Image by Roscoe Van Damme (In Memory of Maureen) via Flickr
“All truth is God’s truth,” so said St. Augustine. Art through the ages has been the attempt to communicate truths about emotion, beauty, and humanity, and usually does so with more immediacy and widespread impact than does ordinary discourse or prose. This is as true today as ever, perhaps more so with the ubiquity of multimedia access and its intrusion in every conscious moment of our lives. Art convincingly communicates the philosophy and worldview of the artist, and films and novels can express these views more effectively and completely than many other forms of art. Because of the strength which artistic form adds to the communication of a worldview, it is of vital importance that we be aware of the quality of aesthetic virtues employed in an artwork to convey or distort truth. The crime thriller No Country for Old Men is a film written and directed by brothers Ethan and Joel Coen and adapted from a novel by the same name, written by Cormac McCarthy. This film can be examined to reveal the worldviews of the film directors and the book author and the accuracy of the truth claims of these worldviews in light of the truths of Christianity and the philosophy of aesthetic virtue.
Assuming that there are means of objective judgment for art, and that beauty is not simply “in the eye of the beholder,” some criteria need to be established by which the quality of a work of art may be measured. These are aesthetic standards and virtues which, as defined by Steve Cowan and James Spiegel, and similarly by Francis Schaeffer include elements of genre mastery as well as excellence in the qualities of artistic virtues. Artistry in the medium of motion-pictures involves technical skills of lighting, narrative pacing, character casting, scenery, and dialogue, to name a few. Other measurable standards for which achievement of status as “great art” by any artwork require development of skills in the appropriate use of complexity of parts with unity of theme; intensity, or vividness of the art; originality, new ideas or presentation of the familiar in new ways; and expressiveness, or the effectiveness of the transmission of themes to the audience. Additionally, the form of the art must be appropriate for the content; that is, the style of the artistic delivery must fit the tone and message of the themes.
Virtue in aesthetics regards the application and expression of moral qualities in the creation and transmission of the art. These virtues include diligence, the dedication and perseverance to complete the artistry with excellence, veracity, the authenticity and sincerity of the artists in the depiction of a worldview, and truthfulness and accuracy in their worldview expression and explanation. Since evil exists in this world, and humanity is significantly defined by its response to the evil it faces, it is appropriate that man’s art depicts evil as a common element. As Schaeffer puts it, art that focuses only on the major themes of Christianity, the meaningfulness and purposefulness of life, is “romantic” art which often only turns off its audience by implying a worldview which contains only optimism and idealism, and which does not relate to the world they know. Virtuous depiction of evil, however, is possible and can be relevantly evaluated for its appropriate purpose and presentation.
Set in rural Texas in 1980 when drug trafficking and associated violence was starting to escalate at the Mexican border, the opening scenery is timeless, displaying the sun rising on the vista of a sparse scrub-dotted landscape, reminiscent of many familiar western-genre movies. A voiceover opening narration by Tommy Lee Jones’ character, aging Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, sets the scene and the mood for the film:
I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five. Hard to believe. Grandfather was a lawman. Father too. Me and him was sheriff at the same time, him in Plano and me here. I think he was pretty proud of that. I know I was.
Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lot of folks find that hard to believe. Jim Scarborough never carried one. That the younger Jim. Gaston Boykins wouldn’t wear one. Up in Commanche County. I always liked to hear about the old-timers. Never missed a chance to do so. Nigger Hoskins over in Batrop County knowed everybody’s phone number off by heart. You can’t help but compare yourself against the old timers. Can’t help but wonder how they would’ve operated these times.
There was this boy I sent to Huntsville here a while back. My arrest and my testimony. He killed a fourteen-year-old girl. Papers said it was a crime of passion but he told me there wasn’t any passion to it. Told me that he’d been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he’d do it again. Said he knew he was going to hell. Be there in about fifteen minutes. I don’t know what to make of that. I surely don’t.
The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job – not to be glorious. But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand.
You can say it’s my job to fight it but I don’t know what it is anymore. More than that, I don’t want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say, okay, I’ll be part of this world.
He feels like a failure to his community, to God, and to his revered sheriff forerunners, particularly his deceased father. He has held onto his position for decades, but feels like the time is coming for him to retire, as he is faced more and more with increased flagrant displays of the depravity of humanity. Jones’ character serves as an anchor and represents the “Old Men” of the film’s title. This movie is, at its heart, about him.
Another central character is Llewelen Moss (Josh Brolin), an “everyman” character who is a hardworking, conscienced man who loves his wife. Moss accidentally discovers the aftermath of a drug deal gone badly: many dead bodies and a satchel containing $2 million, which he decides to keep.
