No Country for Old Men | Study Guide

Cormac McCarthy

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No Country for Old Men | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram



No Country for Old Men is set in 1980; most of the action takes place near the southern border of West Texas, with a few scenes set just across the border in Mexico. Ed Tom Bell looks back on his career as sheriff of Terrell County. He says he encountered someone who made him want to quit: a "prophet of destruction." The narration then shifts to third person and the past.

Criminal Activity

Anton Chigurh is in handcuffs and in the custody of a deputy in another county. Chigurh escapes by strangling the deputy with his handcuffs; he steals the deputy's cruiser and drives away. When he reaches the highway, he pulls over a man driving a pickup truck. Chigurh orders the man, Bill Wyrick, out of the car and shoots him in the forehead with a bolt pistol, a stunning device primarily used on animals to deliver unconsciousness before slaughter. Chigurh seems to be the "prophet of destruction" Bell referred to.

On a Saturday, Llewelyn Moss hunts antelope in the desert. While tracking a wounded antelope he stumbles on a crime scene—a shootout over a drug deal. Moss finds one man still alive, but he is badly wounded. Moss takes a briefcase full of money and an automatic pistol; he sees a stash of heroin but does not take it.

Back at home with his wife, Carla Jean, that night, Moss is restless. He wakes up in the night and drives back to the desert to give the wounded man some water. The wounded man has been shot dead and the heroin is gone. Moss soon realizes he has been spotted by whoever shot the wounded man; Moss doesn't know it but the shooter is Chigurh. Moss escapes but he must abandon his truck; he walks 30 miles to Langtry, Texas, where he can catch a bus to his home in Sanderson.

Investigation and Pursuit

One of Bell's deputies, Wendell, finds the stolen cruiser. The corpse of Bill Wyrick is in its trunk. Bell investigates. Moss arrives in Sanderson late Sunday night. He tells Carla Jean they must leave; on Monday morning whoever is pursuing him can find his identity by looking up his truck registration. Moss decides Carla Jean will go to her mother in Odessa, Texas, and he will keep running. Chigurh harasses a stranger, a man who owns a gas station; Chigurh forces him to bet on a coin toss. The man wins, so Chigurh does not shoot him.

Moss and Carla Jean part ways in Fort Stockton, Texas. Bell and a deputy, Torbert, watch the stolen cruiser burn. On horseback, Bell and Wendell investigate the scene of the desert shoot-out. There are six dead men, a dead dog, and traces of heroin. They also find Moss's truck.

Chigurh breaks into Moss and Carla Jean's trailer. He finds a phone bill with calls to Odessa (where Carla is) and Del Rio (where Moss is). On Monday afternoon, Moss rents a room at the Trail Motel in Del Rio. He hides the briefcase in an air duct. Later he suspects his room has been entered, so he spends Monday night in a different motel.

Bell and Wendell investigate Moss's abandoned trailer. Reporters and law officers who have heard about the murders come to Sanderson. Chigurh follows the signal of a transponder hidden in the briefcase of money. The signal leads Chigurh to Moss's motel in Del Rio.

Moss retrieves the money by accessing the air duct from another room. Chigurh enters the room Moss rented; he shoots some Mexican men who were chasing Moss and are now in the room. Bell figures out how Chigurh shot Bill Wyrick without leaving a bullet behind; he used a bolt pistol. Moss takes a cab to the border town of Eagle Pass; then he takes the money and hides it on the riverbank near the Mexican side of a border bridge. Later that night, Moss wakes and hides in the bathroom of his motel room. Chigurh enters the room but Moss is waiting. Moss escapes, although Chigurh wounds him, and he wounds Chigurh. Then Chigurh goes on a shooting spree while Moss flees across the border. Moss recovers in a Mexican hospital.

Bell reflects on his family roots. He drives to Odessa to talk to Carla Jean. She is reluctant to give any information about Moss. Bell and a sheriff in Eagle Pass examine the scene of the shoot-out there. The night clerk, a Mexican drug dealer, and several people in a car were murdered. Bell returns home to Sanderson during a freak snowfall.

