The Mexican-American border film interests historians because of the racial and social nuances that can be exhibited from a particular time and period. Lone Star is a film which delves into the racial complexities of a fictional border town. Director John Sayles explores a history of violence and a town-wide cover-up of this history. The protagonist, Sheriff Sam, works though this bloody past and the mythic images of his father, to eventually recognize the reality of a history filled with racism and violence. Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men also revolves around a lawman, by the name of Ed Tom Bell, who also struggles with violence and a counterfeit history. No Country for Old Men differs from Lone Star because it chiefly focuses on the violence of the drug trade and leaves little room for racial context. Both films follow sheriffs struggling to understand tumultuous worlds and both men must eventually come to terms with the changing borderland. Sayles' Lone Star confronts the social flux by attacking the very concept of a border, while No Country for Old Men utilizes violence to dispel any romantic notions about the riches of the drug trade. Lone Star's conclusion gives the borderland an indication of hope amidst a dysfunctional society, but there is no hope at the end of No Country for Old Men when death and greed conquer any semblance of courage and justice.
No Country for Old Men is a fictional tale set in the 1980's when the drug trade became a serious plague of life in border cities. Mexican cartels established "economic motivation to develop and organize relatively sophisticated distribution systems across the Mexican border and into all parts of the United States." No Country for Old Men is only broadly historical in its depiction of a changing culture of violence in the eighties within a context of the increasingly prominent drug trade. Sheriff Bell must manage the volatile carnage on the border when the "bloodshed and brutality that followed the booming illegal drug industry" haunted his county. Throughout the film, Bell reflects upon a time before the cartels, unable to grasp the scope of the greed and materialism that came with illegal trade. Bell trembled before "the bloodshed that orbited around the maintenance and control of illegal drugs," which "became the context for all other legal and illegal activities along the [Rio Grande]." The violence that haunted Bell in No Country for Old Men is very much a part of Mexican-American history.
Lone Star explores a different type of violence on the border—violence divvied out by Anglos in the early 20th Century. Just like No Country for Old Men, Lone Star is a fictional account of social phenomena in a changing border town. Sayles shows that past hostilities between the Anglos and the Mexicans is still damaging their cultural relationships today. Charlie Wade, Sam’s father, is the film's phantom antagonist, haunting characters in the past and in the present. He represents a time when "abuses of the local Anglo citizenry against undocumented workers" was commonplace. In this era, the "farmers and the ranchers treated these men and their families... like serfs," indicating a distinct Anglo dominance. The film’s scenes which take place in present day reflect a much different time, one where Mexicans have forged social standings and are quickly becoming the majority. Sayles addresses a post-NAFTA border, exposing the myth that "transnational capitalism" effects "immigration, birth rates, and other demographic[s]," which challenges "the notion of a nation's singular identity." Lone Star accurately portrays the racial and nationalist identities falling into a state of interconnection.
Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men and Sheriff Sam in Lone Star both struggle with the history and violence of their lands. Sam faces the old, idealized vision of his father set against the tyranny of old-timer Sheriff Wade. Sam investigates the skeletal remains of who he correctly believes is Sheriff Wade. The town is invested in a legend that Sam’s father, Buddy, courageously ran the crooked Sheriff out of town and brought the community to peace. Retired deputy Benton exclaims that “Buddy Deeds said a thing; he damn well backed it up. Never be another one like him.” Everyone else in the town seems to have the same view of Buddy. However, Sam is hesitant to romanticize his father’s memory and commits to uncovering the truth. In his search to defuse the historical myth of his father, he uncovers a history of violence—a history where folks had to succumb to bullying “if you were colored or Mexican and wanted to stay breathing.” Sayles utilizes flashbacks to reflect upon the racial and economic-driven brutality administered by Wade.
