How “In Bruges” and “No Country for Old Men” Discuss Moral Choice, Part II
Content Warning: This post contains links to graphic scenes.
In the last post I talked about how the film In Bruges discusses the topic of morality. This time, I will discuss how No Country for Old Men does so by examining the motivations of its main characters and the message the film seems to present, concluding with a comparison of the two films at the end.
As with the last post, spoilers will follow so I strongly recommend you watch No Country for Old Men and In Bruges before reading this. Also, if you didn’t catch the last post I urge you to read that first because I refer to it heavily throughout.
No Country for Old Men
Chigurh is perhaps the closest parallel and certainly the most interesting comparison in this film to In Bruge’s Harry. Part of this is because of his rigid moral code and the fact that he will not entertain any viewpoints aside from his own. This is not to say that Chigurh’s morality is really anything like Harry’s in nature, in fact he essentially operates as an agent of fate: it is quite a common interpretation that Chigurh is a human manifestation of death, but this to me seems rather simplistic. It seems that he is more of an agent of fate, or at least views himself as such, and is guided only by what he sees as being destined to happen. This is reflected throughout the film in his actions. For instance, take the following scene where Chigurh offers Llewelyn’s wife Carla Jean the chance to live with a coin toss.
This scene demonstrates his strict allegiance to what he sees as destiny, insofar as he sees himself as having no choice but to kill Carla Jean and fulfil his reason for being there- fate brought him to where he is in the scene to kill her as he promised Llewelyn he would if he didn’t turn himself and the money over. When she refuses to participate in his game of letting fate decide, she condemns herself to lose. Perhaps Chigurh is a physical manifestation of fate, or perhaps he is just a man with delusions of grandeur, but what is known for certain is that he acts as an agent of fate and that his morality is reducible purely to that principle. It is fate, in his eyes, which brings Llewelyn to the money in the desert, it is fate that brings him into the sights of Chigurh and it is fate that ultimately condemns him to death. In this sense, Chigurgh is in direct conflict with Harry’s principles, as shown by the following scene (Warning: This is a bloody one) :
This demonstrates how the principles he operates by are very different from Harry’s. They are distinctly amoral and treat any rigid morality as fallacious unless it actually helps one’s own goals (see the line, “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”): if one’s actions condemns them to meeting a terrible fate (If C. is agent of fate, and fate is amoral, how might be condemn a terrible fate?), as Wells’ did prior to this scene and as Llewelyn’s did throughout the film, then their personal guidelines (including their moral principles) are fundamentally flawed.
Ultimately, however, Chigurh is shown not to be some agent of fate, but rather I think that the following scene can be interpreted as a statement by the filmmakers that Chigurh too is not only mortal, but as susceptible to the invisible hand of chance to the same extent as anyone else. I think that this scene was intended to show that Chigurh may have succeeded in his plans, killed Llewelyn and Carla Jean and gotten away, but that he is just a human and is therefore only alive at that moment because of pure chance. This notion of chance being the deciding factor of all things promotes a sort of nihilism, or an acceptance of the uncertainty of moral principles, which I shall take to be the main thesis of the film (for now).
Llewellyn is perhaps, for the majority of the film, the character we might call our “protagonist” (though really, I would argue that there is not really only one protagonist in this film and even if there were it would be the Sheriff Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones). He is certainly the character with whom the audience spends the majority of the film empathising with and wanting to succeed. What I see as perhaps the major factor in this empathetic view of Llewelyn is the fact that h is shown consistently throughout the film (aside from some slight flaws) to be a traditionally moral sort of person: he is generally kind, he is usually polite (unless threatened), and his motivation throughout the film is to secure a good life for himself and (more importantly) for his wife Carla Jean. See the following scene:
Here it seems evident how much he cares about his wife’s wellbeing, to the extent that he declares his intent to kill Chigurh for even putting her under potential threat. But it is what Wells says of Llewelyn here that is particularly key: “You’re not cut out for this. You’re just a guy who happened to find those vehicles”. For the most part, Llewelyn is just that- a normal guy. His condemnation comes arguably from his stubbornness and unwillingness to cut a deal with Wells, but at its core this is rooted in his desire to create a good life for himself and Carla Jean. But ultimately, his morality does not save him: as much as the audience may want him to succeed, as much as he may seem like he will by virtue of being perceived as the “protagonist” and by being a generally normal and moral person, it does nothing to save him in the end and he dies, abruptly and offscreen, at the hands of the Mexican cartel. In this way he is perhaps most analogous to Ray from In Bruges, as the sort of ‘victim’ character: while Ray is a tragic character in his child- like nature and his capacity to do good, Llewelyn is not so childlike but rather is similarly tragic because his intentions were always ‘good’ from the start. The journeys of the two characters when considered in parallel reveal the real difference between the two films’ stances on morality: while In Bruges is somewhat pessimistic, it does seem to advocate the possibility of redemption and the importance of agency in moral choice, No Country for Old Men is perhaps rather more nihilistic in its tone: as was the case with Llewelyn, sometimes morality does not make a difference, since we are all subject to random happenstance and instances of ‘evil’ regardless.
