“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.