Charlie Wade is the vehicle Sayles uses to communicate an old way of thinking about racial classes and material wealth. The philosophy of “might makes right” is Wade’s paradigm. Every time Wade commits an act of violence, it is usually motivated by a person choosing not to cut him in on some cash. At one point, he beats young Otis, who is African American, nearly to death and attempts to execute him for running a gambling operation without giving him any of the exploits. Wade also executes Eladio Cruz because the “little greaser son-of-a-bitch been running a god darn bus service. Thinks he can make a fool out of Charley Wade!” Lone Star is more subtle in its connection to violence and materialism, while No Country for Old Men’s chief focus is in the interplay between blood and greed. Sam comes to the conclusion that even after Sheriff Wade was killed, the town still faced the same identity crisis with Buddy as their Sheriff. In a predominantly white bar, the bartender points out an interracial couple and says “Buddy woulda’ been on them two warning. Not ‘cause he had it in for the colored but just as a kind of safety tip.” Buddy still revealed traces of the same racism found in Wade’s aggression. Yet, Buddy did not resort to the same violence and thirst for power, preferring to conduct himself more akin to a politician. Buddy also required material wealth and political support, but instead of sweating down the town’s people, he would offer them services. This is why Sam wanted to spoil the mythic symbolism of his father being a shining example of what it means to be a Texan. Sam believes his father to be more of a hypocrite than hero when he "uncovers his father's graft, the shady real estate deal, illegal uses of prisoners for private work, and infidelity."
Sam recognizes that the town is in conflict because of the historical myths people fabricate. The older Texans exclaim that “we were here first” and make their displeasure with all the Spanish street names known. They fail to see the reality of history. Mexicans were in Texas first and “19 outta’ 20 are Mexicans” in their town, as Bell says. Sayles makes his point clear at the teacher’s meeting, where the townspeople protest the teaching of the Mexican perspective of the Alamo. The town cherishes a mythical view of the Alamo, where brave white Texans defended their land. A furious Caucasian mother says, “You're just tearin' everything down! Tearin' down our heritage, tearin' down the memory of people that fought and died for this land.” A white male adds, “Winners get the bragging rights, that's how it goes.” Sayles is highlighting the ignorant argument that the oppressors and assassins who come out on top get the right to record history as they see fit. The Anglos see "Mexico as a defeated foreign country, lacking political and economic might." Sayles associates the legends of Wade and Buddy with the Alamo, then uses the new generation of children to conquer this myth. This is accomplished through the interracial relationship of Pilar and Sam.
The relationship of Pilar and Sam is a metaphor of the two cultures on the border. Sayles illustrates that Sam and Pilar were destined for love since they were children. Flashbacks are used to reveal that they had a romantic relationship in their teens. Sam’s father, Buddy, and Pilar’s mother, Mercedes, stop at nothing to keep the young lovers from seeing each other for reasons they cannot begin to comprehend. As adults, Pilar and Sam gravitate towards each other again and their passionate relationship resumes where it left off. This is accented when Pilar says, “It feels like it used to,” referring to their childhood relationship. Even as adults, town politics and Sam’s investigation seem to tax their romance. The separation between them cannot be sustained though, because they feel a connection that transcends petty politics. This is reminiscent of the divide between Mexicans and Americans. The two are married together by a connection neither can understand, but the cultures mix in a beautiful manner when they ignore political that historical obstacles. Ideally, the two countries would live without the border like siblings. In essence, Pilar and Sam were supposed to live as brother and sister, but past politics disrupted the natural order of things.
In the end of the film, Sam regretfully tells Pilar that they are brother and sister after they had become lovers all over again. The conundrum created by their forefathers has turned their relationship as brother and sister into something dysfunctional. The forefathers of the Mexicans and U.S. citizens in Texas created a mess of the Alamo, which placed a divide between the two cultures. The children of those who believed in myths about history and built their identities upon them arrived at an impasse. Sayles’ solution to the impasse of ethnic separation is felt in the words of Pilar: “All that other stuff, all that history? To hell with it, right? Forget the Alamo.” For a torn culture fighting over historical myths to move on, it must give up a history that divides. Pilar and Sam are siblings yet lovers. The most they can do is remain lovers because their parents' lies and deceit forced them to evolve this way. The relationship between U.S. citizens and Mexicans carries this dysfunction. The border that separates the cultures is a historical illusion to Sayles, a dying myth proven by the cultural collisions in border towns because "everyone is involved in the mix, and it is almost impossible to separate oneself completely."
