The Meaning of No Country for Old Men

July 3, 2016  Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about No Country for Old Men (2007); a great film with an ending that, like most Coen brother films, is rather odd.

A couple years ago, I was struck by it’s similarities to the Seventh Seal, a 1957 film about the silence of God. After years spent in crusade, a knight returns to his homeland. The figure of death comes for the knight on the beach whereupon the knight challenges him to a game of chess. They make a deal. As long as the knight holds out, death will not take him and if the knight wins, death will let him live. For the rest of the film, the knight uses his reprieve to search for meaning and certainty. He wants to know, not just to believe, God exists. He fears the silence of God means God isn’t there and his life (mostly lived in crusade) was therefore meaningless.

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men also has a figure of death offering reprieve through contest. As with the classic depictions of death, No Country’s villain, Anton Chigurh, wears contrasting black attire with a kind of hood (his strange haircut covering his forehead and ears) and employs the use of a harvester (a cattle gun in place of a scythe). Chigurh is a clinical automaton of destruction. He casually stalks his prey, killing anyone else who takes note of him. He’s clean and principled. Not at all, as someone says in the film, like a man. And as with death, he operates by the invisible hand of chance. This is symbolized in the one reprieve he offers some victims – a coin toss. If they “call it.” he lets them live. And if they get it wrong… Well, you know. But one thing they cannot do is refuse to play. A refusal to play is an instant loss.

These life and death stakes along with the uncertainty in the coin toss is No Country’s defining metaphor. Just as in the Seventh Seal, No Country wrestles with the problem of knowledge and faith. Here’s why the film, with its shots of arid landscapes, men on horseback, wearing cowboy hats and boots etc., feels like a western; No Country in its depictions of amoral violence disabuses us of the classic westerns moral guarantee. The virtuous-man in the white hat does not necessarily defeat the corrupt man in black. In essence, No Country for Old Men calls to mind the good old days of the Hollywood western (good guy defeats bad guy) and in doing so offers our modern era as those days very own dystopia (good guy isn’t guaranteed to win and often doesn’t). Now it’s just the flip of a coin. Nothing in life is certain.

This loss of his youthful certainty and meaning weighs on the aged Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the film’s main character. Bell remembers the good-old days and is himself an embodiment of the good old days. His occupation, southern accident, small town location, goofy deputy, and his clear reluctance to use a gun, point to Sheriff Andy from the Andy Griffith Show who likewise typified classic Hollywood’s moral guarantee. Like an aged Andy Griffith, confronting the heinous crimes committed in our world, Sheriff Bell finds himself an exile from those simpler black and white days.

In this chaotic new world, Bell becomes increasingly averse to risk. His opening monologue says it all.

“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. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, “O.K., I’ll be part of this world.”

In the end, Bell quits, undone by fear of losing his life for nothing. His last straw comes when he is forced to “call it.” In returning to the scene of a murder, Bell finds the door’s lock punched out, evidence that Chigurh has also returned to the scene. Bell looks into the circle. In the reflection, the film shows Chigurh standing on the other side of the door, waiting for him to make his move. Bell hesitates, considering what to do. This is in essence the western dual or Chigurh’s coin toss. Will it be heads or tails? Will he enter or turn tails and run? Is Chigurh there or not? Bell chooses to enter and confront Chigurh. But Chigurh is no longer in the room. On the floor, Bell sees a dime showing heads. Bell has called it. He can live another day. But he sits down in the dark a broken man. This risk was too much. He won’t risk again.

In the end, he sits at home, pondering with his wife the emptiness of his dreams.

“Two of ’em. Both had my father in ’em… The second one, it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin’ through the mountains of a night… It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin’… 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… And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and 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…”

Given that he’s quit the fight, waking up from his dreams refers to Bell’s loss of faith in the reality of some good place where his father has gone before him.
Is Bell right to give up? Does the film agree with him? Given life’s uncertainty it could very well be that he’ll never find security with his father. Heaven may not exist. This disordered world may never be put right. But is uncertainty a reason to give up on the dream? To lose faith?

I think the film actually condemns his decision to quit. The film, appears to me, to be alluding to pascal’s wager. Not as a pragmatic reason to believe in God, per say, but as a pragmatic reason to risk. Given the certainty of death, a failure to “call it” is an instant loss. Given the inevitability of death the only option is to bet it all on hope of that better day.

Life has always been uncertain. Young men live by risk because they don’t know what they can lose while old men die for fear of losing. There is No Country for Old Men.

Matthew Scott Miller

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