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Hope Defered: No Country For Old Men

“I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea.”- Cormac McCarthy in an interview

The Coen brother’s latest film, No Country for Old Men, has been released to almost unanimous praise by film critics, making it a strong contender for film of the year. The film is an adaptation of a novel by Cormac McCarthy, an author known for his unremitting violence, esoteric dialogue, and dense descriptions–preoccupations shared by the Coen brothers in many of their previous films.

No Country for Old Men tells the story of a young Texan, Llewelyn Moss, who stumbles upon two million dollars left when a drug deal goes wrong in the middle of the Rio Grande desert. Once he takes the money from the body of a dead drug trafficker, Llewelyn enters into a series of events that are as unstoppable as they are horrific. After sending his wife out of state, Llewelyn spends most of the film trying to stay ahead of the drug dealers and the otherworldly assassin they sent after him, Anton Chigurh who is played eerily by Javier Bardem. The violence that follows Llewelyn, personified in the deep-voiced and stoic Chigurh, lacks the Hollywood polish that allows us to enjoy most violent action films–death is no exhilarating thrill here. Tommy Lee Jones, in the other brilliant role of the film, plays Sheriff Bell, a small town sheriff who is obsessed with what he sees as humanity’s collapse into bloodshed and concerned for Llewelyn’s safety.

Although the premise reads much like a campy action film, the Coens–thanks mostly to the source text–craft a film that is more than anything a meditation on chance, violence, and the ability of society to curb that violence. While we follow Llewelyn and Chigurh on their bloody game of cat and mouse, Bell calls the viewers attention to the implication of such violence. When he doesn’t come off as a cranky old man, the sheriff’s musings amount to the question of whether or not humanity has always been this violent or if something has changed, and if it has, whether or not mankind can do anything about it. He is particularly taken aback by the ghostlike Chigurh who murders without hesitation or motivation (in some cases) and evades punishment and judgment.

By the film’s end, Bell seems to come to the conclusion that the evil that he has witness is unstoppable, and so he retires from his job as sheriff. This hopelessness concerning man’s ability to confront evil leads Bell to comment to his uncle, “I always thought when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t.” Quotes like these have caused some critics to mistakenly label the film as nihilistic. The strikingly bleak cinematography, the lack of any music, the unrelenting violence, the absence of a show-down/confrontation between good and evil, and the sheriff’s retirement all lead the viewer to conclude that humans are ultimately and unchangeably evil. But the Coens (like McCarthy) leave us with a glimmer of hope in the form of a dream Bell relates to his wife:

“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 there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept goin. Never said nothin. He just rode on past me and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had 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. And then I woke up.”

After leading the audience to the conclusion that mankind is fundamentally evil and incapable of redeeming itself, McCarthy and the Coens leave us with a hope for mankind symbolized by Bell’s father riding ahead into the future, preparing a light in the midst of stifling darkness. While neither the original author nor the directors make the connection for their audience, the implication seems to be that if there is hope for humanity it is not to be found in ourselves, but from something else, something outside the evil that taints every human.

And here is where movie goers are at a distinct disadvantage. In McCarthy’s novel there are several chapters/sections after the action of the plot between Llewelyn and Chigurh has ceased where Bell seeks explanations for the violence he has encountered. In these sections Bell is constantly wrestling with God’s role in the world, particularly as it relates to humanity’s corruption. This preoccupation can help us understand the dream that ends both the novel and film as either symbolic of Christ’s work (Light of the World, “I go to prepare a place for you”) or symbolic of the way God’s chosen people (Bell’s father) are used to be lights in the world. The film edits most of Bell’s theological and philosophical musings down to a few esoteric and pithy statements.

The Coen brothers capture the atmosphere and action of the novel almost perfectly, creating a haunting and powerful film, but they fail to give us the dialogue and narrative of the novel necessary to understand the violence we see. The hope that is offered at the film’s conclusion lacks the theological and philosophical context that is present in the novel–leaving viewers with a hope for humanity that is nearly indecipherable. I understand that adaptations naturally require omissions, but the omissions in No Country for Old Men could leave most viewers wondering what to make of the stark violence; instead of a meditating on human depravity, this movie can be viewed as a mediocre and artistically rendered action/suspense film–which troubles me deeply.

Aside from the thematic problems, there are some technical issues that hinder the film. In McCarthy’s novel the story is framed through Bell and his reflections on violence which begin each chapter/section. The film omits nearly all of these reflections and instead focuses for the first hour and half primarily on Llewelyn and Chirgurh and then shifts abruptly to Bell for the last half hour or so. This shift in main characters is jarring and confusing. In addition, there are several comedic scenes which fit well with the Coens’ dark humor, but not with McCarthy’s somber meditation on human depravity. A few characters’ (a Barney Fife-like deputy and Llewelyn’s absurdly over-the-top mother-in-law who informs us that she has “the cancer”) goofy humor causes the film’s otherwise skillfully crafted solemnity to be shattered by laughter, allowing the viewer to escape, at least momentarily, the horror of violence established by other scenes.

