The Dismal Tide

“Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I don’t want to confront him. I know he’s real. I have seen his work.”

 

This line is spoken in the early scenes of No Country for Old Men, a Coen Brothers movie that’s been out for 10-plus years now. I saw it years ago and remembered the prophet of destruction as a bigger-than-life brooding omnipresence of evil, like a silent deadly locust cloud expanding over the west Texas landscape.

 

Throughout the movie there are direct and indirect signs, little vignettes, pointing to the loss of respect for human life, as when Sheriff Ed Tom Bell tells of an exchange he had with a pro-abortion activist, or when he stops a truck carrying bodies because of the lack of respect the driver has for his cargo.

 

Ed Tom Bell essentially narrates the movie. He talks to the sheriff of El Paso, and we see how they identify the “dismal tide” of evil that seems to be overtaking them. It starts out as a “kids these days” rant, but becomes more revealing than that:

 

Ed Tom Bell: What’s it mean? What’s it leading to?

El Paso Sheriff: You know, if you’d have told me 20 years ago I’d see children walking the streets of our Texas towns….with green hair, bones in their noses…I just flat-out wouldn’t have believed you.

Signs and wonders. But I think once you quit hearing “sir” and “ma’am,” the rest is soon to foller.

Oh, it’s the tide.

Yeah.

It’s the dismal tide. It is not the one thing.

Not the one thing.

 

The violence was so matter-of-fact and seemingly inevitable that it eclipsed the themes of the movie, for me, first time through. Likewise with the amazing dialogue, which in large stretches was lifted from the book on which the film was based, Cormac McCarthy’s novel by the same name. The significance of the characters’ words may be further diminished by the laconic west Texas drawl in which they’re delivered.

 

So basically I’m saying it’s a second-look movie. I almost never watch a movie twice or read a book of fiction twice, so take it as significant that I recommend you see No Country for Old Men a second time, as I did. It’s worth looking up exchanges by the characters, to read the words on a page. Or else read McCarthy’s novel, after seeing the movie so that the movie’s characters are behind the written words.

 

Anton Chigurh is the bad guy and he seems to fill up the landscape with evil. If you can’t get past the violence in movies to see their merit, skip this one. But if you’re inclined to look past the violence for the cinematic merit, you’ll appreciate some important themes. Chigurh represents the idea that evil is inevitable; we make no real moral choices. He sometimes has his victims flip a coin, and they live or die based on how they call the coin toss.

 

The coin toss sets up the most important exchange in the movie. After a series of killings based on the coin toss, the killer confronts Carla Jean, a seemingly child-like wife of the would-be protagonist who is now dead. She knows what’s going on. She has experienced this encroaching evil from a distance. She’s wiser than her character at first seems, however, because she understands moral agency. She has just come from her mother’s funeral, which is significant, because her mother’s death had nothing to do with the evil that is the subject of the movie. It’s just the way things are.

 

Carla Jean: You got no cause to hurt me.

Chigurh: No. But I gave my word.

You gave your word?

To your husband.

That don’t make sense. You gave your word to my husband to kill me?

Your husband had the opportunity to save you. [by turning over the found drug money Chigurh was after]. Instead, he used you to try to save himself. [By involving Carla Jean in the effort to get away with the money].

[It’s] not like that. Not like you say. You don’t have to do this.

People always say the same thing.

What do they say?

They say, “You don’t have to do this. “

You don’t.

This is the best I can do. Call it. [Flips coin and holds hand over result].

I knowed you was crazy when I saw you sitting there. I knowed exactly what was in store for me.

Call it.

No. I ain’t gonna call it.

Call it.

The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.

Well, I got here the same way the coin did.

 

Carla Jean is right, Chigurh is wrong, but there is an artistic ambivalence. You can agree with the inexorable determinism of Chigurh, which is evil but internally consistent, or with the point of view of Carla Jean, that people make moral choices, which are sometimes unpredictable, because people are deciding agents who can cause or oppose evil as they choose.

 

This is one of those rare movies that isn’t spoiled by telling the ending. This one ends with a glimmer of hope. The principal narrator, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, has now retired. He relates to his wife two dreams he had the night before. In the first, he’s young, and life seems inconsequential, almost frivolous. His father gave him some money. He thinks he lost it. In the second dream, he’s old. It’s like he’s “back in older times.” He’s riding his horse at night through a cold and dark mountain pass. His father, who died when he was 20 years younger than Ed Tom is, rides past Ed Tom, not acknowledging him, carrying a horn “like people used to do” to keep a flame. Its color was “about the color of the moon.” He knows his father goes ahead of him, to light a fire for them both, in all that cold and dark.

