The Post-Western Archetypes of “No Country for Old Men” (The Meat and Potatoes)

Screen Shot 2013-03-11 at 3.07.31 PMThe Post-Western Archetypes of “No Country for Old Men”

A staple of American fiction is the seemingly immortal Western genre. Often referred to as the “Wild West,” the Western genre was birthed from the dangers and adventures of the American Frontier set mostly in the latter half of the 19th century. Western fiction captured the attention of American audiences from its inception with it’s tales of cowboys, Indians, guns, heroes, and villains. The genre was adapted into virtually every medium available including films, novels, art, and radio programming. Westerns embody a powerful form of American myth; that is creating very distinct archetypes and ideas that are still prominent in today’s society. In David Hamilton Mudoch’s book The American West: The Invention of a Myth illustrates the idea that America’s past experiences were vital to America’s current and future incarnations. In turn the past became the stuff of legends; “The themes of the myth percolated into society until they ended up as conventions, universally accepted” (Murdoch 15). Early on Westerns became a solid part of America’s very DNA. They created a vast landscape of ideas, stories, and archetypes that still exist throughout.
One of the most defining archetypes established in Western fiction were the very clear “good guys” often referred to as “White Hats.” These undeniable heroes of the Western genre often were law-men who righted wrongs and rode off to into the sunset after a courageous battle while literally wearing a white hat to identify their righteous morality. These White Hats raised their guns against another powerful archetype, the “Black Hat.” As the name clearly points to their moral alignment; these were evil figures who would draw out the hero to do battle while cloaked in black. As the Western genre grew long in the tooth those defining qualities became muddled and not quite as cut and dry and anti-heroes rose in prominence. Those physical attributes that allowed viewers and readers to identify those archetypes became less important to the genre. In Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel “No Country for Old Men”; a story about three men intertwined with a stolen case of money and violent crime, uses the genre of Western fiction in a modern setting. McCarthy plays with the various archetypes within the Western while defying conventions like standoffs at high noon and physical traits implying moral standing. These genre bending techniques allows No Country for Old Men to represent the Post-Western genre; a modern take on Western fiction. In the Coen brothers adaptation of the novel by the same name released in 2007, they chose to directly costume the main characters in those defining colors of black and white as the genre once demanded. The fidelity of McCarthy’s novel and message remains mainly intact despite this powerful imagery. The character of Anton Chigurh; this stories black hat, represents a darker villain that is not easily summed up as the archetypal Black Hat. Despite his complexity and his position as one of three protagonists in the story, the Coen’s chose to costume him in a very distinct choice of clothing and hair style dipped in a deep black. This begs the question; how do the Coen’s and McCarthy depict the Western archetypes within No Country for Old Men and how does this reflect the evolution of good and evil archetypes within the 21st century Post-Western?
Tommy Lee Jone’s character; the aging Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is No Country for Old Men’s pseudo narrator and easily identifiable “White Hat.” While Javier Bardem’s murderous character Anton Chigurh wreaks havok across Texas, Bell struggles to understand the motives of this violent man and how it relates to a growing sense of confusion towards modern American society. Bell recounts numerous tales of simpler times during his early years as a law man. These moments of nostalgia beginner every chapter of the novel as a means of illustrating Bell’s inner monologue. In one particular scene Bell speaks about his displeasure with the state of law and law-men in the present as opposed to the past. Bell explains that law-men are getting rich off of corruption and that law itself is no longer respect by the common man.

“A crooked peace officer is just a damned abomination. That’s all you can say about it. He’s ten times worse than the criminal. And this ain’t goin away. And that’s about the only thing I do know. It aint goin away. Where would it go to?” (McCarthy 216)

