By Jon Coutts
The phone rang one-and-a-half times and cut off. With a glance at the bedside, a bright red 4:37 invaded my bleary eyes. Two dog-eared paperbacks were lit up in the clock’s glow.
One was a hot pink and heavily underlined part-volume of Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Reconciliation; the other a coolly bound edition of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men—picked up in my obsession for Joel and Ethan Coen's award winning film adaptation. For those who missed it, No Country is a story with three main characters (four if you count Texas, which you should) and one devastating theme. There is Anton Chigurh, the villain; Llewelyn Moss, the cowboy who stumbles across Chigurh’s drug-money; and Ed Tom Bell, the sheriff who finds himself in pursuit of them both. The thematic motor that drives the story is that the bad guy wins. As such the stories sitting so close on my nightstand could not stand further apart. And yet my dreams had been swirling with resonances between them, as if the novel were a sort of parable for Barth’s depiction of the sin of sloth.
Unable to fall back asleep, I picked up the phone. The beep said there was a message. I listened. It was some kind of telecommunications misconnection. You will not believe the conversation I overheard.
It began with that ding you’d hear if you bumped a rotary telephone, followed by a voice in German, curt but relaxed: “I saw your film last night, the one that won all the awards.”
“No Country for Old Men?” responded another voice. To my ear it sounded like one of the nihilists in The Big Lebowski. “Did you enjoy it?”
“Enjoy! What is to be enjoyed?” shrilled the first voice. “It leaves one with the palpable sense that evil is ultimate; we are caught in the ebb and flow of the most capricious fate; that the best way forward is every man for himself!”
“Granted, enjoy may not be the word,” chuckled the second voice. “But we did want to catch the lurking darkness of reality that the novel depicts so well.” Incredible: it was a Coen. It sounded like Joel, the eldest of the Minnesota-born brothers of film-noir’s postmodern revival.
“Reality? If enjoy is not the word for it, then neither is reality,’” replied the first voice, continuing no less enigmatically: “It was like Ecclesiastes or Job without the final revelation. There may have been a little light on the silver screen, but on its own it is nothing but dark. The film curves in on itself.” I couldn’t believe my ears. It was Barth.
“This sounds like more than a complaint about the lighting,” responded Joel. “Hang on and let me get my brother on the line.”
The younger Coen holds a philosophy degree from Princeton, but Joel was not likely looking for conversational backup. I recalled the interviews where the Coens seemed more interested in hearing responses to the film than spelling out any meaning behind it. Sure enough, a moment later Ethan came on, exchanged pleasantries, and prodded for more:
“Joel tells me that your issue with No Country has something to do with the sustainability of the narrative?”
“I assure you my quibble is not a literary one, but that is a very good way to put it. Your villain is evil personified, is he not?
“We’re not all that interested in evaluating Anton Chigurh, to be honest,” said Ethan. “Clearly he’s not the good guy; I’ll concede that, but I don’t even know that I’d describe him as evil. He’s a little more complicated and elusive than that.”
“That sounds consistent. In the film, evil so eclipses every good that on its own logic there can be no talk of evil. Whatever the case, his is the shadow of death, and it encompasses everyone. Everyone is either trying to hold death at bay or use it to their own gain.”
Joel rejoined: “That sounds like a fair way to characterize them doesn’t it: Bell on the one hand and Chigurh on the other?”
“Yes. Sheriff and villain alike are ultimately submitted to their fate. The one ends up resigned to it, and the other squeezing the most from it. The rest of the characters are simply caught up in-between. It is a startling depiction of what one might call the twin temptations of sloth. The alternatives are passive death and active death. The man in the middle, Moss, tries to beat them both and loses. He can’t win.”
“We don’t do a lot of sitcom endings,” chimed in one of the Coens, “where a sentimental sense of basic goodness bubbles up to the surface in the closing scene.”
Barth seemed taken aback. “That would be just as dangerous a representation of things! A placebo! Evil should not be treated as if it is nothing to be reckoned with. Nor should it be portrayed as nothing we could not reconcile if we applied ourselves.”
