The Coen brothers’ 2007 film No Country for Old Men is not your typical Western: the hero doesn’t win, or even survive, the villain gets away, and the ending isn’t a shootout but rather a slow, calm, monologue by a character who was the least involved of the three main characters. The final scene, much debated by fans and critics, does however give us a window into the movie’s deeper meaning and the Coens’ pessimistic worldview.
Works Cited & Consulted:
* “Cormac McCarthy – Subconscious is older than Language.” YouTube, uploaded by sdobric. Oct 18, 2014.
* “The Coen Brothers interview on NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007).” YouTube, uploaded by Eyes On Cinema. Sep 23, 2014.
* “Why do we dream? – Amy Adkins.” YouTube, uploaded by TED-Ed. Dec 10, 2015.
* “Movies I Love (and so can you): No Country for Old Men (2007) [*Spoilers*] .” YouTube, uploaded by Movies I Love (and so can you). Aug 22, 2013.
Transcript provided by Youtube:
[And in the dream I knew that he was going on ahead.
And he was fixing to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold.]
The Cohen brothers’ 2007 film No Country for Old Men is not your typical Western:
the hero doesn’t win, or even survive, the villain
gets away, and the ending isn’t a shootout but rather a slow, calm, monologue by a character
who was the least involved of the three main characters.
Sheriff Bell tells his wife about his dreams,
and then we abruptly cut to black.
So, what gives?
After focusing so much on Moss escaping Chigurh, does it really make sense for the story to
leave the audience with a seemingly peripheral character’s enigmatic breakfast conversation?
Yes, because the final scene gives us a window into the movie’s deeper meaning and the
Coens’ pessimistic worldview. We realize that
Bell is one of the“Old Men” of the title, and we get a glimpse into why
there’s “no country” for them anymore.
Waking up, he struggles to face the actual world of chaos and randomness, and so he’s lost.
The Coens use the dreams to show Bell mourning the decent, lawful world he believes in — which
probably never even existed but has been an illusion, or a dream, all along.
The Coens’ ending is both pessimistic and opaque.
On the one hand, Moss’ end tells us that our past sins catch up with us.
Even if he repents, like with Marion Crane in Psycho, the movie will execute his punishment.
Yet, on the other hand, the story rejects justice when Chigurh escapes — as if his
outcome has been determined by one of his own coin tosses.
We’re left with a frightening interplay of the arbitrary and the inevitable, in which
we must fear both moral punishment and the total lack of moral order, yet can’t trust
So let’s dig in to the meaning of the dreams.
In the film, Sheriff Bell is hesitant at first to share them with his own wife since he doesn’t
think his wife would find them engaging, a hint to the audience since the wife, in the
cinematic adaptation, stands in for the reader of Cormac McCarthy’s book — us.
The choice to end with dreams can even be read as a tongue-in-cheek joke since it’s
well-known that most people find hearing about others’ dreams boring.
So this is hardly the dramatic ending that an average movie audience might be chasing.
But it’s also not uncharacteristic for the Coens.
[Both had my father in ’em. It’s peculiar. I’m older now than he ever was by twenty years.]
Something’s off, and time has been inverted, because Bell is now older than his father
he is the “old man.”
Bell represents a character displaced from a Western. The older ideas of law enforcement
or simple dualities and causalities no longer seem to apply.
This world has become too dangerous and too wild, and Bell retires because of it, defeated
by this new world and its ambiguity.
His first dream is about how his father gives him “some money.”
The bulk of the film has been about the struggle between Moss and Chigurh to get a case with
two million dollars.
All of the characters who are concerned with the money end up dead or injured or morally empty,
while Bell survives and stays intact long enough to retire.
So this first dream leaves us with the sense that greed eventually leads people to fall,
and that those who don’t place importance on money live a safer and fuller life.
But money in dreams also tends to symbolize success, thriving or good fortune.
Bell’s losing the money evokes his loss of this world, which baffles him and seems
to have no use for him anymore.
In these final moments, Bell has another chance to understand recent events, but his losing
the money also symbolizes his inability to see the world clearly.
He’s out of touch not just because the world’s moved on, but also because it was never what
he thought it was.
The second dream is about riding on horseback through the mountains — getting as far away
from civilization as possible.
Sheriff Bell’s monologue at the beginning of the film reminisces about older times when
some of the “old-time” sheriffs never carried a gun.
