Over the last few years I've been asked to speak in various forums on the ACU campus about the theology on display in the movie No Country for Old Men. I'd like to share here some of my take on the movie.
To recap a bit about the film. The movie follows a sheriff--Ed Tom Bell--who is tracking a vicious killer, Anton Chigurh. For his part, Chigurh is tracking Llewelyn Moss, an Everyman who accidentally stumbled upon drug money that Chigurh is trying to find. Sheriff Bell spends the movie tracking both Chigurh and Llewelyn, hoping to capture Chigurh and save Llewelyn in the process. And as he tracks the two men we watch Sheriff Bell emotionally struggle with the senseless death and violence Chigurh leaves in his path.
As we follow Sheriff Bell we see a growing existential fatigue. The violence he follows begins to weigh on him, to age him. And the root of the problem is that Bell can't make sense of what he is witnessing. The evil he finds is Other, inexplicable and incomprehensible. And this incomprehensibility "ages" him. He becomes the "old man" who can no longer recognize his "country" as home, as something he understands. Eventually, this burden becomes too much and, toward the end of the movie, Sheriff Bell retires from law enforcement. Unable to grasp the evil in the world, he walks away from the task of marking right from wrong. He's become too old for that job. The world, morally speaking, is something that makes no sense to him anymore.
In short, I think the major theme of the movie is this failure of making sense of the moral universe. The world becomes morally opaque and the effort at trying to make sense of it becomes too heavy. The sheriff is worn down by what I'll call theodicy fatigue.
You see this theme emerge at two critical places in the movie, the opening monologue of the sheriff and in an exchange between the sheriff and his uncle after the sheriff's retirement. Here's the opening monologue (from the screenplay):
I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five. Hard to believe. Grandfather was a lawman. Father too. Me and him was sheriff at the same time, him in Plano and me here. I think he was pretty proud of that. I know I was.As you can see, the concerns here are epistemological. After expressing nostalgia for the good ol' days when the world was morally comprehensible and peaceable (e.g., the old timers never wore guns), we see the sheriff struggle to make sense of the evil he is encountering. He can't take the "measure" of the evil in the world. He can't understand the killer in the jail. He doesn't want to meet something he "don't understand."
Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lot of folks find that hard to believe. Jim Scarborough never carried one. That the younger Jim. Gaston Boykins wouldn't wear one. Up in Commanche County.
I always liked to hear about the old-timers. Never missed a chance to do so. Hoskins over in Batrop County knowed everybody's phone number off by heart. You can't help but compare yourself against the old timers. Can't help but wonder how they would've operated these times. There was this boy I sent to Huntsville here a while back. My arrest and my testimony. He killed a fourteen-year-old girl. Papers said it was a crime of passion but he told me there wasn't any passion to it.
Told me that he'd been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he'd do it again.
Said he knew he was going to hell. Be there in about fifteen minutes. I don't know what to make of that. I surely don't.
The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it.
I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand.
You can say it's my job to fight it but I don't know what it is anymore.
...More than that, I don't want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard.
...He would have to say, okay, I'll be part of this world.
But it is worse than that. The sheriff feels that the act of comprehension would be contaminating. To take the measure of evil is to risk one's own moral integrity, to put one's "soul at hazard." In the end, the sheriff refuses to become a "part of this world." He doesn't want to understand. So he walks away, befuddled and fatigued in his efforts to "make sense" of a moral universe that seems so broken.
So the movie ends with a law enforcement officer quitting on the (moral) universe. The good ol' days, a kind of moral Paradise when the world once made sense, has been forever lost. And that's how the sheriff copes, that's how he makes sense, by retreating into nostalgia, conjuring up "better days" from the past.
But after his retirement the sheriff has a conversation with Uncle Ellis who sits in a wheelchair as a victim of violence. During this conversation Ellis punctures the illusions of Sheriff Bell, making it clear to him that Bell's retreat into nostalgia is a fantasy, a defense mechanism. The world isn't descending into moral incomprehensibility. The world has always been this way:
BellA couple of observations. First, we can see Ellis puncturing Bell's nostalgia. What is discouraging Bell "ain't nothing new." The story of Uncle Mac's death well illustrates that "this country is hard on people" and that "we can't stop what's coming." More, Ellis suggests that Bell was vain for thinking that he, as a lawman, could set the world aright, morally speaking.
