All That Dark
Nobody who’s seen Fargo or read anything by Cormac McCarthy should have walked into No Country for Old Men expecting a happy ending. Both McCarthy and the Coen brothers specialize in depicting a world marked by depravity, violence, and the apparent absence of God—what one reviewer calls “cosmic indifference to the human race and its moral structures.” Goodness is not rewarded, evil is not punished, and heaven is utterly silent.
It’s this similarity of vision that makes the Coens the ideal choice to adapt McCarthy for the screen. The locations in Fargo and No Country—North Dakota and Texas—were no doubt chosen to underscore the sense that man is on his own. Roger Deakins, the Coens’ long-time cinematographer, knows how to shoot a bleak scene: there’s a shot in Fargo where the miniscule station wagon crawls along under a snow-blanched sky that takes up nine-tenths of the screen. In No Country it’s the wide-open landscapes of Texas and New Mexico, and the idea is the same: no protection, no buffers, just man alone in the universe and free to be as good or as evil as he wants. McCarthy’s prose style is stripped-down and comfortless, and the Coens translate this into film by their choice of soundtrack: there is none, unless you count the whistle of wind and the crunch of boots on gravel.
Despite the film’s minimalism, it plays like a thriller. The plot is basically a three-way chase: Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles on the corpse-littered scene of a drug deal gone wrong—and a satchel containing $2.4 million. He keeps the money, thus calling down the wrath of sociopath-for-hire Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, sporting what Ethan Coen calls an “alarming haircut”). The two pit their ingenuity against each other while Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to save the one and catch the other. I won’t give away what happens, but as the tagline says, there are no clean getaways.
It’s not an easy movie to watch, particularly if you’re used to the usual Hollywood protocol: if you’ve got tragedy, remind the audience that they’re watching a movie, and that there’s Meaning behind it all—use violins generously to suggest transcendence; show a few of the deaths in slow motion so we know they have dignity; make sure the audience knows what to feel and when to feel it.
There’s none of that here. The Coens aren’t interested in manipulating our emotions. Not that the emotions remain unaffected: few scenes in any film have the understated sweetness of Moss’ laconic exchanges with his wife Carla Jean, the terror of Chigurh’s coin-toss conversation with the storekeeper, or the poignancy of Bell’s narration of his two dreams. What happens in these scenes? People talk to each other, in level voices. What warms the heart, or chills the bone, is the substance of what is said.
Because the Coens refuse to embellish or moralize some critics have called the film emotionally distant and even nihilistic. The former criticism is baseless enough—I suspect the reviewers have been told what to feel so often that the requisite muscles have atrophied—but the latter charge needs addressing.
What message are we supposed to take away from a film like this? Is the message simply that there is no message?
It’s not hard to conclude that the Coens are nihilists, and that they made this film just to say that Sometimes Stuff Just Happens. Most of the characters are basically amoral—we may be rooting for Moss, but he’s no prince. And the good guys—well, there’s Carla Jean, but she doesn’t even slow Chigurh down; there’s Sheriff Bell, but he’s as much marked by bewilderment as by idealism. (His refrain: “I don’t know what to make of this. I surely don’t.”) To paraphrase Yeats: Bell lacks conviction, while Chigurh is full of passionate intensity. And Chigurh is the one with the cattle gun.
It’s not that goodness is presented as unsympathetic; Carla Jean’s sweetness is certainly preferable to Chigurh’s coldness, and the Coens’ treatment of her is free of the condescension that’s marred some of their previous characters. It’s just that the bad guys are holding all the guns. Pointing a gun at the helpless Wells, Chigurh asks him: “If the rule you followed led you to this, of what use was the rule?” Chigurh isn’t concerned with the objective existence of anything called Good or Evil. He’s concerned with what works; goodness doesn’t get anybody anywhere, not in this story.
By now the Christians reading this are objecting, but they shouldn’t be; not the ones who’ve read the book of Job, or the daily news. Jesus never promised his followers freedom from suffering, and he didn’t come to abolish death or sorrow or pain (not this time around). There were those who thought so, but they were the ones who left when things got ugly.
Some might still object that the film makes evil look too powerful and goodness too puny. But that’s the way the world looks sometimes, even most of the time; and if the Coens are arguing (as I believe they are—stay with me) for the existence of something like God, some transcendent good that is valuable in itself whether or not it brings temporal success, they’re using a method at least as old as Thomas Aquinas: to argue your point most strongly, first present the strongest evidence against it.
Where’s the evidence for the other side? I’ll point to two scenes. Neither of them proves anything about good or evil; but both show us what goodness looks like, and leave the choice up to us. I won’t give too much away, but the first scene, Carla Jean’s encounter with Chigurh, shows us the sort of victory over evil that is possible even in this world; and the second, Sheriff Bell’s dream, gives us a vision of the final victory. The latter is what Hollywood usually tries to convey with CGI effects and orchestras; the Coens use nothing but McCarthy’s words.
The film’s lack of embellishment is its most convincing argument in favor of the existence of a transcendent good. The bareness and objectivity of the presentation show that the filmmakers, if they believe in God, believe that no cheating is necessary to establish his existence. The facts will do. The film isn’t a proof, just an argument. Like any argument for the existence of God, its success depends not on logic but on choice: will you believe, or won’t you? You can side with Chigurh, if you choose—there is plenty of evidence in his favor, since the Coens (like Aquinas) have presented the strongest available evidence against their case. Or you can, like Carla Jean, refuse to play by the devil’s rules, refuse to believe Chigurh’s interpretation of the facts, even if the facts themselves are as indisputable as the daily news.