Bernice and I caught a sneak preview of the movie, No Country for Old Men, last week. I had not read the book and therefore was all set up for the sucker punch ending. When the final credits rolled, my immediate reaction was, “Hey, who stole the last reel? Surely there must be more. Surely the sheriff gets the bad guy in the end.” I sat there in the dark, disturbed, till the return of the lights and the empty theatre told me it was time to go.
This movie is no simple morality play where the bad guys get their just punishments in the end. I left the theatre frustrated — and thinking. And that is what sets this movie apart. It forces you to think hard, something not required in most movies today. And for that, I guess, it deserves its Oscar. And the fact that the movie was very well made.
But the message of the movie is bleak. Violent evil is on the rise and nothing can be done. Virtue is punished. (If the Josh Brolin character hadn’t gone back with water for the dying Mexican drug dealer, he wouldn’t have set into motion the chain of events that would lead to his death and the death of his wife.) The innocent receive no special favours in life. Everything is based on chance. Life is absurd. And the ultimate absurdity of all — death comes to all, good or evil.
The Javier Bardem character is a personification of death. He is more than man. He is a primal force, mowing down good and evil alike, unstoppable. Even a horrific car crash cannot stop him. You cringe every time he appears in a scene. Even his bad hair can’t make you laugh. He is that scary. He is death, and for me, a clue to the meaning of the movie.
The message that life is absurd and that death comes to us all is not a new one. It is there in the bible, in the book of Ecclesiastes. For example, the writer of Ecclesiastes observes, “God gives some people wealth, possessions and honour, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil” (Ecclesiastes 6:2 TNIV). Life is absurd.
And while it may be good to be morally wise, at the end of the day why bother, since wise or not, we all die anyway.
I saw that wisdom is better than folly,
just as light is better than darkness.
The wise have eyes in their heads,
while fools walk in the darkness;
but I came to realize
that the same fate overtakes them both.
Then I said to myself,
‘The fate of the fool will overtake me also.
What then do I gain by being wise?’
I said to myself,
‘This too is meaningless.’
(Ecclesiastes 2:13-15 TNIV)
If “life under the sun,” that is, the life that is accessible to us through our senses, is all there is, then truly life is meaningless.
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.’
What does anyone gain from all their labours
at which they toil under the sun?
(Ecclesiastes 1:1-3 TNIV)
But the book of Ecclesiastes ends on a note of faith.
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the [duty] of every human being.
For God will bring every deed into judgement,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
(Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 TNIV)
The meaning of human existence cannot be found in life as we know it. It can only be found in God. Bruce K. Waltke summarises the message of Ecclesiastes:
Qoheleth (writer of Ecclesiastes) faces the mortals’ despairing condition with justified cynicism and with unflinching honesty, but he also confronts life’s grimness with a heartfelt faith in God. His aging body reminds him that life is absurd, but he is thankful to God that his heart knows his Creator is wise, just, and good. The book celebrates the triumph of faith, not the triumph of the human spirit. (An Old Testament Theology, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007, p.963.)
New Testament saints have even more reason for faith. In this season of Lent, we know that God used the greatest absurdity of all, the death of Jesus on the Cross, to overturn all the absurdity of life. And unlike Qoheleth, we have the benefit of the knowledge of the resurrection, to know that it is true (1 Corinthians 15).
No Country For Old Men powerfully illustrates the fact that we will not find final meaning in this life just as we do not get moral satisfaction by the end of the movie. Meaning and resolution must be found elsewhere.
In the movie, the Tommy Lee Jones character, Sheriff Bell says:
… 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.
But he also dreams of hope, that his father long dead, has gone ahead to prepare a place for him.
And in the dream I knew that he (his father) was goin’ on ahead and that he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up.
We want to tell the Sheriff Bells of this world, all those who see the hardness and absurdity of life, that hope is no dream. Jesus died and rose again.