The novel begins with a monologue from Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Each of the following chapters begins with a similar monologue told from the present tense, after the story’s events. Bell speaks about a nineteen-year-old man who is on his way to the gas chamber because of Bell’s testimony. The young man murdered his fourteen-year-old girlfriend. Bell meets with the young man before his execution. The papers have suggested that the murder was a crime of passion, but the young man tells him there wasn’t any passion to it. The young man tells Bell he knows he is going to hell. Bell wonders if this young man is “a new kind”, and wonders what society can say to a man who believes he has no soul.
That Sherriff Bell frames the story of No Country for Old Men with monologues told after the events of the story suggests that these events have profoundly changed him. Bell’s anecdote about the young man has no connection, in terms of plot, with the rest of the story. His decision to include it suggests that the anecdote has an explanatory or spiritual connection to the events of the story; this connection seems to be Bell’s conviction that some new evil or amorality is rising—what he calls “a new kind”—as well as his profound doubt about what society can do about it.
Bell believes there is a way to view the world that is different than his, and suggests that there is a true and living prophet of destruction walking through the world. Bell has crossed paths with the prophet, but doesn’t want to do it again. He reflects on his job as Sheriff, stating that you have to be willing to put your soul at risk to confront a man like the prophet, and he is unwilling to gamble with his soul.
Bell is referencing Anton Chigurh, the novel’s antagonist, when he mentions the prophet of destruction. Chigurh has not appeared yet in the narrative, but Bell has witnessed Chigurh’s wrath, and understands Chigurh’s philosophy and beliefs stand in direct contrast to his own. Chigurh operates outside of societal conceptions of morality and higher law, which challenges Bell philosophically and spiritually. His unwillingness to gamble with his soul foreshadows his later decision to quit the police force and surrender to his inability to influence the overwhelming forces of evil in the world.
The narration then moves to the past, and cuts to Anton Chigurh who is handcuffed in the police station. The deputy, who has his back to Chigurh, calls Sheriff Lamar, a sheriff who serves in Sonora, and tells him Chigurh has an instrument that looks like an oxygen tank, but is connected to a bolt gun like the ones used to kill livestock in slaughterhouses. The deputy says he’s “Got it covered,” but even as he does so, Chigurh squats down and steps over the handcuffs, bringing them forward from behind his back. He has practiced this maneuver many times. Chigurh strangles the deputy with the handcuffs, pulling so hard the deputy’s carotid artery bursts, and blood sprays the walls. They fall to the ground, and Chigurh holds him there, breathing quietly as the deputy dies.
The deputy’s false sense of control over the situation leads to his demise, an early example of how the novel treats fate as something beyond anyone’s control. Chigurh’s escape signifies his disregard for the boundaries of the law, and the fact that the law is unable to contain him. The details of the brutal murder show Chigurh’s violent nature. He is devoid of empathy and morals, and has no regard for human life. His composure and lack of emotion during and after the murder, shown through his quiet breathing, suggests that he has prior experience with this kind of violence.
Chigurh unlocks the cuffs, and puts the officer’s gun in his waistband. He cleans the wounds on his wrists in the sink. As he bandages his wrists, he studies his victim. Afterward, he takes the deputy’s money, leaving his wallet on the floor. Before he leaves, he grabs his air tank and bolt gun.
Even though Chigurh may seem, at times, to lack human feeling and empathy, the wounds on his wrists show his humanity and vulnerability. Chigurh is driven by pragmatism, as opposed to greed, which is subtly depicted through his decision to take the money, but refrain from looking through the wallet.
Chigurh steals the deputy’s cruiser and drives down the interstate. He pulls over a Ford Sedan, and tells the driver to step out of the car. Chigurh sees the doubt come into the man’s eyes as he realizes Chigurh is not a police officer. Chigurh places his free hand on the man’s head “like a faith healer”, and kills him with the bolt gun. Before leaving, Chigurh tells the dead man he just didn’t want to get blood in the car.
Though Chigurh perceives himself as outside of the law, he freely manipulates the authority granted to law enforcement by getting the man to pull over. The man’s realization that Chigurh is not an officer and Chigurh’s gesture of placing his hand on the man’s head like a “faith healer” links the law with the “higher law” of religion. Chigurh’s facetious comment to the dead man again shows his lack of empathy and concern for the man.
