(This post originally appeared on my old blog in 2017.)
Wednesday night my friends Bill and Patrick came over to watch No Country for Old Men (2007), a film that has affected all three of us in a profound way in the 10 years since its original release. Several months ago Bill expressed an interest in watching the movie with me to discuss some of the film’s deeper meanings. I told Bill that we should also invite Patrick, another big fan of the movie.
We decided beforehand that anytime someone had something to say, we’d stop the film. We did this very little during the film’s first hour and probably only seven or eight times during its second half. I won’t go into everything we discussed, but I want to cover just the last three minutes of the film in which Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) relates two dreams to his wife Loretta (Tess Harper).
Although we all agreed that the scene (watch clip below) with Bell talking to the retired law man Ellis (Barry Corbin) is probably the key to understanding the film (and we referred back to it frequently), we talked mostly about the ending.
As the film nears its end, Bell has retired from law enforcement. He and Loretta have a bit of friendly banter over the kitchen table about how he’s going to spend this particular day (and by implication, all of his retirement), with Loretta hoping he’ll find something to do to get out of her way during her daily routine. After the banter, Bell relates two dreams he had the night before. Before relating those dreams, he mentions an interesting observation:
Both of ‘em had my father in ‘em, it’s peculiar… I’m older now than he ever was by 20 years. In a sense, he’s the younger man.
The first, a brief dream:
The first one I don’t remember too well. It was about meetin’ him in town somewheres and he gave me some money. I think I lost it.
Bell dismisses this shorter dream in order to move on to the second, more important one, but Bill and Patrick and I wanted to examine this first dream a little more closely. We speculated that the “money” Bell’s father gave him probably referred to the duty and responsibility of being a law man. Bell’s father and grandfather (if I remember correctly) lost their lives in the line of duty and Ellis ended up wheelchair-bound. Bell has been handed down a legacy of law enforcement, but has decided (reluctantly) to retire while he still can, the implication (carried over from the voiceover narration early in the film) being that there’s a manner of evil out there – obviously personified by Anton Chigurh – that Bell simply cannot comprehend. It’s possible that Bell carries feelings of guilt or inadequacy from not having died or been seriously injured on the job, that he’s been handed something of a family legacy and “lost it.” Perhaps he doesn’t remember the dream or doesn’t want to dwell on it because of these feelings of guilt/inadequacy.
On to the second, more lengthy dream (practically word for word from the novel):
The second one it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin’ through the mountains of a night. Goin’ through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin’. Never said nothin’ goin’ by, he just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and his head down. When he rode past I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he 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’d be there. And then I woke up.
I confessed to the guys that this segment of the film has haunted me since I saw it and even before that, since I read it in the novel. Patrick mentioned that he’s never been able to completely wrap his head around the second dream (and Patrick is one of the most intelligent guys I’ve ever met).
Bill seemed to think that Bell resigned mostly out of fear, but Patrick and I both disagreed. While we both recognize that fear certainly could’ve been a part of Bell's decision to retire, we saw it as something of a throwing up your hands in literal resignation. Bell also mentions in the film’s opening voiceover narration that he’s not sure that he wants to come face to face with the type of evil responsible for killing a 14-year-old girl. Yes, fear is clearly part of his reluctance, but more so – at least Patrick and I think – is the fact that Bell is faced with something he doesn’t understand on a cosmic level. We see this articulated again when Bell meets with another sheriff in Del Rio (I believe) who talks about the decline of morality in general and killers in particular. Someone like Anton Chigurh is simply something or someone they do not understand, and it’s hard to defend against something you don’t understand.
Speaking of Chigurh, we all wondered if he should really be thought of as death personified. I do not believe this is writer Cormac McCarthy’s intention (or that of the Coens), but it is something worth thinking about. But really Chigurh is incidental to the last few minutes of the film.
The second dream could be interpreted in many different ways, which is one of the reasons it remains so powerful and haunting. Perhaps the dream implies that there is hope, that justice will win out, not necessarily in this world, but maybe in the next. I do think it’s significant that Bell’s second dream is set “in older times” and he was on horseback, a time when things were simpler, easier to understand.
And what about the reasons the father passes by Bell? Is he ashamed of how his son has ended his career? Or is he focused on what he has to do? Is the fire a symbol of judgment, justice, purity, enlightenment, all of these, none of these? Yet I can’t get around the fact that there’s a level of comfort in this section of the dream. It reminds me of John 14:2-3 – “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (ESV) I’m not saying McCarthy is referring to those verses, they just stick in my head, which accounts for my thinking that this portion of the dream offers some element of comfort and hope.
Further, the words “…I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and that he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold” seem to imply that the small fire he was carrying in the horn was going to grow and spread, fighting against the dark and cold. I simply can’t hear “…and I knew that whenever I got there he’d be there,” and not find at least some comfort in it.
Patrick understood my viewpoint, but wasn’t so sure that this part of the dream offered hope. Maybe it’s yet another way that Bell recognizes that, compared to his father, he doesn’t measure up. Maybe “I knew that whenever I got there he’d be there,” isn’t a line of comfort, but rather of retribution or the awaiting of some form of comparison, which implies the dread of judgment. I prefer to take comfort in those lines, but again, the second dream could be open to multiple interpretations.
And then the simplicity of Bell’s last line “And then I woke up” is loaded with possibilities. Is he glad he woke up? Does he wish he could go back to the dream? The expression on Loretta’s face seems to be comforting, or one that’s pleased that Bell has at least opened himself up to her, gotten it off his chest, so to speak. (She tells him right off the bat that she'll be polite.) But Bell’s reaction is initially a blank stare, followed by a slight downward look as the screen is filled with black. Is that a look of resignation, of disappointment, of dread? I don’t know.
I do know that the film is filled with great topics for conversation like the ones we had Wednesday night. This is what I enjoy most about watching movies, discussing them with other people, not trying to find the “right” or “wrong” interpretations, but rather talking about how films make us think, feel, and live. Times like this are what movies are all about. Let’s do it again soon.