Slow, Violent & Dreamy (No Country for Old Men)

no country

I finally got around to see No Country for Old Men. Looking to find what I already knew I was going to find, here are the impressions that continue to stand out in my mind.

[1] The movie is both violent and slow, and that in itself is no mean feat. The cruelty is crushing and lasts for what (only) seems like an eternity. A two hour movie, it felt like at least three.

[2] Like all Coen Brother films, the pacing is theo-philosophical. It’s focus is the problem of radical evil in the world, the kind of evil into which one can read no rhyme, reason, no meaning and no redemption. If this is a cinematic world without God, it’s a pretty bad place. If this is a world with God, it’s even worse. The problem is the same, one way or the other. This is the world. The opening voice-over by Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) gets right down to the business. In a slow drawl, Bell reflects on the act of going out to meet something you don’t understand. “A man would have to put his soul at hazard,” he intones. “He’d have to say, Okay, I’ll be part of this world”

[3] Coen Brother films are routinely called nihilistic by both their detractors and admirers. But that’s to miss the moral center always placed inside these films. The open space outside is always rough and violent. But inside, in these domestic places, there’s this human element, a wisdom, a small still voice or presence that stands out as a moral counterweight. I found at least three such moment-spots in No Country for Old Me. [1] Inside the motel room, Carla Jean Moss, the young wife, refuses to play the coin toss game. [2] Uncle Ellis tells Bell that the country has always been violent. You cannot stop what’s coming. But it’s not waiting on you. That’s vanity. [3] Sitting inside around the kitchen table, Bell talking with his wife. There’s dull-bright Texas light with a tree outside.

[4] In a film so devoid  of “warmth,” the movie ends so suddenly as to catch you unaware. It’s all over before you know it. Bell tells his wife about two dreams, both about Bell and his father. This  is a part, if not the actual anchor, of the film’s very simple moral core. In the first dream, his father gives him “some money” he lost. In the second dream he and his father are riding horses through a snowy mountain pass. His father quietly rode by with head down, “going on ahead, and fixin’ to make a fire” in the surrounding dark and cold. Bell knew that when he got there his father would be waiting. “Then I woke up.”

[5] Which tree are we looking at in the final scene? Framed by the window, is it it the Tree of Life, or is it the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Maybe both. Something got lost on the way. These dreams bring a sudden otherworldy lens to the problems posed in the film. Supernatural, the vision remains, for all that, dim in relation to the surrounding violence.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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2 Responses to Slow, Violent & Dreamy (No Country for Old Men)

  1. Dustin N Atlas says:

    Perhaps a fourth ‘moral centre’: Carla’s refusal of the ‘executioner’s’ offer to flip a coin for her.

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