No Country for Old Men Discussion Questions

So the first movie that I showed the class was the recent Academy Award-winning No Country for Old Men. To me this is the perfect movie for this sort of class. It is powerful, but comprehensible. Indeed, it ought to be relatively easy to understand the point of No Country. Here are some questions I’m having my class answer and discuss.

1. Dialogue controls the overarching story in No Country. It both opens and closes with dialogue by Ed Tom Bell, and these statements reveal much about the story’s intent. Explain what these statements might mean:


Introduction –

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 sheriff’s 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 carry one; that’s the younger Jim. Gaston Borkins wouldn’t wear one up in Camanche County. I always liked to hear about the oldtimers. Never missed a chance to do so. You can’t help but compare yourself gainst the oldtimers. Can’t help but wonder how theyd’ve operated these times. There was this boy I sent to the ‘lectric chair at Huntsville 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 surely 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.”

The conclusion is built on two parallel discussions. The first is between Ed Tom Bell and his older friend, Ellis.

Ed Tom Bell: That man that shot you died in prison.
Ellis: Angola. Yeah…
Ed Tom Bell: What you’d done he had been released?
Ellis: Oh, I dunno. Nothing. Wouldn’t be no point in it.
Ed Tom Bell: I’m kinda surprised to hear you say that.
Ellis: Well all the time ya spend trying to get back what’s been took from ya, more is going out the door. After a while you just have to try to get a tourniquet on it. Your granddad never asked me to sign on as a deputy…
Ed Tom Bell: I always figured when I got older, God would kinda come into my life somehow. And He didn’t. I don’t blame Him. If I was Him, I’d have the same opinion of me as He does.
Ellis: You don’t know what he thinks… What you got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people. You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.

The second closing dialogue is between Ed Tom Bell and his wife. He tells her about his dreams. He closes with, “It was like we was both back in older times… In the dream I knew he was going on ahead. He was fixing to make a fire in all that dark and all that cold. I knew that whenever I got there that he’d be there. Then I woke up.”


2. At his first coin-toss, Anton Chigurh says, “It has been traveling for twenty-two years to get here.”

At his second coin-toss, Carla Jean Moss says, ““The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.” Anton replies, “I got here the same way the coin did.”

What does Anton mean by these responses? What function do these responses have in the movie, especially when compared with Ed Tom Bell’s outlook?

3. Carson Wells says of Chigurh:

No no. No. You don’t understand. You can’t make a deal with him. Even if you gave him the money he’d still kill you. He’s a peculiar man. You could 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.

Anton later makes much of “giving his word.” He judges Llewelyn for not saving his wife. This raises the question of morality. Is Anton an amoral (lacking in all morality) character? How does the movie present him in this regard?

4. The ending of No Country for Old Men is deeply dissatisfying for many viewers. Why do you think it ends with this dropping off? How does that help convey the message?

5. Following question 4, is the reality presented by No Country realistic? Is it tolerable? The book of Job raises many of these same questions, and the thesis could be boiled down to “How can a righteous God allow suffering?” What is the correct answer?

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About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

11 thoughts on “No Country for Old Men Discussion Questions

  1. Great questions. Ran across your blog through After the Handbasket. I loved this movie. Like Flannery O’Connor on film. I think that Chigurh has the most covenantal thinking of any villain in film history. Seriously, saying that the wife is punishable for the husband’s sin? That’s like straight out of the Old Testament. I love that line “A man would have to put his soul at hazard . . . ” Brilliant.

  2. Steven,
    Great questions indeed! I watched the movie the other night and the final line, “Then I woke up,” came about 38 seconds before I fell asleep, but I do recall thinking “I needed to remind myself to think more about this.” I’m going to have to watch it again. It is clearly, in Coen Brothers style, about something deeper than itself.

  3. Oh…one more thing. The best line in the movie:

    Deputy: This sure is a mess, isn’t it?
    ETB: Well, if it isn’t, it’ll sure do till one gets here.

  4. Hello, Steven- When I was in HS over 40 years ago, one of our finest teachers was given permission ( Catholic school ) to choose a class that he wished to teach us, and it was “Film”. This class, above all others, opened my eyes, and I have been a film buff ever since.
    OK, are the Coen Bros the best film makers around today? I sure think so. This latest is extraordinary, and I applaud you for your choice. ..beginning to end…can’t look away. Question for your class….I’ve posted it elsewhere, and no answer…..near the end of the film, Anton comes out of the house where he had been speaking to the young ex-wife, and he stands on the porch, and lifts each foot, one after the other, and makes a gesture to them with his hand. What does that mean? Surely the film makers didn’t put that into the film for no reason at all. Love to hear back from you on that.
    Just bought the DVD….this is one of those films that you can watch again and again. Thank you, Steven.

