No Country for Old Men


No Country for Old Men (2007), directed by the Cohen Brothers, provides a fascinating exploration of some serious issues regarding ethics and moral systems. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Cormack McCarthy.

I watched this movie twice. On the first viewing I did not like it much. I got hung up on what appeared to me at the time to be a weakness in the film, the implausibility of several scenes. The plot struck me as being too similar to any number of Grade B movies I used to see at the Saturday matinée as a child. A prototypical example would be the western in which a courageous calvary man (perhaps played by John Wayne) stands in a valley while hordes of “bad guys” come over the hill shooting “thousands” of arrows and/or bullets at him. Miraculously, he is unhurt. Then in a subsequent scene, the cavalry man moves to another valley and the same scenario repeats. These scenes continue to play themselves out for about 90 minutes, and then the film is over. No one expects any realism or plausibility in films of this action genre. They are simply “throwaway” Grade B movies.

It would not be inaccurate to describe several of the scenes in No Country for Old Men as being similar. Several of the scenes lack plausibility to the point of being silly.

For these reasons, even though the film is made to the same high technical standards we have come to expect from the Cohen brothers, I left the theater after my first viewing feeling disappointed and let down. Positive comments from two friends whose judgment regarding film I respect persuaded me to give it a second look. On this second viewing, I discovered a different film. Rather than an implausible Grade B action genre film, I saw a powerful film about an inner psychological conflict taking place within the psyche of one of the main characters, Sheriff Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones). I will elaborate on that second interpretation of the film in this commentary.

The opening and closing scenes of the film act as bookends. In the opening scene (the opening bookend) Sheriff Bell tells us how he always enjoyed hearing stories about the old times, the times when his father and grandfather were sheriffs, and he wonders how they would operate in current times. Then he relates a personal story about a person he arrested for the murder of a 14 year old girl; A person who committed the murder just for fun. Sheriff Bell tells us that he can not figure out what to make of that. He concludes by telling us, “It’s not that I’m afraid. I just don’t want to go meet something I don’t understand.”

What exactly is “this thing he does not understand” that he “does not want to meet”? That is what the rest of the film spells out for us.

During the closing scene (the closing bookend) Sheriff Bell informs his wife (and us, the viewers) that he has had two dreams, the first of which he does not remember very well, but the second of which he describes. A reasonable interpretation of the overall film is that the first dream, the one he does not remember very well, is what we observed playing out between the opening and closing scenes. This is a nightmarish dream in which Sheriff Bell wrestles with an internal psychological conflict involving how to choose between competing systems of moral behavior.

Interpreted from this perspective, those same attributes of the film that had annoyed me during the first viewing (its lack of plausibility when evaluated from the perspective of an action genre) faded away as no longer being relevant.

Before continuing with more about the film, I am going to digress and discuss more generally the topic of moral systems.

Moral systems of behavior are simply rules or procedures that can be used to decide whether specific acts (those of ourselves or of others) are ethical (“right”) or unethical (“wrong”). A moral system can be differentiated from an amoral system in which decisions about which actions one should take are decided without any consideration of whether or not those actions are right or wrong. Moral systems are also often differentiated from immoral systems. What is the distinction? Aha, that is the crux of a major thematic issue that is dealt with in a nontrivial way in the film!

Where do moral systems come from? Speaking generally, there are two main classes of theories about the origin of moral systems, called transcendental and physical. One class of transcendental systems are those that are theologically based. They argue that the rules of a moral system are revealed to us by some nonphysical entity (“God”). A second class of transcendental systems are those proposed by some philosophers, such as Kant, in which it is argued that moral principles can be discovered or deduced via human reasoning. The most common types of physical moral systems argue that laws governing moral behavior are derived from evolutionary biology. An example of a biology based moral system would be the “ethic of the hunter”, as evidenced in ancient hunter-gatherer societies. A more general physical moral system would state that moral laws are part of the physical universe. An extreme position would be the argument that moral laws are not qualitatively different from other laws governing the physical universe such as the law of gravity.

Turning back to the film now, lets consider the use of symbols. In works of fiction, characters can sometimes be evaluated in terms of their symbolic significance. In other words, it is sometimes possible to find a mapping between ideas expressed in some domain such as theology or philosophy and the views or behaviors expressed by specific characters. In this regard, there are four pretty obvious symbolic mappings between characters in this film and the general classes of moral systems described in the previous paragraph. Sheriff Bell represents a theological moral system. Carson Wells, the bounty hunter, represents a philosophical position based on rationality and reason. Llewelyn Moss, the hunter who finds the million dollars, represents an evolutionary biology moral system of a hunter. Finally, Anton Chigurh, the psychopath, represents an extreme example of a totally physical moral system..

