Wednesday, March 6, 2013

No Country for Old Men (2007)

     In 2007, I was thirteen years old, and I remember some of the best films of the year being R-rated dramas that my father felt I was too young to watch. And I’m honestly thankful for that, because I’m not sure what I would have felt if at that age I had seen such dark films as those: “Sweeney Todd”, “Michael Clayton”, “Atonement”, “Into the Wild”, and the declared Best Picture of the year, “No Country for Old Men”. The only important film I did end up seeing that year was “There Will Be Blood”, which turned out to be the most powerful movie-going experience I had that year.

     But since that time, I have seen most of those other films, and looking back on them all five or six years later, they seem very culturally important to me. Around the time of their release, the United States started slipping into a recession, and these films seem to reflect how many Americans felt at that time. So after finally seeing “No Country for Old Men”, which ended up winning four Academy Awards, the film became much more relevant to me. And now, after having to watch the film again and write about it for one of my classes, I’ve decided to take a closer look at its spiritual content.

     The film starts off with a narration from Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the old sheriff of a presumably small town in Texas in 1980, talking about how the town (and the world) has changed so much since his father was sheriff many years ago. And we see just that, as a policeman arrests our villain, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), just so Chigurh can strangle and kill him with his handcuffs back at the police station. (This scene is but the beginning of many bloody encounters throughout the film.)

     Meanwhile, local Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is hunting one morning when he comes across a frightening sight: bloody corpses and their vehicles in what looks like a drug deal gone wrong. Moss comes across an even more startling sight once he is up close: a suitcase full of about two million dollars. After he finds a man still alive in his truck asking for water, he leaves the scene and returns home that night to his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald). But later that night, Moss’ conscience gets to him, and when he goes to get the man water, he finds that man dead and other men chasing him down and getting his license number.

     Moss barely escapes and tells Carla Jean to pack up her valuables, that the two of them have to leave town. Through a long series of events, Llewelyn and Carla Jean are separated, Chigurh tracks Moss down by using a tracking device hidden inside the suitcase, and the two men jump from hotel to hotel as Chigurh chases Moss down. This may not sound so threatening as I write it here, but as we are introduced to Anton Chigurh, we find immediately that he is nearly the personification of evil, killing people seemingly at random with a captive bolt pistol.

     The sheriff tries to track Moss down and keeps in contact with Carla Jean, but he is unable to prevent Moss’ eventual death (which, by the way, we never seen on-screen). Presumably, Chigurh got the money, killing several others in the process (which I needn’t expand on here), and he eventually meets up with Carla Jean shortly after her own mother is buried after her death from cancer. Carla Jean knows that Llewelyn is dead, and Anton tells her that he told Llewelyn that her life would be spared if Llewelyn had given up the money, which he didn’t.

     Carla Jean doesn’t lose her faith in Llewelyn, however, as Anton flips a coin to determine whether or not he will kill her (as he did with another man in an earlier scene). But when he tells Carla Jean to call heads or tails, she refuses to call it, leaving Anton to choose her “fate”. If he indeed kills her, we never see it on-screen, though the signs point in that direction. Nevertheless, Anton drives away, is hit hard by a car and badly breaks his arm, but pretty much just walks away, leaving his future entirely up to the audience to decide. (Unless you read the book, then you might know better what happens with him.)

     So yeah, this film is pretty dark and ambiguous throughout, and I’m sure that even reading about it here may turn some of you off. But the final scene offers a brief, if still an ambiguous, hope that most of the rest of the film does not have. As Bell sits with his wife at breakfast, now retired from his duties as sheriff, he tells her about two dreams he had the night before, both of them about him and his long-deceased father. In the first one, his father entrusts to him some money in town, which he loses. But in the second dream, the two of them are riding horses up in the mountains.

BELL: …He rode past me and kept on going. Never said nothing going by. He just rode on past... And in the dream I knew that he was going on ahead and he was fixing 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.

     Literally, the film ends as he and his wife ponder over those words. And yeah, it’s as abrupt an ending as it sounds like in this blog. But the more I think about it, maybe the entire film was leading up to an ending like this. For most of “No Country for Old Men”, the viewer is left trying to figure out the redemption that there might be for these characters. And you have to look long and hard to find it, because this is a very bleak movie. But with all that searching, maybe if one keeps searching up till the end of the film, one can see the glimmer of light in what Ed Tom Bell heard in his dream. In an earlier scene, he talks with one of his retired friends of his troubles:

BELL: I always figured when I got older, God would sort of come into my life somehow. And He didn't. I don't blame Him. If I was Him, I would have the same opinion of me that He does.

     But in the dream, he sees his father, who has been long dead, going ahead of him to prepare a place for him. I hate to word it so obviously, but putting it like that, one can see more clearly the idea of faith that perhaps one can see when watching “No Country for Old Men”. Jesus tells his disciples in John 14: “‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. …If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.’” (14:1, 3)

     In this world, we will have many obstacles. As a nation, we’ve faced war, terrorism, recession, and unemployment. And as individuals, we’ve all faced loneliness, despair, death, and trials of many kinds. But in the face of all that, can we say that we know our God is preparing a place for us in Heaven? Do we believe that there will be a day where all the evil around us will finally be defeated? And do we have the faith to believe that? Perhaps that is the challenge that “No Country for Old Men” presents to us. And my prayer for you is that you have the faith to trust God in that, no matter what trials you face.

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