Bell is filled with nostalgia for a safer, straightforward time, where he imagines every
crime made sense and every criminal got put away, much like the plot of a typical Western.
There’s a reference to going back in time when Bell says:
[When he rode past I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do and I
could see the horn from the light inside of it about the color of the moon.]
This isn’t a torch meant to provide light, but a primitive way of starting fires by carrying
hot embers from one campsite to the next so there’s no need for flint or a match.
It’s carrying the promise of a fire up ahead.
The life that Bell is living now is represented by this cold, mountainous path, full of moral
uncertainty and darkness.
But by carrying forward this fire, he feels he is continuing his father’s essence…
and somehow this will enable a return to that simpler good his father represents.
Yet this dream appears to be not a prophecy, but simply a desire.
He tells his wife:
[I knew that whenever I got there he’d be there.]
He needs the certainty that, in the end, there will be warmth and light.
But he’s dreaming about something that can never come true and deep down, he knows it.
The sudden cut to black seems to confirm this — the only answer is nothing.
No Country can be called a Neo-Western.
The Neo-Western which builds on recognizable Western imagery to reach a very different
conclusion and worldview.
Classic visual and story cues tell the audience that this should be a Western: the desert
setting, the clearly defined heroes and villains, guns, drugs, a chase after money, and Stetson
All superficial signs would point to an ending where the hero prevails, takes a big bag of
money, and rides off into the desert sun.
Instead, No Country’s hero — Llewelyn Moss, played by Josh Brolin — is killed
by a third party.
Moreover, he’s far from a clear-cut hero.
He’s a thief.
The first major action we witness from him is stealing money.
Sheriff Bell assumes that Moss is the good guy because he is pitted against Chigurh,
who is clearly the villain, but this doesn’t automatically make him righteous.
Moss’s sudden death is also indicative of a film noir plot.
If the Western’s traditional hero triumphs over unbelievable odds, the noir’s hero
— who’s also smart and well-intentioned, if more flawed than a Western hero — can’t
overcome those odds.
The remorseless villain — Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem — is likewise less
straightforward than the bad guys of old.
With his coin toss game of death, he intentionally models himself as a force of random destruction.
Chigurh’s actions stem from a worldview that has logical integrity, whether or not
it represents the truth.
As the carrier of this coin, he believes in reminding people that their lives are ultimately
subject to forces (whether they’re god, or death, or chance) that are out of their control.
A villain with purely selfish motives can be defeated and forgotten about in a classic Western shootout
but how do you defeat an idea?
In the end, far from being brought to justice, Chigurh is injured by a car accident and then
just barely gets away.
He acts as the personification of the seeming haphazardness
of the world the Coens give us, which doesn’t
care about our notions of right and wrong, of fair and unfair — this world has its own
unknowable plans for us, or maybe no plan at all.
Sheriff Bell survives and outlasts by remaining on the sidelines of the action.
and he follows the footsteps of Chigurh and Moss, always a step behind.
His mediocre triumph in the end is merely to stay out of evil’s path.
And thus, he too is a disappointing shadow of the true western’s justice-seeking sheriff.
In this scene, Bell sits in the same spot as Chigurh and looks at his reflection in
the TV screen, as if about to step into Chigurh’s shoes and imagine his mindset, but instead,
he merely says Chigurh’s actions have left an “impression” on him, as if he’s not
a sheriff at all but merely an observer.
The final cut to black also recalls these reflections in the black TV screen,
putting us in the same seat as Chigurh and Bell.
We’re given the choice –to dream of an unattainable just world,
or wake up and see the terrfying randomness of reality.
The movie’s themes and structure result largely from how closely the film follows Cormac McCarthy’s novel.
Ed Tom Bell’s monologue about his dreams in the end — it’s taken from the novel,
In an interview with Oprah, Cormac McCarthy explained his view on the human subconscious,
[It understands language because it understands the problems that you’re
working on, and then when you’re sleeping it will work on them for you.]
So in ending with these dreams, the Coens endorse McCarthy’s view that our subconscious
can synthesize our problems on a deeper level.
But Sheriff Bell’s dreams show us that not all problems can be solved by our inner selves
— sometimes the subconscious tells you what you truly want, but it’s a wish that’s
impossible to fulfill.
This post was previously published on Youtube.
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Photo credit: Screenshot from video