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1. No Country for Old Men, the Poem
The movie title (or the novel, from which the movie adapted) is from WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS’s poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.” The poem starts with the famous phrase, “That is no country for old men.” The speaker of the poem is an “old man.” He criticizes the current generation as being captured by the desire of the flesh and never care about noble values. The old man points out, “that is no country for old men.”
2. The Title and the Movie
Without knowing that the movie title is from the poem, everyone would think that the movie is about humanism or elderly welfare. But the movie is surprisingly a thriller, in which a veteran hunter is chased by a psychopath killer and murdered. This confusing title makes the audience keep thinking about how the title is related to the movie’s contents. The director intentionally gave the film a very ambiguous name to make the audience dig into its meanings after the show.
3. Messages the Title Hides and Reveals
To discover the hidden messages of the movie, I think the audience should try to interpret the movie’s title, “No Country for Old Men,” based on the poem, since the movie title is from the poem. But how? How this poem is related to a thriller movie? It does not make sense on the surface level. Right. It does not make sense. The movie cannot be taken literally. Then what we can do is to take the movie as a metaphor. To do so, one needs to understand the poem first.
3.1. “Sailing to Byzantium,”
Roman emperor Constantine I is the first Christian emperor. He ended the Christian persecution and moved the empire’s capital to Byzantine, which he called Constantinople. And the new Christian era, the “Byzantine Empire period” began centering around the holy city Byzantine. In this manner, Byzantium in the poem represents something new, Christian, noble, and something that is not preoccupied with the desire of the flesh. The “old man” left his city to get to Byzantium. Therefore, Byzantium is the “country for old men.” Byzantium represents Christian thoughts and beliefs, and a better world, the country for old men. I do not know whether or not the poet ultimately promotes Christian thoughts and beliefs or sardonically praises them. No matter what, I think the movie’s hidden messages are related to Christianity, since the movie borrows its title from the poem, which is obviously related to Christianity. That is why I am writing this review, and that is why I call this review a “Christian review.”
Based on this assumption, we now try to understand the metaphors of the movie; what is “old men?”; what is “the country” for old men? ;“why” the world of the movie is “not” for old men? I think the answers to these questions can be found in some key characters or what they say. I think the director used the characters and their words as metaphors, not just storytelling devices.
4. Christian or Theological Factors in the Movie.
4.1. Country for Old Men, the Past
At the outset, the main character, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell narrates, “Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun,” meaning the world was safe and peaceful, well-managed, but now the world is much worse. Some even kill people without any reason. As some Christians say, it feels like the End Times.
In the movie, “the country for old men” is a place where guns are not needed very much, perhaps because there were more good Christians who fear God or God’s retribution appropriately managed the world. But Texas in 1980 is not the kind of “country” for Ed Tom, an “old man.” When Llewelyn Moss, one of the main characters, was murdered by Anton Chigurh, Ed Tom, as he talks to his colleague in a cafe, points out how worse the world became, implying the world was not like this in the past. The colleague, in response, says, if it were 20 years ago, he would not have believed what Ed Tom said (the murder), and he complains about young people’s dyed hair and piercing as if it is the sign of the End Times. It is what conservative old Christians (or boomer) would often say. And Ed Tom responds, “signs and wonders,” a biblical expression. Ed Tom indeed perceives what happens through the lens of the Bible, and recognizes his time as the end of the age. These two persons’ small talk is a conversation that old conservative Christians could have had any time.
4.2. Ed Tom Bell, Old Man, Conservative Christian
As mentioned, Ed Tom is a conservative Christian, or a boomer, who deplores the absurdity of the world. He misses the peaceful past, in which sheriffs didn’t even have to use their guns. That is the country for old men, a world where good Christians fear God and God’s retribution properly functions; it is far from the End Times.