Thus, the internal psychological struggles between competing moral systems that are going on in Sheriff Bell’s psyche can be conceptualized in terms of struggles between these characters. Obviously, the film can also be interpreted literally as character studies of these four individuals. However, the Cohen brothers provide us with some clues that these individual characters might represent, or symbolize, a struggle going on within Sheriff Bell’s psyche. One of these is the use of parallel scenes that are rife throughout the film. To cite only a few: buying shirts from strangers, receiving wounds, cleaning and dressing wounds, putting on, taking off, and examining cowboy boots, being fascinated by as well as affected by chance events. These parallel events are reminiscent of recurring themes in a dream. Recurrent themes as might occur in a nightmarish dream of Sheriff Bell as he struggled to find and adopt a moral system that was meaningful for his own life.

It was the character Chigurh who had the most rigid moral, as opposed to amoral, system. He was, in the words of the character Carson Wells, “A peculiar man. He has principles that transcend money”. One of the rules of Chigurh’s moral system is that it is more important to keep a promise than it is to avoid killing someone. At least three of the murders he committed during the film were done to carry out this rule. Chigurh’s moral system also allowed the physical element of chance to play a role in deciding whether a given act was “right” or “wrong”. For example, the outcome of a coin toss was used as the rule to decide whether or not a convenience store clerk would be murdered. Chigurh also offered to let a coin toss decide the fate of Llewelyn’s wife Carla Jean. Carla Jean refused to go along with the operation of this rule, exclaiming to Chigurh, “The coin don’t have no say. Its just you.” However, Chigurh was not about to accept this argument that he had some kind of transcendental “free will” that could be used to decide her fate. He considered his entire moral system to be derived from physical laws, as evidenced in his retort, “I got here the same way the coin did”!

Carson Wells’ entire life was based around rationality. He deduces what is the rational thing to do and proceeds accordingly. When told by another character in the film that he has lived a charmed life, Carson retorts, “Charm has nothing to do with it”. His rational approach to making decisions about how to behave has been successful up until now. However it is no match for the physical moral system used by Chigurh, who asks Carson just before killing him, “If your rule brought you to this, what good is your rule?”.

Llewelyn’s moral system based on the ethic of a hunter was also no match for the physical morality of Chigurh. In fact, it was Llewelyn’s ethics that tripped him up. It was his conscience, the fact that he felt guilty about leaving a thirsty man in the desert with no water, that led to his life being put in jeopardy. Later it was his “hunter’s sense of justice” that led him to continue the “hunt” for Chigurh, a decision that ultimately led to the death of himself and his wife Carla Jean.

Finally, lets consider the moral system of Sheriff Bell. He has a somewhat naive (in the philosophical sense of not being carefully thought out) set of beliefs about right and wrong. His naive view is that there was once a set of moral principles in operation, “in the old days”, but that those principles are no longer in operation. Psychologically, Bell does not know if he wants to continue in his job as sheriff where his job is to “enforce the rules” in a society in which he is not even sure what the rules are anymore. His is the sentiment of an “old man” who thinks society has gone, to use a colloquial phrase, to hell in a handbasket; a society where young people “have green hair and put bones in their noses”. The strongest sense of moral outrage we see expressed by Sheriff Bell during the film is for what appears to be a rather unimportant transgression of a societal rule. He exclaims “Its a damn outrage” when a driver of a truck carrying bodies from a crime scene did not properly secure the bodies to the truck bed. This sense of outrage provides a stark contrast to his apparent detachment and indifference to finding the perpetrators of more serious crimes such as murder.

Sheriff Bell at one point expresses the view that the transition from the traditional moral system that was in place for his father and grandfather to the current degenerate one started when people stopped using the terms “Sir” and “Mamm”. Sheriff Bell is obviously deluded in this belief. One of the nice ironies in the film is the scene in which the psychopath, Chigurh, uses the term “Sir” when addressing a stranger shortly before murdering him. Sheriff Bell’s uncle also tries to disabuse him of the notion that things are different now than they were in the old days. He informs Bell about some atrocities that took place “in the old days” that were qualitatively similar to events happening now. He says disparagingly to Bell, “What you got is nothin new”.

