Most of us have heard about the writing rule of “show, don’t tell.” Usually this is about how someone writes an individual moment or scene.
Telling would be, “Bobby came home angry, ignored his mother, and went right to his room.”
Showing would be, “The door flung open and smacked against the far wall. It startled his mother, who had been close to falling asleep on the couch. ‘What in tarnation?’ Instead of answering, Bobby slammed the door shut. Then marched to his room.”
Most great writers operate on this level of rendering scene after scene in a nuanced, immersive way that draws us into the world and the characters. Just like at the “telling” versus the “showing” example. In the telling, there’s no characterization of the mother. She’s just someone who was ignored. But in the showing version we get to hear her speak, encounter the vocabulary she uses, all of which builds her as a person in our minds. We also see how Bobby reacts when he’s angry. The violence that’s involved. Which could suggest more violence in the future.
While this is how most people think of “show, don’t tell” there are orders of magnitude involved. The example above is on the smaller end of the spectrum. On the larger end you’re working with vague thematic-based concepts.
For example, someone can tell you: “Self-improvement can make you a better person.”
But how do you show that?
You’d first have to show the viewer someone who isn’t a good person. Then show the character doing things that aren’t self-improvement and how that gets them no where. Then they’d have to start self-improving and we’d see how that changes them for the better.” The end result is the movie Groundhog Day.
Some movies are just plot. While other movies are demonstrations of an idea.
No Country For Old Men is a demonstration of an idea. Specifically, an idea that as people age they are pushed out by the younger generation, that the world they had known becomes a ruin upon which some new and strange world now exists. To that end, the events between Llewelyn and Anton are indicative of the main idea. They are a means to an end. The only purpose of their bloody game of cat and mouse is to bring Tommy Lee Jones to the moment of realization that his time in this world is coming to an end, that he is no longer an effective force in this world, that his time has passed.
This is why the movie continues on with Jones after Llewelyn dies. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at Jones’s final speech.
The final speech
Upon the first viewing of No Country, or even viewing two, three, four…the speech can seem poetically meaningless. Like it’s just some strange and romantic way to end what’s been quite the violent tale. But, given the context we now have…let’s see if it still seems that way.
Had dreams… 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, the first one I don’t remember too well but, it was about meetin’ him in town somewheres and he 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 – just rode on past. And he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down. When he rode past, I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do, and I-I could see the horn from the light inside of it – about 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’d be there. And then I woke up.
So we have Jones with a vision of being in the mountains, at night, cold and alone. When his dead father rides past. On horseback, no less, which is kind of bygone and romantic. He has fire, which stands for warmth and light when you’re stuck in all that cold and dark. Key here is the line, “fire in a horn the way people used to do.” Another reference to the olden.
In this case, “Going’ on ahead and he was fixing’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold. And I knew that whenever I got there, he’d be there. And then I woke up,” is essentially a vision of death.
Jones has realized that he’s reaching the end of his life. That’s a direct byproduct of what’s happened with Anton and Llewelyn. Their encounter was violent and beyond the capacity of Jones. Maybe if he had been younger. But not now. The moment where Jones goes into the motel room, thinking that Anton might be there…terrified that Anton might be there…was a sort of death for Jones. In that moment, he knew he was no match for Anton. Physically, mentally, spiritually. That Anton was young, virile, powerful. And Jones was old, frail, slower.
Immediately following that scene, we find out that Jones has retired. He says he feels old, “outmatched”. His friend even tells him, “You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t waiting on you. That’s vanity.” Yeesh.
It makes sense then that Jones has this dream of his dad. Of meeting his dad in whatever timeless, ageless world is beyond this one.
It helps to look at Tommy Lee Jones as the hero
Tommy Lee Jones opens the movie talking about when he was young. His start as a sheriff at only 25 years old. Talks about how his dad was a sheriff at the same time.
So right from the beginning we have a connection between one generation and another. And this idea of “young” and “old.” Not just in the world at large but at the same job. Both were sheriffs. So you have the father as a sheriff, then the son replacing the father. There’s some overlap. But that’s what happened. Jones took over the position his father once held.
Jones specifically talks about hearing about “the old-timers” and never missing a chance to do so. How a lot of the older sheriffs didn’t even carry guns. “You can’t help but compare yourself to the old-timers. Couldn’t help but wonder how they’d operate in these times.”
The next part is key: Jones talks about this case he brought in. “My arrest. My testimony.” This is about a murder. Some young man who killed. And just wanted to kill. Jones expresses a disbelief in someone who could feel that way. That wanted to murder, meant to murder, yearned to murder. In that case, Jones was able to bring the kid in before the kid had an opportunity to continue on. As the kid had said, if he was out of jail he’d just kill again.
Jones then tells us about this current case (which ends up being the movie we watch unfold). And how bizarre it is. “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, ‘Okay, I’ll be part of this world.'”