But, was there really any country for old men? No, not really. Nothing actually changed. It is just Ed Tom’s conception of the past. After Llewelyn Moss’s death, almost the end of the show, Ed Tom visits his uncle, Ellis, and confesses to Ellis that he is going to quit the job because he feels “overmatched,” meaning his opponent, the wicked world, is too strong these days unlike the past. Then, Ellis responds, “what you got ain’t nothing new.” Ellis sees the truth. He explains that Ed Tom’s another uncle died of gun violence in 1909, and the tragedy was no less cruel than what is happening these days. Ellis tells him the past was no different from now. Ellis might have shaken Ed Tom’s ideas about “signs and wonders” of the End Times, or perhaps his Christian beliefs. In fact, he had long been feeling that God won’t really protect him just because he tries to protect innocent people as a sheriff. (He said, “I always figured when I got older, God would sort of come into my life somehow. And he didn’t”). But it seems to me that he won’t really change. He is an old man after all. He confesses that he does not deserve God’s protection, which is a very typical theodicy, a Christian apologetic statement that God is always right.
The audience encounters the fact that God has not been protecting good people, back in 1909 as well as 1980, and God will not protect anyone after 1980 either. When Ed Tom implies better is the past, it was already 1980, 27 years ago for the 2007 audiences (the movie was released in 2007).
I think Ed Tom represents “old men.” His Texas of 1980 is no country for old men. But sadly, the past he misses is also not the country for old men either.
4.3 Anton Chigurh, Ghost, the god of Death.
To me, Anton Chigurh looked a little dense and innocent. But he is a psychopath killer who murders everyone. In almost every scene where he appears, killing happens. He is indeed the incarnation of death. When Ed Tom talks to his colleague in a cafe, the colleague describes Chigurh a “homicidal lunatic,” but Ed Tom feels Chigurh is more than that. So he said he thinks Chigurh is “pretty much a ghost.” I think the director gave us a clue about Chigurh’s symbolic function. He is the ghost of death. In the past and now, death, like a psychopath killer, takes people’s lives. Like Chigurh, for instance, the god of death takes a young mom’s life using cancer while her child is left unprotected; the god of death kills someone through accidents, who himself/herself is still a young person but lost the parents and have to support all his nonage siblings. These tragedies do not seem to agree with what Christians ordinarily believe about God’s justice, and that is what Chigurh does. Ed Tom felt the world is like the End Times. However, as uncle Ellis indicates, death fearfully and cruelly snatches away anyone without any discrimination all the time. There has not been any age without Chigurh, the god of death, and Chigurh has never been defeated.
5. No Country for Old Men: Meaning?
If you take something as a metaphor, its meaning is ambiguous and not definite. So I just want to tell you how I felt about the movie.
I think “No Country for Old Men” can be rephrased as “that is not the country that Ed Tom thought.” God’s retribution cannot be objectively proved. Death, like a psychopath killer, dares to take people’s lives anytime anywhere; we have to face the truth of death whether or not we are ready to deal with it. That is the reality, the real world. If one sees the world without the filter of the Christian belief about God’s retribution, it would become clear.
I think the movie tries to inform conservative Christians that God does not rule the world based on the retribution system. It does not mean that the movie negates Christianity itself in its entirety. It just criticizes too simplistic a view of retribution or God’s justice implied in the Bible. In fact, the Bible does not tell us God’s retribution mechanically works in every event of our lives. The authors of the Bible knew the reality and struggled with the issues of the existence of evil in the world. For one thing, the sages of Proverbs told us, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring” (Prov 27:1). If God’s retribution works perfectly, there is no reason not to boast about tomorrow. If you do nothing wrong or do good things, your good tomorrow should be guaranteed. But the sages knew the world does not work like that.
But many Christians these days simplistically understand God’s retribution or tries to understand every event they experience based on a mechanical retributive system. I think that is what Ed Tom does in the movie as a conservative Christian. I think, strictly speaking, he is not a biblical person, even though he adheres to common Christian thoughts and beliefs. Common thoughts are not always right. I think the movie tries to points out such a thing and demands Christians to think deeper and to go real biblical ways.
6. Epilogue: Texas
I am Korean, but I had lived in Texas for about 10 years out of 13 years of my life in the US. So I learned something about Texas.
I think that having Texas as its geographical background was a very clever choice to talk about Christians thoughts and beliefs because there are lots of Christians there. Conservative Christians in the US, like in Korea, generally support the Republic party, not the Democratic. Texas is famous for “right wing” as their political position; whenever elections occur, I noticed the red color dyed almost the entire map of Texas. Moreover, the state is home for two Republican presidents, father and son Bush. Conservative Christians are a big part of the phenomenon. Setting Texas as the movie’s background to talk about Christians thoughts and beliefs certainly let the director have a good foundation.