Murder and Fate

In Houston, a man in an office tower hires Carson Wells to murder Anton Chigurh. Wells checks into the Hotel Eagle, and then he finds Moss in a Mexican hospital. Wells asks for the drug money but Moss refuses. Wells leave his phone number. Chigurh robs a pharmacy and treats his own wounds in a motel room.

Chigurh follows the transponder's signal back to the Hotel Eagle, where he murders Wells. He also shoots the new night clerk. Moss calls Wells but Chigurh answers. Moss refuses to tell him where the money is. Chigurh tells Moss he is going after Carla Jean. Moss leaves the hospital and crosses the border into the United States.

Chigurh murders the Houston businessman who hired Wells. Carla Jean and her mother leave Odessa for El Paso. Chigurh breaks into their house in Odessa. He finds a phone bill with the number for the Terrell Country Sheriff's Department. Moss retrieves the money from the riverbank. He then takes a cab to San Antonio. He buys a gun and a truck and sets out on the road.

Moss picks up a hitchhiker, a 15-year-old girl. Carla Jean calls Bell and tells him where Moss last called from. Bell's line is tapped, so Chigurh also learns of Moss's location. Moss gives the hitchhiker some money for her travels. They check into a motel, where Moss insists on separate rooms. Bell and Chigurh head to Fort Stockton, to find Moss. At a hotel, Bell is told a Mexican man murdered Moss and the hitch-hiker. Chigurh examines Moss's room and takes the money. Shortly afterward Bell examines the room and senses Chigurh is nearby. He calls for backup to search the hotel parking lot but Chigurh escapes.

Chigurh returns the money to its owner, a businessman, and makes a deal with him. Carla Jean attends her grandmother's funeral. When she returns to her home in Odessa, Chigurh is in the trailer waiting for her. She says she doesn't have the money; Chigurh explains Moss chose this fate for her. Chigurh shoots Carla Jean.

Three blocks from Carla Jean's house, Chigurh gets in a car accident. His arm is broken and he suffers other injuries. He buys a shirt from a teenage onlooker and tells the boy not to say anything about him. He leaves the scene of the accident. The boy and a friend steal Chigurh's gun from his abandoned truck.

Sheriff Bell

Bell visits his Uncle Ellis and tells him about the World War II battle for which he received a medal. Most of the members of his squad were killed when Germans shelled the farmhouse in which they were sheltering. Bell fought back, but when night came, he abandoned the wounded members of his squad. Ellis says Bell is hard on himself. They talk about Bell's father and grandfather and their relatives, Harold and Mac. Bell resolves to tell his wife, Loretta, about his wartime experience.

Bell reveals to readers that he talks to his daughter, who died long ago. A police detective in Odessa calls Bell and tells him the murder weapon in Carla Jean's case turned up in a robbery in Louisiana. Bell goes to Odessa to talk to the boy who stole the gun, DeMarco. Bell gets more information out of DeMarco's friend.

Bell goes to San Saba to talk to Moss's father. They discuss Vietnam. Bell wonders about the way the world is changing. Bell returns to Loretta. He narrates to the reader two dreams about his father. In one he lost some money his father gave him. In the other his father rides ahead of him on horseback, and lights a fire to warm them both. Then Bell wakes up.

No Country for Old Men Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Anton Chigurh kills Deputy Haskins.

Rising Action

2 Llewelyn Moss takes money from a crime scene.

3 Moss returns to help the wounded man.

4 Moss and Chigurh fire on each other in Eagle's Pass.

5 Carson Wells finds Moss in Mexico.

6 Chigurh kills Wells.

7 Carla Jean reveals Moss's location to Chigurh and sheriff.

8 The Mexican man kills Moss.


9 Chigurh kills Carla Jean.

Falling Action

10 Sheriff Ed Tom Bell reveals the truth of his war heroism.

11 Bell leaves his job as sheriff.


12 Bell dreams his father waits for him.

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