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The year is 1980 and along the bloody frontier between Texas and Mexico, a cowboy and Vietnam Veteran with special training named Llewelyn Moss, sets out to hunt antelope near the Rio Grande River when he's suddenly astonished by a scene of devastation. He finds shot-up corpses, a load of heroin and a satchel containing $2 million in a drug deal gone wrong. Guns and ammunition are everywhere, cars pocked with bullets, and a lone survivor, a Mexican man surrounded by bags of heroin and begging for water. He leaves the man to die and takes the satchel of money. Laying awake in bed Moss's conscience gets the best of him and he decides to go back to the desert and take the dying man some water. This act of mercy backfires, for he returns to find the man is already dead and now the drug dealers have spotted his truck. Knowing they will soon be able to find him through the truck's identification number, he realizes the gravity of his situation and goes on the run with the money.
When the shootout scene is brought to Sheriff Bell's attention, he realizes how much protection Moss and his wife, Carla Jean, are going to need. By this time, one side in the failed transaction has hired Anton Chigurh, a savage killer for hire, with skills that are at least as good as Moss's. He is a strange character that has no problem killing someone on the flip of a coin not only because he enjoys it but also because it appeals to his moral code. He is ruthless, effective and determined not only to track down the money but also to dish out his own flavor of revenge on the way. From opposing ends of the morality scale, these two are destined to meet.
Unknown to Moss, the bag of money contains a transponder which is continually tracking his location. He checks into a hotel on the outskirts of town and hides the money in the ventilation duct. He closes the curtains in the room and leaves to get some supplies. Chigurh tracks the satchel using the location device and rents a room in the hotel. When Llewelyn returns he sees the curtains of his room have been opened slightly, like someone is watching for him inside his room. He tells the driver to keep going and take him somewhere else. He later returns to the hotel and rents another room that is connected to ventilation duct of his original room. As Chigurh enters Moss's room and he finds three Mexican killers waiting inside for Llewelyn. He murders them and waits but Llewelyn is in the connecting room retrieving the satchel of money and he escapes.
Moss finds another hotel and realizes that the money must have a tracking device and that is how they are finding him. He finds the device but it is too late, Chigurh has already killed the hotel clerk and is on his way to his room. Llewelyn shoots at him with a sawed off shotgun and escapes through the window but no without catching a bullet in his abdomen. Chigurh chases him and kills a driver who has stopped to help Llewelyn, causing an accident. Llewelyn uses the confusion to shoot Chigurh and forces him to retreat. Now bleeding badly, Llewelyn throws the money in the bushes along the banks of the Rio Grande then crosses into Mexico and pays some people to take him to the hospital.
In Dallas, the businessman who hired Chigurh is upset about all the violence and attention Chigurh is causing. He hires a chatty mercenary named Carson Wells, who boasts of personally knowing Chigurh, to neutralize Chigurh and get the money back. When asked how dangerous Wells thinks Chigurh is, he responds by comparing him to the bubonic plague and calls him a psychopathic killer.
When Moss awakens in the Mexican hospital he sees Wells at his bedside. He explains that he was able to track him down in three hours despite Moss's best efforts to be elusive. He tells him that he is willing to help Moss get away from Chigurh and he can keep some of the money if he returns it. When Moss asks if Chigurh is the ultimate killer Wells replies that he has no sense of humor but does have a code of honor that is "highly principled, almost." He gives Moss his hotel room number and tells him to consider the deal. As Wells is walking back across the U.S. - Mexico bridge he sees where Moss has thrown the satchel.
