Jean-Luc Godard once remarked, “Any great modern film which is successful is so because of a misunderstanding. Audiences like Psycho because they think Hitchcock is telling them a story. Vertigo baffles them for the same reason.” The Coen brothers’ latest film, No Country for Old Men, has baffled many for this same reason. Some have even resorted to labeling it “3/4 of a masterpiece”, regarding its denouement as unwarranted, or even pretentious.
The film begins with a voice-over from our protagonist, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell – Simple ruminations on the past and how the old-timers always seem to have the wisest things to say. Old men never see the past as a forgotten country, but they always fear that the next generation will. The violence of his day was motive-driven. People always had reasons, as unjustified as they were, for committing crimes. But criminals today, they sin without a second thought, and redemption never crosses their minds. The Sheriff witnesses this reality concretely in the figure of Anton Chigurh – death itself incarnate into a single, despicable human being.
We first witness Chigurh’s malevolence in a scene where he seems to drop out of the heavens; almost like the Terminator, or a Martian from a 50’s sci-fi flick. Chigurh calmly walks up to a man, who he has pulled over with a stolen police car, and applies a cattle gun to his head. Later in the film, Chigurh utilizes a coin-flip to determine the fate of his victims. The indeterminacy of life, and the arbitrarity of death are exemplified in his character. He asks “What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?” to his victims. It’s never a sure thing when Death acts, and we rarely see it coming.
Our Sheriff’s reaction to the mindless killing that ensues is the centerpoint of the narrative that warrants interpretation. After witnessing the last of the killings (or second last, depending on how one interprets Chigurh’s final meeting with Moss’s widow), Bell is seen pulling his truck up to an old, run-down shack. The home belongs to Bell’s self-described “Uncle Ellis”. Bell expresses to Ellis that he feels old. He’s doesn’t believe that he is able to face up to a world with people like the always elusive Chigurh inhabiting it. He used to think that God would eventually come into his life and solve his problems, but that never happened. Not that he blames God, though; he doesn’t think that he would do so even if he were God. Ellis’s reaction is disquieting. “Sheriff Bell.” He says, “While all the time you spend trying to get back what’s been took from you, more is going out the door… You can’t stop what’s coming.” Bell is reproached for his defeatist attitude. He’s expected, like King Lear, to own up to the eventuality of death. He must step onto the stage, appear before the audience with his daughter Cordelia in his arms, and die like all good old men do. But Bell cannot accept this kind of world. This is no country for old men like him.
In the final scene of the film, we observe Bell eating breakfast with his wife, as he begins the life of a retiree. Bell recounts a dream he had the previous night concerning his long deceased father. In the dream, Bell’s father passes by him with his head down, going to fix a fire and prepare a place for the two of them. But he now knows that dreams of safety and abundance are a lie. The world no longer works likes that. His father is unable to protect him any longer. He’s no longer a child, and childhood fantasies of paternal protection and maternal care are no longer viable. He has to face the Real, the immanence of death. “And then I woke up”, he says; and the film sharply turns to a short recess of pure black before the credits roll; just enough time to think the thoughts of both Scottie Ferguson and Sheriff Bell – our neurosis can indeed be cured (whether of vertigo or fear of death), but at quite a cost.