The Coen Brothers’ film No Country for Old Men, based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, is a seamless exercise in the strangulation of hope. Unlike their previous films set in the dark world of murder (Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo) No Country has no glimmer of escape, no place of refuge, and no chance at mercy. Not only is this place no country for old men, it is no place for anyone at all.
The theme of the movie is the inexorable march of violence, like its fatalistic antagonist, wryly named Anton Chigurh, whose clockwork killing punctuates the movie. In this world, where God is only noted as an absence, people are chewed up and spit out, victim and victimizer alike, with such casual determinism that only horror is at home. No film since Chinatown delineates the Christian virtue of Hope from its secular counterpart pessimism.
Where Christianity presses human responsibility into the world, paganism presses fate. In comedy the secular world takes no responsibility in a person and therefore laughs unhindered at his misery. In romances responsibility is trumped by the “falling in love” falsehood. If love is a hole that can be fallen into, accidentally, then it is not a fault to fall out of love; there is no responsibility.
Even in tragedy responsibility is abandoned in paganism. Bad things happen to Oedipus apart from his best wishes and nothing could be done to avoid it. In No Country Chigurh is as relentless in his murdering ways as he is in shirking his responsibility. He flips coins to determine life or death, taking it out of his hands, or so he thinks. At one point a witness to one of his murders asks if he will be killed as well. Chigurh looks at him and responds, “That depends…have you seen my face?” Once again, it is out of his hands. His responsibility cannot be pressed, events far prior to the present have already predetermined the outcome and he has no hand in them.
Against this Christianity is starkly different in its comedic, romantic, and tragic view of the world. All men, regardless of how unlovely, are objects of love, images of God. In comedies we root for the characters in misery, and though we may laugh at them despite ourselves, the goal, the hope, is to laugh with them. Romance is intentional and active, a love that works at loving the beloved, which I find far more romantic than accidental love, fated by the impersonal stars that Hollywood spoon feeds us year after year. In tragedy Christianity presents something far more tragic than paganism can muster, for the possibility of hope makes the tragedy all the more tragic. If it was unavoidable then tragedy remains a “part of life”, but if there is some remedy, some hope for change then tragedy is all the more awful and meaningless.
This is inherent in the different views of the world. If the world is an accident of random events then there is no hope to change the world, but if the world was not meant to be a place of violence, danger, and disease, if we have a hand in shaping the world, if our actions are meaningful, then there is hope. The paganism of the classical world is dead and therefore, as a whole, so is this hopeless world. Hollywood has traded up for the Christian view of the world in most of its fare, because everyone intuitively knows that our actions matter, we will be held to account, the world can change, the world is full of meaning. We forget that this is an impossible view in secularism and a movie like No Country for Old Men is important to remind us just how horrible the world would be if men truly lived without responsibility, if evil were an unstoppable natural force relentlessly grinding the world into oblivion.
Anton is not an agent of Fate nor impersonal determinism. In the film the scandal, the relentless terror, is that Anton is responsible for his actions. Otherwise Anton is a hero and the movie is a romance and if you don’t think so then you’re just a rosy-eyed, reality-denying, creampuff.
By making a movie black with injustice the Coen Brothers throw in deep relief the cry of mercy. Even the thinnest whisper of hope shines bright. We see that world, godless and gruesome, we see how helpless justice is, how weak, how frail in the face of unconscionable evil and we deny that world depicted in No Country is this world, our world, or at least deny that this is the way the world should be. By showing us that terrible world, that is no country for anybody, we are driven to affirm that this world is worthy to save.
The movie does not expect us to shrug our shoulders after the movie ends and slink off into despair, it asks us to look for what the world is missing and add it here, because everybody knows the world has meaning. We just have to get at what the writing means.