The narrative then moves to Llewellyn Moss. Moss positions himself on a ridge with his rifle and binoculars. It is early morning, and the desert is cast in shadows from the ridge and desert plants. Moss’s shadow is out there somewhere. Below him, he sees a herd of antelope. Further back, the mountains of Mexico rise from the south. He takes off his boot and lies down, resting the barrel of the rifle on it. The antelopes rear their heads, having spotted him. The sun is behind him, so they couldn’t have seen the reflection in the scope’s lens. He aims the rifle, noting that he knows the exact drop of the bullet in hundred yard increments, but the exact distance is uncertain.
The shadows in the desert point metaphorically toward the darkness Moss will confront, and the presence of his own shadow suggests he will become entangled in this darkness. Moss’s actions reveal his expertise in hunting and shooting—skills he gained as a sniper in Vietnam—but the fact that the antelope detect him suggests his skills are flawed. The uncertain distance relates to the issue of morality and free will—individuals have the free will to make decisions, but the moral boundaries and the exact outcomes are often unclear.
Moss fires. It takes the bullet a second to get there, but the sound takes twice that. He misses his shot and the bullet sends a plume of dust into the air. The antelope run. One of the antelope limps as it runs away, and Moss thinks the bullet must have ricocheted up and caught the animal in the leg. He stands and looks at the desert, noting that the dust kicked up by the shot is gone, as if nothing had occurred at all. He ejects the bullet casing and puts it in his pocket.
The bullet moving faster than the sound and the way the dust quickly disappears shows how death can arrive without warning and leave no trace. The missed shot again suggests that Moss is flawed. The fact that the missed shot still hits the animal is an early indicator of the role chance will play in the narrative. Just because the intended action didn’t hit the target doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences.
Moss sets out across the desert. As he climbs another slope, he looks out and sees a pit-bull with cropped ears limping across the desert. The dog pauses and looks back before continuing forward. He continues up the path, passing some rocks etched in ancient pictographs. Moss notes they were carved by hunters like him, but there is no trace of these men except for their carvings. As he reaches the ridge, he sees three vehicles parked on the floodplain below him. He looks through the binoculars and sees men lying dead on the ground.
Cropped ears on a pit-bull are often a sign of dog fighting. This detail connects the situation to corruption and greed, pointing to the way in which individuals exploit weaker beings for power and profit. The pictographs connect Moss to the ancient past. Though these ancient hunters are gone, Moss is engaging in the same activity, evoking the idea that even though times have changed, certain elements of the past remain. The carnage at the scene shows the outcomes of the greed and corruption involved in the drug trade.
Moss approaches the vehicles with his rifle drawn, and the safety off. Among the dead bodies, he sees another dog killed by gunfire. He checks two vehicles, finding one empty and one with a dead body inside. In the third vehicle, he discovers a severely wounded Mexican man. Moss stumbles back, raising the rifle. The man begs moss in Spanish for water, calling him buddy in Spanish, and asking in the name of God. Moss takes the man’s gun, and tells him he doesn’t have any water.
The presence of the dead dog among the dead men suggests metaphorically that the murderers do not value human life any more than that of animals. From the moral and ethical standpoint of the killers, both are worthless. The wounded man’s plea for water in the name of God forces Moss to make a moral decision and confront the idea of higher law. Though he is dismissive of the man in this moment, he will later feel guilty about his lack of morality.
Moss discovers bricks of heroin covered in a tarp in the rear of the truck. He covers the bricks again, and looks out over the desert. He begins wiping his fingerprints off of the surfaces he has touched, and then collects the several guns lying around. Returning to the dying man, he asks in broken Spanish if there are other guns. The man tells him there is one in his bag. Moss asks if the man speaks English, but he doesn’t answer. The man asks again in Spanish for water. Again, Moss tells him he doesn’t have any. As he leaves, the man asks him to close the door. He is worried about wolves and mountain lions. Moss says there aren’t any wolves, but he uses his elbow to close the door anyways.
Moss realizes he is in a very dangerous situation, but instead of leaving, he attempts to gain control over the situation by covering his tracks and collecting the guns. These actions demonstrate his philosophical orientation toward autonomy and self-reliance. The language barrier between Moss and the Mexican man does not stop Moss from acting ethically and empathetically. The man’s comment about dangerous animals foreshadows the men who will come in search of the drugs and money. Moss does not see the significance of this comment, and his shortsightedness shows the flaws in his philosophy of autonomy and self-reliance.
Moss realizes someone has survived the carnage, and discovers a trail of blood across the caldera. He begins to track the missing man, commenting that the man thinks he is going to escape, but he isn’t. Moss reasons that the man would have sought some shade and would not have climbed uphill if he were injured. He climbs a ridge, and from the top, to the north, he sees a tractor-trailer pass on Highway 90. Then, he spots something blue down below. He waits the better part of an hour, watching through his binoculars before he starts down.