In the end, Sheriff Bell chooses a moral system that is loosely theologically based. He says explicitly, “I always figured when I got older God would come into my life”. Trouble is, so far God has not come into his life in any personal way that he can feel. Thus, when he stated in the opening scene, “It’s not that I’m afraid. I just don’t want to go meet something I don’t understand”, one sense of his angst is obviously about the possibility of meeting up with death in a universe in which there is no God. He deals with this by adopting in the final scene a religious belief as an act of faith. His belief is revealed when he describes his second dream, the dream in which his father passes him by and is going ahead to prepare a place for him when he arrives. This is a religious belief that he will be able to reconnect with “the old days” after death.

Lets end by considering the question of whether Chigurh’s moral system was one that was moral or immoral. At a surface level, it seems obvious that his moral system was morally repugnant, the ethics of a murdering psychopath. However, a little reflection reveals a deep issue that we, the viewers, should be left pondering at the end of the film. The only real definition of an immoral system is that it is one that disagrees with important tenets of our own personal moral system. When evaluating two moral systems that contradict one another about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of behaviors we feel strongly about, the one that agrees with our own is labeled the “moral” one and the other is labeled as being “immoral” or “morally repugnant”. Lets consider a few examples. Consider a moral system in which it is considered to be “wrong” for a woman to be in a public place in the absence of a male relative. A moral system in which a pregnant woman who has an abortion is considered to have committed murder. A moral system that allows torture of a terror suspect to extract information. A moral system in which a sexual relationship between two males is an abomination. Which of these systems are moral and which immoral? I have strong personal opinions about each of these issues, and I hope you do to, but I am also aware that there are millions of people who disagree vehemently with me about my positions for each of them. So the issues raised in this film about how an individual grapples with making the correct choices among competing moral systems is a serious one. The choices we each make have profound implications for us individually as well as for society. For me, a primary strength of this film is that it provoked me into thinking more deeply about these issues.

Ron Boothe


9 thoughts on “No Country for Old Men

  1. Ron: What a fantastic “schema” for creating an understanding of this film. Had I written it I would have called it a sermon and it would have done right well. I appreciate the distinction of ethical systems and your very clear demarcation among them.

    I must admit I will have to return to the film another time. I got caught up in the story because I was once involved in police work and especially working with delinquent children and I am as guilty as our sheriff in the film as referencing the “good ‘ol days’ when crimes were actually related to context and people-to-people. Not so today, but you ethical systems approach may actually assist in understanding today’s modern phenomenon. And, tis true there were no “good ‘ol days” and when I think back, especially on hate crimes, the same irrationality exists and existed.

    Thanks for the “spark” to get me back to the movie–and now where is the DVD?

    Cheerfully, Roger

  2. Ron,
    Now, that is quite a treatise on moral systems. There’s a strong and interesting argument in your classification of characters according to their application of moral principles in actions (Chigur’s and Wells’) and the ambivalence of understanding at work in Bell’s and Moss’s words and behaviors. It never fails to amaze me what fascination and magic each of us finds in the kaleidoscope of film and art. How important our focus of fascination is, I’m not sure. I will consider seriously your patterns and see whether they hold up.

    It is not uncommon I’d say to find such schemas as you have presented in works of literature and film. Scholarly film journals, as I see the seriousness of your ideas, would be interested in your essay. Why not see if one is interested?

    On a the general level, moral complexity and human fallability are often what make books and films rivetting, and from which we can learn about our own lives. Ben Affleck’s recent debut, “Gone, Baby, Gone,” contained such complexity as you’ve spoken of about “No Country.” I’d say Cormac McCarthy has been hammering away at serious classical themes to emboss his ideas about this-here world into our thick skulls in every work he’s written. I’d suggest you read “Blood Meridian” for serious comparison with “No Country”‘s psychological types.

    Your focus on the psychology is only one main string of the neural harp being played throughout “No Country for Old Men.” When a film is made from a novel, anything is possible, and, like Bell’s dreams, the meanings are up for grabs. Though, like you, I did think there was a glowing coal of hope in that fire horn his father carried in the epilogue’s second dream.