The Coens responded one after the other as if they’d had this conversation before: “Our films sometimes get labelled as naturalistic—the way Hollywood defines it—as if we are presenting a kind of depressing realism. We aren’t proponents of anything so abstract. We are most interested in telling stories.”
“Our films might be a recurring exercise in such a naturalism, but I think their comedic element should tell you that there is more to it than that. We want our actors to act as if it’s a true story, for the sake of the story.”
“And yet the film is provocative.” Barth countered.
“Yes. Many people react strongly to it,” came the response, “and that reaction tells us that we told the story well. If people weren’t reactionary to the ending, then we would not have done our jobs.”
“At the same time,” the other explained, “people might also just laugh at the film, and that is okay with us. The characters, the country, and the way they interact are what matter. You see the feet of the characters a lot. We are more interested in the particulars of people and where they come from.”
“And yet the villain, Chigurh, is ambiguous, an interloper. We do not know where he is coming from or where he is taking us. He is your new man.” Barth seemed to be probing for something.
“Yeah, I often say he's like the man who fell to earth,” Joel said. “He's the thing that doesn't grow out of that landscape. So he is able to frighten on several levels.”
“He is an impossible possibility.” Barth seemed to be thinking out loud.
Ethan went with it: “Like the bit at the beginning of McCarthy’s novel where the sheriff contemplates going any further. Right before the line in the film about putting one’s soul at hazard he says: ‘It aint just bein older. . . . I think it is more like what you are willin to become.’”
“Yet the problem posed has all the force of a No and none of the force of a Yes,” Barth said. “It remains a question mark.”
I remembered the scene where Chigurh is about to kill Carson Wells, the private detective who had so resolutely pursued him, and asks: “If the rule you follow brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” I wondered if Barth would see Chigurh as an exposure of the trajectory of the western hero – the dangerous “enticement” of the lone ranger into the “cavern of a fatherless and brotherless isolation” (IV/3.2, 664).
As they spoke for the next few moments, more of the film’s question marks flooded through my mind, from that ominous opening monologue to the deepening pathos of its denouement. Just when viewers are tempted by the comforting notion that the sheriff is simply past his prime, the posturing of the younger crime-fighter is quickly exposed as a brave but foolish mask for the fear of death. Just when viewers clamour for shafts of light in the darkness, the film takes that away too. A visibly injured Llewelyn Moss offers to buy a young man’s coat, and the man bargains with him over price. On the lookout for a good Samaritan, later we get a boy on a bicycle arriving on the scene of Chigurh’s car accident, willing to give the shirt off his back. But when Chigurh refuses to let him go unpaid, the boy quickly refuses to share with his friend. His gut reaction of self-giving spurred by the horror of the accident dissolves into selfishness in the face of the more ever-present banality of day-to-day life.
It is as if the self-asserting principle is latent in even the innocent bystander, just waiting to emerge. Even the stereotypically “innocent” shop-owner has his fateful encounter with Chigurh: The more he is drawn in to the villain’s game the more the white lies of his cliché social-avoidance strategies are drawn out of him. He too is told: “You’ve been putting it up your whole life but just didn’t know it.”
When I snapped out of my reverie, Ethan was agreeing: “Yeah, it is not about young or old. If anything it is a different take on the old west.”
“The guy in the white hat doesn’t actually ride off into the sunset. It certainly challenges the myth of progress,” Barth said. “This film could be looked at as a wake-up call, except it has nothing to wake up to. The Yes, within which the No could have any meaning, is absent.”
I was reminded of something Barth had written and later looked it up. “In the modern novel there are not lacking portrayals which give us the impression that the author originally had in mind something like God's pardon of sinful man. But in fact they do not go beyond what is often a strikingly honest depiction of his vileness” (CD IV/1, 594).
“In the film, to be alive simply means to be not dead yet,” Barth continued. “And the closing scenes follow the violence through to the bitter end, sucking the life right out of its viewers. It is a powerful piece, inasmuch as a vacuum can be said to have power.”
