The Coen Brothers’ film “No Country for Old Men“, based on the novel of the same title by Cormac McCarthy, is a seamless exercise in the strangulation of hope. Unlike their previous films set in the dark world of murder (Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo) “No Country” has no glimmer of escape, no place of refuge, no chance at mercy, and not only is this place no country for old men, it is no place for anyone at all.
The theme of the movie is the inexorable march of violence, like its fatalistic antagonist, wryly named Anton Chigurh, whose clockwork killing punctuates the movie. In this world, where God is only noted as an absence, people are chewed up and spit out, victim and victimizer alike, with such casual determinism that only horror is at home. No film since “Chinatown” delineates the Christian virtue of Hope from its secular counterpart pessimism.
Where Christianity presses human responsibility into the world, paganism presses fate. In comedy the secular world takes no responsibility in a person and therefore laughs unhindered at his misery. In romances responsibility is trumped by the “falling in love” falsehood that has infiltrated even the church. If love is a hole that can be fallen into, accidenally, then it is not a fault to fall out of love; there is no responsibility.
Even in tragedy responsibility is abandoned in paganism. Bad things happen to Oedipus apart from his best wishes and nothing could be done to avoid it. In “No Country” Chigurh is as relentless in his murdering ways as he is in shirking his responsibility. He flips coins to determine life or death, taking it out of his hands, or so he thinks. At one point a witness to one of his murders asks if he will be killed as well. Chigurh looks at him and responds, “That depends…have you seen my face?” Once again, it is out of his hands. His responsibility cannot be pressed, events far prior to the present have already predetermined the outcome and he has no hand in them.
Against this Christianity is starkly different in its comedic, romantic, and tragic view of the world. All men, regardless of how unlovely, are objects of love, images of God. In comedies we root for the characters in misery, and though we may laugh at them despite ourselves, the goal, the hope, is to laugh with them. Romance is intentional and active, a love that works at loving the beloved, which I find far more romantic than accidental love, fated by the impersonal stars that Hollywood spoon feeds us year after year. In tragedy Christianity presents something far more tragic that paganism can muster, for the possibility of hope makes the tragedy all the more tragic. If it was unavoidable the tragedy remains a “part of life”, but if there is some remedy, some hope for change then the tragedy is all the more meaningless.
This is inherent in the different views of the world. If the world is an accident of random events then there is no hope to change the world, but if the world was not meant to be a place of violence, danger, and disease, if we have a hand in shaping the world, if our actions are meaningful, then there is hope. The paganism of the classical world is dead and therefore, as a whole, so is this hopeless world. Hollywood has traded up for the Christian view of the world in most of its fare, because everyone intuitively knows that our actions matter, we will be held to account, the world can change, the world is full of meaning. We forget that this is an impossible view in secularism and a movie like “No Country for Old Men” is important to remind us just how horrible the world would be if men truly lived without responsibility, if evil were an unstoppable natural force relentlessly grinding the world into oblivion.