When Wells walks back into his hotel, Chigurh follows him in. Chigurh greets Wells warmly, but keeps him at gun-point. Upstairs in the room, Wells recognizes the bleakness of his situation and desperately tries to cut a deal with Chigurh. He offers to retrieve the money for Chigurh, but Chigurh remains uninterested in any deal. Upon realizing that there's no way Chigurh will let him live, Wells resigns himself to the predicament and tells his adversary how crazy he must be. When the room phone rings, Chigurh kills Wells. Chigurh answers the phone, and its Moss calling. Chigurh tells Moss he knows exactly where he is and, instead of coming to kill him in the hospital, he is going to find Carla Jean kill her. He makes Moss an offer that he will let Carla Jean live if he returns the money and forfeits his own life. Moss tells Chigurh he won't have to come after him, because he will come after Chigurh. Walking back from Mexico into Texas, still in his hospital gown, Moss uses his veteran experience to verify his nationality to the Border Patrol agent, who admits him back into the United States. He then recovers the satchel. He calls Carla Jean and tells her to take her mother on the bus to El Paso, meet him at a motel where he's gotten a room, and then they will fly off to some safe location.
Mexican gangsters follow Carla Jean and her mother from their home to the bus station. After they've arrived at the bus station, Carla Jean steps away from her ailing mother to call Sheriff Bell and report where Moss is to meet them. One of the well-dressed Mexican gangsters gets out at the bus station and offers to help Carla Jean's mother with their luggage. He chats her up, and she trustingly tells him exactly where they are going; she is unenthused about the trip, as she is suffering from cancer and would prefer to remain at home. He and his associates drive off.
A bit later, Sheriff Bell is driving up to Moss' motel as he hears automatic gunfire and sees, to his creeping dismay, a pickup truck and its crew of hired assassins speeding off. At the motel, Sheriff Bell sees that Llewelyn Moss is dead in the open doorway of his room. That evening, Moss's wife arrives at the motel, and Bell greets her with the bad news.
Weeks later, Carla Jean's mother has died, and upon returning from her funeral, Carla Jean finds Chigurh sitting in her mother's house. Chigurh explains that he made a "promise" to Moss that he was going to kill her. Chigurh offers that if she calls correctly in a coin toss, he'll spare her life. Carla Jean dismisses Chigurh's game, saying that he's the one who decides on whether or not to kill her, not the coin. He is unmoved, however, insisting on his lack of a free choice in the matter. She will not call the coin so he kills her. This act of evil, which Bell cannot begin to comprehend, is what makes him decide to retire from law enforcement. This theme is summed up in the quote from the book, "It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people can't be governed at all."
Driving off, Chigurh is suddenly hit broadside by a car speeding through the intersection that he just entered. Chigurh gets out of his car, his eye nearly popped out of his skull and his bone protruding out of his elbow in a compound fracture. Two neighborhood boys come up to him to see if he's all right. Chigurh pays the kids for one of their shirts, which he uses to make a sling for his arm, and to have them not report having seen him. Chigurh limps away down the street.
The story concludes with Bell's reflection on his own life. Bell confides in his old uncle that he made a choice while a soldier years ago that he regretted. Since then, he has felt he was "buying back his life" because he did not die for the sake of honor. He fears the older generations of sheriffs were better men than he turned out to be. When Bell explains that he felt "outmatched", he tells him that we have to continue with our lives no matter how evil life gets.
In the end, he dreams of his father riding through the dark ahead of him and knows he will be waiting for him.
Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men illustrates how much the drugs business has distorted what is acceptable and how expendable a life is when it stands in the way of making millions out of crime. The violence is meant to be extreme to not only show the futility of trying to fight it with traditional sheriff departments but how another, more cynical generation, is needed to comprehend the motivation of those that are breaking the law.
In the past, the idea of bad had a different definition. This new breed of outlaws can't be stopped because they have no regard for principles of any kind. That is, with the possible exception of hit man Chigurh, who makes up his own rules. In a way, Chigurh is Bell's exact opposite. He believes that life is based on chance and circumstance rather than conscious choices. Chigurh represents the Grim Reaper and embraces the philosophy that fate plays a role in life. Fate and chance are impersonal: whether or not people have good intentions is as immaterial as the toss of a coin.
McCarthy uses no punctuation, in a style where thoughts and speech blend together except by the "he said, he replied" formula. He also takes liberties with the conventional structure of a novel which makes the story much more powerful. You may not like the unconventional outcome as I did, but McCarthy's description of two uncompromising forces of good and evil leaves a powerful and unforgettable impression.