“But in the end it is not as if this is news,” answered Ethan. “We see this in Bell’s conversation with his uncle Ellis. The sheriffs have always known what was coming. Supposed to be shields from the worst reality, they feel like sieves.”
It is quite a scene. Ellis says: “All the time you spend tryin' to get back what's been took from ya', mores goin' out the door. After a while, you just have to try and get a tourniquet on it.”
“Yes,” Barth continued the thought: “Their resignation is simply the tipping point in their struggle to keep it at bay; the crisis experience of the emergence of their ever-present futility. There is certainly no domesticating the tensions of the human situation going on here. To be fair, I think this might be the closest thing to a point of contact with reality. But it is not. Reality has to present itself to us.”
There was a pregnant silence. Joel took the opportunity for a question. “What did you think of Carla Jean Moss and Loretta Bell—the women of the film?”
“They do appear to offer another word,” Barth answered, “but this is no country for them, either. Mrs. Bell has a kind of serenity. That she has found a safe place of peace in the midst of the conflict may be to her credit, but we all know it is a false peace, which comes home to her on the increasingly despondent face of her man. She is simply ahead of him in her resignation to what is out there.”
“And Mrs. Moss?”
“She is the only one who will not play Chigurh’s game. She will not submit to his gods of fate and chance, allowing him to avert responsibility for her death with his coin toss. She won’t bow to his principles. She holds on to some kind of shred of belief in something better—which she doesn’t seem to know.” He paused. “Of course, he wipes his shoes of her blood too. Nonetheless, it is as if hers is the only death not fated, but chosen. She is the closest thing this film has to a Christ figure.”
“But not really,” offered one of the Coens.
“No.” Barth took a breath and continued. There was no stopping him now. He sounded like he might start preaching. “The advertisement said ‘there are no clean getaways,’ but the film implies there are no getaways at all. And we have no reason to believe otherwise. There is no closing scene with Mrs. Moss having the last laugh. Why should there be? Her fate is the same as her husband’s, and everything is tangled up. It is not even clear whether his biggest mistake is taking the money or taking water to a dying man, returning to the scene of the crime. As far as we know, these acts are of one and the same reality. It is the triumph of evil, except the categories by which it can be called that are not available. There is no Christ figure, and no light to see what is darkness.”
I listened to hear if Barth would take this opportunity now to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; whether he’d talk about the Nevertheless that answers the No, which is only known in the light of God’s greater Yes to man. Was this all the set up for Barth to present one Christ figure, the Son of God, who came into the far country, knowingly took on flesh, and overcame it? With baited breath I waited to hear him say “there is no more place for the old man” and “the day of the new has broken” (CD IV/1, 557; IV/2, 396ff).
Instead I heard a beep, as my messaging system reached its allowable time limit.
Some may question the veracity of my story, insisting that either Barth or the Coen brothers would not have said these things in these ways. As even the tellers of true stories must, I take full responsibility for the words I have relayed. However, I find little here that the Coen brothers have not said with film or in interviews, and I find in this interaction with twenty-first century thought a Barth similar to the one who was so generous with both resonance and critique in Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century.
What first struck me in this film was its staggering depiction of the banality and sheer force of evil. Feeling falsely placated by a chicken-soup-for-the-soul approach to Christianity, I have often felt the gospel more alive when portrayals have forced me to face the problem straight on, and wondered if we need these reminders that there are no clean getaways. I have heard it suggested that Barth’s lofty Christology has its head too far in the clouds, glosses over the mess, has little place for lament. Could the Coens have something to say to Barth? Didn’t Christ predict difficulty in the same breath as resurrection? Maybe films like this help bring us down to earth so our salt is forced to get in with the meat and potatoes and gravy.
There may be something to this, but it has more to do with misreading Barth than raising a substantive critique against him. By the time we come to the closing volume of the Church Dogmatics we have seen Barth no stranger to the human predicament. Sin amounts to nothing and evil is relegated to shadow, but the doctrine of sin is on every page—still there, but put in its place as a misshapen absurdity mocking futilely at the wholeness that is life in Christ. The light of life does not blur but sharpens the assessment of darkness, giving a clear conception of the cross to be taken up.