That man that shot you died in prison.
In Angola. Yeah.
What would you a done if he'd been released?
I don't know. Nothin. Wouldn't be no point to it.
I'm kindly surprised to hear you say that.
All the time you spend tryin to get back what's been took from you there's more goin out the door. After a while you just try and get a tourniquet on it.
...Your granddad never asked me to sign on as a deputy. I done that my own self. Loretta says you're quittin.
Yes, you've circled round.
How come're you doin that?
I don't know. I feel overmatched.
...I always thought when I got older God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn't. I don't blame him. If I was him I'd have the same opinion about me that he does.
You don't know what he thinks.
Yes I do.
I sent Uncle Mac's badge and his old thumbbuster to the Rangers. For their museum there. Your daddy ever tell you how Uncle Mac came to his reward?
...Shot down on his own porch there in Hudspeth County. There was seven or eight of 'em come to the house. Wantin this and wantin that. Mac went in and got his shotgun but they was way ahead of him. Shot him down in his own doorway. Aunt Ella run out and tried to stop the bleedin. Him tryin to get hold of the shotgun again. They just set there on their horses watchin him die. Finally one of 'em says somethin in Injun and they all turned and left out. Well Mac knew the score even if Aunt Ella didn't. Shot through the left lung and that was that. As they say.
When did he die?
Nineteen zero and nine.
No, I mean was it right away or in the night or when was it.
Believe it was that night. She buried him the next mornin. Diggin in that hard caliche.
...What you got ain't nothin new. This country is hard on people. You can't stop what's comin. Ain't all waitin on you.
Further, in this exchange we continue to see Bell's theodicy fatigue. He feels "overmatched" by the evil he has been facing. And God doesn't look like He's going to rescue the situation.
So what is one to do? Well, according to Ellis, there's no "point" in getting even. You can't get it all fixed and back into moral balance. As he says, "All the time you spend tryin to get back what's been took from you there's more goin out the door." So all you can do in life is to "try and get a tourniquet on it." Just try to stop the bleeding as best you can.
I want to go back and highlight once more that Sheriff Bell's problem is largely epistemological, his inability to "make sense" of the moral universe. Bell isn't "overmatched" because he lacks courage. Recall what he says in the opening monologue:
The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it.And Bell isn't afraid. The movie shows us this. In a climactic scene Bell suspects that Chigurh is in a hotel room (and it appears like he is). Bell puts his hand on the doorknob and hesitates. He doesn't have to go in and face the killer. He could walk away and call for backup. But he goes in. And finds the room empty. And after looking around he wearily sits down upon the bed. And that's the end of his career. Bell's next scene is with Uncle Ellis after he has quit.
I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand.
The point is, Bell goes into the room. He's not afraid. It's not a courage issue. The problem is epistemological, his inability "take the measure" of the evil in the world. He doesn't want to "go out and meet something" he "don't understand."
I've been arguing that, based upon two critical conversations in the movie, that the root predicament for Sheriff Bell is a kind of epistemological fatigue. Earlier, I called this epistemological weariness a theodicy fatigue. I'd like now to unpack this a bit more. Why is Bell's weariness a fatigue about theodicy?
To answer this question I'd like to borrow from the analysis of Susan Neiman in her book Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. In the book Neiman suggests that the history of modern philosophy can be fruitfully viewed as one long discussion about the problem of evil in human existence. This is an interesting move as most philosophers would claim that evil is a theological category. Yet Neiman persuasively makes the case that modern thought, even with God declared dead, has been wrestling deeply with the problem of evil.
The heart of Neiman's argument is how she frames the problem of evil and theodicy. For Neiman the problem of evil has to do with the intelligibility of nature. It goes to our ability to understand and therefore trust the Cosmos. Evil stumps these attempts at making sense of the world. That is, if we live a life of virtue is there any assurance from the Cosmos that I'll reap good outcomes? Or is it all just randomness and confusion?
One way to frame the problem of evil, then, is to examine the association (and frequent disassociation) between virtue and happiness. We would like to think that virtue is causally and systematically associated with happiness. There are no guarantees of course, but we'd like to think that the pursuit of virtue isn't, by definition, a self-defeating or fruitless task. That is, we'd like to think the Cosmos, in its lawful or Providential configuration, supports the linkage between virtue and happiness. Again, no guarantees, but we'd like to think that, all things being equal, that there is a relationship (at the very least a weak correlation) between virtue and happiness. Be a good person, work hard, and, all things being equal, you should have a happy and fulfilling life, statistically speaking.