    As themes go, the message, rather than an enlightening treatise on types of moral systems, I saw as a grim warning: the idea that deadly evil will not be stopped, but will prevail, as in Chigur’s escape, if human beings continue to act mindlessly, sloppily the way we do, like the outrage of the driver of the unsecured load in the “death truck” that irked Bell to investigate. This might seem superficial, but much evidence can be brought to bear to show this theme at play and movie-goers will be able to pick up on this as significant in deeper ways, perhaps to change one’s mind, to act differently. Moss was a decent feller, and his theft of the drug money may have seemed like a ticket to freedom, but what hell freedom can bring? “No Country” is a film about American culture, about the violence and depravity that can wither decent souls. America was born out of this violence in the making of the West as “historian” McCarthy detailed it in “Blood Meridian.” “No Country” might be a shorter reiteration of his theme in modern dress, but pretty much in the same empty landscapes. We’ll get a chance to see what Ridley Scott does with that earlier work in the near future. The Coen Brothers’ film is a very careful transformation from a novel by an unusual naturalistic stylist and it’s a good fit, because they have been naturalistic film makers all along in their strict concern for details. For them nothing is too silly to make a deep, disturbing movie about.

    To whet your appetite for “B.M.”, here’s a quote from The Judge in “Blood Meridian”:

    “The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras, having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a muddled field is unspeakable and calimitous beyond reckoning.

    “The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.” (New York: Quarterly Paperback Book Club, 1993), p.245. Everyone can see his/her own fantasy or nightmare in “No Country for Old Men” and schemas of moral imperatives do not even come into play, if they ever do in life as we live it. The movie theater is a dangerous schoolroom.

  3. Ronster:

    You old muckraker, you. At it again, stirring up the multitudes with your carefully thought out premise, and psychological knowledge and careful research. I love the challenge of endeavoring to understand, and to relate to another’s analysis of a film. It is almost as difficult as understanding each other as human beings. The world today, as we know it from travels and media coverage, is testament to man’s inability to regard history as a classroom.

    David, perhaps you have overstated your premise in your summation, “The movie theater is a dngerous classroom.” For actually life itself is the classroom, and we are all in lesson. It is just that many of us pay no heed to the knowledge, to the symbols, to the prophesies. So movies, a big part of many of our lives, is in fact a classroom, a travel bureau, entertainment, catharsis, and even ephiphany. So if some of us have the kinds of minds that lead to the elaborate set up of schema in order to find balance and meaning in what we have seen, we cannot divorce ourselves from ourselves in the process. Hell, therein lies the joy, the challenge, and the thrill of the chase of ideas.

    It is ironic, Ron, that after disliking the film with your first viewing, you returned to it, and experienced a different film. I think it is wonderful that any of us can reapproach a thing that we have passed judgement on, and give it another chance to speak to us. By the by, sir, in your explication of B movies you made a reference to a “courageous calvary man”. You know I make that mistake often myself. Calvary was a hill called Golgatha. The U.S. Cavalry is quite a different entity.

    I guess I would be curious as to which scenes, probably the violent ones, seemed to implausible to you, “to the point of being silly.”
    The Coen brothers kept the pace moving along briskly, and most of us did not feel that way about those gunfights. Anton Chigurh did get away with murder much too effortlessly at times, that is true. Where were all the innocent bystanders, the populus, like when he shot up the Elkhorn Hotel in El Paso, and followed Llwelyn out onto the street? They blasted away for several minutes, and no one seem to appear or intervene. When Chigurh killed the deputy, it made sense there was no one else around. Those motorists he killed were likewise solitary figures in a bloody landscape. All crime films that have action often disregard logic, as do the real killers who shoot up our workplaces, churchs, masques, and malls.

    The one spot in the film that did bother me was when Moss returned to the place of slaughter with his pick up, and parked up on the hill above, walking down with the jug of water. At the time, as he looked back at the lone truck on the ridge, I knew it was a set up. Obviously he could have driven right down to the place of massacre. The bad guys did a few minutes later, after they discovered his abandoned pick up. And of course the whole chase scene with Moss running on foot in front of the Mexican truck, being shot at constantly, seemed like a strain on credibility.

    Several times in the film, there are references to “what’s coming”, that no one nor nothing can stop it. And yes the sense of dread is palpable throughout the narrative and the whole movie. And this was in the early 80’s. We have come close to being a population, a world, where terrible violence is just a whisper away, no matter what precautions we take; like a return to the medieval madness of the past, where no one was safe from corruption, greed, insantity, and ego.

