Watch: How 'No Country for Old Men' Successfully Defies Narrative Expectation

'No Country for Old Men' forces the viewer to create meaning for themselves. 

At the beginning of his latest video, Michael Tucker of Lessons from the Screenplay quotes a Ted Talk by Andrew Stanton, the writer/director behind Toy Story and WALL-E. During the talk, Stanton discusses what he calls his "Unifying Theory of 2+2," which states that a successful storyteller, rather than spoon-feeding information to the audience, makes them put things together for themselves.

In other words, "Don't give them four, give them two plus two...If you construct your story correctly, it compels the audience to conclude the answer is four." In the video below, Tucker looks at No Country for Old Men and shows this principle of showing rather than telling, in the way the movie handles character development, as well as plot and theme.

Choice Equals Character

The three main characters in the film, Llewelyn Moss, Anton Chigurh, and Sheriff Bell, are revealed to the audience not through what they say, but how they say it (or often what they don't say). This is illustrated at the beginning of the film when we meet Moss, who is out hunting and discovers money that will drive the plot forward (at least superficially). While the fact that he ends up taking the money reveals that he is the sort of person who will, in Tucker's words, "risk his life for money," it's the particulars of how he handles the situation that show us the kind of person he is. He is "calm and methodical...we can conclude that he is no stranger to life and death situations." 

Moss's nemesis, Anton Chigurh, is an iconic character not only because of his striking aesthetic but because of the way he goes about his murderous business. Like countless movie hitmen, it's obvious that he has "no problem taking human life in order to achieve his goals." This alone, though, doesn't make him disturbing.

Rather than using dialogue or other heavy-handed tactics to convey information, the film demonstrates excellent storytelling principles when it trusts the audience to put two and two together.

Instead, "It's how he kills people that makes him so frightening. The first murder we see is careful, violent and powerful, but the second is polite and clean. His apathetic attitude and his disturbing efficacy suggest a long history of taking life [so that] we don't need any backstory." Rather than using dialogue or other heavy-handed tactics to convey information, the film demonstrates excellent storytelling principles (and exemplifies Stanton's theory) when it trusts the audience to put two and two together.

Defying Narrative Expectation

No Country for Old Men is, like many Coen Brothers movies, a genre film that purposely confounds genre expectations. Tucker quotes Ethan Coen, who said that "The convention is ingrained that the good guy is going to meet the bad guy and they're going to confront each other." Indeed, for most of the film No Country follows a traditional narrative structure, leading us to believe that a showdown between Moss and Chigurh is on the way.

However, this is precisely what doesn't happen. Not only is Moss killed off-screen, but, in Tucker's words, it's not even "at the hands of the film's main antagonist." This abrupt turn, he says, "is one of the puzzle pieces we're given to synthesize the moral of the story." The other puzzle piece is given at the beginning by Sheriff Bell, during the opening monologue when he muses on the senselessness of contemporary violence. 

 "The convention is ingrained that the good guy is going to meet the bad guy and they're going to confront each other."—Ethan Coen

As Tucker puts it, "During the first two acts of the film, the plot is simple and follows convention in a way that makes sense. However, when Moss is killed, it makes us uncomfortable. This is not how stories are supposed to go." The killing shifts the main viewpoint of the film back to Sheriff Bell, and the third act of the film follows him as he attempts to make sense of what has happened.
Rather than ending in a blaze of gunfire and glory, the film "ends quietly with Bell describing a dream of what he perceives as a simpler time." Bell decides to "accept his fate" and the audience is left to determine what the larger meaning of the story is. This is a movie that respects its audience enough to let them determine the meaning for themselves, and in doing so, creates a meaning above and beyond anything that could be said on screen (the clip above is the closest the film comes to that sort of moment, though it's so subtle as to pass unnoticed, at least on a first viewing.)
 
The film works by "allowing us to connect the dots and inviting us to participate in the storytelling." The ways it pulls this off is by making the story far more than the cat-and-mouse game we've seen play out a thousand times. When the audience can infer information, whether it's about characters through their behavior or plot and meaning through subtlety, the results are invariably more satisfying. That's certainly the case with No Country for Old Men.

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No Country for Old Men' forces the viewer to create meaning for themselves.

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