No Country For Old Men

That would be the title of An Inconvenient Truth, if it had been produced by the Coen brothers — since young men (and women) are poised to suffer through the worst consequences of our immoral short-sightedness. (This is not such an odd pairing of movies, considering that No Country star Tommy Lee Jones was the Harvard roommate of Al Gore).

I do think No Country for Old Men deserves the Oscar for best movie of the year because it is brilliantly constructed and acted — and delivers a powerful, coherent message to all of us from the Coen brothers and Cormac McCarthy.

Yet this is easily one of the most depressing and nihilistic major movies ever made. On the nihilistic/life-affirming story scale, where Hamlet is a 1 and It’s a Wonderful Life is a 10, No Country is easily a zero and perhaps deserves negative numbers.

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Normally I do not like movies with an unhappy ending, and this movie arguably has about the unhappiest ending a movie of its kind could possibly have — but the movie did seem to me a perfect metaphor for modern American politics and global warming.

[You can read the basic plotline here. Since Wikipedia is untroubled by spoilers, with nary a warning, why should I be? Note to people who haven’t seen the movie: (1) I’m assuming you have figured out that when a film is titled No Country for Old Men, you can be sure it does not end well, and (2) this post will not make much sense to you.]

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, in a career-relaunching role) stumbles upon a drug-deal gone bad and walks away with a case containing $2 million (and a transmitter). Let’s say he represents humanity, taking and burning the fossil fuel resources of the world. He is more ingenious than he at first seems, like humanity, but over the course of the movie he slowly realizes just what a terrible mistake he has made, how he has set himself on a path toward destroying himself and everyone he loves.

Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in a chilling Oscar-nominated performance) is the relentless, consciousless killer who pursues him. Let’s say he represents both modern American politics and the consequences of global warming, both of which respect neither person nor place.

The local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, another terrific performance), though jaded by the mystery of modern evil, seems to be as smart as Chigurh, and the only one who can save Moss. Now I bet you’re thinking I’m going to say he represents Al Gore [don’t worry, I know you’re really thinking Joe has gone off his meds — again]. But no!

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Al Gore is, in fact, symbolically represented by Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), a bounty hunter who shows up briefly in the middle of the movie. Like Gore, he explains to Moss/humanity that Chigurh/warming is relentless and will prove fatal if Moss/humanity stays on its current path. Like Gore, Wells offers M/h a way out. And like Gore (so far), M/h chooses to ignore Wells until it is too late. [Okay, Gore hasn’t been killed heartlessly by warming, but he is (or was) metaphorically killed by modern American politics — if you’re still with me and not, say, filing papers to have me committed.]

So who — or what — does Sheriff Bell represent? Here is where things get interesting …

In the movie, Bell, shockingly, not only fails to save the day, but he actually chooses to quit and live out his life peacefully, rather than confront evil incarnate, which he doesn’t understand and which he fears will destroy him, as it has destroyed almost everything that crosses its path. Certainly Bell’s name is no accident. It must come from John Dunne, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”:

“Devotions upon Emergent Occasions” (1623), Meditation XVII

Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris: “Now, this bell tolling softly for another, says to me: Thou must die.”

… No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The clod is Moss, of course (yes, I know what you’re thinking, Those electroshock treatments didn’t work out as Joe hoped they would Dunne, in Nostradamus-like fashion, has anticipated sea level rise).

But let me back up a few scenes.

In a powerful twist, after dispatching Wells, Chigurh tells Moss that if he turns himself and the money over to him, he will not hunt down and kill Moss’s wife — Moss, of course, cannot be saved, or won’t be saved by Chigurh because he is not innocent. But Moss won’t sacrifice himself — no doubt he thinks he will be saved by his own cleverness (even though Wells has warned him he won’t) or at least by Bell.

Bell shows up too late to save Moss, seemingly tracks down Chigurh, but by refusing to confront him, by quitting, he dooms Moss’s wife, who presumably represents all of the countless members of the human race unaware of the terrible fate that awaits them who will suffer because we refused to make any sacrifice and/or because our Bell never tried to save them.

Who is Bell? He is anyone who understands the nature of the threat we face and who does not do everything in his or her power to stop it. He is the cognescenti, the intelligentsia, the people who should know better, the folks who know in their hearts that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. ” I’m afraid he is us.

The Coen brothers and McCarthy are obviously sending a message, not about global warming specifically, but moral apathy in general. I’d like to think they wouldn’t mind my narrower allegorical interpretation. Consider that the Village Voice reviewer said of the movie, “in the end, everyone in No Country for Old Men is both hunter and hunted, members of some endangered species trying to forestall their extinction.”

Because of accelerating global warming, America today is no country for young men (and women). It is only the older men and women who can stop the impending catastrophe, who must heed the warning chimes:

Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

It tolls for all of us. The time to act is nigh.

This post was created for, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.