This is Tommy Lee Jones’s case. He’s the one trying to bring it in. He’s the sheriff who should be putting a stop to such crime. Except he doesn’t. He can’t. Despite his best efforts, he’s always a step behind. So far behind, in fact, that for long stretches he falls out of the movie entirely.
The good days are gone
Jones, as a young man, had been befuddled by a single murder. Imagine what he must be feeling about this case. How many dead in the drug deal that went bad? 20? Then you have all the people that Anton kills. And Llewelyn on the run, being chased by this violent force of nature. It’s nothing Jones has seen before. It’s hard not to think about what he said in that voice over.
“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, ‘Okay, I’ll be part of this world.'”
Recall again the title of the movie: No Country For Old Men.
A little help
I often sum up No Country by saying it’s about “generational push.” That you have the generation that had power. The generation that has power. And the next generation. Jones obviously is part of the generation that had power. Most everyone else in the movie is of the generation that has power. But we have a few encounters with the next generation.
Llewelyn is first. On his walk across the Mexican border, he encounters three college age guys. Llewelyn buys one of their coats from them and their beer. Though one of the guys tries to blackmail Moss for a few more dollars. This deal allows him to make it across the border without suspicion and to a hospital. Keep in mind they keep asking him if he’s been in a car crash.
Chigurh is second. After killing Llewelyn’s wife, Chigurh tries driving away but gets in a car crash. His arm’s injured. Flees the car, since he’s not one that likes to deal with cops. What’s he to do? Lucky for Mr. Anton Chigurh, two teenage kids are riding by on their bikes. The one offers his shirt, free of charge, to Anton. Anton willingly pays him. Much to the amazement of the kids.
So here we have two similar situation. One with a slightly older group and one with a slightly younger group. In both situations, the main characters need to rely on the younger generation to help them out in a moment of weakness.
There’s something to be said here about these dynamics between generations. It may seem nice that the younger generation is there to help. But I think it serves more as a reminder of just how precarious the generational power dynamic is. Each time the generation in power is hurt, the younger generation is there. Healthy, virile. Fine. It’s reminder that when you go there’s always someone there to replace you. Despite how intimidating and powerful Anton was throughout No Country, even he, we see, is mortal. The last time he appears in the movie is right after the accident, limping away with a compound fracture of his left arm and no telling what other injuries.
Again, the film’s title comes to mind. It’s a dangerous world. And every second you’re alive brings you a step closer to your prime, then past your prime, then you’ve become a relic, something bygone that no longer fits in the scheme of things, that is as confused by the world now as the world is confused by you and your antiquated notions.
What a sad movie.
Note on money
Thematically, there’s more to discuss with money. Money comes up way too often throughout the movie. The whole plot is around the two million dollars. How many people die over that money? But there’s also more to do with how Anton uses coins to decide if people will live and die. And how often we see Llewelyn having to buy things versus Anton stealing things. Also how the young men Llewelyn encountered responded to money versus how the teenagers Anton encountered responded to money. There’s probably an argument to be made about how the older generation doesn’t covet money as much, is past the urge and desire for money. While the younger generation is ignorant of money, in an innocent way. While the generation in power will do anything for money, risk anything for money.
There’s probably more to discuss with fate. And the journey we go on. There are a few indicators, like in the dream Jones’s father goes ahead to wait for Jones. Anton, speaking to Woody Harrelson, said that he knew where the money was going to be. We had the Mexican cartel finding out what hotel Llewelyn is going to. There’s a lot of discussion of where things are going on top of characters trying to figure out where things have been. Like, we see Anton enter the Llewelyn’s trailer and sit down to try and figure out where Llewelyn went. Then we have Jones do the same thing, except he’s trying to figure out both Anton and Llewelyn. We have Anton in the hotel room piecing together what Llewelyn would have done with the money, then looking in the vent and seeing the marks in the dust from the suitcase.
All interesting things to discuss, just not entirely relevant to explaining the end of the movie.
On a personal note, No Country For Old Men is the movie that got me into film criticism. I remember seeing the movie in theaters and getting to the final scene with Tommy Lee Jones. It comes out of nowhere. Why are we ending on Tommy Lee Jones telling his wife about a dream? How was that relevant? Why was that relevant? Why end the movie like that?
The first thing I did when I got home was check reviews. Ebert, Slate, Slant, AV Club, Twitch, Slash, New Yorker, New York Times, and on and on and on. I must have read 50+ reviews looking for ONE PERSON who would just discuss the ending of the movie. Nothing. Nothing at all. The only people talking about it were on message boards.
Instead of relying on someone else to explain the movie to me, I spent a lot of time figuring it out for myself. Then sharing my thoughts with others. The positive feedback I got from people really…went a long way in making me think I was on to something with being able to explain movies.
For a few years, I tried writing reviews, because that’s what film critics did, right? Plot synopsis and “is it good or bad?” But it always felt pointless. Like I was just another grain of sand. I wished I could just write analysis, like I had done with No Country For Old Men. Then I realized I really could just do that. So I started my own site and here we are.