But evil disrupts this hope. Evil appears to radically dislocate virtue and happiness. Innocent and good people often suffer horrifically while vile and hateful people flourish. Consequently, it would appear that, in the face of evil, virtue and happiness are not linked.
Given the challenge of evil to our "sense making" many attempt to produce a theodicy, a way to show that despite appearances there are links between virtue and happiness. In religion these links are often provided by a God who will, in the end, punish evil and allow virtue to flourish. God, by guaranteeing the links between goodness and flourishing, makes the Cosmos morally coherent and comprehensible. This is the goal of a theodicy; it is an argument that the links between virtue and happiness do exist, even if currently unrealized. One might think of the Enlightenment project as the attempt to have the State (rather than God) guarantee the links between virtue and happiness. That is, according to the Enlightenment if we get a good social contract in place we should be able to create a world where virtuous citizens get rewarded and less virtuous citizens get penalized.
(And, incidentally, we can also apply this analysis to the work of someone like the new atheist Sam Harris and his recent book The Moral Landscape. In the book Harris wants to use Science to guarantee the links between virtue and happiness. In this, Harris, perhaps unwittingly, is also engaged in creating a theodicy.)
Some history here might be helpful. As Neiman recounts, Europe was profoundly shaken--theologically, existentially, philosophically, and psychologically--in the wake of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. This disaster greatly agitated the Enlightenment thinkers, throwing into doubt their optimistic reliance upon reason and civic virtue. Years before, in 1710, Leibniz coined the term "theodicy," arguing in Théodicée that we live in "the best of all possible worlds." In the wake of the earthquake Voltaire used the disaster in both Candide and in his Poem on the Lisbon Disaster to argue that we don't live in an ideal world. Evil exists and it radically dislocates virtue from happiness. This debate between Leibniz and Voltaire greatly affected the Enlightenment thinkers, and it altered their respective philosophical projects in surprising ways (Immanuel Kant in particular, as we will see). At root a single question gnawed: What good is virtue in a world with Lisbon earthquakes? If the Cosmos won't guarantee good outcomes for virtue why be virtuous?
With these ideas in place we can now return to No Country for Old Men. I hope, in light of Neiman's analysis, we can now see why Sheriff Bell's weariness is a theodicy fatigue. That is, No Country asks us to consider the association between virtue and happiness. Specifically, is there an association? Do the good guys win? Do the bad guys get caught? The answer, in both cases, is no. In No Country the association between virtue and happiness is radically decoupled and dislocated. In No Country we see a theodicy fail.
This is vividly seen in an early scene in the movie when Chigurh enters a gas station. There he asks the owner of the station to call a coin flip, heads or tails. The scene is full of menace and we know that Chigurh will either kill this man or let him live depending upon the coin flip. That coin flip, a motif in the movie, symbolizes evil, the radical dislocation of virtue and happiness. It's all a coin flip in life. You can't make moral sense of the Cosmos. This is what wears upon Sheriff Bell. He's trying to make sense of something that is a moral Rorschach blot. He's trying to find a theodicy when none exists.
This interpretation is supported by one of the most startling and unpredictable moments of the film. After killing Carla Jean (the wife of Llewelyn) toward the end of the movie, Chigurh is driving off into the proverbial sunset (although inverted because he's the bad guy). Suddenly, out of nowhere, his car is hit by a station wagon. Chigurh gets out of the car, bloodied and with a compound fracture. He dresses the wound and staggers off. That's the last we see of him.
What's the point of this car wreck? It's not karma. It's not suggesting that Chigurh is getting what he deserves. Why? Because no one is getting what they deserve in the movie, good or bad. Car crashes just happen. To good people. And to evil people. The car crash is like the Lisbon earthquake. It makes no sense, morally speaking.
In related way, a moral perverseness drives the whole film. It's Llewelyn's virtue that causes all the trouble. He decides to do something good, taking water back to the man dying in the truck, and this act of charity is what sets Chigurh on his trail. That's morally backwards. The good deed leads to Llewelyn's death. Llewelyn's virtue isn't rewarded. Again, it's a theodicy fail. Virtue and happiness have no relationship in the film.