    And now let’s get down to some of your premises, Ron. You and Jim came to the interesting conclusion that perhaps Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s “first dream” was the entirety of the film, even going so far as to state that this was “a reasonable interpretation”. I would completely disagree with that premise. That is a stretch of the credibility thread beyond the breaking point. It is more like a cute notion, one of those what if ideas we all entertain each other with. But it certainly does not represent an explanation for the complexity of plot, and the richness of back story for all the other characters. Ed Tom Bell, regardless of his fascination with his own dreams, could not have known, or even imagined the minutia of detail that we discovered about Moss, his childlike wife, his shrew mother-in-law, the capitalist asshole that hired the killing and then was sacrified in the bargain, the exactness of dialogue while Chigurh badgered his victims, and his potential victims, the events that Moss encountered, who Carson Wells was and his meeting with Mr. Big, or with Moss in the hospital in Mexico, or the flirtatious conversation Moss had with the pool flozzie before her demise at the hands of the Mexican punks and assassins, and more, much more. So to use this as a premise that “Sheriff Bell wrestles with an internal psychological conflict involving how to choose between competing systems of moral behavior.” is just setting up your own arguement, like a debator, like a philosopher. Ed Tom Bell was wrestling with an internal psychological conflict alright, but he would never have labeled it, or defined it as systems of moral behavior.

    Of course, I am not going to do research on dream analysis, but it is my assumption that when we dream, we do so in the first person, not the third peson. We do not dream a scenario of history, we dream episodes of absurdity and wonder that we, in some form or other, are a personal part of. Without us there the events cannot occur, no matter how bizarre they are. In every dream sequence in literature, or in films, the protagonist, the dreamer is present, front and center, in every phase of the dream. Otherwise how in the deuce could “he” be dreaming it?

    Interesting that in our world where fundamentalists, religious zealots, all cry that they have the “correct” moral system, of course hung up on several kinds of “transcendental” levels of understanding, of their culture, of their education. God has always been on one side and then the other. The Crusades, then and now, are like two cousins trying to kill each other arguing over colored marbles. Jim Jones, David Karesh, and all the others, that Mormon leader that was jailed for 100 kinds of sodomy, rape, and abuse of women in his cult Mormon community –the examples are never ending. Everyone feels that their perspective is “right”, and the infidels need to be exterminated. I tend to believe in the “physical” based moral system I guess; just old fashioned human nature, need to hunt, need to kill, to procreate, to feel superior, to be loved, to make more money, to gain success.

    Lovely that you were able to break down the film into four separate codas, four mappings of your moral systems.
    1. Ed Tom Bell represented the “theological moral system”. Did he really? He was the one that probably questioned theology more than any other character. If God exists, how could he stand by and let the world degenerate into beastiality? An old question, never fully answered by any level of theology or philosophy. Ed Tom Bell is just worn out, and he was beginning to feel “overmatched”. By retiring, he removed himself, temporarily, from the fray, but he certainly did not do so because of any overriding theological principles. He did so to remain sane, and in one piece.
    2. Carson Wells, the other hired killed, represented a “philosophical position based on rationality and reason.” Well, there might be something there in what you imply, but in terms of the story, Wells is a very minor character, just a sideline event. In terms of the film, he was all talk, and not very effective at his job. He allowed Chigurh to simply walk up and get the drop on him like any chump citizen would have done. He was dispatched like a whiney punk, and certainly disappointed me. I thought he might be a lot more effective, have more grit and talent for this profession. To assign Wells as one fourth the weight of the symbolic plot does not bode well with me. Wells was an interesting, yet not fully focused character.
    3. Llwelyn Moss, the hunter who found “two” million dollars belongs to the evolutionary biological moral system, yes, this premise I can fathom, and accept. As his wife, Carla Jean said,”He won’t back down. He never does. He takes on all comers.” His confidence in his own abilities was his hubris probably. His lifetime of success with survival and hunting led him astray. As Wells told him, “You aren’t cut out for this.” He, too, was outmatched, out gunned, out smarted. In terms of the hackneyed tried-and-true Hollywood stereotypes, he had me convinced that the would put up a good showing against Chigurh; that he might even prevail. To have him gunned down by six or seven Mexican thugs really shocked me, broke my heart, pissed me off; and this let to the parallel of Ellis, the sheriff’s uncle, relating the story of how their grandfather had been murdered by seven brigands on his own front porch, in front of his wife.
    4. Anton Chigurh, the psychopath, DID represent “an extreme example of a totally physical moral system.” But for the rest of us, he represent the totally amoral character, the man with shark’s dead eyes, a murderer so arrogant, so blaise, that over half of his murders were done without looking directly at the victims. He no longer needed to see the look of death in their eyes. He already had memorized that look. Now there was just the killing, that’s all that mattered, that got him off I suppose. But Chigurh was more than that. He was the Terminator, that Thing that was coming, Evil incarnate, some inexorable force that moved amongst us, taking his victims at his whim, or not. By the way, if he had only been a figment of Ed Tom Bell’s dream, he never would have been allowed to get away, to continue to kill, to survive. Chigurh was a figure out of a nightmare, that is true; but psychopaths are like that; never in a hurry, continuing to come on until they overtake you, and destroy you. Roger Ebert wrote, “Chigurh is a man so bad, cruel, and unfeeling that there is simply no comprehending him.”

