In honor of the Oscars this Sunday, I thought I would devote this week to the five films nominated for Best Picture. So far I have reviewed Juno, Michael Clayton, Atonement, and There Will Be Blood.

No Country for Old Men is not only the finest film I have seen this year–it is a work of cinematic and thematic excellence that will doubtlessly improve upon multiple viewings.

Occasionally, movies cross over the fine line between entertainment and art–when they do, like any book or piece of music, I feel ill-equipped to comment without hearing or seeing it multiple times.  This is one such case.  In my only viewing so far, I gave up trying to ‘understand’ the film; instead, I let it fill me with an unreflective sense of awe and horror at the senseless and unredeemed evil in the world.

To be honest, I’m not sure I have yet gotten beyond that horror, nor will I until I have a chance to watch it again (which will be difficult, given how deeply it affected me the first time).  To fill the “intellectual gap,” however, I commend Matt Zoller Seitz’s excellent essay on the moral vision of Joel and Ethan Coen:

Spiritual but not religious, the Coens are Stanley Kubrick-style secular theologians. Their awe of the unknown is comprised of equal parts humility and philosophical-scientific curiosity. Their films tease our suspicion that powerful, unseen forces move the universe — moral and ethical forces that sometimes seem to be rendering judgment or sending a message.

But at the same time, the Coens insist that no man can verify if these forces actually exist or if we insist they do out of vanity — in order to convince ourselves that our existence matters to anyone but us and our loved ones. The confluence of forces that suggests fate or justice might be evidence of a higher power (represented in the conversation between Bell and the old lawman about what God wants), chance (Anton Chigurh’s tossed coin, which decides if a person lives or dies — an intriguing hint that on some level, this stone-cold psychopath feels guilt and perhaps wishes to reassure himself that his bloody deeds were inevitable) or free will (a subject broached in the scene where Carla Jean declines the coin toss to force Chigurh to accept responsibility for his deeds). Or it could be the result of electrons colliding to produce a result that might have been different had a single electron bounced differently….

Zoller Seitz is clearly on to something.  I wonder, however, about the depths to which their agnosticism about the cosmic forces governing the universe drives their comedic style, which has always seemed to be laced with a touch of cynicism.  Though it is not a comedy, Death’s triumph in No Country for Old Men is final.  The absence of a providential hand to bring goodness from evil lends itself to the sort of dark, cynical comedy that the Coen’s seem to enjoy.  Zoller Seitz continues:

Though they are habitually described as snotty formalists with nothing on their minds but cinematic gamesmanship, the Coens’ body of work is one of the most sneakily moralistic in recent American cinema. To some extent, all of their movies poses questions that supposedly deeper filmmakers have broached time and time again: if we cannot be certain of God’s existence; if there is a possibility that no one’s watching what we do; if, to reference Johnny Caspar in Miller’s Crossing, “morality and ethics” are agreed-upon lies; if the evil can destroy the good with impunity, and if the wicked often die for reasons unrelated to a hero’s good deeds (throughout the Coens’ filmography, bad guys often destroy themselves through vanity or stupidity, or get snuffed out by coincidence or bad luck), then what’s the point of being good? Just because. “There’s more to life than a little money, you know,” policewoman Marge Gunderson tells the dead-eyed killer in the backseat of her police car at the end of Fargo. “Don’t you know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.”

The Coens aren’t nihilists. There may or may not be a God in their imagination — the only Coen Brothers films that definitively confirms the existence of intelligent, purposeful, supernatural forces are Hudsucker and The Ladykillers, easily their dopiest, least consequential films — but the lack of theological clarity doesn’t necessarily mean that the Coens endorse their characters’ decision to be indecent or cruel. Quite the contrary, the Coens’ movies strongly endorse the notion that one should honor certain bedrock principles for their inherent rightness (or, barring that, for the benefits such a life might confer). Decency is the Coens’ version of piety. It’s not just a rock to cling to in hard times, but a quality worth cultivating for self-interested reasons, because it makes a character more likely to know love and comfort. The Fargo kidnappers live for the moment, and their existence is defined by cheap motor inns, bored hookers, an increased likelihood of getting shot in the face or stuffed into a woodchipper, and the impossibility of every truly trusting anyone. Straitlaced Marge, on the other hand, goes to sleep each night in a warm bed beside a man who loves her. In the Coens’ world, acceding to certain customs and laws means sacrificing visceral liberties to gain deeper and more satisfying ones: freedom from fear of loneliness and the nagging suspicion your existence is meaningless.

In all, there is much to appreciate in this moral vision.  And No Country is a film that is worth wrestling with.  But it is a film appropriate for Good Friday, for it is a film–like Atonement–that evokes a deep longing for the righteous judgment of God, and the restoration of harmony in the universe.
(HT:  Douthat)

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Yep, you nailed it. It’s the finest of the three nominees I’ve seen: No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood and Michael Clayton. The Coen have acheived a comeback. Ever see Ladykillers? Oh my.

  • Sp: Coens.

  • Sp2: achieved. lol

  • I’m glad we agree that No Country is the best film of the year. I think, though, that the Coen brothers are more theist–even Christian–in their outlook, than agnostic. Having seen every single film they’ve made, I note their preoccupation with the clash of good and quite devilish evil, Satan appearing in various guises from Barton Fink to Raising Arizona, so much so that most of their work can be understood allegorically. (Even my least favorite, The Ladykillers.)

    Considering another classic intellectual struggle, O Brother, Where Art Thou? ultimately casts more derision on Ulysses Everett McGill’s hopeful rationalism than on the naive and bungling faith of Delmar O’Donnell, as the blind prophet’s words come true in the climactic flood, a combination of divine and human agency that allows and requires both as an explanation.

    I’ve said it elsewhere, but it’s worth repeating: they are the spiritual successors to Flannery O’Connor, both in their dark wit and their theistic preoccupation. They are the cinematic “Church without Christ.”