Sayles communicates this message when Sam visits the Tire King, Chucho, and he puts forth his view of the nature of a border. Chucho tells Sam that a "bird flying south…you think he sees that line? Rattlesnake, javelina—whatever you got—halfway across that line…they don't start different. So why should a man?" The border is a creation of nations and something abstract—not concrete and visible. Sam thinks he can be clever and turn the conversation around on Chucho, saying that the Mexican government has invested the same amount of ideology into the border as the States. Chucho replies, "My government can go fuck itself, and so can yours. I'm talking about people here, men." Sayles professes that "the natural world holds to no boundary," and neither should humans with their interpersonal relationships. Chucho then tells Sam the story of the violent execution of Enacio Cruz by Charley Wade, blaming the brutality on the border and separation in general. Sayles believes that "the symbolic and physical borderline has bred a malevolence that" is "poisonous" to the cultures on either side of it. The separation and collisions in Lone Star are sometimes violent. No Country for Old Men seizes this violence and makes it the focus of the film.
At the start of No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Tom Bell reminisces upon a history of myth and legend which he believes in. Unlike Sam in Lone Star, Tom Bell is caught up in the past, which prevents him from being an effective hero in the story. Throughout most of the film, he is hemming and hawing about a new violence he cannot understand that is taking over the borderlands. Bell recalls that “some of the old time sheriffs never even wore a gun… I always liked to hear about the oldtimers. Never missed a chance to do so. You can't help but compare yourself against the oldtimers. Can't help but wonder how they’d have operated these times.” By these times, Bell is referring to the budding violence created by the emerging drug enterprise on the border. The new explosion over drugs and money make Bell feel small and ill-prepared to confront the type of bloodshed characteristic of the border.
Anton Chigurh represents this new type of violence. Beyond being an embodiment of violence, he is also racially bewildering because he looks Latino, sounds Eastern European, and acts like a Texan. He terrifies everyone who he comes into contact with. He is the manifestation of a nihilistic and murderous force. He lives by an obscure code where remorse and sympathy are negated by cold fate and a killer’s logic. He is hired by the cartels to find the missing 2 million dollars, but quickly kills the men who hire him. His motive is never quite clear. It could be that he wants the 2 million for himself, or it could be simply because he is a psychopathic killer. Sheriff Bell sees this man as a new breed of killer than he cannot comprehend. When Bell and his partner investigate the scene of the cartel shootout, he cannot handle the layers of violence that being to compile. The first layer is the cartel standoff, where bodies were bloated by time and riddled with bullets. The second layer is Llewelyn Moss’ escape from the scene when he brings a wounded man water, but is chased by dogs and men with guns. The third layer is the execution-style murder of the cartel’s henchmen by Chigurh. The entire thing has Bell “feel[ing] overmatched”.
At the center of the film is Llewelyn Moss' exodus from everyday life after he steals a satchel of money. Every violent entity on the border is looking for him, including the police and cartels. Chigurh is presented as the primary antagonist and Moss as the film's hero. Moss is likeable and can hold his own against the powers after him. This is proven to viewers by the film's reference to his Vietnam experience. He is established as a normal guy thrown into extraordinary circumstances that everyone in the audiences can cheer for. Throughout the first two acts of the film, the viewers want Moss to get away with the money and kill Chigurh. The Coen Brothers and author Cormac McCarthy have something different in mind for Moss. In movies, the everyday human can often hold his or her own against violence, but on the border, not even a protagonist in a Hollywood film can escape the violence. One would think that Moss would meet his end in a battle with Chigurh of climatic proportions, but that is not the case. Moss' undoing is off screen and the audience is simply shown a body laying in the entrance to a hotel room. He does not even die at the hand of Chigurh; he is simply killed by anonymous Hispanics with uzis who are seen driving away.
Seeing Moss' body pushes Sheriff Bell into a state of defeat. At the end of Moss' story, the audience never knows who obtains the satchel of money or where it is. Now, with the main hero dead and the enemy on the loose, the audience is left defeated just as much as Bell. The Coen's and McCarthy purposely craft this subversion to express the madness that is created over drugs and money. Roscoe illustrates this madness when talking to Bell in a diner: "It's all the goddamned money, Ed Tom. The money and the drugs. It's just goddamned beyond everything. What is it mean? What is it leading to?" Moss is the example of what happens when an everyday person becomes entangled in the viscious border. Sheriff Bell even explains the death of all the men involved in the drug trade as being "natural to the line of work they was in."
