Wednesday, March 26, 2008

no country for old men

For my Faith & Film with Young Adults class we have to watch movies (what a chore!) and write stuff about them. For most of them we just have to write a short reflection, some of which I've posted on here, though not recently--I should do that for you all. Anyway, we also have to write two "sequence analyses," where we choose a scene from some movie and analyze it in various categories. I chose to watch "No Country for Old Men," since it's by the Coen brothers and won best picture of 2008 so I figured it had better have some good scene in it somewhere! It's an excellent movie, although very violent...but really, what's Hollywood without violence? So here's what I came up with about Chapter 14, "Overmatched":

In this scene, Tommy Lee Jones' character Ed Tom Bell visits his friend Ellis. Bell has recently decided to retire from the police force, and is questioning what life is all about. Ellis is a retired deputy who was shot in the line of duty years ago, losing the use of his legs.

The whole movie deals with the presence of evil in the world, the randomness of it, the inability to explain it or to stop it with rational argument. The questions it brings up are ones that many young adults (at least middle and upper class American ones) are faced with as they move from a space of childhood innocence to a place where they begin to recognize the depth of evil in the world, as they begin to attempt to change it, and as they are forced to admit that they are powerless to change anything. (People not in such a sheltered environment might come to these conclusions earlier in life, but that's another point for another time.) This scene could bring those themes into sharp relief for young adults: is it true that there is no hope? Is everything just bad, and even the good must succumb to death eventually without changing anything? This scene functions as a cultural hermeneutic, seeing more clearly something the culture tells them often and something they themselves are probably wrestling with without thinking about it. It also functions as a glimpse of the holy: by facing into the fact that we are powerless to change anything for good, we come face to face with God—or not. Is there a God? Is there hope? Is it enough to just put a tourniquet on and wait for our pie in the sky by and by?

This scene comes directly after the climactic scene where the presumed hero has just been shot and Tommy Lee Jones fails to find the killer or the money. If this was a normal movie (i.e. not by the Coen brothers), a) the protagonist would not have died all of a sudden, and b) at least Tommy Lee Jones would have chased down the psycho-killer and given him “what's coming.” But this is not a normal movie. Although this movie is by no means realistic in most senses of the word, it forces us nice, happy Americans to face into the fact that life doesn't have happy endings. It's more like a Greek tragedy, where everyone dies, except usually in an ancient tragedy, at least the bad guy/gal dies, too. What this scene is really about is the fact that “there's nothing new under the sun,” people have always been bad, and it's not up to us to change them—“that's vanity.”

The story is told by an unobtrusive camera presence—no voiceovers, told in a linear fashion, no acknowledgement of it being a film. In this scene as in most of this movie there is no music, only the background noises one would expect in that setting—namely, in this scene, cats meowing and various nature noises as well as the creaking of an old house. There is a good deal of space between sections of dialogue, highlighting the quietness of the setting. The house is cluttered but everything is dusty. The color of the scene is dust brown, the brown of withdrawal, out into the “desert.” Ellis plays the role of the desert father with wisdom due to his ascetic life (all alone far from civilization, week-old coffee), his physical suffering (he's in a wheelchair), and his ability to perceive what others don't and to reveal it enigmatically (that it's Bell because he heard his truck, and he knew it was his truck because it was Bell who came in the house). His wisdom is both straightforward and as a parable. He is realistic, but also offers the only hope he can: that it's not up to Bell to rid the world of evil, that Bell doesn't know what God thinks of him. Ellis looks directly at Bell (perceiving), and we see him front-on, while Bell looks out the window, and most of the time we see his profile. Tommy Lee Jones looks old. His wrinkles show clearly and his whole body exudes tiredness.

Bell feels “overmatched,” so he's retiring from law enforcement. He says, “I always figured, when I got older, that God would sort of come into my life. He didn't. I don't blame him. If I was him I'd have the same opinion of me as he does.” Ellis tells a story about their uncle, who died in his doorway after he was shot by some outlaws for no apparent reason, and Ellis draws the conclusion, “What you got ain't nothin' new. This country's hard on people. Cain't stop what's comin'. 'Tain't all waitin' on you. That's vanity.” Ellis has long since come to terms with life and the evil in the world. Instead of looking for revenge or trying to make up for the fact that he can no longer use his legs, he realized that the longer he tries to get it all back, the more time he will lose. He seems at peace, but it's a peace of loneliness and resignation. These scene addresses many religious issues including eschatology, the power of good and evil, and whether life is ultimately purposeful or chaotic.

I liked this movie because it made me face into the fact that I felt it was my right to have a happy ending, and when it wasn't happy it made me think. For me, a good movie makes me think, opens up a well of new concepts and ways of looking at life that bubble below the surface, of which I can only catch glimpses at first. It's like the idea of an image being both presence and absence concurrently, that we talked about in class this week: once I grasp something it only becomes a dead thing, something of the past, and there is always the “something more” dangling before me, just out of reach. I think this film addresses that very point: is there something more? Is there life, or only the death that is so easy to grasp? Is there purpose? Do we keep fighting for good, or give up, or withdraw, “eat, drink and be merry,” and die tomorrow? This sequence subtly brought all these questions together, and somehow, even through the overarching meaninglessness, there was hope.

I saw evidence of God in Jesus Christ in the movie in that, in the face of what can only be described as senseless evil, it was the evil character himself whose choices were shown to be meaningless. The other characters came to terms with life, grasped life even though it meant choosing death, were willing to risk and sacrifice for good and recognized evil for what it was. The scene directly after this one, where Karla Jean meets the killer, is a Christ-like scene to me. She refuses to succumb to the idea of randomness: she won't choose the side of the coin. Knowing she'll die anyway, knowing she'd have a chance of saving herself if she chose correctly, it is more important for her to live and die in the truth, than to live or die admitting that the world is all a series of arbitrary actions. The killer is shown up for what he truly is: one who lives by “rational” choice, but who does not really live at all—one who is more clearly dead than any of those he has killed.

In the last scene, Bell tells his wife about his dreams of his father. He sees his father ride by on a horse, and knows his father goes to prepare a place for him, and will meet him when he gets there. He has come to a sense of peace with life, and although he knows he does not understand everything, and although he's not happy about that fact, he has a sense of hope, irrational as it may be. This, it seems to me, is the Christian vocation: we see evil in the world, we feel overmatched and we certainly are, we see the “rational” explanations leading to nowhere, and yet we feel an intense hope and joy and purpose that is beyond all rational explanation. No matter where we live, if we fight evil face-on, if we wait for it to come to us, if we intentionally withdraw from it, no matter what we all have to face the fact that evil exists and that it sucks the life out of everything. We have to come to terms with the fact that there are unexplainable and unspeakable acts of evil done by humans and by nature every day. We know that life shouldn't be that way, and that very knowing gives us hope, but it is never easy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Been looking for an analysis of the "Hermit In The Desert (Overmatched)" scene because it's so central to the philosophical dimension of this film... and yours is a very good one.


"Vanity" = Ecclesiastes = "Everything is Meaningless" = "Fear (and Love) God and keep His Commandments"