It can be assumed that Moss understands the “last man” is holding the money, and his decision to pursue the man shows how greed can impair judgment. He is given the opportunity to choose in this moment, and therefore, must exercise his free will. Moss’s decision constitutes a major step toward his demise, and furthers the idea that every action a person takes, no matter how well planned or executed, leads toward his or her inescapable fate.
The dead man is leaned up against a rock. A government issue .45 automatic and a leather briefcase rest beside him. Moss takes the gun and tries to wipe the blood off the grip but it is too well congealed. He looks across the desert again, and then approaches the briefcase. He knows there is money inside, and feels scared in a way he doesn’t understand. He takes the briefcase a short distance away, and opens it. The briefcase is full of hundred dollar bills, fastened with bank tape stamped $10,000. He sits and closes his eyes, seeing his whole life there in front of him, day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead.
The pistol draws a connection between the government and the drug trade, suggesting that corruption occurs on a grand scale. Being a working class individual, Moss knows the money will change his life, leading him to think about where he has come from and where he his heading. He is aware of the danger, as shown through his reference to death, but the temptation of a better life outweighs the risks.
Before leaving, Moss considers the dead man and the way his life ended in this place. Then Moss sets out, taking the briefcase with him, and weighing the dangers of his escape. He could be bitten by a rattlesnake or arrested for carrying the illegal weapons he took from the scene, but worst of all, he realizes that someone will be looking for the money he has taken.
Moss confronts the possibility of his own fate as he studies the man. The immediate dangers he faces in the desert are grave, but he understands that the owners of the money are far more dangerous than the landscape or the law. Even knowing this, he decides to take the money, trusting himself to defeat those who will seek his death.
Moss walks for several hours before reaching his truck. He leaves his headlights off until he reaches the highway, then he turns them on and begins home. He checks the speed limit every mile of the way. He stops once for a pack of cigarettes for his wife Carla Jean. When he reaches his trailer he sees the lights are on. He sits in the car for a moment and realizes the importance of this day. He will never experience another one like it. As soon as he says it he feels sorry.
Moss’s wariness in keeping the headlights on and following the speed limit closely shows how aware he is of the danger he is in. He stops for the cigarettes knowing Carla Jean will want some, which suggests he is thinking about her as he carts the money home. As he sits in the car, he realizes that his life with Carla Jean will never be the same, and in this moment the implications of his decision begin to set in, leading to a feeling of remorse.
Inside, Moss finds Carla Jean sitting on the couch. She asks what is in the briefcase. He tells her it is full of money, but she doesn’t believe him. He hides the briefcase beneath the bed, and goes out to the truck to get her cigarettes, returning with his binoculars, rifle, and the pistol he took from the murder scene. Carla Jean asks where he got the pistol, and Moss tells her he found it. Again, Carla Jean doesn’t believe him. She tells him she doesn’t even want to know where he was. He tells her it’s better not to know.
Moss is as honest as he can be with Carla Jean, but he keeps the details from her as not to frighten her. Though Moss loves Carla Jean, he is a fiercely autonomous person, and Carla Jean knows this. He is already worried about her safety, and feels it better to keep the information secret as a measure of protection.
Moss wakes up at 1:06am and sits up. He looks at Carla Jean, still asleep, and pulls the blanket up over her shoulder before going into the kitchen. He takes a drink of water, and stares out the window toward the highway. He goes back into the bedroom and takes out the briefcase. Opening it, he reaches in and figures that it holds about 2.4 million dollars. He tells himself he has to take this seriously; he can’t treat it like luck. He looks back out the window, realizing it wasn’t the money that woke him, but the man he left out in the desert without any water.
Moss is roused by the guilt he feels about leaving the man without water in the desert. Though he does not always make moral decisions and often acts outside the boundaries of the law, he does have a strong moral center, and values human life. His tenderness toward Carla Jean shows his love and concern for her, even though he has made a bad decision and put her at risk. Moss makes the decision not to rely on luck, but he foolishly continues to believe he can overcome luck and chance through self-reliance and careful action.
Carla Jean wakes up as Moss is getting dressed. She asks him where he is going, and he tells her he is about to do something incredibly stupid, but is going anyways. He tells Carla Jean that if he doesn’t return, to tell his mother he loves her. She reminds him his mother is dead, and he says he will tell her himself then. He fills a gallon jug of water at the sink. Carla Jean follows him into the kitchen, telling him she doesn’t want him to go. He says he doesn’t want to go either, but he has to.