Ultimately, No Country for Old Men is a stunning Coen Brother’s film and a misleading McCarthy film. The Coens successfully convey the inherent brutality of man through stunning visuals and wonderfully acted scenes, but they fail to include the very information the audience needs to make sense of this fact.

Believers can praise the film’s accurate portrayal of humanity’s fundamental inability to save itself. It is a world without order or hope of order, unless that order comes from some source outside of the evil of mankind. Violence is not glorious or invigorating here; it is brutal and petty. That said, those who are uncomfortable with violence and profanity should be aware that this film has both; however, the use of them is tactful and serves the direct purpose of exposing humanity’s propensity towards evil. Going beyond nihilism, No Country‘s final scene (if properly understood) gives viewers a hope for redemption outside of mankind. While I would not recommend this film to everyone, for those who are not uncomfortable with violence and profanity, No Country compellingly exposes mankind’s profound need for salvation outside of itself.

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • David Dunham

    Well said Alan. I absolutely loved this movie!

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    Great thoughts, Alan. I really enjoyed the movie, but the information about “missing chapters” and the contextualization of the Sheriff’s closing comments were really helpful and expanded my understanding of the movie considerably.

    What did you think about the high number (almost all the major characters) of Vietnam vets?

    The only area I differed from you is that I felt the presence of the vets, watching societal breakdown, was to highlight the deterioration of society rather than the continual depravity of society.

    So, I saw the movie as expressing a downward slope more than a continual line of negativity. What do you think?

    Again, thanks for the great review. What a terrific movie!

  • Alan Noble

    One of the key scenes in the film is when Bell goes to talk to his uncle in the wheelchair. His uncle tells him how his grandfather (I think it was grandfather…) died when some Indians rode up and shot him, and then just stood around watching him die.

    During the whole film the Sheriff is convinced that things are getting worse, but his uncle’s story suggests that even if things are getting worse, they’ve always been pretty bad.

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  • http://www.creationproject.wordpress.com Jonathan

    A helpful review, as I didn’t read this book but saw the movie. Thanks for filling out the ending and for your balanced comments.

  • http://blog.thewaterspout.com Hooser

    After I saw this, I sat down with the other folks I saw it with and discussed it for a while. We gave it a Jewish Old Testament interpretation of sorts. We thought that Anton was more of a judgement character (a tool of God if you will). Do you think there might be something to that? The Coen brothers are Jewish after all.

  • Alan Noble

    -Jonathan
    Glad you found the review helpful! If you enjoyed the movie, pick up the book. It’s well worth the read, although it might be the least of his works.

    Hooser-
    Actually, I think an OT reading is very appropriate. In many of McCarthy’s novels his included discussions on God’s judgement in the world. Often the discussion is centered around a specific, evil character who could either be a sign of the ultimate corruption and evil of humanity or a sign of God’s judgement–or both. If Anton is the embodiment of God’s judgement, there doesn’t seem to be any specific direction or purpose to his punishment. I guess I would be more inclined to see him as the embodiment of human evil and violence–as a symbol.

  • http://microwavablemartian.blogspot.com Matt

    I enjoy movies just as much as anyone else, but sometimes I think Christians try to find God in the movies too much. I went to a Catholic high school and there was a religion teacher who just showed movies and talked about Christ figures.

    I guess he who seeks goodwill finds it. If you’re looking for God in the movies you can find his fingerprints, but you can also find a lot of other crap.

    I guess if Christian young people are guilty of anything, it’s knowing more about the latest movies and TV shows than the Bible. I think the cultural ideas in film should be examined, but I there is an overemphasis in the church on being relevant and hip.

    I wish more Christians would work on creating movies that aren’t cheesy. Movies that are up to industry standards and that have the truth in them.

  • Rich Clark

    You know Matt, we hear that sort of thing all the time.

    The truth is, as Christians part of what we ought to be doing is finding the truth and beauty (or common grace) in everything around us. Don’t read into or baptize films, but if there’s something good, why not praise it?

    As far as the rest of your concerns, I agree with them. The thing is, they’re really individual issues. Do the CAPC writers, in general, know more about the latest movies and TV shows than the Bible? I’m gunna go out on a limb and say no. If you or any readers out there do, then close your browser and start studying.

    Anyway, thanks for your comment.

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  • Richard Clark

    I finished this film tonight, and as you can see by the time this comment is published, it’s haunting me a bit. After reading this post I’m convinced this was one of the best films of the year. I’m sorry it took me so long.

    David, Ben: Finally something we can all agree on!


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