No Country For Old Men
I've been fascinated by the Coen brothers movie, "No Country For Old Men," watching it over and over, five times now. Then I got the book by Cormac McCarthy, which was even better and filled in more details. I've been trying to figure out what it means with partial success. The themes I see are free will versus fatalism, which leads to the larger clash of civilization versus barbarism.
The fatalism is illustrated by the antagonist, Anton Chigurh, in his use of a coin toss to determine whether or not to kill his victims. He has no passion invested in killing them but believes it is a matter of chance whether they live or die, just as it was chance that brought him to them. Nor does Chigurh have any moral qualms about killing. It's just part of his job, neither good nor evil, just something to be done. Carson Wells and Carla Jean Moss both tell Chigurh that he doesn't need to do this, to kill them. Chigurh rejects the idea that he has any say in the matter.
Chigurh first tosses the coin when he encounters the gas station proprietor who notices the Dallas plates on his car. He leaves it to the coin toss to decide whether he should eliminate this witness. When the toss lets the man live, he walks away unperturbed. It was the man's fate to live, not Chigurh's decision, as Chigurh sees it.
Carla Jean Moss refuses to play Chigurh's game, calling the toss, by saying that "the coin ain't got no say." In other words, the coin has no moral agency. It is Chirgurh's decision to kill her or spare her, not the coin's. Carla Jean represents free will. Chigurh, fatalism.
Carson Wells and Carla Jean Moss both tell Chigurh that he doesn't need to do this, to kill them. Chigurh rejects the idea that he has any choice in the matter, that he has any moral agency. Anton Chigurh is the coin.
Barbarism is the absence of moral agency, the Hobbesian state of nature, which is "the state of men without civil society (which state may be called the state of nature) is nothing but a war of all against all; and that in that war, all have a right to all things." In this amoral war, men pursue their aims without limit, recognizing no moral boundaries. Chigurh is an emissary of that Hobbesian state of men, of barbarism. That barbarism was the natural state of humans for a million years until they organized themselves into civilizations in the last few millennia, a barbarism that naturally re-emerges when civilization relents or retreats.
That retreat of civilization is what Sheriff Ed Tom Bell talks about with the El Paso Sheriff, that it all begins to fall apart when kids lose their manners. Sheriff Bell is a tragic figure in this story because ultimately he joins that retreat by quitting law enforcement in the face of rampant barbarism represented by the insanely violent drug trade.
Tom Bell feels like a fraud. He was a soldier, a hero of WWII, where he fought off an attack of Germans single-handedly, winning a Bronze Star. His guilty secret is that when night fell, he abandoned his position and slunk back to his own lines, leaving his dead friends behind. He was sure that, in the same situation, his father, a veteran of WWI, would have stayed and fought to the death.
His family had a tradition of standing up to barbarism. His Uncle Max was gunned down on his own porch, shot in his doorway by a pack of Indians in 1909, as he was going for his shotgun. His Uncle Ellis was shot by a criminal and confined to a wheelchair. They all faced down the barbarians without relent nor retreat. Tom Bell did not live up to their standard and feels himself a lesser man for it. Hence his dreams.
In the first dream Tom Bell says he and his father were in town, his father gave him some money, and he lost it. The town represents the civilization his forefathers built. The money represents his cultural inheritance. He lost it by surrendering to the barbarians.
The second dream is set outside the city in the wilderness. His father passes him in the dark on horseback, carrying fire to make the next campsite out ahead. The camp he will make in the dark wilderness is civilization. The fire he carries is his code of morality, without which there is no civilization. That campsite, that civilization, that moral code is a benchmark Ed Tom never reaches. He wakes from that dream short of that ideal set by his father. He's haunted by his shortcomings, by not measuring up to his father.
When Ed Tom confronts the unrestrained intelligent evil of Anton Chigurh and the chorus of mindlessly violent Mexican drug dealers, he feels overmatched. To defeat them, he feels that he would have to abandon his morality, to become evil to conquer evil, to "put your soul at hazard," something he's unwilling to do, a moral boundary he will not cross.
Labels: No Country For Old Men