Though Moss recognizes the danger of his decision to help the man, he is overcome by a sense of moral responsibility. Moss feels he must abide by his own sense of morality. He is very aware that he may die as the result of his actions, but in Moss’s mind, dying while doing the right thing is better than living with regret.
Moss stops at a filling station to study a map of the terrain. He has all terrain tires on his truck, but he notes that the landscape is treacherous. He drives out on the deserted road, noting that he is so far out the radio won’t even receive static, it is completely dead. When the moon is up, he shuts out his headlights and continues driving into the desert. Before he reaches the man, he parks the truck and sits for a moment, thinking about what he is about to do. He asks himself why he risking his life for a Mexican drug dealer, but justifies it by saying everyone is worth something.
Moss is confronting how alone he is in the landscape and in his decision to risk his life. Even though Moss does not follow societal conventions of morality, ethics, and law, he has a strong internal sense of morality and places a high value on human life. His moral compass leads him to pause and think before moving forward with his plan.
Before Moss parks the car, he takes the bulb out of the dome light. He takes the jug of water and the pistol and starts out toward the man. As he approaches, he notes that his shadow was more company than he would have liked. He is out there among the dead, but he attempts to stay calm, reminding himself he is not yet one of them. When he gets close to the truck, he sees the door is open. He immediately recognizes his mistake, calling himself a “dumbass,” and noting that he is too stupid to live. He finds the man leaned over, with fresh blood coating the interior of the truck, and discovers the heroin and the weapons are missing.
In the same way the shadows earlier in the novel represent a figurative darkness, or a touch of evil, Moss’s aversion to his own shadow suggests that he’d rather turn away from the ugly parts of himself, especially the greed that led him here. He confronts death once again when he sees the bodies, but knows he must compose himself, for a single wrong move could mean the end of his life. His mistake and the self-loathing he feels show that in No Country for Old Men, acting in an ethical way does not guarantee positive outcomes.
As Moss makes his way back to his truck, he sees someone standing beside it. He realizes what a fool he is for coming back, and believes he is going to die. He lays flat on the ground, trying not to think about the snakes and spiders that call this place home. The truck circles around him, searching with a spotlight. As the spotlight sweeps past him he thinks it would be better for everyone if he were put out of his misery. He moves again, realizing he will never see his truck again, and in that moment thinks there are many things he will never see again. As he tries to escape, he berates and mocks himself for his decision to help the man.
Until this moment, Moss has only speculated about his death, but now he confronts the men who might actually kill him. He also recognizes in a very concrete way that his relationship and future with Carla Jean will change—they will always be running and hiding from these dangerous men. Moss’s continued self-reproach reaffirms the idea that “no good deed goes unpunished”: even acting morally, such as by offering help to a person in need, can lead to trouble.
Moss runs toward the sound of a river, realizing that he needs to be somewhere with cover before daylight. As he runs, he notes that he has had this feeling before, in another country, and he thought he’d never feel it again. As he reaches the flood plain, the truck begins to approach him from behind. He takes the gun from his belt, and sets off, running as fast as he can. The men in the truck begin firing shots at him. He hears the buckshot fly over his head, and is struck in the back of the arm, though he doesn’t notice until later.
The last time Moss had this feeling was during his tour in Vietnam. Moss’s experience in Vietnam has shaped his personality and moral code, and has taught him how to survive in situations like the one he is in. The emergence of this feeling suggests that the past has never left him, and this regression back into this state of mind leads to detachment, making him unable to feel the shot that hits him in the arm.
Moss falls down a steep bank, and lands hard letting out a groan. Two men appear against the sky on the ridge above him and he fires at them until they flee. He dives into the river, and emerges from the water a mile down stream. He hides some vegetation called “river cane”, and when he looks back and sees the truck is gone. He sees the men up river, but thinks about his truck abandoned in the desert. He knows within 24 hours, the men will be able to call the courthouse with the vehicle number and get his information. He understands they will never stop looking for him. He thinks of his brother in California, and wonders how he will explain the danger he is in. Eventually, he runs east forward Langtry, Texas, realizing, as the river drops away behind him, that he didn’t even take a drink.
Moss stumbling upon the river is an example of how chance and luck can have a big impact on our lives. The river works symbolically in the novel. As a Christian symbol, water represents redemption and rebirth. In this moment, Moss saves himself by jumping in the river, and he emerges with a new understanding of his situation and a new role as a man on the run. He realizes his life will change, and must confront the way in which his decision to take the money will affect those around him. Forgetting to take a drink, however, shows that his survival skills are flawed, and foreshadows the missteps he will make as the novel continues.