The Brutality of Grace
After passing through enough violence and suffering to destroy many a lesser man, Cole is forced to concede that God exists, but the basis for such a concession -- that the world would be almost infinitely uglier without Him -- doesn't exactly leave one feeling hopeful.
In No Country for Old Men, McCarthy tells a two-pronged tale of a sheriff growing too old for his job and a Vietnam vet hell-bent on keeping a treasure that is not his to have. In this work, the violences mentioned by O'Connor are made even clearer. Anton Chigurh, the bounty hunter tasked with avoiding the sheriff and punishing the vet, is as relentless and demonic a villain as one could imagine. His ruthless brutality is legendary: He insists that his terrified victims decide their own fate with the flip of a coin, a sign of his soulless reliance on Fate to absolve him from the consequences of his actions.
On the surface, this is as dark and deeply cynical a story as one could imagine, but the graces are there as well. As the film draws to its close, two particularly important moments occur: In the first, Chigurh presents his last victim with his trusty coin, instructing her to determine whether she will die: "Call it, sister." But she refuses to participate, telling him: "I ain't gonna call it. The coin don't have no say. It's just you." Robbed of his reliance on "Fate," Chigurh is forced to take responsibility for his actions; free will is thrust upon him, whether he desires it or not. A subsequent car accident sheds an entirely new light on this "chanceless" world: If life is no longer random, Chigurh's brush with death casts an ominous pall over his eventual survival. Someone is watching, and the man’s transgressions will not go unpunished forever.
But perhaps the most intriguing example of the intrusion of grace is the way in which the film underscores the importance of the title's most intriguing adjective, "Old." When Sheriff Ed Tom Bell visits his Uncle Ellis, the old man puts to rest the notion that Chigurh is a sign of a new and insurmountable evil: "What you got ain't nothin' new. This country is hard on people. You can't stop what's coming. It ain't all waitin' on you. That's vanity." This, combined with the dream described by Bell at the film's conclusion, reveal the story to be far more grace-filled than it would seem at first glance. Until late in the film, Deputy Wendell, the sheriff's assistant, seems to be used for little more than comic relief. Yet it is the deputy (and his generation) who proves most capable of dealing with Chigurh and his ilk. Far from suggesting that mankind is ill-equipped to confront evil and violence, the story shows that Someone (in His Infinite Providence) has carefully ensured that "the right man for the job" appears on the scene at just the right moment.
McCarthy's approach to grace and violence is still evolving here, and like All the Pretty Horses before it, No Country for Old Men leaves the viewer unsure as to whether the author intends to point toward the Divine in the midst of such darkness. That certitude comes with The Road, the final (and most interesting) of the McCarthy adaptations.
The Road tells the raw, unrelenting story of a man (The Man) and his son (The Boy) as they journey across a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape peopled by little more than cannibals, chaos, and despair. Convinced that the seashore will be their salvation, The Man drives the two of them relentlessly across the devastation of "post-event" America, consumed by the overwhelming need to protect his son in a world without hope. The frustrating (and essential) lack of back story; the stark, cruel imagery; and the seemingly impossible situation in which The Man and The Boy find themselves creates the perfect environment for those "imperceptible intrusions of grace" O'Connor so loved to explore.
Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. He blogs at Crisis Magazine, where he also contributes feature articles on a variety of topics.