No Country For Old Men: Ending Explained

[And in the dream I knew that he was going on ahead. And he was fixing to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold.] 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. We realize that Bell is 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: [Both had my father in ’em. It’s peculiar. I’m older now than he ever was by twenty years.] Something’s off, and time has been inverted,
because Bell is now older than his father he is the “old man.” Bell represents a character displaced from a Western. 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 the money end up dead or injured or 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 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 the 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: [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.] 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 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: [I knew that whenever I got there he’d be there.] 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 is also indicative 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 intentionally
models 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 their control. A villain with purely selfish motives can be defeated and forgotten about in a classic Western shootout but how do you defeat an idea? In the end, far from being brought to justice,
Chigurh is injured by a car accident and then just barely gets away. He acts as the personification of the seeming haphazardness of the world the Coens give us, which doesn’t care about our notions of right and wrong,
of fair and unfair — this 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. and he follows the footsteps of Chigurh and Moss, always a step behind. His mediocre triumph in the end is merely to stay out of evil’s path. And thus, he too is a disappointing shadow of the true western’s justice-seeking sheriff. 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 final cut to black also recalls these reflections in the black TV screen, putting us in the same seat as Chigurh and Bell. We’re given the choice –to dream of an unattainable just world, or wake up and see the terrfying randomness of reality. 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 us 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.


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