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.