iraq occupation often described as a more-aggressive type of evil, necessitating a more-aggressive defense
-Perhaps significantly, the "cut and run" quote was not included in the movie
The title implies that the sheriff is old and outdated. Unable to handle the crimes of today's crazy criminals.
Llewelyn Moss represents the modern day worker. Who gets caught up in the criminal world. Llewelyn should have been able to make his escape with the money, because he demonstrates a coolness under pressure and modern cleverness. He represents the opposite of the movie's title. His choice to take the money ultimately costs him and his wife their lives.
Anton Chigurh represents the extreme spectrum of criminals. Not even his clients or other hit man can survive his insanity. He kills for reasons that old men would find hard to understand, and the FBI is unable to catch this guy.
Ed Tom Bell the sheriff tracks the killer across country with a calm, collected smooth style where at times it seems nothing can rattle him. At the end of the movie despite the efforts of the FBI to catch the killer. He returns to the last crime scene, and enters the hotel room by himself. Both him and the killer are in the same room, and the killer had the upper hand. Still, Ed is the only character to walk away unscathed into retirement. Why didn't Anton kill the sheriff when he had the chance? because Ed was the only person he actually feared.
At the end Anton is in a car crash and breaks his arm. I'm not sure what the meaning of the event was, but I think it was to present the message that the sheriff was the only one who survived unharmed.
So the sheriff ends up being the best person for the case. Had Llewelyn Moss listen to him to start with he'd still be alive.
It's about the fear of aging/death, and the title is taken from a Yeats poem.
The story is really about the sheriff. He's unable to cope with modernity and continuously refers to how the old days or old timers were and talks as if the world is going downhill.
Moss represents the youthful search for materialism, while Chigurh represents death. Death can happen at any point and you're a victim to fate, which is why AC tosses the coin.
As the sheriff speaks to his brother near the end, his brother tells him a story which basically means the violence he sees is nothing new and he's just distancing himself from it because he's old and vain.
The whole point, IMO, is the world doesn't wait on you and any moment could be your last. The only reasonable way for living is to make your own fire somewhere in the darkness (like his dream about his father) and push your chips out there. Otherwise you're just an old man with nothing left to live for.
The story is absolutely about Sheriff Bell, and despite the fact that the majority of the action focuses on Llewelyn Moss, his story is really only a subplot. The main arc of the story actually concerns itself with Bell's decision to quit policing in the face of what he considers to be unstoppable violence. That is the subtext behind the movie's title, as well as its final lines:
Ed Tom Bell: Alright then. Two of 'em. Both had my father in 'em . It's peculiar. I'm older now then he ever was by twenty years. So in a sense he's the younger man. Anyway, first one I don't remember too well but it was about meeting him in town somewhere, he's gonna give me some money. I think I lost it. The second one, it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin' through the mountains of a night. Goin' through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin'. Never said nothin' goin' by. He just rode on past... and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin' fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. 'Bout the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin' on ahead and 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.
The title of the book refers to how Sheriff Bell comes to understand that he is no match for the current and irrepressible evil that the present world had to offer. Through Bell following Moss and Chigurh in hopes to save Moss and capture Chigurh, he must see every gory act of violence and evil that Chigurh leaves in his path. This is a hard and emotionally weakening experience for Bell, but it helps him come to the realization that evil cannot be controlled, and because of his age and experiences with the law, he is too old to understand the progressive nature of evil and all that it has to offer. He is indeed in "No Country For Old Men" because he cannot deal with or accept the evil the world offers.
The times have changed. Crime has spanned out across a country that never experienced drug deals gone wrong, contract killers who use automatic shotguns with suppressors, tech nines, or cattle guns to kill strangers passing through. And to steal their vehicles. Sheriff Bell never heard of people killing old folks to cash their social security checks. Some poor fuel station tendent kindly asked Chigurh if they were getting any rain up in Dallas and was almost murdered for it. Let the young guys handle it. They are use to what's new out there. Paris is no country for the old timers either. Didn't the police there begin to carry firearms in the late 1990's? Some towns in Australia still have unarmed police. Sheriff Bell quit. It's all s..t now. Sadly, he never got the case of money Moss stashed in a motel air vent of a room he was murdered. Chigurh beat him to it. I'm sure Bell lived out his final days on his sheriff pension.
