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Food for the Poor Godspy.com: Faith at the Edge


Joseph Prever | 02.05.08

All That Dark

Some say that No Country for Old Men makes evil look too powerful and goodness too puny. But that’s the way the world looks most of the time.

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.

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TOPICS:    coen brothers | movies | nihilism

By Romanowsky AT 02.18.08 08:39PM


Given the nature of art, I think reading things into excellent films is a forgivable sin. It’s hard to deny the presence of profound Christian symbolism in Muslim film-maker, Majid Majidi’s The Color of Paradise. But I think it’s a stretch to see belief in a transcendent good or in a victory of goodness over evil, in this world and the next, in the Coen brothers’ interpretation of McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men.

More to the point, what struck me most about the dream Sheriff Bell recounts to his wife at the end of the film wasn’t the hopeful image of his father riding up ahead to build a fire against “all that dark and cold.” It was the contrast for which the dream set us up. After he recounts it he says, “And then I woke up.” And we cut suddenly to black. That’s the final word. Roll credits.

Was there anything in the film that contradicted the likely meaning of this final image? Hope is the stuff of dreams. Wake up to reality and cut to black.

And what about the scene when Carla Jean refuses to let Chigurh transfer his burden of freedom and responsibility to the arbitrary coin toss? Doesn’t this point to some sort of triumph of goodness over evil?

Chigurh, who had fastidiously avoided getting his feet bloody after shooting Carson Wells, pauses to wipe the blood off his shoes after freely choosing to kill Carla Jean. Was this a triumph over evil, or did evil just get personal?

I don’t think that nihilism necessarily gets the last word though. Sometimes an artist can shed light with shadows alone.

Who or what is Chigurh? At the beginning of the film, Llewelyn Moss spies a mysterious black dog with a wounded limb limping away from the crime scene and disappearing into the desert brush. At the end of the film, Chigurh tells the boys: “I was never here,” and limps away with a wounded limb into the unknown.

I think Sheriff Bell, despite his professed ignorance, gives us the key to this image. He says two thing about Chigurh, and he says them with some compassion: he must have a hard shell and … he is a ghost. This is the paradox of evil. On the surface, Chigurh personifies raw physical amoral destructive power, a human avalanche or tidal wave. But he’s still a human being. And as a human being, he hardly exists at all.

For me, this is why Carla Jean’s words to Chigurh before he kills her are so powerful. She forces him to be human, to make a free choice, and in doing so, she reveals the light of their common humanity, a light that subverts the absolute rule of meaningless, arbitrary evil. Why? We don’t know. And it doesn’t mean that good ultimatley triumphs over evil. That’s a matter of free choice. But it does mean that we have a real choice to make, not just a coin toss to call.

By ardmore AT 03.12.08 02:12AM


I’m not sure “And then I woke up” refutes what’s gone before.  “And then Job died” doesn’t mean that the Book of Job ends happily up to the very last sentence and then suddenly drops back into tragedy; the end of a dream simply means that conscious life must resume, ideally fortified anew by whatever wisdom the dream has imparted.  Bell may not be a profound thinker, but he is a fundamentally good person (if not a spectacularly dynamic lawman); and the Coens appear to go out of their way to portray him as being surrounded by good people who care about him—his wife, his old friend in the wheelchair, even the fat cop who commiserates with him at the end.  He may believe that God is displeased or disappointed with him, but he still obeys:  and isn’t that precisely where the truest virtue appears?

Granted, Bell leaves a good deal to be desired in the hero department—as does Moss, and Wells.  If the movie has a candidate for heroism, I suppose it must be Carla Jean.  Of course, as Prever notes, she doesn’t even slow Chigurh down.  (I hope Joey will forgive me for calling him Prever here, it just seems more professional somehow.)  But then again—not to belabor the point—it’s not really the purpose of the Christian hero to beat up the bad guy, is it?  “If I called for help, twelve legions of angels would fight for Me,” and “You could have no power over Me unless it were given you from above.”  Now, is it a stretch to read all this subtext into the Coens’ screenplay?

Maybe, but one thing seems clear to me.  Chigurh may win in the end, but the Coens are almost inarguably presenting him as an argument in favor of good.  Maybe the message of his car crash is simply, “S—t happens:  EVEN to the bad guys,” maybe there is no vengeful Providence, and maybe none of it means anything at all.  But still, hasn’t Carla Jean beaten him merely by dying as a human being—even if there is no Heaven and no God?  What has he really won, after all?  He has nothing, he is nothing.  Even if this widening gyre, this blood-dimmed tide, is all there is—still, is it wiser to turn away from what illusory meaning and solace exist in small, paltry loves and friendships, wiser to be a lonely man with a psycho haircut and an air tank?  I don’t know if I’m convinced that the Coens are explicitly arguing for the Christian deity, but they’ve certainly presented a compelling case for goodness, even if only by so clearly portraying the alternative.


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