That said, there is an interesting moment in the film regarding the coin, that symbol of randomness as evil, of the radical dislocation between virtue and happiness. The coin--that challenge to all theodicy--comes back at the end when Chigurh confronts Carla Jean. And as he did with the gas station owner earlier in the movie, Chigurh asks Carla Jean to call a coin flip. Her fate, it is clear, hangs in the balance. Chigurh is giving her a way out. But she refuses. She rejects his game. So Chigurh kills her.
What can we make of Carla Jean's decision, her refusal to call heads or tails? My take is that the Coen brothers are making a move similar to the one Camus makes in The Myth of Sisyphus. That is, in the face of a life that makes no sense, morally speaking, where virtue and happiness are radically dislocated by evil and death, the only heroic move available to us is spite. Just give the gods the finger. That's how I tend to read Carla Jean's choice, an act of spite and defiance in the face of the Cosmos. As Camus writes, "[t]here is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn." Facing Chigurh's coin I see a Sisyphian scorn in Carla Jean. It's the heroic moment in the movie.
So what are we to take away from the movie No Country for Old Men?
I think the Coen's are posing this question: Is theodicy possible? Is the world morally intelligible? Or is it all fate and coin flips? And if it is, what are we to do in the face of this situation?
Within the movie, we see three options in living with a failed theodicy:
Bell's nostalgia ("old timers")But I wonder if there might be another way to think about life within a failed theodicy. Specifically, we might consider how Immanuel Kant addressed the debate between Leibniz and Voltaire. Again, Leibniz, in creating his theodicy, was a bit too optimistic about the universe (and the Providential God behind it all) guaranteeing the links between virtue and happiness. Voltaire, for his part, particularly after the Lisbon earthquake, would have none of the Leibniz theodicy. And in the middle of this argument, according to Susan Neiman, Kant makes an interesting move.
Ellis' stoicism ("just try and get a tourniquet on it")
Carla Jean's Sisyphian scorn
It's Kant's argument that theodicy kills virtue. True virtue can only exist in the aftermath of failed theodicies.
Kant's argument is pretty simple. For Kant, if a theodicy exists, if we can guarantee the links between virtue and happiness, then life reduces to one big behavioral experiment. If virtue reliably produces happiness then, of course, I'll pursue virtue. Why wouldn't I? Virtue would be reliably and consistently rewarded and reinforced. By contrast, if vice reliably produces pain and unhappiness then I'll learn to avoid vice. In this sort of world, where a theodicy guarantees the association between virtue and happiness, virtue is no longer pursued as an end in itself. Rather, virtue becomes a means to an end, attaining my happiness. For Kant, this isn't really virtue.
In light of this Kant makes a really odd claim. For Kant, virtue can't exist in "the best of all possible worlds." That world, where virtue is always rewarded, is just a big Skinner Box. So, according to Kant, for virtue to exist in the world we need a failed theodicy, where the links between virtue and happiness cannot be guaranteed. Virtue, to be virtue, can have no guarantee. In short, virtue can only exist in a world like No Country for Old Men.
Which is kind of a paradox. A film (and the world it conjures) that questions the value of virtue actually makes virtue come into existence. The failed theodicy of No Country helps virtue stand out all the more clearly. Despite their struggles and ultimate fates, we recognize Sheriff Bell and Carla Jean as virtuous people. And we recognize Chigurh as evil. The failed theodicy of No Country makes those recognitions possible. By contrast, the "virtue" within, let's say, a Disney movie, is just moralized self-interest. With a guaranteed "happy ever after" we have the perfect theodicy, a world where virtue lawfully produces happiness. And all we can see in this "best of all possible worlds" (and Disney delivers on this score) is Homo economicus, self-interest disguised as virtue. Nothing in this sort of world is heroic or admirable. But virtue in No Country is the real deal, it's the workaday heroism of doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do.
In this way, virtue in No Country is analogous to faith in the lament psalms. Faith, like virtue, in "the best of all possible worlds" is no faith at all. But faith after a failed theodicy, when the wicked flourish and the virtuous are oppressed, is the real deal. Consequently, true faith requires a theodicy failure, almost as a prerequisite. The same, according to Kant, is true of virtue.
And that's the paradox of No Country for Old Men. It's a world of a failed theodicy, a world of a killer's coin flip and where virtue gets you killed.
And yet, it's the only kind of world where true faith and virtue can exist.