Sheriff Bell’s nostalgia for past reflections upon "old timers" not needing to carry pistols and creating law and order just because people wanted order is obviously idealistic. To Bell, times have changed and like Sam in Lone Star, Bell has trouble coping with it. The broken sheriff states, "I used to think I could at least some way put things right. I don't feel that way no more." This hostility seems far too great for him to do anything about it. He does not understand the nihilistic void left by the drug trade—a void where human life means nothing and psychopathic killers can roam with no worries of the law. Also similar to Lone Star, Bell's sense of history is corrupted and shown as myth. An old friend of Bell informs him that he is not dealing with anything new:
...Shot down on his own porch there in Hudspeth County. There was seven or eight of 'em come to the house. Wantin’ this and wantin’ that. Mac went in and got his shotgun, but they was way ahead of him. Shot him down in his own doorway. Aunt Ella run out and tried to stop the bleedin,’. Him tryin’ to get hold of the shotgun again. They just sat there on their horses watchin’ him die. Finally one of 'em says somethin’ in Injun and they all turned and left out. Well Mac knew the score even if Aunt Ella didn't. Shot through the left lung and that was that. As they say. ...What you got ain't nothin’ new. This country is hard on people. Hard and crazy. Got the devil in it, yet folks never seem to hold it to account.
Bell believes his old friend, but simply shrugs off the violent story. The fact that people have been killing on the border since cultures began clashing and that money has been changing hands does not alter Bell’s feeling of being "discouraged." This is discouraged in the truest since of the word, where it sparks a negation of courage. The film ends on this note, with little closure and no real victory on any side.
Lone Star concludes similarly, but with a small hope for the future. Pilar and Sam can move forward, even with the past in their memory. Bell, on the other hand, is rendered useless. In the closing scene of No Country for Old Men, Bell tells his wife that he will help around the house now that he is retired and she says he "better not." Even in his wife’s presence, he is unable. To Sayles, the social and racial situation on the border has hope and life within it. To McCarthy and the Coen Brothers, the border is a cesspool of violence with little meaning other than selfish greed. Bell fails to live up to the ideal he establishes at the start of the film when he says, “I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, ‘O.K., I'll be part of this world.’” In the end of the films, both sheriffs retire: Sam with closure and Bell with dissonance.
No Country for Old Men and Lone Star highlight a turbulent culture on the border. No Country for Old Men uses a distraught sheriff to show the disconnect between idealism of the past and a new type of violence brought into the south of Texas by drug cartels in the 1980's. Lone Star is set apart from No Country in that it focuses on the interconnectedness of cultures on the border. Deep within Sayles' film is the notion that borders and division creates a state of hostility. No Country for Old Men has no solution for the violence. It merely serves as a literary piece to strip away any romantic notions of the border, utilizing gruesome violence and the failure of courage and justice. Lone Star, on the other hand, presents the social situation on the border as dysfunctional, not hopeless. Sayles uses metaphor and flashback to show that borders are national constructs, which create a state of violence and social alienation. Each film is a snapshot of prevalent issues in Mexican-American history, encapsulating specific time periods as well as ongoing quandaries along the border.
No Country for Old Men. Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. 2007.
Gordon, Rebecca M. "Psychic Borders and Legacies Left Hanging in Lone Star and Men With Guns." In Sayles Talk, edited by Diane Carson and Heidi Kenaga, 215-237. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2006.
Maril, Robert Lee. Patrolling Chaos: The U.S. Border Patrol in Deep South Texas. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2004.
Rotella, Sebastian. Twilight on the Line: Underworld and Politics at the U.S. - Mexico Border. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.
Ryan, Jack. John Sayles, Filmmaker. London: McFarland & Company Publishers, 1998.
Lone Star. Directed by John Sayles. 1996.
 Maril, Robert Lee. Patrolling Chaos: The U.S. Border Patrol in Deep South Texas. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2004. Pg. 148.
 Ibid. Pg. 149.
 Ibid. Pg. 150.
 Ibid. Pg. 145.
 Ibid. Pg. 145.
 Gordon, Rebecca M. "Psychic Borders and Legacies Left Hanging in Lone Star and Men With Guns." In Sayles Talk, edited by Diane Carson and Heidi Kenaga, 215-237. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2006. Pg. 215.
 Ryan, Jack. John Sayles, Filmmaker. London: McFarland & Company Publishers, 1998. Pg. 225.
 Ibid. Pg. 223.
 Ibid. Pg. 226.
 Ibid. Pg. 224.
 Ibid. Pg. 226.