The third important character in the film, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), is a contract killer with no humor, remorse or humanity. In the opening scenes of the movie, he gruesomely strangles a sheriff’s deputy to escape arrest and shortly after, kills a motorist for his car. Throughout the movie, he pursues Moss as he flees for his life with the money, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Cold and relentless, he mercilessly removes anyone in the way of his goal, including other men sent to hunt Moss and the money. Sometimes, he allows fate to decide if a person lives or dies by flipping a coin and having the victim “call it” for their survival.
Another character of interest is Carson Wells, played by Woody Harrelson, who is another assassin hired to find Moss, the money, and also Chigurh, who has become more of a threat to the man who hired him than an asset. Wells, himself an experienced professional killer, seems quite tame and almost wholesome compared to Chigurh, and perhaps that is his role in the film, to provide another contrast to this darker evil that Chigurh represents. Instead of eliminating Chigurh, Wells is ambushed and is himself killed by his target.
In the end, Moss is gunned down and the money taken by Chigurh, who disappears like the ghost that Sheriff Bell describes him as. Bell, feeling overmatched, retires and gives up the fight.
The Coen brothers are masters of their craft, technically speaking. Having previously directed the critically acclaimed movies Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother Where Art Thou, the Coens have displayed a mastery of the techniques of their art as directors and writers. Their particular specialty, which is used effectively in No Country for Old Men is originality in using the familiar and taking it somewhere unexpected, breaking formula expectations. This film combines the genres of western, crime drama, thriller, and film noir, and the first-time viewer of this movie cannot foresee the ending before it unfolds.
The expertise and direction mastery of the Coen brothers are expressed by the cast and crew as being well-prepared, dedicated, approachable, collaborative, and good leaders. They have built a team of trusted and proven technical crew, and spend the needed time with their cast and crew to inspire and achieve excellence.
In this film, the Coens ably express intensity without garishness and distraction, taking a minimalist approach to the elements of the film, but still effectively and boldly conveying the emotions and plot. The scenery is harsh but beautiful, and the dialog and musical score are as sparse as the landscape; but this fits well with the content of the film, adding to the mood of loneliness and desperation of the characters. In one scene, the tension rises as Chigurh menacingly dialogues with an elderly shopkeeper, whose is clearly at stake. Chigurh drops a crumpled up cellophane candy wrapper on the counter, and the camera briefly focuses on it as it noisily and almost painfully expands. The tension of the moment is perfectly represented by this, and thus is a dramatic device expertly employed. Another interesting dramatic technique used in this film is the proximity of the three main characters to one another: they never appear in frame together, even as the plot draws them closer together. This, too, builds suspense and tension, keeping the viewer wondering about the reality of the relationship among the three main characters in the movie.
Clearly, the directors, as well as the author of the book from which the film is based, have an understanding, or at least a plausible familiarity, with the scope and magnitude of evil in men’s hearts and printed in the newspaper headlines every day. They know of what they write and it shows in the authenticity of the characters’ reactions and dialogue. Major characters (except perhaps for Chigurh, who may be more a symbol of evil than a man) are well developed, believable, and sympathetic.
No Country for Old Men, being a story of the sweeping tide of evil, unsurprisingly contains many depictions of evil. These depictions, mainly in the form of murder by various methods, are necessary to the theme and plot of the film. The depictions of murder are grisly, particularly at the beginning of the film with the graphic strangulation of the deputy, but progressively become less and less a focus, until by the end of the film, the killings, even of the main characters, are done off camera, reported by a character or newspaper, or otherwise hinted at. This could have been done so for dramatic effect, to emphasize the gravity of the crime by showing it in more detail towards the beginning of the movie, but exercising discretion in not sensationalizing or dwelling on the gore of it as the movie progresses. It could also be a method of involving the viewer by symbolizing the desensitization of the audience itself to violence and evil. The evil acts are still there, but not gratuitously flaunted in the faces of the viewers, and certainly not presented to the audience in a way that endorses, glorifies, or romanticizes it. On the contrary, the sympathetic characters of the film deplore and resist the violence and evil.
