I saw No Country for Old Men weeks ago, and it’s taken me this long to come to grips with it; or to at least find an entrance point for discussion that made sense to me. I spent a while musing on the nihilistic nature of the movie. My first draft of this noted “family counts for nothing except danger, and the monsters are not destined for jail time.”
But that’s not true. I’ve seen nihilistic movies. A truly nihilistic movie ignores consequences; the crop of Tarantino/Besson-influenced movies come far closer to nihilism than No Country for Old Men. Consider Snatch, in which the protagonists are pretty completely immoral but walk free at the end. I liked Snatch but there’s about zero morality in the whole thing.
No Country for Old Men is full of morality. The gut punch of an ending wouldn’t be powerful if it wasn’t full of morality. Chigurh is a monster, and the movie makes no bones of that fact, and he’s expected to meet his fate at the end. Sheriff Bell is his counterpart in morality, occupying the benevolent side of the Western drama. Or, perhaps, Moss will bring justice — he’s not a good person per se, but he does represent the sanctity of family. You don’t mess with a man’s family.
And then the trapdoor opens, and then the ground is gone from underneath us. It’s not nihilistic, it’s darker. Consequences do matter, but sometimes they don’t work out. This is what makes it such a strong conclusion.