Sheriff Bell is to some extent the embodiment of this message, as one can observe in his journey throughout the film (hence why I claim that he is closer than Llewelyn to being the film’s ‘true’ protagonist). We can see this in his journey throughout the film, going from a sheriff bewildered by the cruelty of the world, as is the case in this scene:
To a disillusioned, “overmatched” retired man, who feels that he can no longer be a Sheriff because of the things he has experienced and because he faces overwhelming ‘evil’ and threat. It is his part in trying to save Llewelyn and failing as well as his awareness of Chigurh (and the overwhelming forces of evil that he perhaps represents to Bell) that are the proverbial straw that poked the cattle’s back, made more significant in his mind by the fact that Llewelyn is a normal and moral man and that perhaps Bell himself would have done the same as him in his position. He is changed by these events, such that he can almost no longer face the world, or is at least no longer willing to uphold his morals and stand for them as a sheriff in the face of such overwhelming odds. Take the following scene:
Here, Bell is very nearly killed by Chigurh. He is fully aware of the fact that he could have died and that he would have, had Chigurh’s coin flip had a different outcome. This leads him to the realisation that life is fragile and that there is perhaps no place for men like him (or like the old- timer lawmen to whom he compares himself at the beginning of the film)- men who want to uphold morality and virtue- in the lawless, chaotic and seemingly Godless world. For Bell, the silence of God and the overwhelming presence of evil in the world around him is reason to drive him to an almost nihilistic position, retiring from his job as a sheriff and therefore giving up on trying to change the world or uphold morality. This is perhaps most clearly shown in the following scene:
Here we see Bell having given up because he has faced overwhelming ‘evil’ and just barely survived. He is questioning his own morality for having failed his duty (in letting Llewelyn die) and is no longer willing to lay his life on the line because he feels that, while he may have said he “never” gets hurt earlier in the film, he now realises that he is very vulnerable and that the only thing that has kept him alive is pure chance. Thus, he thinks it better to live out the rest of his life in peace with his wife.
In Bruges and No Country for Old Men may be very different in their settings, styles and tones, but their messages about the nature of morality are, contrary to what one might at first think, quite similar. Of course, as mentioned above, there are certain discussions unique to each film, such as the discussion of redemption in In Bruges and the discussion of fate and chance in No Country for Old Men. However in essence, both are similar in their discussions of the nature of morality in a world in which god is seemingly absent, whether that be because of the increasingly secular nature of society (as implicitly discussed in In Bruges) or because of the silence of God and the existence of abundant ‘evil’ (as explored in No Country For Old Men). Until now I have advocated that In Bruges stresses the importance of moral agency and doing what is right, whereas No Country for Old Men embraces pure nihilism and supposes that the only certainty is chance. However, I don’t actually think it is the case that No Country for Old Men promotes an entirely nihilistic or self- interested message. Rather, I think it is more posing a view of moral subjectivism. This is especially shown in the clip above of Carla Jean and Chigurh’s conversation, specifically the sentence “The coin don’t have no say, it’s just you”. This, to me, demonstrates the idea that in the seemingly godless world characterised in No Country for Old Men, one’s morality is only decided by oneself and their conscience. In this way its thesis shares a key feature with that of In Bruges: while we may above all else be subject to chance and seemingly overwhelming malevolence, there are certainly some things that we can influence insofar as where a moral choice is to be made, that choice is the agent’s alone to make. Hence, for both films, the role of conscience is key in a world where morality is subjective: your principles or perceived objective moral codes don’t have the final say in your decisions, “it’s just you”.