11 thoughts on “The Dismal Tide”

  1. The line (“Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I don’t want to confront him. I know he’s real. I have seen his work.”) is in the book No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy–but it is not in the Coen Brothers movie.

    1. Ive never read any cormac McCarthy novel myself.. But from reading the first chapter of all the pretty horses. I gather that he is a type of true blue type of guy is this true?

      1. It’s been a while since I read the border trilogy (of which all the pretty horses is the first book, I think) but definitely the true-to-self authenticity of the protagonists is a central theme. They suffer a lot for not compromising. The border trilogy is highly readable and so is No Country …. But for my money the best is Blood Meridian. I’m not sure when in his career he wrote it, but the language seemed a bit baroque to me the first time I read it. After reading pretty much everything else he wrote, I went back to Blood Meridian and this time it blew me away. I reviewed it in my post The Judge.

        1. I often told undergrads that, in my view, half of life is luck. The other half is adjustment. My bias prompted me to see Chigurh as luck ( coin toss consequences) and Bell as adjustment (navigating a world he’s trying to understand).

          1. Thanks for commenting. I put this up some time ago and am glad to have to some more engagement on it, because it’s been on my mind lately.

            In another book (Blood Meridian) McCarthy wrote an extended and detailed Christian metaphor. I commented on it at The Judge. So I’m inclined to impute to him an intentionality to what he says; I mean he’s not messing around, he’s saying something specific.

            What he’s presenting (imho) is evil as a force (by Chigurh) and that evil is accompanied by the message that there is no meaning or purpose to life, things just fall out like they will. But what does that mean? “Fate?” Is that some sort of no-man’s-land between determinism and radical free moral choice? Does it mean there’s some sort of not-God cosmic decree that things will fall out a certain way?

            The medievals were no better able to answer this than we are, I think. I read Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (c. 523) and was struck by his juxtaposition of Christian agency with “fate,” but he didn’t seem to mean, by that term, materialist determinism. He seemed to mean some sort of cosmic driver of events in the vague way the pagans imagined it.

            Chigurh stands for pagan “fate” according to this vague definition, I think. He personifies evil and several die at his hand. He is clearly the instrumentality of doom, yet preserves the patina of “fate,” as if there were no agency in his actions for which he might be responsible. This is how evil propagates: by an intellectual setting-aside of moral agency, ascribing it to historical inevitability or some such. Chigurh is like a murderess using doilies at the tea party that will be the scene of the crime.

            I totally agree that Bell is navigating a world he’s trying to understand. But Norma Jean—Norma Jean understands. She’s confronted with evil. She knows what will happen, and is too honest to buy into Chigurh’s attempt to put “fate” icing on an evil cake.

  2. Is the dismal tide a reference to anything else other than what its used to describe in this movie.. Other than it being “not the one thing”and my favorite line “you cant stop whats coming.. And it aint all waiting on you… Thats vanity”. This movie gives me some insight into the dialogue of the white america must see and deal with… Sorta like a white mans burden? I dont know if im using that term? Correctly? Im an 80s kid.. I grew up with cohen bros. Movies. They are my heroes 🙂 even if there movies are only about crime and the people it effects.

    1. “The Dismal Tide” is a line by another sheriff (of El Paso County, if I recall correctly) that the main character is talking to. He’s referring to the growing evil in their respective communities, which Chigurh personifies. I don’t know if I follow you re: “white America” or “white man’s burden.” I didn’t see any relevant racial divide, but maybe you’re getting at something about the burden felt by these two sheriffs who regard themselves as patriarchs in their communities trying to hang on to whatever is still good but being weighted down by evil because it’s “no country for old men.”

  3. What do you mean by

    “The significance of the characters’ words may be further diminished by the laconic west Texas drawl in which they’re delivered.”

    1. I guess it’s not really a laconic drawl if it’s on the written page, but McCarthy writes so that you can kind of “hear” it in the dialogue. I read it once and liked it but then saw the movie, which definitely had that drawl, and then re-read the book. I realized I missed some of the pithiness of what they said because of the way it was delivered.

    2. He means it’s hard to take the meaning of the words seriously when delivered in a silly dialect.

      It’s a shot at the way rural west Texas people speak.

      1. Not exactly. It’s not that I didn’t take the words seriously, it’s that in just hearing them I didn’t get how densely packed with meaning they were because I was thinking about the manner of delivery as much as the content. Distracted by local color, you might say, and so missing some of the grand universals in play.

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