In fact, the more I listened, the more it was Barth that was speaking—to me. Could such literature and film be for me a veiled attempt at self-soothing sloth? As Augustine suggested in Book III of his Confessions, perhaps such theatre affords me the opportunity to be a spectator rather than a victim; to stroke my own sense of pity without actually having to get my hands dirty with compassion; to play the judge and jury rather than be the one standing in the dock. Wasn’t even Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ an opportunity to serve emotional penance? Perhaps I go to the theatre to wallow a little bit in the mess so that the relief of grace might feel wonderful to me again.
But what depiction of evil (what real-life modern tragedy for that matter) provides humanity a wake-up call on the same level as the event of Jesus Christ? What more needs to be said after the Son of God comes into this far country and dies at the hands of man? What is there to wake up to unless He rose again? The question may not be whether Barth has room for lament but whether the Coen films have room for laughter. How can even the ironic comedy of such dark films be laughed at unless, as the revelation of Christ entails, there is no longer any reason to pay serious respect to such powers? (CD IV.3.2, 645).
Barth himself allowed that things of the world may be used by God as “other words” echoing the Word, as “little lights” reflecting the Light (cf. CD IV/3.2, 110ff). Beyond being a well-told and harrowing tale, this film can serve as a parable for the pervasiveness of sin and a reminder that we are still in the old world. Denying the old life is not the same as living in denial. But the church fails pivotally if in surrender to this “picture of the world in place of the reality it ranges itself with the world in its groping” (CD IV/3.2, 772). Creation is being made new, and the old man is simply no longer definitive (CD IV/2, 560, 570f).
But the lines that haunt the rolling credits still ring in my ears. “I always thought when I got older God would sort of come into my life in some way,” the sheriff says to his uncle, “but he didn't. I don’t blame him.” Confession or complaint, it stings. The defensive reaction is: Where is the church in the movie? But the movie asks: Where is the church in the world? Barth is no stranger to this question. He answers it in terms of faith; of the church both visible and invisible; of the Christian duty to hope that in the end God will come into each life in some way; and of the call to take part in that eventuality here and now. Yet the final scene has the sheriff replaying a hopeful dream that has his father riding ahead in the hard country, “fixin to make a fire out there in all that dark and all that cold.” Then he wakes up, despondently unconvinced. The questions linger as lament, this film posing them better than most. If it is the Holy Spirit who awakens to faith, and Jesus Christ came for all, then why are there those for whom waking equals dying? How long, oh Lord, how long?
By Brad East
Having read the book in advance, and knowing well the tonal parabola of the Coens’ filmography, it was with hesitant openness that I came to the cinematic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. What I discovered was, indeed, an impossible possibility: an adaptation both faithful to its source and enriched by other concerns, a work of undeniable literary consonance, stretched taut with a dissonance peculiar to the visual medium.
Thus it was with gratitude and fitting surprise that I received Jon Coutts’ fortuitous eavesdropping report. Like the theater lights dimming in November of 2007, I did not know exactly what to expect—but what a match! A lively conversation overheard between the brothers Coen—that most inscrutably postmodern directing duo—and the prophet of doom to modernity himself, Karl Barth. We are lucky to be in the hands of such a gifted storyteller (ahem, transcriber) and interpreter of film, narrative, and theology alike.
In response to the given transcription, I want to take up one question in particular raised by Barth and Coutts in relation to both the Coens and McCarthy, beginning, as it happens, in the end.
Coutts notes that, in the film’s closing scene, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell tells his wife about a dream he had the night before, a dream in which there seem to be hints and sparks of hope, of light and warmth just ahead in the darkness, until the final words are spoken: “And then I woke up.” As it is portrayed on the screen, Coutts is right to describe the Sheriff as “despondently unconvinced.”