    On this point, sir, I think I fall close to the premise that David set forward, that Evil does stalk the land, and in terms of this film, the landscape. Ebert did mention it also was a film about,”moral choices, immoral certainties, human nature, and fate.”, so yes, your premise too has its “validity”

    Yes, there were parallels in plot as to wounds, dressing them themselves, buying shirts from strangers, taking off and fussing with cowboy boots, and other things, like arming themselves to the teeth (all except Carson Wells who never branished a weapon, oddly). But to attribute these parallel events, this similarities to a “dreamlike state”, or a “nightmarish dream” just does not hold water. These recurrent themes are literary devices to show the glaring similarities between good and bad, between protagonist and antagonist; motiffs, symbols, facts that are as old to literature, and to film, as words and celluloid are to history. You are reaching for that premise, and you are coming up short; way short.

    For you to surmise that Chigurh has the most rigid “moral system” is accurate from your perspective, but is like your volumes of explication on MEMENTO informing us that that character who suffered from short term memory issues did not, in fact, have a short term memory loss. Yes, Chigurh had his own rythmns and own moral codes, like a maverick psychopath wouldl. If he promised to kill you, he would kill you. “principles that transcend money,” as Wells stated. It certainly did, and does, raise questions in our mind as to the parameters of right and wrong; for that is completely relative to your perspective, your culture, your religion, your education, and your will. Are those warriors of God that are becoming suicide bombers “right”? They certainly believe so, don’t they? Is is “right” for gasoline to be 3 bucks a gallon, or for George W. Bush to be enjoying his second term, and enjoying the fruits of his deceit, his greed, and his cabinet’s machinations?

    You do have your finger on a salient issue when you refer to Ed Tom Bell saying, “It’s not that I’m afraid. I just don’t want to meet something that I don’t understand.” I think his description of his second dream goes leagues beyond just giving credence to your notion that he seeks a sign of faith for his religious belief. As David pointed out, this scene, the epilogue for the story, is the one ray of hope, the one sign that maybe, in spite of the carnage and sorrow, there might be “better days ahead”, not just for him, but for all of us.

    So, my view is that the film certainly is not just a representation of the “first dream” of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. That is an intriguing yet preposterious postulate. Your schema of moral systems is in itself very informative, but only the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot more going on in this film. It is great that your second viewing has this postive effect on you. My second viewing has led me to needing to write my own review of the film some time in the future.


  4. I can only quote Alexander Pope’s, An Essay on Criticism:

    “A little learning is a dangerous thing
    Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring
    There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain
    And drinking largely sobers us again”


  5. Glenn,
    You just have to provoke me don’t you 🙂 OK, I will take the bait.

    Regarding your assertion that

    “[My] schema of moral systems is in itself very informative, but only the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot more going on in this film.”

    Of course I agree. The purpose of a commentary is not to try to be an all-encompassing, definitive treatment of every aspect of a film. It is more along the lines of an exegesis, where the purpose is to provide AN (not THE) interpretation that is meaningful from some particular perspective. It is understood that multiple (perhaps unlimited) interpretations are meaningful and worthy of being explored. Questions about which is the CORRECT interpretation do not even come into play. However, there is an expectation that whenever one suggests a particular “meaningful interpretation”, that one should be able to defend that interpretation in terms of being consistent with the “facts” in evidence in the particular literary work being discussed.

    With that in mind, let me address the issue of whether it is “reasonable” or “preposterous” to assert that the entire film between the opening and closing scenes can be interpreted as Sheriff Bell’s dream.

    I start from a basic premise that in serious works of art, every detail shown is thought out. Consider the librettos of the great operas. It is assumed that every single word in every sentence was chosen with precision and care, and there are scholarly works that try to analyze why each word was chosen, as opposed to some alternative word that could have been used by the librettist. I assume that something similar takes place in really good films such as those made by the Cohen Brothers.

    If one disagrees with that premise, I probably do not have anything more to say about the film. However, if you want to buy into this premise, or humor me for purposes of this discussion, I would like to pose a question for you.