Bell’s nostalgia towards the past and his disillusionment with modern law in the face of his own morals helps to distinguish him as the definitive “White Hat” in the story. His moral code is simply black and white–a law man upholds law and always does the right thing. The Coen’s adaptation of the story uses one of these monologues as the opening scenes of the film to allow us easy entry into Bell’s mind. Lydia Cooper’s analysis of No Country for Old Men in her article “He’s a Psychopathic Killer, but So What?” helps to illustrate Bell’s place in the story as well as his place in the genre of Western storytelling. “Bell is not the novel’s narrator, and his prophetic and visionary monologues frame the tale while remaining ambiguously separate from it.” (Cooper 37) Cooper is saying that Bell’s own reminiscing nature of times gone by positioned as free standing monoluges create a further distance from his current reality. That is, Bell is a product of the past who is trying his very best not to partake in the violent narrative unfolding around him. “White Hats” like Bell and the simplistic sense of morality do not have a real place in the violent and convoluted realism of modern America. The myth of the American Western does not hinge any longer on the black and white ideals of the past.
The writer and Western historian John G. Cawelti in his novel The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel details the evolution of the Western into the Post-Western. He defines the Post-Western as a modern story filled with characters and settings but fully embracing the convention of the Western genre. Cawelti also explains an extremely important aspect of the Post-Western; “Studies of the hero as alienated professional rather than as man of the wilderness, displaying critical and ironic attitudes towards some of the most traditional myths associated with the Western, such as that of the heroic gunfighter…”(Cawelti 103) Sheriff Bell is the gunfighter who never uses his gun and never has the big showdown with the bad guy. Instead he sits on the sidelines as an aging philosopher realizing that good will not always prevail for good’s sake. As Tommy Lee Jone’s literal white hat sits atop his head in the film version it only serves the purpose of identifying an honest lawman’s limited place in the darkening and morally ambiguous modern America.
While Bell traverses the slippery slope of modern morality, Anton Chigurh represents a higher form of evil, one that defies true understanding. He seemingly serves no one and is nearly unstoppable. In the novel McCarthy chooses not to give any real description of character’s physical appearance aside from Chigurh’s icy blue eyes. The Coen’s depiction on the other hand created a very distinct and memorable look for Javier Bardem’s version of the character. A ridiculous black mop and jet-black clothing give him an incredibly unusual appearance. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins who has worked in most of the Coen’s films spoke in an interview about Chigurh’s appearance: “..throughout the film, we wanted to make him a very shadowy or indistinct figure” (Pizello, Oppenheimer, Deakins 33). He also follows his own personal code that revolves around the power of fate in relation to death. Chigurh decides one’s life with the toss of a coin and judges humankind as a God would to his followers. This clearly goes beyond the normal trope of the villainous “Black Hat” simply committing foul acts of evil simply because the narrative tells us he should dynamically oppose the good guy. Although, at the same time, Chigurh is evil and death personified–the manifestation of the archetypal villain stripped of meaning and reason. The abstract nature of Chigurh is what propels most of the story and causes Bell to have a crisis of identity. Some can argue that Chigurh represents a form of the Judeo-Christian “devil” or Satan himself. If this is this case then McCarthy and the Coen brothers push the Western archetypes to extreme measures while deconstructing their place in the genre. No Country takes those larger than life archetypes of the Western genre and place them directly in the realism of the modern America. Through McCarthy and the Coen’s narrative these enlarged personifications of right and wrong that are staples of the genre can both confuse and illuminate Westerns and their place in modern America. Where Chigurh embodies the true essence of the unfiltered “Black Hat” Sheriff Bell represents the humanity that is now fading from the heart of America.
Modern America is no longer mystified by the great Western frontier. We have conquered the “savage” Native Americans, settled in our land, and have built beyond the wide open plains of yesterday. Texas, the arguable heart of the American South, home of this narrative and many other of the genre, has become a remarkably different place. While we still have men with badges and men with guns the simplicity is long gun. The transformation of the America of old to it’s current incarnation–filled with questionable morals, modern tropes, and unexplainable behavior litters the world of No Country for Old Men. Just as the title implies, the ideals set forth by the American West have no true place in modern America. Bell is one of the titular “Old Men” struggling to understand where his place is in this world as man of just morals and ideals. A major trope of the Western is the age-old standoff between “White Hat” and “Black Hat” at high noon. In No Country we never get that resolution. Our “hero” Sheriff Bell, crippled by his lack of understanding chooses to retire instead of confronting the man in black Anton Chigurh. He effectively removes himself from the direct narrative out of fear, confusion, and disillusionment with the role of lawman in America. Chirgurh also kills off most of the “good” characters in the story along with many of “bad” and effectively walks off into the sunset in the end. Their archetypal roles in the Western genre are completely subverted especially Bell’s–the hero who never conquerors evil but instead opts out of the game itself.
Bell’s comparing of the past to the present is an exercise that both McCarthy and the Coen’s engage in their own adaptations of the Western genre. They understand that the American myth of good and evil is much more complicated in modern America. Sheriff Bell comes to understand sense moral sense is becoming just as alien as Chigurh appears. The Post Western as depicted in both incarnations of No Country for Old Men doesn’t praise the way of the past but instead illustrates how dated those principles are today. You either adapt to the new ways or die on the side of the road with those who still cling to the past. Murdoch explains in his book that America has removed itself from romanticizing the past as golden myths; “Myth cannot indefinitely act as a substitute for a sense of history”(Murdoch 120). While, Bell clings to the morally just myth of America’s past, Chigurh represents a great evil that defies undertanding. Despite their different places in the world both are products of our obsession with the American myth by way of the Western. McCarthy and the Coen’s understand that the complex nature of humanity cannot house the simple manifestations that the Western genre has produced. The original work and it’s adaptation signal an end to the ideals of America long gone and the rise of the Post-Western fiction–a much more suitable representation of a damaged nation.

 

Bibliography

Cawelti, John G. The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State Popular, 1999. Print.

Cooper, Lydia R. ““He’s A Psychopathic Killer, But So What?”: Folklore And Morality In Cormac Mccarthy’s “No Country For Old Men”.” Papers On Language & Literature 45.1 (2009): 37-59. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 29 Apr. 2013.

McCarthy, Cormac. No Country For Old Men. New York: Knopf, 2005. Print.

Murdoch, David Hamilton. The American West: The Invention of a Myth. Reno: University of Nevada, 2001. Print.

Pizzello, Stephen, and Jean Oppenheimer. “Western Destinies.” American Cinematographer 88.9 (2007): 30-47. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 29 Apr. 2013.

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Published on May 22, 2013 at 9:51 am Comments (0)


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