  5. I took it as him checking the bottoms of his boots, maybe to ensure that there was no blood on them. I figured they might put that in to subtley imply that he had in fact killed the wife. It doesn’t really look to me like he’s gesturing with his hands.

  6. My review of the movie No Country for Old Men:

    I think there are different ways to look at this movie. I think the Coen brothers were trying to avoid making a movie with a ‘Hollywood’ ending. What is a Hollywood ending? It’s one where the good guy, usually a reluctant hero, triumphs over evil. And so the Coen brother’s didn’t want to end their movie that way. Also, as one reviewer commented, the original manuscript for the book was 600 pages but it was published at 320 pages to make it more marketable or that the original 600 pages were muddled to some degree. Let’s agree that most likely the book can be considered to be flawed. It’s an attempt to make a commentary about society going to Hell in a hand basket. It is not a satisfying movie. The first two thirds of it are great. Not super great, because the acting is kind of wooden. Josh Brolin does mostly grunt his lines. But let’s look at the three main characters with the notion that the Coen brothers didn’t want to have an ending where all the loose ends are tied up. Let’s start with the monstrous Chigurh. In most movies, the bad guys are rather cartoonish. In Fargo, for example, the bad guys self-destruct because they are greedy and stupid. But Chigurh is the personification of evil. When he chokes the deputy at the beginning of the film, Chigurh has an expression that made me think of the Devil. He had a look of glee. He looked like he was having a happy orgasm while he choked the life out of the deputy. Chigurh is ruthless, persistent and he’s not stupid, but instead is portrayed as a very cunning adversary. To me he is not so much a person but a figure who represents evil. Evil which will always be in the world. At the end, he is bruised in the car wreck but he lives to continue on. The car accident is a random act. Is a car accident evil? It can be. But most often they are due to carelessly operating a 2 ton vehicle at 70 miles an hour. Llewelyn Moss is our reluctant hero. Certainly a main theme in the movie is – Who is the hunted and who is the hunter? Moss is a capable hunter. He is familiar with weapons as we see when he takes the chrome-plated pistol, empties the cartridge and then reloads it in a few seconds. He would make a good hero but the Coen brothers didn’t want to make that movie. I think they were more sure about the movie they didn’t want to make than what movie they wanted to make. So our hero can’t triumph at the end in a showdown with Chigurh, instead he’s killed by some Mexican drug dealers. We don’t even see what happened or have any clue about how he died. Sheriff Bell, Tommy Lee Jones character is the narrator of the film. Often voice-over is a sign of weakness in a plot. If the plot were strong, then the director could show us what happened. But how could we be shown society decaying? That would be a tough one. So, we have Tommy Lee Jones’ character rambling on about his father and how things have changed. Well, for me personally, I’m glad things aren’t the way they were 50 years ago. And, of course, the narrator of the film can’t be killed nor can he kill someone else. That would be like the author killing himself in his own book or becoming a murderer. The narrator is an objective reporter, an observer. The more satisfying ending would have been a confrontation between Moss and Chigurh at the motel and Moss has the upper hand until the Mexican drug dealers show up and then Sheriff Bell saves the day and shoots Chigurh with a William Tell type shot through the hole left by the lock that Chigurh blew out with his oxygen tank and pneumatic hose.

    Now the question is: Is it a good movie or not? It’s certainly one of the most talked about films in recent history. And it’s very faithful to an ambitious but flawed book. I give the first two thirds of the movie 4 stars out of five because the acting was really quite flat. If you see the movie a second time, you will be bored out of your mind. The only interest in seeing it the first time is the suspense of who’s going to get killed next. But once you already know, there is nothing to be interested in it. But the first two thirds are a good thriller, chase movie with a lot of action, it doesn’t drag the way most movies do. The movie in the first half hour has as much action as most 2 hour movies. The characters representing good and evil clash early on and clash again.