Though this final scene is taken from the book’s closing page almost word for word, the impact of the ending in the book is less straightforwardly ominous, indeed more hopeful, in the context of the whole. For the Coens, it seems, Sheriff Bell’s journey, climaxing in and encapsulated by this breakfast table soliloquy with his wife, consists of what we might call one long awakening from hope to nihilism: there simply were no good old days, malice and violence cannot be explained, and the vision of a father riding ahead to prepare the way is an illusion. For McCarthy, on the other hand, Ed Tom’s final italicized reflection—in this case, the last of many intimate asides and confessions seemingly shared with none but the reader—serves rather as a prophetic coda to the chaos come before: namely, that such hope, even in a dream, speaks of a reality deeper than and untouched by ten thousand Chigurhs. It will not seem so, whisper the wisps of flame sheltered in an ancient horn on a cold mountain pass, but all is not lost.
It seems as if Barth’s objections to the Coens may find an answer in McCarthy, though surely Barth would go still beyond. Yes, there is Something deeper than cold personified Fate, than the indiscriminate scythe of Chigurh’s coin tossed unblinkingly in the air; but were we to stop there, what kind of word or hope would that ephemeral “Something” be pro nobis—that is, for us? Is an old man’s half-remembered dream in a country now unfit for old men’s visions anything but wishful thinking, human grasping for that which might (but ultimately will not) stem the unalterable tide of time and death?
For Barth, and thus for the church, the banal ferocity of Chigurh is neither an awakening jolt nor even a subordinate but presently victorious power—it is, finally, no power at all. Christians confess in the face of das Nichtige—indeed, before such a human face as we see in Chigurh—that it is not Fate or Death or Violence or Chance that has swept through this world and carries the final say: it is instead the insurmountable and unaccountable Nevertheless, enfleshed, entombed, and enthroned. God “Himself has become a creature in Jesus Christ. And therefore He has set Himself in opposition to nothingness, and in this opposition was and is the Victor” (CD III/3, 290). This divine victory “is the existential determination given to the oppressed Christian by the resurrection of Christ,” that “[n]o one and nothing can be against us, or do us true and serious harm, or finally overcome us—not even the last thing which may threaten, namely, death” (CD IV/3.2, 645).
Coutts’ Barth is correct, then, in identifying Carla Jean Moss as “the closest thing this film has to a Christ figure,” but I think he sells her a bit short. That “there are no getaways” remains as true in the light of Christ as before—if, by “getaway,” we mean getting away from death’s reach. Carla Jean does not avoid death’s reach in the person of Chigurh, does not turn and run, but rather opens the door, takes sight of his intrusion, approaches him directly, and speaks the truth to his face. Though not explicitly, of course, Carla Jean may represent for us Barth’s vision of conversion as, ironically enough, “the new life of a new man” (CD IV/2, 560). If “the life of the old man” is unconverted life, and therefore “a life which is encircled by death,” then “the axis which makes [the life of the new man]”—in this case, that of Carla Jean—“a movement in conversion is the reality which is...revealed as the truth, that God is for him and therefore he is for God” (CD IV/2, 560-61).
That is to say: Carla Jean, in her strength and truthfulness and witness before death, embodies a power Chigurh can only see as powerless or futile, but is nonetheless the only real power there is. Might this man, too, before this other meek figure ask after truth? True, “in her blood too” does Chigurh wipe his boots (or wash his hands)—but this supposedly unstoppable force is rendered no less subject, no less brittle and bloody, when the straight line of a station wagon cuts across his circle of death. The path of such a man “also involves movement,” but without the axis of resurrection he “moves straight ahead, and this means straight ahead to the descent—the plunge—to death” (CD IV/2, 560).
“That is no country for old men,” said Yeats; and for McCarthy, “that” country is a post-Vietnam morass of inexplicable violence, however dimly lit by hope. For the Coens, “that” country is here, now, always our world in all its dark absurdity and deathly happenstance.
But which is no country, per Coutts’ title, for old man? “That” country, in the gospel according to Barth, which welcomes the disposed and dispossessed, which blesses the mighty meek, which reverses the verdicts of the Carla Jeans and the Galileans. For with the new man—with the new woman—is a new country, a country whose No turns out, at the last, to be Yes.
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