The message and worldview that the movie expresses is somewhat subject to interpretation, but mostly seems to be one of hopelessness in the face of spreading and unstoppable evil, and the choices made by people confronted with that evil. Death pursues, personified in the cold relentless Chigurh, and is portrayed as fate, with Chigurh often flipping a coin to decide whether someone would live or die. As an embodiment of evil and/or death, this flipping of the coin may also be intended to represent the fact that sometimes people make choices that directly affects the admission of evil and death into their lives. Of course, many times Chigurh does not offer the coin toss, and death comes upon man without their intervention or control. For Llewelyn Moss, the “everyman” character, the choice when confronted by evil is at first to try to outrun it, but when the futility of flight is realized, he turns to fight it, but is, himself, defeated by it. Moss’ wife, otherwise very child-like in the film, also defies evil when he visits her, denying that it is her destiny to be killed and refusing to “call it” when he flips a coin to choose her fate. She insists that he does not have to go through with killing her, but she becomes a victim as well when Chigurh dispassionately executes her. (An associated truth about the consequences of choices is evident here too: choices affect not just one person, but many others in a circle about that person as well. Moss’ morally deficient decision to keep the money leads not only his own death but that of his innocent wife.) Even Sheriff Bell, the ostensible representative of order and goodness, is overcome, and retreats into a shamed retirement, sad and weary.
The movie ends with Bell talking with his wife, some time after his retirement. He recounts two dreams that he had during the night:
Okay. Two of ’em. Both had my father. It’s peculiar. I’m older now’n he ever was by twenty years. So in a sense he’s the younger man. Anyway, first one I don’t remember so well but it was about money and I think I lost it.
The second one, it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin’ through the mountains of a night…goin’ through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and snowin’, hard ridin’. Hard country. He rode past me and kept on goin’. Never said nothin’ goin’ by. He just rode on past and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down…and 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. And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and that he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. Out there up ahead.
And then I woke up.
These dreams, along with the opening narration given by Bell, act as symmetrical bookends in which he remembers his father and other old lawmen from simpler times and laments the overwhelming evil overtaking the country, questioning if there is any hope for redemption for himself or the world. The first dream could be interpreted as a perceived failure on his part to guard justice and goodness, a duty which he feels has been left for him by his father. The second dream seems to be about hope, which Bell’s father carried ahead of him into the dark cold lands that the country had become, a beacon of goodness that waited for him to claim or join when he arrived. But then he woke up, and this seems to be a dispelling of that dream and a return to this world: no country for an old man.
From an atheistic worldview, this movie seems relentlessly depressing, with no hope in reality for defeating evil and death. One can only be swept away in the tide of fate, escaping, however temporarily, in the unreality of dreams. There is no justice to be found here: the “good guys” do not win, but are unceremoniously and anticlimactically defeated by death or retreat. Evil triumphs and justice is thwarted, with no hope given that this will ever change. This is, of course, perfectly logically consistent with the atheistic worldview, in which there is no ultimate justice, and the victims of injustice are pitiable but not truly avenged or recompensed.
However, applying a Christian worldview to the movie, one might rename the movie No World for Old Men, realizing that the world is the kingdom of Satan, and that his corrupting influence in the hearts and minds of the unrepentant is leading the world headlong into more and more egregious evil, such that the culture and climate of each passing generation is unrecognizable and inconceivable to the one before. The hope in the dream, then, is that the father, who could represent a righteous influence or God himself, goes ahead of us and gives us the light of hope to follow in this world, and a hope of justice and the ultimate triumph over evil in eternity. We then “wake up” to the reality of our temporary world with light and hope for ourselves and for any others that will follow and receive it.
The fact that the Coens leave the interpretation of the dreams (and thus the movie itself) for the audience permits the audience to make their own moral judgments and estimates of what it all means. Certainly the scope and pervasiveness of evil is not unfamiliar to the viewers, and the hope or despair felt after reflecting on this movie can perhaps indicate to that person the implications of their worldview.
No Country for Old Men is an example of art that has been carefully and expertly crafted by artists who prove themselves masters of the technique of their art. The Coen brothers display many admirable aesthetic virtues as directors in their work ethic and relationships with their cast and crew. Since the ending of the movie is somewhat subject to the viewers’ subjective interpretation, the ultimate message of the film is also vague, but this, too, is intentional, and perhaps can be useful to confront the viewer with their beliefs and challenge a change. This film is not for everyone; the violence is bloody and difficult to watch, and there is a fair amount of profanity. However, as a sum total package, weighing the strengths against the shortcomings, and considering it from a Christian perspective, this movie succeeds as aesthetically virtuous art.
 For a good case supporting objective standards in art, see Cowan and Spiegel The Love of Wisdom, p.430
 Steven B. Cowan and James S. Spiegel, The Love of Wisdom (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 432-437.
 Francis A. Schaeffer, Art & the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 41-48.
 No Country for Old Men, DVD, act. Tommy Lee Jones, 122 min. (Paramount Vantage, Miramax Films, Scott Rudin Productions, Mike Zoss Productions, 2007).
 These are based on cast and crew interviews in the DVD special features.
 No Country for Old Men, DVD, act. Tommy Lee Jones, 122 min. (Paramount Vantage, Miramax Films, Scott Rudin Productions, Mike Zoss Productions, 2007).