    But what about the last part? The movie lost me at the point where Woody Harrelson’s character gets blown away. That plot point proves that Chigurh is a very bad dude, the baddest of the bad who kills the bounty hunter paid to kill him. We get a bit more insight into Chigurh’s belief system. But after that point, the movie made no sense at all. I think the Coen brothers were aware of what kind of movie they didn’t want to make more than what movie they wanted to make and so the end just fell apart. There really wasn’t one ending. There were several scenes that were at the end of the movie that made no sense. And they were mostly attempts by the author to comment through the character of Sheriff Bell that society is falling apart. So, at first the movie was a taught thriller and then it became an attempt to not have a typical Hollywood ending, saying that life isn’t always wrapped up in a neat package. I think the Coen brothers should get credit for the attempt. But the last parts of the movie made no sense and so it was a failed attempt. The last scenes as shown, I give 1 and half stars out of 5 and in the one and A Half, the HALF is for the attempt at not following a set formula. But it made no sense and was very unsatisfying as a movie. So, if we give the first two thirds of the movie 4 stars and the last third of the movie one and a half stars, then mathematically giving each third of the movie equal weight we arrive at the mathematically correct 3.4 stars out of 5. Meaning, yes, not nearly as good as the last Rocky movie. The last parts of the movie tried to comment on society in general but it was too much of a jump from the rest of the movie.

  7. I’m like a million years late to post something on here but owell maybe someone will read it.
    Since I don’t have money(or the credits) to take a philosophy class I can only learn but not be considered to have credability or authority on the subject. For some reason creating ur own philosophy instead of picking apart the writings of old men who lived long ago in a infinitely less complex civilization is considered insane. or atleast arrogant.
    But I live in today and unfortunately arrogance has become a valued attribute, even a virtue thanks to the exposition of murderers and criminals to our dear youth aka gangster rap, which in itself is now known simply as rap. Not to say that rock isn’t involved they’re another type of sociopaths altogether which is more comparable to serial killers and rapists.
    everyone else are simply buisness men and beings on the path.
    So I’d like to answer the questions as if i was taking ur class.

    1. In his first dialogue he talks about comparing himself to other sheriffs
    who have come and gone to put into perpective his feelings about his role as a sheriff.
    When he speaks about the murderer who he had executed, He says he “doesn’t know what to make of that”.
    I had some difficulty telling whether he meant the entirety of the subject or just the statement that the killer had made to him about being in hell in fifteen minutes. If he means fifteen minutes it could mean
    that this is what he had said fifteen minutes prior to his execution or it is his understanding that time does not exist
    outside the experience of life and that what maybe sometime before his death will seemingly be more like fifteen minutes
    in the context of eternity or the unknown. If Bell is refering to the subject of the killer and his perspective that he had shared with him,
    then the case maybe that Bell doesn’t understand how a person could be so deterministic in his effort to fulfill such a negative outcome for himself.
    The last part of the first dialogue is him pretty much stating that he is afraid. He says that he isn’t but it can be explained that he is.
    What he is trying to say is that he wishes not to confront a situation that will unearth questions that would strip him of the little innocence that a full grown man can preserve for himself. That he doesn’t want to know the extent of destruction or hopelessness that can come into existance for fear of losing his sanity.
    Or simply that he doesn’t want to be dehumanized by exposure to the darkest sides of humanity and nature itself.(and know what that is)

    The points made in the second dialogue between Ed and Ellis is that one cannot hold on to the past,
    and if they do, after awhile it becomes encumbering trying to validate ones effort to hold on to it.
    By the way This statement:”If I was Him, I’d have the same opinion of me as He does.” Makes no sense, atleast not in a western thinking civilisation.
    Then Ellis explains that the heart of man has always been hurt and left baffled by the world that he/she inherits, and that
    for Ed to think that he has somehow been excluded from lifes expectations is naive and self-indulgent.

    The third dialogue with his wife is not so clear and seems more open ended.
    If I could take one guess it would be that its a statement about space and time
    and how time has no effect on the transition to what comes after death.

    sheesh that was alot.
    Ill do the rest of the questions some other time.
    Cool. Taking classes would be awesome if it was like this.
    and if it wasn’t so expensive and beuracratic

    gu Nite!

  8. Pingback: Jesse Kim's Guide to Film

  9. When Ed Tom goes back the hotel of the shooting and goes past the police tape, is chigur in the room? It looks like the door is the one with the broken lock but when Ed Tom goes in, he’s not there. Where is he?

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