The Amoral West : Nihilism in the Coen Brothers True Grit and No Country for Old Men



originally published Friday, August 24, 2012 11:34:02 PM


no country for old men, roger deakins, American west, coen brothers, cinema, flm, western, true grit, myth

Taken together, the two neo-Westerns by the Coen Brothers True Grit (2010) and No Country for Old Men (2007) present an interpretation of the American West, the Western genre and the American mythology of moral action, as an amoral world of tawdry or valueless goals, achieved by at best pointless acts of physical valour, guided and motivated above all by greed.


Both films are adaptations of existing novels, written in 1968 and 2005 respectively and both novels reflect the jaded critical view on American mythos that emerged in the late 1960’s. While True Grit (both novel and film) seems to evoke the idea of frontier justice and righting of wrongs by the force of an “innocent” 14 year old girl, the story is simply a bloody vendetta that reaches it fruition in a fairly workmanlike way (find bad guy, shoot bad guy, go home).


McCarthy’s novel of No Country has no such apparently innocent character as True Grit’s Mattie Ross. Everyone, even the protagonist (if there is one) Sheriff Bell, is implicated in perpetuating selfish violence – in his case, leaving his unit to die during WW2. While this aspect of the character is omitted in the film, Bell is a world-weary, drained man, who laments what sees as the disappearance of morality, only to be reminded by his ex-lawman uncle that Texas (for this read the American West) was ever thus.


The disappearance of the moral imperative in the mythos of the American West has been mapped by film makers and writers over the past 50 years.


The John Wayne film of True Grit has a closed and happy ending. Mattie is restored, bodily and socially: we see her back in the bosom of her family, reunited – if temporarily – with father figure Cogburn. In the Coen’s version, which mirrors Charles Portis’s book much more closely than Hathaway’s 1968 film, Mattie is left one-armed and never sees Cogburn again, arriving after his death to the Wild West show where he (along with other relics from the frontier days) has been performing. If the Coen’s Cogburn is a father figure at all, he is errant, slipping away as irresponsibly as perhaps Mattie’s own foolish father, who trusted the outlaw Chaney in the first place.


Mattie’s blood quest to avenge her father is never questioned by the other characters in the book or film. While the characters are surprised that a 14 year old girl is so determined to seek out her father’s killer, the quest for “an eye for an eye” and Chaney’s death is never remarked. While Mattie seeks personal vengeance, her aides LeBoef and Cogburn seek money in the form of the substantial reward for Chaney’s corpse. Mattie has no faith in the forces of the law to attain justice; she scoffs and dismisses the idea that the law can achieve this and the sheriff concedes that Chaney is on the bottom of the list of miscreants the law seeks to bring to justice. However neither is she satisfied for LeBoef or Cogburn to find Chaney and bring his to justice: she want to deliver justice herself. Moreover, she never questions the idea that death is the appropriate way of dealing with the murderer.


Both films have the impotence of the law as central themes. Nobody, not even the lawman Bell, really believes that the institutions of the law can stop evil being done or attain any form of justice. Justice, if it exists at all, is personal, vindictive, visceral. Nobody gains enlightenment or reaches any state of redemption. Equilibrium is not restored, because it never existed in the first place. No Country’s villain, Chigurh, gets away – wounded but intact, presumably to continue as before. Mattie kills her man and survives the snake bite, but in the end of the film we see her one-armed, withered and hard-faced. She tells us she is unmarried and even scoffs at the idea. Hers is a hard, cold, unsensual life; we get the sense that pleasure does not figure in her universe and nor does she miss it. Vengeance-driven Mattie is hardly a moral compass, nor a person we can empathise with. Cogburn and LeBoeuf are more human, and consequently are weaker than Mattie though they ultimately save her, despite their vanity (LeBoeuf) and ramshackleness (Cogburn). They exemplify a portrait of the West as a place being conquered by men who were at bottom idiots, not visionaries, but idiots ready to live rough and use firearms.


Of course by 1968, when True Grit was written, cinema had already seen the revisionist Western emerge. Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) which while not popular in the USA definitely indicated that the Western formula – already moribund – was being reinvented in a way that upended the myth of America’s nation-building in the Old West. By 1970, Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (based on Thomas Berger’s popular novel) has introduced the knowing, critical western (much as Penn had already created the knowing, critical gangster film in Bonnie and Clyde) into US cinema. Penn and Berger make the point that the myth of the American West is built on the raw and violent exploitation of the aboriginal inhabitants. The film’s release during the Vietnam War, and its clear aim at the younger generation, suggested to the viewer that the same amoral code that destroyed Amerindian societies was presently at work in Vietnam.


The Coen brothers two recent Western films (No Country is set in the present but in terms of its sense of landscape, classicism and setting it can be categories thus) are entertaining, bloody, critical and cold-hearted. The unromantic Western has been with us for a long time (the deeply romantic Brokeback Mountain is actually not a Western in the genre sense), but the Coens present us with a nihilistic vision of the West.


Andrew Sarris (2007)in his New York Observer review of No Country points out its nihilism. True Grit in the end is enveloped in the same nihilism. What is accomplished by the vengeance-driven killing of Chaney? None of the characters express any belief or hope or even desire that their quest will result in a better world or even a better life for themselves. Mattie just wants to see Chaney die. Cogburn and LeBoeuf seem to want money, but don’t even say what they will do with the money they stand to get from delivering Chaney to Texas. They ride off into “Indian Territory” with the same sense of entitlement as Moss claiming the spoils of the drug cache.


A nihilistic Western challenges some of the most deeply held beliefs about the story of America. How law and justice finally tamed the wild land. How enemies (the natives and / or the Mexicans) were conquered and neutralised. How tough, resilient people carved out a civilisation in the wilderness. But in these films, the Coens seem to be asking if the price was too high. Mattie’s worn, righteous stone face is quite unbearable, when we see it in adulthood. The motivations and actions of the marshal, the ranger and the outlaw don’t seem to be much different. The sheriff Bell is ultimately impotent, and accused of naiveté to expect anything to change in a place so soaked in blood. Taken together, the world of True Grit, so admirably pictured by the masterful Roger Deakins, transmorphs into the bleak Texan wastes of No Country, seen again through Deakins’s lens. A stark, amoral and nihilistic land, motivated and energised by greed, where justice is personal and vengeful – or else impotent. Where there is no society and no collective; where nothing sensual or soft or human can live in that gruesome climate. Where everything dies or withers.


Between themselves, the Coens, McCarthy and Portis have created visions of America past and present that are amoral and terrifying.



Sarris Andrew. “Just Shoot Me! Nihilism Crashes Lumet and Coen Bros.” New York Observer 10/23/07


©Gillian McIver 2012 *This article forms part of a longer work in progress.


One Comment

  1. You got it 100% right. They go at the dark side of america. Blood thirsty vengeance, death penalty, greed. Some examples not mentioned above – american capitalism will sell anything for money (hanged corpse, AFTER teeth are removed), abuse of law, law is frequently used to take advantage of others (ponies negotiation, threats of legal suit), personal interest bove all, etc


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