Whatcha got ain't nothin new. This country's hard on people, you can't stop what's coming, it ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity.
- Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
The 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men is a tense, tight film with one overarching theme: evil is coming for you, and there's nothing you can do about it. Many commentators see that book and film, along with most of McCarthy's work (including, now, The Counselor, his first original screenplay), as part of a sort of declinist narrative of history: too much has happened for us to ever go back. This world in which we live is irreparably dark.
Certainly, the Pulitzer- and National Book Award-winning novelist is convinced that we are at the mercy of history more than we—especially we Americans—will ever consider fair. Yet No Country's Ellis, uncle to Tommy Lee Jones's sheriff and an ex-law man himself, points out to his nephew that the evil encountered in the terrifying figure of Anton Chigurh, the bolt pistol-toting hitman, ain't nothin new.
It's vanity, in McCarthy's view, to think that we've got a new breed of evil today. It's the same old evil, only now it has bigger guns. And it still strikes at random.
This is what The Counselor is about.
The story in a McCarthy tale is secondary to what the story is driving at, which is always the same two points. One, the world is older than it ever has been, and might be ending at any time; two, in the meantime, it's often a very bad place to live, full of random, senseless evil. There is no victory in a Cormac McCarthy novel. The best anyone can hope for is to survive the apocalypse, or hope his son will survive.
McCarthy is not a religious man in the traditional sense of the word, but he was raised Catholic, and religion crops up in this film frequently as a topic of discussion. (I've read his worldview described as "Catholic without the revelation.") Key to McCarthy's moral universe is this sense of evil as a transcendent thing, which is to say that it exists apart from individual people and their actions: the wages of sin is death, but death and destruction come to the (relatively) innocent, too.
McCarthy frequently links a different worldview—the idea that it is possible, here on earth, for good men to conquer evil—to a modern American way of thinking, obsessed with righting history's wrongs, convinced that past sins need not determine the future. For McCarthy, this is exactly the opposite of a more ancient perception of evil (for him, symbolized in Mexico) as a thing bigger than individual men, with a will of its own. It can be battled and pushed back, but not destroyed, not by us, not here.
Evil in McCarthy's universe is best distilled in the figure of No Country's Anton Chigurh, who is not a man at all, not in any real sense, in the same way that The Dark Knight's Joker is far more than a villain. In a passage from the novel All the Pretty Horses, a wealthy and influential prisoner in a Mexican jail explains it to John Grady Cole (our American cowboy hero, who has accidentally landed himself in that jail):