The Coen brothers’ 2007 film No Country for Old Men is not your typical Western: the hero doesn’t win, or even survive, the villain gets away, and the ending isn’t a shootout but rather a slow, calm, monologue by a character who was the least involved of the three main characters. The final scene, much debated by fans and critics, does however give us a window into the movie’s deeper meaning and the Coens’ pessimistic worldview.
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The Cohen brothers’ 2007 film No Country for Old Men is not your typical Western: the hero doesn’t win, or even survive, the villain gets away, and the ending isn’t a shootout but rather a slow, calm, monologue by a character who was the least involved of the three main characters.
Sheriff Bell tells his wife about his dreams, and then we abruptly cut to black.
So, what gives? After focusing so much on Moss escaping Chigurh, does it really make sense for the story to leave the audience with a seemingly peripheral character’s enigmatic breakfast conversation?
Yes, because the final scene gives us a window into the movie’s deeper meaning and the Coens’ pessimistic worldview. Bell is identified as one of the“Old Men” of the title, and we get a glimpse into why there’s “no country” for them anymore.
Waking up, he struggles to face the actual world of chaos and randomness, and so he’s lost.
The Coens use the dreams to show Bell mourning the decent, lawful world he believes in -- which probably never even existed but has been an illusion, or a dream, all along.
The Coens’ ending is both pessimistic and opaque. On the one hand, Moss’ end tells us that our past sins catch up with us.
Even if he repents, like with Marion Crane in Psycho, the movie will execute his punishment.
Yet, on the other hand, the story rejects justice when Chigurh escapes -- as if his outcome has been determined by one of his own coin tosses.
We’re left with a frightening interplay of the arbitrary and the inevitable, in which we must fear both moral punishment and the total lack of moral order , yet can’t trust in either.
So let’s dig in to the meaning of the dreams. In the film, Sheriff Bell is hesitant at first to share them with his own wife since he doesn’t think his wife would find them engaging, a hint to the audience since the wife, in the cinematic adaptation, stands in for the reader of Cormac McCarthy’s book -- us.
The choice to end with dreams can even be read as a tongue-in-cheek joke since it’s well-known that most people find hearing about others’ dreams boring.
So this is hardly the dramatic ending that an average movie audience might be chasing -- but it’s also not uncharacteristic for the Coens.
Bell says that he’s now twenty years older than his father was in the dream. Something’s off, and time has been inverted, because Bell is now older than his father -- he, instead of his father, is the “old man.”
Bell represents a character displaced from a Western of old The older ideas of law enforcement or simple dualities and causalities no longer seem to apply.
This world has become too dangerous and too wild, and Bell retires because of it, defeated by this new world and its ambiguity.
His first dream is about how his father gives him “some money.” The bulk of the film has been about the struggle between Moss and Chigurh to get a case with two million dollars.
All of the characters who are concerned with money end up dead or injured and morally empty, while Bell survives and stays intact long enough to retire.
So this first dream leaves us with the sense that greed eventually leads people to a fall, and that those who don’t place importance on money live a safer and fuller life.
But money in dreams also tends to symbolize success, thriving or good fortune. Bell’s losing the money evokes his loss of this world, which baffles him and seems to have no use for him anymore.
In these final moments, Bell has another chance to understand recent events, but his losing the money also symbolizes his inability to see his world clearly.
He’s out of touch not just because the world’s moved on, but also because it was never what he thought it was.
The second dream is about riding on horseback through the mountains — getting as far away from civilization as possible.
Sheriff Bell’s monologue at the beginning of the film reminisces about older times when some of the “old-time” sheriffs never carried a gun.
Bell is filled with nostalgia for a safer, straightforward time, where he imagines every crime made sense and every criminal got put away, much like the plot of a typical Western.
There’s a reference to going back in time when Bell says his father was “carrying fire in a horn.”
This isn’t a torch meant to provide light, but a primitive way of starting fires by carrying hot embers from one campsite to the next so there’s no need for flint or a match.
It’s carrying the promise of a fire up ahead. The life that Bell is living now is represented by this cold, mountainous path, full of moral uncertainty and darkness.
But by carrying forward this fire, he feels he is continuing on his father’s essence... and somehow this will enable a return to that simpler good his father represents.
Yet this dream appears to be not a prophecy, but simply a desire. He tells his wife:
He needs the certainty that, in the end, there will be warmth and light. But he’s dreaming about something that can never come true and deep down, he knows it.
The sudden cut to black seems to confirm this -- the only answer is nothing.
No Country can be called a Neo-Western. The Neo-Western which builds on recognizable Western imagery to reach a very different conclusion and worldview.
Classic visual and story cues tell the audience that this should be a Western: the desert setting, the clearly defined heroes and villains, guns, drugs, a chase after money, and Stetson hats.
All superficial signs would point to an ending where the hero prevails, takes a big bag of money, and rides off into the desert sun. Instead, No Country’s hero — Llewelyn Moss, played by Josh Brolin — is killed by a third party.
Moreover, he’s far from a clear-cut hero. He’s a thief. The first major action we witness from him is stealing money.
Sheriff Bell assumes that Moss is the good guy because he is pitted against Chigurh, who is clearly the villain, but this doesn’t automatically make him righteous.
Moss’s sudden death also remind us of a film noir plot. If the Western’s traditional hero triumphs over unbelievable odds, the noir’s hero -- who’s also smart and well-intentioned, if more flawed than a Western hero -- can’t overcome those odds.
The remorseless villain — Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem — is likewise less straightforward than the bad guys of old. With his coin toss game of death, he’s intentionally modeled himself as a force of random destruction.
Chigurh’s actions stem from a worldview that has logical integrity, whether or not it represents the truth.
As the carrier of this coin, he believes in reminding people that their lives are ultimately subject to forces (whether they’re god, or death, or chance) that are out of our control.
In the end, far from being brought to justice, Chigurh is injured by a car accident and then just barely gets away.
He is a personification of the seeming haphazardness of the world the Coens give us, which doesn’t care about our notions of right and wrong, or fair and unfair -- the world has its own unknowable plans for us, or maybe no plan at all.
Sheriff Bell survives and outlasts by remaining on the sidelines of the action. d he follows in Chigurh’s and Moss’s footsteps, ever a step behind.
In this scene, Bell sits in the same spot as Chigurh and looks at his reflection in the TV screen, as if about to step into Chigurh’s shoes and imagine his mindset, but instead, he merely says Chigurh’s actions have left an “impression” on him, as if he’s not a sheriff at all but merely an observer.
The movie’s themes and structure result largely from how closely the film follows Cormac McCarthy’s novel.
Ed Tom Bell’s monologue about his dreams in the end -- it’s taken from the novel, too.
In an interview with Oprah, Cormac McCarthy explained his view on the human subconscious, saying, “It understands language because it understands the problems that you’re working on, and then when you’re sleeping it will work on them for you.”
So in ending with these dreams, the Coens endorse McCarthy’s view that our subconscious can synthesize our problems on a deeper level.
But Sheriff Bell’s dreams show that not all problems can be solved by our inner selves — sometimes the subconscious tells you what you truly want, but it’s a wish that’s impossible to fulfill.