“You can say it’s my job to fight [evil] but I don’t know what it is anymore. More than that, I don’t want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say, okay, I’ll be part of this world.”
So muses Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) in the opening of No Country for Old Men. I saw the film a week ago and I still can’t stop thinking about it. It does little for me to say that it’s a good movie–anyone knows that by now–but it’s the type of film that divides people and provokes differing interpretations and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts. I’m not going to dance around spoilers here. If you haven’t seen it or don’t want anything spoiled, you might want to skip this post.
Clearly, the film is interested in the nature of evil and interesting to me is that the evil presented in the character of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) isn’t insane, senseless, or random. It is disciplined, calculated, almost moral. Anton is nearly incapable of acting without purpose; if he kills someone it is, to him, necessary. And when his reasons aren’t clear to him, the device of the coin toss relieves him of having to make his own choice. He is only able to do the things he does because he has an inner set of guidelines that not only direct him but allow him to avoid responsibility for his actions and maintain a clear conscience. The scene near the end when he confronts Mrs. Moss is the only time in the film he shows anger, and it’s because she refuses to call the coin toss, refuses to let him place responsibility anywhere other than himself. And having broken his own moral code by killing her, what goes around finally begins to come around when he’s hit by the car.
What is so disturbing about this depiction of evil is that we often comfort ourselves by thinking that evil is dumb or random, when the truth is that evil knows exactly what it’s doing, evil thinks it is righteousness, and evil has been getting away with it for far longer than we’ve been around to figure it out. It’s scary to realize that we might not be the ones that are a step ahead. As Tommy Lee Jones’s character says, trying to understand the evil that’s out there will put your ‘soul at hazard’. Confronting evil, trying to get in its head and master it is dangerous and a man might not come out the winner, not in this life and perhaps not in the next.
This brings me to the hotly debated ending of the movie. Jones’s character, speaking to his wife, tells of a dream in which he and his father are riding horseback through the mountains at night “like in old times” and his father has lit a flame in a horn and rides off ahead of him into the darkness to ready a fire and wait for him. “And then I woke up,” says Jones’s character, and the film cuts to black, it’s over, and we’re the ones in the darkness. After a week of mulling over that ending, I still love it, I think it’s perfect, but I still wonder exactly what it means. Is it hopeful, or hopelessly bleak? I tend to think that somewhere out in all the dark of the world, my Father is preparing a fire and waiting for me gather myself out of the night and rest. The central question of the film is this, I think. Is that fire a dream from which we must all wake, or a prophecy in which we find hope? No matter which way you interpret that, it is a brilliant question to ponder as you leave a theater.
I think for the first time in quite a few years, I actually care who wins the Best Picture Oscar. After finally having seen all the contenders, I think only No Country for Old Men and Michael Clayton are left in the ring and of those two, No Country for Old Men is the one that is a movie for the ages. Film students will still be studying this one when we’re all old men.
I’d love to read some other peoples’ thoughts.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.