Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
INT. ELLIS’S HOUSE – DAY
Loretta tells me you’re quittin’. How come’re you doin’ that?
I don’t know. I feel overmatched. I always figured when I got older, God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t. I don’t blame him. If I was him I’d have the same opinion about me that he does.
You don’t know what he thinks. I sent Uncle Mac’s thumb-buster and badge over to the Rangers. Put up in a museum. Your daddy ever tell you how Uncle Mac come to his reward? Gunned down on his own porch over in Hudspeth County. Seven or eight of ’em come up to here. Wantin’ this and wantin’ that. Uncle Mac went back in the house and got the shotgun, they was way ahead of him. Shot him in the doorway. Aunt Ella came out and tried to stop the bleedin’. Uncle Mac all the while tryin’ to get that shotgun. They just sat there on their horses watchin’ him die. After a while, one of ’em says somethin in Injun and they all turned and left out. Well, Uncle Mac knew the score even if Aunt Ella didn’t. Shot through the left lung. And that was that. As they say.
When did he die?
No, I mean was it right away or in the night or when was it?
I believe it’s that night. She buried him the next mornin’. Diggin’ in that hard old caliche. What you got ain’t nothin new. This country is hard on people. You can’t stop what’s comin’. Ain’t all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.
Commentary by Emma-Jane Heaton
This scene from the Coen Brother’s No Country for Old Men, based on a novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, is situated near the end of the film. This scene, set in 1980s West Texas, comes after a thrilling cat and mouse chase between a psychopathic killer named Anton Chigurh and Texan local Llewelyn Moss, who couldn’t resist taking two million dollars from a dead Mexican in a ‘dope deal gone wrong’ (Coen and Coen 2007). The blood bath ultimately results in Llewelyn’s death, which sheriff Ed Tom Bell was just minutes too late to stop, and Ed visits his Uncle Ellis in response to this.
The West Texan setting plays a huge role in this scene, affecting everything from the Mise-en-Scene, to the defensive and hopeless moods of the characters. The history of the land is told in the stories displaying the unchanging and brutal nature of the place, so it could be argued that Texas is one of the staring characters.
Firstly, let’s examine the Mise-en-Scene. Ed, played by Tommy Lee Jones, stands in his dusty coloured sheriff’s uniform in the small, open planned house, which may be best described as a shack, belonging to his uncle Ellis. Ellis, played by Barry Corbin, is an old man in an old wheel chair, wearing dusky colored clothes and fully fitting in to his surroundings. It appears that poverty and disability are overcoming him as a result of living in the Texan desert. The subdued lighting comes only from the cold sun shining through the windows through which we see endless desert suggesting the place is stuck in the past. Inside, doors are missing from cupboards showing the state of decay, and the whole place looks worn and beige from the dust of the desert, suggesting it is taking back the land from human civilization.
The acting also reflects the prevalence of the Texan setting and its effects. Ed is stood a distance from Ellis, side on, and hands by his sides, implying a feeling of indifference from Ed, perhaps as a defensive mechanism. The speech is full of colloquialisms such as when Ellis impatiently asks Ed why he is quitting, reminding the viewer of the West Texan setting. Ed is hesitant but answers ‘I feel overmatched,’ referring to the new criminality he is experiencing and can’t understand. His response displays a sense of sorrow and hopelessness when he explains this feeling is due to God not coming into his life, which is a reflection of the horror he has just experienced. This is backed up by his downhearted body language, staring out the window then looking downwards. Ellis flicks his hand to show physically he rejects the idea that Ed knows what God thinks to compliment his statement.
The editing of the scene is quite simple, being carried by the dialogue and only used as a way of emphasizing the story being told. This is achieved by ordering the shots by switching between Ed and Ellis to show who is speaking and how the other reacts to it. This begins with panning shots to show the house’s interior, but as Ellis tells his story, the camera closes in on the faces of Ellis, recounting ‘how uncle Mac came to his reward,’ and the straight face of Ed.
Ellis now begins to tell Ed a story about his Uncle Mac whose ‘thumb-buster and badge’ he has sent to a museum. The fact they now belong in a museum is another reminder of time passing. Again he uses colloquial terms for the revolver, reminding the viewer they are in Texas. It is interesting that the revolver, as an instrument of death, is given the reward of preservation as an important historical object, and is uses to introduce the story of uncle Mac, indicating an affinity between Texas and death.
Death is described by Ellis as a ‘reward’ for Mac. He refers to the place, Hudspeth country, ensuring we know this is another story set in West Texas. He brushes over the details of the story, keeping them vague,which puts the stress on the next part of the story; Mac’s death. He was shot before he could reach his gun, suggesting that the killers had intended to go to the house onlyto kill him. He never stops trying to defend himself and his wife by trying to reach the gun despite the fact ‘knew the score.’The men watched him die from their horses referring to time passing and using subdued rather than fast-paced language to describe their exit, suggesting their indifference to death.
The theme of death continues when Ed wants to know when Mac died, which is misinterpreted by Ellis who tells him the date ‘nineteen zero and nine.’ This dates the story seventy-one years in the past, yet the violence to which it refers is equally prevalent in the present. Ed clarifies his question ‘was it right away or in the night’, to which Ellis responds ‘that night.’ This seems to matter the Ed, as he stares back at Ellis with the same sad expression looking for answers, perhaps because he wishes to know if he suffered, which may be because he is trying to understand how it applies to his own experience. Another affinity between Uncle Mac’s death caused by ‘Injuns’ and Llewellyn’s caused by Mexicans is that they reflect the ongoing struggles born of racial hatred in Texas.
Ellis finishes his story with short sentences, slowing the pace until the story comes to the deflated haltwith ‘and that was that. As they say.’ This leads onto his final message. To start with Ellis talks about how Ella dug ‘in that hard old caliche,’ showing how the land is physically hard for people, even in death. ‘What you got ain’t nothin new’ refers to the fact that men are killed violently now as they were in the past. His moral is confirmed as ‘this country is hard on people,’ that it is the bleak, isolating, desert landscape, difficult to survive in, which spawns the violence they have experienced. His final words refer firstly to the inevitability of it all, ‘You can’t stop what’s comin’,’ then to fatality with his statement ‘ain’t all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.’ Ellis’s final chilling statement suggests that Ed is too small to have any effect on the vastness of the landscape, which will outlast them all.