Saturday, January 22, 2011

No Country for Old Men: an Old Testament Parable?

No Country for Old Men

Being a bit behind the times with all things cinema-graphic,  I only got round to watching No Country last week.

What a brutal film - and yet despite the bloodletting, there is an interesting tale with a spiritual dimension. At least, that's how I saw it.

The film touches on a number of religious themes - not least of all that of death itself, which wraps itself around the action like an omnipresent shroud.

The story is unremittingly bleak and portrays a vision of life that is, to borrow a well-worn existentialist phrase, absurd.

The harsh Texas landscape combines with the portrayal of the lives of the ordinary and powerless, whose existence is shown to be meaningless and insignificant - the more so when confronted with the cruelty of amoral killers seeking money, revenge or, perversely, mere self-actualization. The brutality metered out on many of the cast is, in this context,  equally meaningless. Nondescript lives, ending in random and violent deaths.

Indeed the theme of randomness is central to the narrative, supremely illustrated  by the psychopathic Anton Chiqurh, menacingly played by Javier Bardem, who tosses a coin before deciding whether strangers live or die at his hands.

In this sense, the film is acutely realistic, and consistent with many of the  most profound questions posed by the writers of the biblical Psalms and other Wisdom literature. The observation that life often appears brutal, meaningless and that the innocent are frequently carried away in apparently random acts of violence is, indeed, a Biblical observation:

An unplowed field produces food for the poor, but injustice sweeps it away.
(Proverbs 13:23)

 Or, consider  the political "realism" of "the preacher":

Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:
   I saw the tears of the oppressed—
   and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
   and they have no comforter.
And I declared that the dead,
   who had already died,
are happier than the living,
   who are still alive.
(Ecclesiastes 4:1-2)

The Biblical realism of these passages is evident to anyone who takes the time to look. Even as this blog is being read, this very day, innocent civilians are being butchered in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Pakistan, children are being orphaned by American drones.

The religious person is forced to ask the uncomfortable question: "Why?"

The fact that the Biblical writers observed these injustices through the perspective of belief in a Supreme God made their attempts to find meaning in these brutal acts more difficult than would be true for the atheist, who would not attempt to find any grand design or meaning behind such events.  

Job, described as a man who "feared God and shunned evil" seems to even accuse God of injustice in the face of the pain suffered by the innocent:

It is all the same; that is why I say,
   ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’
 When a scourge brings sudden death,
   he mocks the despair of the innocent.
 (Job 9:22-24)

The psalmist puts the problem even more bluntly:

Why, LORD, do you stand far off?
   Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

From the perspective of the New Testament, Paul of Tarsus makes a historic evaluation which is also full of theological meaning:
"Death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses" (Romans 5:14)

Although No Country For Old Men is located in modern America, theologically, it is located in this epoch when "death reigned". The absence of hope in the film underlines this spiritual reality - Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is rebuked by his Uncle Ellis for assuming he can change anything. "Thinking it's all waiting on you, that's vanity" spews out the ex-lawman.

In this sense, the finely-crafted film is a parable that fits with the time before the Answer to death is revealed. It portrays the reality and shows the problem, but is unable to provide meaning or hope.

In Biblical terms, the film is B.C.

Its resolution would await another bloody death of an Innocent and His destruction of death itself.

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