On the Captive-Bolt Gun in No Country for Old Men

Still from No Country for Old Men.

I’m fairly sure I first saw No Country for Old Men at my beloved hometown cinema, the Lake Placid Palace Theater. I recall thinking the 2007 crime thriller was very good, but a little bleak for my taste. I hadn’t revisited Joel and Ethan Cohen’s acclaimed film until recently, when I read an essay by the animal liberationist Dylan Powell, which made me consider it afresh.

Sometimes, when I feel burned out with activism, I look around for another book project. One I’ve thought about is a history of Marineland Animal Defense, which was a Canadian group led by Powell. As part of my initial research on the topic, I used the Wayback Machine to access Powell’s defunct blog, The Vegan Police. He wrote a post there about the winner of four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

The film, set in Texas in 1980, follows three men. The first, Llewelyn Moss, played by Josh Brolin, discovers the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, and makes off with a briefcase filled with $2 million. Anton Chigurh is a sociopathic hitman, portrayed by Javier Bardem, who is hired to retrieve the cash. Meanwhile, Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is a county sheriff pursuing the former two.

“The most important part of this film is [Chigurh’s] weapon of choice, the captive bolt gun,” Powell wrote “It became a symbol for the movie, used in all press packages and highly talked about by reviewers. However, its importance to the film is much deeper than most ascribe to it. A captive bolt gun is designed to enter the skull of animal, destroy the cerebrum and cerebellum, while leaving the brain stem intact to ensure the heart continues to beat in order for ‘successful bleeding.’”

As Powell notes, Chigurh’s use of the retractable, air-pressurized stunning device effectively reduces his human victims to the lowly status we afford livestock. To some extent, it’s this violation of the speciesist paradigm which we find so disturbing. It’s partly why we view Chigurh as so psychotic. Bardem deservedly won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the unstoppable, Terminator-like figure with a bad haircut.

In case the species demotion implied by Chigurh’s use of the captive-bolt gun wasn’t clear enough, two back-to-back scenes early in the film all but spell it out. The first features Bardem’s character placing his weapon against the forehead of a stranger and telling his victim to hold still. The second includes Moss hunting pronghorns in the desert. Following an animal in his gun sights, he repeats the same phrase. This can’t be coincidental.

“‘No Country for Old Men’ is as good a film as the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, have ever made, and they made ‘Fargo,’” the legendary critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review. “This movie is a masterful evocation of time, place, character, moral choices, immoral certainties, human nature and fate. It is also, in the photography by Roger Deakins, the editing by the Coens and the music by Carter Burwell, startlingly beautiful, stark and lonely.”

The picture remains a little too stark and lonely for my taste, however, I can’t deny the film’s quality. I’m glad I stumbled across Powell’s old blog post, which inspired me to rewatch the modern western. It’s too bad the activist seems to have dropped out of the movement in recent years. Perhaps he just no longer occupies the more public role he used to have.

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town. He blogs at SlaughterFreeAmerica.Substack.com.