Shouting about Nothing? A review of No Country for Old Men by Ethan and Joel Coen
If a tree falls in the forest and no one understands it, does it only make a noise?
In 1957 Flannery O’Connor discussed the problems of communicating her message to an audience that didn’t share her worldview in her essay The Fiction Writer and His World:
"The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock–to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."
O’Connor practiced what she preached; her novels and short-stories are exquisitely-crafted examples of the art of communicating an unwelcome message to the hard-of-hearing.
Writer Cormac McCarthy is a contemporary practitioner of the same art. In ten novels over forty years, he’s told violent stories peopled with large, startling characters. In all it’s evident that there are distortions in modern life which are most repugnant to him. What’s not quite so evident is what his concerns are. Is he, like O’Connor, a Christian voice, crying in the wilderness? Or is he a frustrated nihilist, shouting about nothing?
In No Country for Old Men directors Ethan and Joel Coen bring
McCarthy’s ninth novel to the screen in the best film adaptation of a
book since To Kill A Mockingbird. The Coen brothers have made many fine
films over the years, but this is their finest. Students in film
schools will be studying No Country for Old Men for years to come; it’s
that well-made. Best of all in an era in which film-makers often feel
the need to put their own spin on a classic story (e.g., Peter
Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy) the Coens
were content simply to tell McCarthy’s tale for him. It’s a tale of
Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a good old boy from south Texas, who while hunting stumbles into the scene of a drug deal gone bad and
makes off with $2 million in cash. Llewellyn’s a little greedy, but he
isn’t a bad guy. After all what gets him into trouble isn’t stealing
the money, but returning to the scene of the crime with water for a
dying man. He’s a man we like to like.
In contrast Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) rivals Anthony Hopkins’
Hannibal Lecter as the most chilling psychopath in the history of
modern cinema. Chigurh is determined to recover the money, and as the
cliché says, will stop at nothing to do so. The tools of his trade are
a cattlegun and a quarter. Flipping the coin is his prelude to murder
and to the most important conversations in the story.
The old man of the title is Sherriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who
tries in vain to protect Moss and arrest Chigurh, but in the end serves
only as a sort of Greek chorus, observing the tragedy as it unfolds and
commenting on it. It’s tempting to see Sheriff Bell as nothing more
than an angry old man unhappy with the world and his place in it, but
that would be a serious mistake, unless the angry old man is Cormac
"There was this boy I sent to the gas chamber at Huntsville here a while back. My arrest and my testimony. He killed a
fourteen-year-old girl. Papers said it was a crime of passion but he
told me there wasn’t any passion to it. Told me that he’d been
planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said
that if they turned him out he’d do it again. Said he knew he was
going to hell. Be there in about fifteen minutes. I don’t know what to
make of that. I surely don’t. The crime you see now, it’s hard to even
take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you
had to be willing to die to even do this job – not to be glorious. But
I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I
don’t understand. To go into something you don’t understand you would
have to be crazy or become part of it."
Is this the despair of the nihilist, who doesn’t understand what’s
happening and doesn’t care to? Or is it a writer shouting to his
audience about distortions they’ve come to see as natural? McCarthy’s
not writing books just to make noise. He has something to say,
something that’s important to him. Ed Tom gives us one more clue about
what his concerns really are at the end of the film.
Angry at the world and frustrated by his inability to do anything about
it, he retires. On the first morning of his retirement he tells his
wife of a dream about his father the night before.
"…it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback
goin’ through the mountains of a night. Goin’ through this pass in the
mountains. It was cold and snowin’, hard ridin’. Hard country. He rode
past me and kept on goin’. Never said nothin’ goin’ by. He just rode
on past and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down
and when he rode past I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way
people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of
it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was
goin’ on ahead and that he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out
there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I
got there he would be there. Out there up ahead. And then I woke up."
For McCarthy "carrying fire" isn’t a casually chosen metaphor. It shows
up again in his latest novel The Road for which he won the Pulitzer
Prize earlier this year. In both stories it functions as a reason for
hope in the face of nothingness. What the content of that hope is for
him remains a mystery. Might it be the gospel? Take a look at his play
The Sunset Limited, and make up your own mind. Or better yet, watch No
Country for Old Men with some unbelieving friends, and discuss it with
them. It’ll be well worth your while.
I’m nervous about the idea that the fire Ed Tom Bell sees in his dream is supposed to represent the gospel. If we say it does, what do we get? A kind of gnosis, I think. Ed Tom Bell fails in his mission, retires, and has this dream, but Anton Chigurh (who succeeded in his mission) escapes alive. What is the function of his dream? Does it just help him sleep at night, even though he did the unthinkable and lost a man under his care? The gospel is not a dream with hopeful torches and fun horse rides; it’s Chigurh in a pine box.
And as far as Llewellyn Moss goes, I think he’s as bad if not worse than Chigurh. Even as Chigurh talks to Moss from still-warm Carson Wells’ room, Moss swears he will not turn over the money, even though Chigurh promises to spare Carla Jean. Even as he moves to strike Carla Jean, Chigurh (Fate) brings in the chance of a coin toss, as if he in some way hated himself and wrestled with his own nature. I don’t think you see that strange appearance of ambivalence in Moss.
I loved this movie. Glad to see some discussion of it.
Seems like the fire, while probably not a one for one representation of the gospel, at least represents the hope that there is some ultimate goodness in the midst of incredible darkness. For us as Christians, the gospel is assurance that goodness wins in Jesus Christ. However, we don’t experience the fullness of that yet. Chigurh’s destiny is sealed, but he’s not in a pine box yet…he’s prowling about seeking someone to devour.
And, if we are tallying, count me as one who thinks Chigurh is worse than Moss. Friendo.