Carla Jean: The Quiet Foil

Liz Melendez
Novel, Film Adaptation

My original thesis addressed on the roles and symbolism of the female characters in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Within the broader context of an analysis of all of the female characters in this story, I chose to focus on Llewelyn Moss’s wife, Carla Jean. Within the narrative of the women in No Country, one in which, contrary to critics of McCarthy’s portrayal of women in his novels, depicts the females as the arbiters of strength, wisdom, a calm in the storm, Carla Jean, particularly in the film, plays a distinct role among these.

The book is predominantly the voice of Sheriff Bell, whose long italicized swaths of confessional narrations dominate the print experience. But the film relies, quite rightly, on the distinct capabilities of Tommy Jones, whose weathered features and acting chops carry the weight of the Sheriff Bell narrative in the film without the need for its representation in dialogue. This invocation of artistic license makes room for the Coen brothers to leave their own mark on the piece while leaving the story otherwise almost completely intact. It is in this space, that the most complicated sub-narrative of Carla Jean can be found.

Throughout the film and for most of the book, Carla Jean is pragmatic and resilient while at once being vulnerable and even frightened. Her strength, and her power as a foil, is that when it matters most, she is steadfast. One particular expression of her unflinching certainty is to Sheriff Bell, as she affirms her belief in Llewelyn’s ability to take care of himself, no matter the threat or challenge. As Daniel butler puts it in his article for the Cormac McCarthy Journal “… Moss’s resolutely loyal wife Carla Jean tells Sheriff Bell, ‘He was in Vietnam,’ a statement, which, in its brevity, indicates that Moss has seen horrors before and is unlikely to be frightened by the threats of drug-dealers (130)” (Butler 42). This certainty, which runs in contrast to her warnings and concern when talking to Llewelyn directly, aside from a show of loyalty, carries beneath it, a foundation of serene resolve demonstrated by the other female characters in this story. As her fear for Llewelyn’s safety overcomes her, Carla Jean’s appeals to her husband invoke a steady and moralistic thread that seems to be at the center of this foundation. “It’s a false god” (McCarthy 181).

This humble foil seems to command the most formidable oppositional force against the seemingly invincible and terrifying Anton Chighur. In an almost imperceptible turn, Carla Jean, when faced with imminent death at the hands of Chighur, defies his signature imperative, “Call it,” a coin toss mind game, a death riddle and cruel emotional ruse the latter uses to toy with and terrify his victims in their final moments of life (McCarthy, 256). At this moment, Carla Jean confronts Chighur on the illusion of his tack and his principles, pointing out the totality of his agency in the matter, that he, truly “does not have to do this,” referring to the murder about to take place. Chighur, who has the same conversation with Wells moments before his demise, offers her the coin toss, as if to defer all responsibility to the coin in her fate (McCarthy, 258). Carla Jean rebuffs and refutes his offer and the reasoning behind it: “The coin didn’t have no say. It was just you” (McCarthy, 258).

In his Journal of Religion and Film article “Homeric Heroes in Ethan and Joel Coen’s The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), The Big Lebowski (1998) and No Country for Old Men (2007)” Vaughan S. Roberts analyzes the symbolism of the character of Carla Jean as potentially being a more significant player in the narrative. “It is arguable that the characters of Llewelyn or Carla Jean (or both) function as the anti-hero in this film, allowing Sheriff Ed Tom Bell to take on and develop the heroic role” (Roberts 22).

In contrast to Roberts’ ascription, but not his assessment, rather than an anti-hero or protagonist, it could be that Carla Jean is the unseen foil to Chighur, the omnipotent harbinger of Bell’s “dismal tide” from the film dialogue (he does not use this term in the book). By refusing to “call it,” as happens in the film but not the book, Carla Jean is rejecting the currency upon which Chighur must operate. He relies on the universality of the fear of death to derive his calculating and meticulous power. Carla Jean’s refusal strips Chighur of this power, after which, nothing he does will matter. She reclaims, with completeness, control of her final moments, leaving this angel of death nothing more than the material dispatch of what, in this instant, has become a hollow and gratuitous exercise in human will, divorced from whatever mysterious order imbued its divinity. At this moment, Chighur is just a killer, killing for his own sake, for the sake of something empty and without the merits upon which he had justified all the killings before it. And in this process, is foiled.

Evidence of Carla Jean’s victory in the Coen brothers’ film adaptation comes as Chighur’s invincibility is shattered among the wreckage of an uncharacteristically inadvertent moment. Chighur’s car crash occurs immediately after his showdown with Carla Jean. And his bewildered reaction indicates, perhaps for the first time, a chink in the thick and seemingly impenetrable armor that had enabled him to drive the dismal tide along. He looks around, as if he is suddenly uncertain. For all of his austere and calculating terrorism, this inhuman, seemingly unstoppable monster, was, perhaps, undone in the end by a simple woman’s simple act of defiance.





Butler, Daniel. “What’s Wanted is a Clean Sweep”: Outlaws and Anarchy in Joseph Conrad’s” The Secret Agent” and Cormac McCarthy’s” No Country for Old Men.” The Cormac McCarthy Journal (2011): 38-50.

McCarthy, Cormac. No country for old men. Pan Macmillan, 2010.

Roberts, Vaughan S. “Homeric Heroes in Ethan and Joel Coen’s The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), The Big

Lebowski (1998) and No Country for Old Men (2007).” Journal of Religion & Film 17.1 (2013): 40.