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.

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