Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #6

Re: Faith and Film Criticism; No Country for Old Men

I’m a regular visitor of Decent Films, and as a Catholic I enjoy reading your reviews.

However, I am concerned about a comment you made in your essay, Faith and Film Criticism, about No Country for Old Men. You called it “nihilistic” and “amoral.” These two adjectives certainly carry strong negative meanings. Without anything else to go by, I assume that you did not find this film very valuable, overall (you did say that was “painstakingly crafted”).

I saw No Country for Old Men in theaters and I’ve since bought the DVD and watched it several times. The reason why I’m concerned about the way you described NCFOM is that I’ve often noticed that you dismiss the significance of films that have in them a theme of nihilism. In the case of NCFOM, I agree with you that it does have a theme of nihilism (I certainly do not think that it is its only theme). But is it a bad thing that one of NCFOM’s message is one of nihilism? I think for it to be not acceptable, it would have to in some way glorify or promote it.

No Country for Old Men does nothing of the sort. Certainly, characters like Anton Chigurh are nihilistic themselves; Chigurh only believes in fate, and he sees himself as one who carries out what fate prescribes. But Sheriff Bell’s narration in the opening sets the mood of the film and lays out the film’s main message. Bell talks about how police never carried guns on duty, and he laments about how the world is changing for the worse. “The crime these days…it’s hard to even take its measure.” And talking about Chigurh’s claim that he’d be in hell in fifteen minutes, Bell says that he doesn’t know what to make of it.

I hardly think that No Country is amoral about the fact that Chigurh is going on a killing rampage, and that he has no qualms whatsoever about cold-blooded murder or putting the fate of someone’s life on a coin toss. In fact, showing Chigurh’s nihilistic behavior explicitly and without emotion or mood (e.g., music) helps to drive the gravity of Chigurh’s actions into the audience’s conscious.

No Country gives us, I believe, an important social observation for the future: times are changing, the quality of crime is becoming more cruel, ruthless, and even nihilistic. As Javier Bardem says, the movie is really a critique of violence itself. It gives a realistic picture of the future to us. Is that really a bad thing? The fact that it doesn’t have a clear-cut solution to that observation doesn’t make it a bad film. Maybe it’s up to us to provide that solution. The great thing about the film is that it is open enough for there to be discussion about its themes. Rarely, in my opinion, is a film with a narrow and authoritative solution to or explanation for a presented problem a good one.

And what about Greek tragedies? Oedipus Rex, where Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother, and has children with her, is about as perverted a story as you can get. But its worth as a story, about a king who thinks he’s better than the gods, and who thinks he can escape his fate without consequence, is still thought of as a timeless treasure of literature. But according to you, tragedies such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet are nihilistic and amoral. For me, a tragedy, which NCFOM can be categorized as, is sometimes the most effective way to move people, and not in an amoral way necessarily.

Let me note, first of all, that there is a world of difference between nihilism as a theme in a film and a nihilistic film, a film that embraces nihilism. A film that treats nihilism as a theme is not necessarily itself nihilistic. I think I can find themes of nihilism in films from The Ninth Day to The Mission to Tsotsi without implicating those films in the nihilism of some of their characters.

Film critics everywhere are indebted to Roger Ebert for his endlessly useful aphorism that a film is not about what it is about, but how it is about it. The fact of Anton Chigurh’s nihilism doesn’t tell us what No Country is about. (Nor, in the counter-examples you give, do Romeo and Juliet’s suicides or the dreadful vagaries of Oedipus’s fate. The question is, how is it about it? What perspective, if any, does it offer the viewer?

I am not of the view that a film must necessarily offer a clear, or even implicit moral perspective on the attitudes and actions of its characters. It can be enough for a film to raise questions without offering answers (though offering wrong answers is something else again).

At the same time, watching No Country, I find myself reflecting on the old saying that the winning lawyer is not the one who has the best legal arguments or the most facts, but the one who tells the best story. Chigurh’s worldview dominates the film, and no counter-narrative emerges as a credible contender.

That no one is able to stop Chigurh doesn’t really bother me. What does bother me is not that he can’t be defeated physically, but that he always has the upper hand in every verbal confrontation. He understands everyone else and no one understands him. “They always say the same thing. ‘You don’t have to do this.’” No one can tell against him, confute him. Even Hannibal Lecter got shut up every once in a while by Clarice Starling.

(Spoiler alert.) I appreciate, very much, that the Coens afford Carla Jean the tiny shred of dignity, that she doesn’t call the coin toss. Yet Chigurh still has the last word: “I got here the same way the coin did.”

Instead of being cross-examined, it is Chigurh who cross-examines others: “If your rule brought you to this, what good is your rule?” It’s a fair question, especially since Chigurh’s “rule” ultimately works better for him than anyone else’s. And nothing in No Country gestures in the direction of any possible answer to his question.

You say Bardem says that the film is a critique of violence. How does he know? If it weren’t a critique of violence but simply a depiction of it in a lawless universe, what would be different?

The Coens excel, I think, at portraying the ordinary decency that much of the world takes for granted, largely ignorant as it is of the Chigurhs among us. That ignorance is no mark against decency in a film like Fargo, where evil is banal and decency is the fixed point of reference. In No Country, the point of reference is an evil so absolute that it leaves decency looking banal in its shadow.

It seems to me that a film like this potentially stands or falls by how it ends. If there is any perspective on the events of the film, any commentary, any critique, that’s where it has to be found. As far as I can tell, the two most relevant points are these (spoiler alert):

First, Chigurh is as it were broadsided by the universe — and walks away.

Second, the opening monologue by Bell is bookended by another at the end, yet this closing monologue seems to be random, disconnected from the film’s events and its real world (though I’m open to proposed interpretations of the dreams that do relate to the film’s events.)

If the film has a perspective on good and evil, I’m tempted to sum it up this way: The darkness shines in the light, and the light has not understood it. That’s not a perspective I find particularly illuminating.

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