I know this has been answered and accepted, but I'm not sure this can be answered completely without going to the poem from which the book gets its title, Sailing to Byzantium by Wm. Butler Yeats. The first line is
That is no country for old men.
"That" is anywhere in the world - any country, full of youth and things that live and die without a thought about the meaning of life, where modernism (a post-WWI movement; is there a meaning to life?) has taken hold, a place without respect for tradition and timeless things - That is no country for old men.
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
Byzantium is an ageless and golden city, of art and sages and "God's holy fire". The poet (in his sixties when he wrote this) is tired of being old and of holding values different from those in his surroundings. He's ready to pass beyond life into something eternally valuable (in this case, art).
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
So, too, the musings of the protagonist (Sheriff Ed Tom Bell) throughout the story show that he is living in and confronted by a "modern" world which holds no respect for traditional values - reason, respect for life, even common decency - a basis for law, which was present in the old days, why lawmen didn't need to carry guns 'back then'.
Modernism was a reaction to the senseless slaughter of millions in WWI through modern warfare, which changed the world, and not for the better. This may be why Bell speaks so often of the old timers not using guns. All the loss of 'back then' is exactly what Yeats is mourning. Is the senseless and brutal drug war in the story the counterpart here to WWI?
This modern world is no country for old men, and the poem is again alluded to when in the last monologue, Sheriff Bell describes two dreams, both with his father in them. In the first he casually mentions losing money (rejecting today's materialism? I mean, the whole movie is about keeping and chasing money.) In the second, he's leaving the modern times behind; he's taking a trip on horseback in the night, going through a mountain pass (the mountains mentioned twice, a metaphor for the barrier between life and death? Is he sailing to Byzantium?) His father is going ahead of him - his father preceded him in death - carrying fire, again mentioned twice, and described as "the color of the moon". God's holy fire?
To me, the whole story is a reflection of the very poem the title comes from.
Oops. In looking for support for my theory, I just found this: Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium" and McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men": Art and Artifice in the New Novel. I haven't read it yet, but it should be interesting.
This film is about motivation. What drives people? What's a life about? Three examples are presented. Moss's telescopic viewfinder (antelope pov) illustrates he's focused/driven, in this case by the prospect of money. Chigurh? Nothing matters much. Let fate take its course. Who cares about consequence, be it constructive or chaotic. And thirdly, Sheriff Bell, for whom life's purpose is changing, with all the new uncertainties that brings. Clarity, chance, change/confusion. Telescopic sight/toss of a coin/dreams. Three perspectives. All indifferent. No judgements made. Beautifully and intelligently rendered in NCFOM. (Reminds me of the clever way Deliverance illustrated the three faces of man: basal, creative, company man, with Voigt's character having to choose.)
I agree. W.B. Yeats poem echoes the narrative of the movie. IMO the theme here is escape. I mean everyone is trying to escape from one situation or another: from cops, poverty, death, fear. Ultimately death comes for us all and none of those things matter. There is no escape but by understanding. I think that's what the fire represents. The mountains represent the spiritual, where you go to find your vision. The mountain pass the gateway from life to death or from ignorance to understanding. The father represents the spiritual guide. The immortal spirit with the torch of enlightenment.
Reading some of the other answers here got me thinking. In particular the references to the Iraq War. With that in mind.
The three main characters represent modern life (Moss), the evil in the world (Chigurh), and the oversight that keeps the latter from overpowering the former (Bell).
Bells' narrative and the overarching message is that the dynamics of these three components have changed over time. Once we had control over the evil in the world to such an extent that we could live our lives without being effected by it for the most part. But this oversight has failed to evolve and is struggling to meet it's mandate.
But is that something that could be consciously managed or simply fate? That is the question proposed throughout with discussions about what brought us to this. The suggestion that a coin toss may be the real defining moment as opposed to the choices we have made under the illusion of control illustrates this as well.
Finally Bell concludes that despite his efforts the situation is outside of his control and he accepts this. He realises that how we got here is less important than where we are and making his own decision accordingly. The concept of duty maybe irrelevant in a world that cannot be controlled.
The main question may therefore be, are we striving for a world that is past, when that is now an outcome that can no longer be controlled?