In this piece, I’m going to talk about the ending of the Coen Brothers Film, No Country for Old Men, which seems to baffle some people. This bafflement was the subject of an article in last Friday’s LA Times as well as a section of the movie’s official website which links to various film forums. When Cal and I saw the film at a matinee, many people said ‘What the fuck? That’s it?’ loudly as the credits started to roll and we all shuffled out of the dark.
Since I’m going to be talking about the ending of No Country for Old Men, I highly recommend that you stop reading now if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know the ending. Yes, I’m going to be writing spoilers. If you don’t want to read spoilers, you can go and play checkers or pac man.
No Country For Old Men, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, follows three characters. First, one day, while out hunting, Moss discovers a lot of dead bodies and a bag full of money out in the middle of the desert. Naturally, he takes the money and leaves the bodies. Also, (always thinking this one), he makes his young wife visit her mother, and he takes off on the road. Meanwhile, Chigurh, the villain with the bad hair cut, chases him. Meanwhile, old Sheriff Bell also finds the dead bodies and the trail of dead bodies left by Chigurh and tries to put it all together.
At this point, the movie (and the book it is based on) feels like an old fashion gun toting thrill ride. Likeable and smart good guy with a few flaws. Check. Crazy unpredictable villain. Check. And the sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones. Check. Modified guns. Check. Lots of blood. Check. Gross out bullet removal scene. Check. Bad ass (played by Woody Harrelson) who shows up to let us know that the villain is a super bad ass and not just a normal bad ass. Check. Woman sent to her mother’s. Check.
So we’re moving along comfortably, safe in the predictability of the genre. Will Moss kill Chigurh and get away with the money? Will Chigurh kill Moss and get the money back? Will Sheriff Bell figure it all out in time to save Moss? Will there be one of those cool scenes where all three guys have guns drawn on each other like City on Fire and Reservoir Dogs? Will old Sheriff Bell be taken out because he’s old---hence the title? What will happen? My Gosh, the suspense! The action! The drama!
Then, the film (and the book) starts to shift. Moss gets killed---not by Chigurh but by some other bad guys we haven’t seen before. The Sheriff shows up too late to save Moss or to find the money which Chigurh gets to before him. Okay, it all could end there, but it doesn’t. It shifts into something deeper.
Chigurh shows up at the house where Moss’s widow had just come back from her mother’s funeral. He’s there to kill her because Moss wouldn’t turn himself over to him. It’s a scene of great restraint and no blood, but we know what’s happening. And at that moment, I realized that Chigurh was not just a killer. He’s not just the personification of violence (as it says in the press kit). He’s death himself. Not since Bergman’s The Seventh Seal has Death been so much fun. A character might be able to sit down and place chess with him, but in the end, death wins. Chigurh doesn’t need a chess board. He just uses a coin toss.
As he leaves the house of Moss’s widow, his car is sideswiped in an intersection. He limps away from the wreckage and down the quiet suburban street. Death lives another day. There’s a strange joke in that.
Meanwhile, old Sheriff Bell visits an old relative, a sort of blind seer figure in a shack in the middle of nowhere, and the two of them sit and tell each other old stories. For the first time in the film, old Sheriff Bell doesn’t seem so old, and I realized that his quest was not justice but understanding. He wants to understand all that is around him, but there is no understanding for it. There just is the happening.
Finally, in the last scene of the movie and the book, Sheriff Bell sits at the breakfast table and tells his wife about a dream he had. He talks about his old man, long dead, riding past but able to fix up a fire for him when it got too dark. In a way, it comes back to death. Sheriff Bell, when his time comes, he’ll know the way to go. He’ll go the way of his father and the world will keep spinning. And the credits roll.
And all the people, who think they know exactly how the film should end, leave disappointed wondering what the fuss was all about. And me, with my modern drama background, saw it as a statement that men live, men die, and the world keeps turning. And Cal, well Cal is jumping up and down with joy while shouting ‘It’s Yeats! It’s Yeats!’ as if everything he would need to go out from this world is Yeats.
His Yeats makes sense. The title, No Country for Old Men, is from the Yeats poem, Sailing to Byzantinium. The first line is: That is no country for old men. To me, the poem is about the process of dying, the journey into death, in which the old tattered coat of a body is given up for a sort of golden immortality.
We trod upon this earth, we grow old, we die. And when we are too old in the country of the young, where is our place? Where is the place for the old Sheriff? For a few minutes on film, the Coen Brothers achieved something very unlikely and very moving. Yep, them boys did all right.