The Coen brothers’ 2007 film No Country For Old Men is unlike the traditional westerns it pays homage to. The good guy gets shot, the bad guy gets away, and the audience is left feeling uneasy about the whole experience. Perhaps the most non-traditional moment of the entire film is its seemingly unrelated closing monologue, delivered by Tommy Lee Jones’ character Sheriff Bell to his wife just before the film abruptly cuts to black. But a new video essay from ScreenPrism suggests that Sheriff Bell’s calmly delivered speech actually encapsulates the film’s themes and gives deeper insight into its title.
Throughout the film, Sheriff Bell has been following the trail of Llewelyn Moss and hitman Anton Chigurh, played by Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem, respectively, and bears witness to the meaningless violence and destruction left in their wake. The dream Bell recounts at the film’s close suggest he feels lost in the morally ambiguous modern world and feels nostalgia for the time of his father, a time when good guys were good and bad guys were bad.
Traditional westerns exist squarely within this traditional sense of morality. They contain the grand narratives and structure that are synonymous with modernism. But No Country For Old Men takes a postmodern approach to the genre and plays with themes of randomness, chaos, and absence of meaning. Like the film’s title suggests, there is no place for Bell in this world anymore. Yet, in his dream, his father carries the fire forward into the darkness, signifying an undying hope that his traditional values might live on. Then the film cuts to black, severing the hope just as it was conceived—part of the reason the ending still rattles around in viewers’ heads a decade later.