    In the last scene of the film the Cohen Brothers included a scene in which Sheriff Bell tells us about a dream he had, and then describes the dream to us. His description of that dream is very meaningful with respect to what has occurred in the rest of the film, so its relevance to the film seems obvious. But didn’t it strike you as a little odd that the Cohen Brothers added a few extra lines of dialogue in this scene that seem, on the surface at least, irrelevant? Sheriff Bell tells (his wife and) us that he also had another dream, one that he does not describe to us (hmmmmm, wonder why he brought it up then), and that the other dream had to do with lost money or something.

    So, I guess from your point of view those are simply a few throw away lines. How could dialog regarding “a dream about lost money” possibly have anything to do with the film we just spent the last two hours watching, a film that was a story about LOST MONEY.


    I am always intrigued by the old-time fundamentalists who did not want to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution. When presented with evidence in the form of the fossil record, one of their responses was to assert that the Devil must have put it there to trick the gullible scientists into coming up with a “preposterous” theory. Why do I include that little amusing anecdote here? It is a totally irrelevant comment. Do not in any way try to construct some kind of meaning from it just because I happened to include it at the end of this comment that is about something else entirely.


    P.S. — I rather like the image of all of those “calverys” charging down the hill.

  6. Ron:

    Yes, we all seem to cajole and bait each other, and then sit back and enjoy the responses.
    But actually I was, at this time, only guilty of endeavoring to respond to your treatise, your schema, your carefully organized perceptions of what you saw, or think you saw.

    Certainly, one interpretation is not all interpretations, and I would be daft to even imply that your theories do not, or cannot, shed some analytical light on the film experience, or the experience of the film; after all a cocker spaniel is a dog, but not all dogs are cocker spaniels, right?

    And I bend a knee to your assertion that if any of us have views, opinions, and want to share our perspectives, it would be logical and prudent to base our feelings on some actual facts; or at least data representing the facts as we “understood” them.

    Yes, I too, several times listened very closely to Sheriff Ed Tom Bell talk for a few moments about his first dream, the one his father was in, that had something to do with money, and “I think I lost it.” For me this few sentences referring to the first dream just echo, parallel the other plot, the main plot that we have just seen, or read. I agree that the Coen Brothers are very careful with what they put on the screen, and what dialogue they have their actors mouth. That being said, if the first dream implied that Ed Tom Bell had imagined or dreamed the whole prior action, the entire film….then why in duece did he mention that his father was in both dreams. Where was his father in the film? He was mentioned in the prologue and the epilogue. Another outstanding literary device, probably related to the structure of the Cormac McCarthy novel. And yet again, if it was a dream, why was Bell not IN every scene, in the first person? How could he have known, or even imagined the plethora of facts relative to the other characters, and their weakness, and their pride, and their in-laws? To think a dream could, or might, encompass all this minutia is difficult for me to accept, sir.

    Did Ed Tom Bell even know that Moss was in a hospital in Mexico? Or is his dreamstate mind such a creative one that he just put things in order automatically. What about that scene where the Sheriff returns to Moss’s motel room, notices the lock has been smashed out. He drew his pistol, and we saw Chigurh standing behind the door inside, waiting. But Bell came in, moved into the bathroom, stood long enough for the killer to step out, and Bell never encountered him. Would Bell have imagined that? That scene does kind of baffle me. I decided that Chigurh came back to get the money. The Mexican punks had murdered Moss, but beat it before they found the money. Chigurh had seen the dragging tracks from the valice in the first room. He knew where to look. Bell noticed the grate left off as he sat on the bed.

    So, no, no, hell no, I do not consider Bell’s comments about the first dream as “throw-away lines”. They are rather the reinforcement of the symbolism, the action, and the “moral issues” that the preceeding plot, story, had postulated and presented.

    I think we all might could investigate the option of joing the U.S. Calvery. They are looking for a few good men and boys to send on vacation to the Middle East.


  7. Serious film buffs are like old bulldogs. They get their teeth into a perspective, and they chew on that bone or weeks, or ad infinitum.

    Saturday night, after I led the discussion at the Grand for a new breezy comedy, JUNO, directed by Jason Reitman –David and Ron had attended the discussion, we three cinemateers went off to the PARKWAY TAV for beers, diet Coke, and chili, and some movie and philosophy chatting.

    [By the by, TFC members out there, it is still a rare privilege for each of us that lead those discussions at the Grand, to look up from the table in the lower mezzanine, and see the smiling faces of any of you. To turn out in support of whomever is the discussion leader is a grand gesture, and it is muchly appreciated.]

