It’s the early 1980s, and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell has presided over his small south Texas border county for decades. In all that time he has sent only one criminal to death row in and is otherwise secure in his belief that “it takes very little to govern good people.” Unbeknownst to Bell, however, a local welder named Llewellyn Moss has, while out hunting near the Rio Grande, stumbled across the bodies of a half dozen drug runners who have killed each other off during a deal gone bad. Moss has discovered and made off with a satchel containing two million dollars in cash found near the site of the carnage. Moss, a former sniper during his tours of duty in Vietnam, is himself unaware that the satchel contains a radio transponder. After a lapse of caution enables the drug dealers’ bosses to identify him, Moss and his young wife find themselves fleeing from the cartel hitmen who have been dispatched to recover the satchel of money, and Sheriff Bell finds himself confronting a surge of violence the likes of which his quiet community has never before experienced.
The agent of much of this violence is one of McCarthy’s most memorable creations, a wily psychopath named Anton Chigurh. Chigurh’s loyalties seem fluid but his determination to recover the cash is relentless. Armed with an array of homemade weapons such as a sawed-off shotgun with a coffee-can silencer, his trademark compressed air-driven cattle gun, and with an eccentric philosophical conviction that he is merely an agent of fate, Chigurh systematically eliminates anyone who gets between him and Moss. He also dispatches with icy efficiency anyone whose innocent comments annoy him—or whose cars, uniforms or radio transponders might be useful to him—only pausing long enough to allow some of them to call a coin flip for their lives.
As two cartels battle around him, Chigurh implacably hunts down Moss and his wife while Bell tries to get between the killer and his prey, and to contact and convince the couple of the danger they are in. The veteran is convinced that his military experience and facility with firearms will enable him to fend off his hunters, and his young wife is convinced by her husband’s bravado—a hubris which eventually proves to have disastrous consequences.
Soon, the violence breaking out around him forces Sheriff Bell to reexamine his own ability—and willingness—to deal with this new form of criminal brutality. The elderly lawman, product of an informal code of honor that belongs to generations past, comes to doubt whether he is any longer suited to his work. This new era demands an equally brutal response of a kind he is unwilling to muster lest he “set his soul at hazard.”
The novel reads like a breathlessly paced crime thriller, but it is also a profound meditation on the corrosive effects of greed and the nature of honor in an increasingly mercenary civilization.
No Country for Old Men was the basis for the Coen Brothers’ film of the same name. Released in 2007, the movie won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem).
The preceding précis is Copyright © 2005 by Rick Wallach.