‘No Country for Old Men’: The status of Moss

By far the most thoughtful discussion I’ve ever seen on this website has been the one about “No Country for Old Men” (the best film of 2007, in my opinion). If you read the comments people have posted, you’ll see a variety of interpretations of the film’s themes and messages, and even some alternate theories about the plot. (Spoilers ahead.)

Many of these interpretations are perfectly valid insofar as they are not contradicted by anything within the film itself. But there is one theory — a persistent one, surprisingly — that is flat-out wrong. It is the theory that Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), the man who steals the bag of money and tries to outrun the evil Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), is not killed when the movie says he is killed and in fact is still alive, hiding out, perhaps in preparation for a sequel.

Miramax has been kind enough to send screener DVDs of the film (along with other “prestige” pictures) to members of various critics groups. Now that I have the film in hand and am not relying solely on memory, I hope I can end this speculation once and for all.

First, the movie says Moss is killed. We have to accept that as the truth unless the movie also gives us a compelling reason to suspect otherwise. Some viewers find such a reason in the fact that we don’t actually see his murder. It does seem odd, I grant you. We’ve been following his every move for so long, and then his death occurs offstage. Why?

I think that’s easy to answer. Because so much of the action has focused on him, we’ve been tricked into thinking he’s the protagonist of the story and forgetting who the real protagonist is: Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). After Moss’ death, the focus shifts back to Bell again, and it’s through his eyes that we learn Moss has been killed. Bell comes upon the scene at the motel, sees the body, informs Moss’ wife, and so forth.

One of the overarching themes of the movie is the unfairness and capriciousness of fate. You don’t get to choose what happens to you, at least not in the film’s worldview. “You can’t stop what’s comin’,” Bell’s uncle tells him. “it ain’t all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.” By not giving us the satisfaction and closure of seeing Moss’ last stand, the film is emphasizing this theme of frustration and helplessness. We’re deprived of our expectations, just like the characters are.

Still, some viewers cling to the false hope that Moss is yet alive. Some say that Moss’ wife never actually sees his body, that it’s only Sheriff Bell who does, and that Bell had never met Moss and doesn’t know what he looks like. This is incorrect.

Here is a transcription of Bell’s dialogue with his deputy when they first investigate the scene of the drug deal that went awry:

BELL: “I know this truck. Belongs to a feller named Moss.”

DEPUTY: “Llewelyn Moss?”

“That’s the boy.”

“You figure him for a dope runner?”

“I don’t know. I kindly doubt it.”

Bell says the last line with a bit of a gentle laugh. He obviously knows Moss, at the very least by reputation. Later scenes make it clear he knows Moss’ wife. Why would he know her but not her husband? And how would he know Moss’ truck without knowing Moss?

But if, defying all logic, Bell still somehow had never met Moss face-to-face — well, in that case, he’d have Moss’ wife identify his body, wouldn’t he? If he doesn’t even know what Moss looks like, why would he jump to the conclusion that the dead body in the motel room is Moss? Remember that there’s another guy lying there, too, still alive but struggling, a Mexican that Moss was apparently able to fire a shot into before being hit himself. Why would Bell assume either of these guys is Moss? They could just as easily be innocent bystanders.

Some other viewers have said we never get a clear look at the body. But in fact we do, in two different shots: Bell runs up to the hotel room and we see Moss’ body just inside the door; Bell tells the people next door to call the police; then Bell looks back at Moss and we see his body again.

Here’s Moss the last time we see him alive, talking to the woman at the swimming pool:

And here’s the body Sheriff Bell sees on the motel room floor:

Sorry, folks. That’s Moss. Same shirt, same hat, same face (albeit from an obscured angle). It’s sad, I know, but we must accept the truth.

And viewers who say that the body in the morgue can’t be Moss because it has no facial hair are imagining things. The closest we get to the morgue body is this long shot:

If you can detect the presence or non-presence of facial hair from that angle, you have better eyes than I do.

I hope this puts the “Moss is alive” theories to rest. The hard facts of the movie indicate he is dead. There won’t be any sequel. Sorry.

In a later post we’ll deal with a question that truly does have several possible answers: Were Sheriff Bell and Anton Chigurh in the hotel room at the same time?