    Ron and I went head to head on several salient points of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. David presented me with the novel, freshly scooped up from KING BOOKS; thank you dear David. We got into the dream analysis for the film again, and we began to get in depth as to whether a dreamer constructs dreams in the first person, or sometimes takes the omniscient (?) point of view; which led to some fascinating sharing of all of our dreams, the flying, the naked dreams, the common setting dreams.

    We all finished the evening with hugs and holiday good wishes. There was no closure, of course. The most, the best we could muster was to agree to disagree; the old,”I may disagree with your point of view, sir, but I would defend with my life your right to say it!” points of view.

    There were several minutes, as per usual, of a tiny lament that more TFC members do not get into these comment boxes and sound off. Seriously, one word, one sentence, a happy face, contentment, discontent, sadness, anger, disdain; the choices are endless. Now you know that you all “feel them”. I invite you to exorcise your Muses and your demons, right here on the blog site made just for you.


  8. Glenn,
    You beat me to it. I got up this morning intending to put a comment here regarding our discussion last night (following the discussion you led at the Grand for Juno; Excellent discussion by the way). By the time I got around to sitting down at the computer I discovered you had already posted a new comment. One of the things I did earlier today was to bike over to King’s Books and pick up a copy of the novel. I had originally only rated “No Country for Old Men” as 4 stars, but any time a film provokes serious discussion that lasts for days or weeks, and in addition leads one to want to go read the book, that has to be a 5 star film, so I upgrade my rating as of today.

    I think it is really interesting that we both have/had hangups about the film that are “similar at a deeper level” even though they go in different directions. We both have something that bothers or annoys us about particular interpretations of the film. I have a hang-up that makes me unable to appreciate the film taken as a literal description of actual people and events — It seems too improbably to me, and when I watch it from that perspective (as I did on the first viewing) it annoys me to the point that I can not appreciate the film. You have a hangup that makes you unable to appreciate the film interpreted as a dream — That interpretation seems preposterous to you because there are so many scenes from an omniscient point of view in which the dreamer (Sheriff Bell) was not present.

    Let me offer an analogy that may (or may not) be helpful. As you know my background is as a scientist. Scientists are also sometimes confronted with paradoxes. A classic one has to do with the nature of light. Some properties of light only make sense if we treat light as though it were continuous waves; Other properties only make sense if we treat it as though it were discrete particles (photons). Which ever of these perspectives we take, there is evidence that does not make sense from that perspective. So in the end, scientists are forced to accept the paradox, light has both wave and particle properties, even though some aspects of these are properties that appear to be incompatible with one another.

    Same with “No Country for Old Men”. We may have to just accept the paradox that it has both literal and dreamlike interpretations, even though some aspects of these interpretations appear incompatible with one another.


  9. Ron:

    Hey, I was paragraphs deep in another comment, and when I tried to get the backspace to work, it erased the whole comment; lost in cyber space. Ain’t that a bitch? Didn’t mean to beat you to the punch, old pal, just felt very good about our fellowship and the discussion(s).

    Your latest premise is intriguing, that there is room in our consciousness for both the literal and dream scenarios. That like light, it may have, as a work of art, as a film, mutliple realities. That is very deep actually. It is very metaphysical, actually. Like when you study quantum physics, and they tell us that 99% of any atom is emptyness, that you only detect atomic particles when you look, that most of the time they are not there; that reality itself is just what we perceive; that anything we think of as having mass, only does so because we perceive that it does. Harkening back to the principles of co-creation, that we are much more powerful spiritual entities that we seem to want to accept or understand. This comes up a lot in the literature of abduction; that when a person is aware they are imprisoned in a beam of odd light, in their beds, that their body rises up, and continues to rise up through their ceiling and their roof, all the way up and into the craft hovering there; invisible to all except those deemed necessary to witness it. Aliens have been reported as passing through solid walls easily, that they understand the molecular process, and just pass through effortlessly.

    So, yes, there is room in the world for your dream analysis, which on the one hand is substantiated by some facts, and reputiated by others; just as there are many instances and facts to support my premise that the film is made up as a literal allegory, an old-fashioned morality play drug into the present, or near present. Yes, and as David contents, there is room for several more interpretations as well.

    David also said, as you and I will soon discover, that the novel does more clearly support your premise, and seems to suggest more nightmare symbols and dream symbols; that the Coen Brothers did not fully give flesh to this premise, and yet your astute scientific mind caught it, even though there was only a shred of it intact in the film. So then we will be faced with two realities, one the novel, and one the film “based” on the novel; two very separate things; the same and yet vastly differing in point of view, impact, and import.


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