No Country for Old Men and the Cattle-Gun Myth

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In what is a recurring—and fun—tradition, the Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday has updated her ranking of all 17 of the Coen brothers films to date. (A while back, for the 30th anniversary of their first film, Blood Simple, I went back to rewatch and rank their films one by one.) Hornaday’s list is good, if idiosyncratic: She gives the magnificent Miller’s Crossing and Raising Arizona their due, for instance, and if she rates The Big Lebowski lower than most, well, so do I.

The trouble comes, as it has in the past, with No Country for Old Men, which Hornaday unconscionably rates as the Coens’ second-to-worst film. (Even she recognizes that The Ladykillers has no competition for worst.) Here is Hornaday’s description of the film (recycled from previous lists):

A technically perfect movie in which the Coens deploy every cinematic element at their disposal — writing, cinematography, editing, sound, performances — with the virtuosity of artists at the height of their powers. All to follow around a serial killer blowing people away with a cattle stun gun. Sorry, not worth it.

As I’ve noted before, this is flat-out wrong: Anton Chigurh kills exactly one person—the unlucky motorist—with the cattle gun; the remainder of his dozen-plus murders (with the exception of his strangulation of the policeman) are committed with conventional firearms, such as the one pictured above. This makes sense of course, given that the effective range of the cattle gun is probably about five inches. (Hornaday might just as accurately dismiss the movie as “follow[ing] around a serial killer strangling people with handcuffs.”) The real purpose of the cattle gun—for which Chigurh uses it on at least five occasions—is to punch out locks.

Oddly, Hornaday is not the only critic who dismisses No Country for Old Men on the basis of this this error. David Denby of the New Yorker cited it twice in a 2008 essay critical of the Coens.

Look, no one—critic or otherwise—is under any obligation to like No Country for Old Men or, for that matter, the Coens in general. But if one is going to critique the film (or its makers), one should do it on the basis of what actually takes place on screen, rather than some hazy and inaccurate recollection.