Warning ... spoilers below. Don't read on if you are worried about having the film ruined for you.
I just went to see "No Country for Old Men", the latest Coen brothers film. I really enjoyed it, but we all came out looking a bit bewildered. I was thinking about it on the way home - mostly pondering "What was that all about then?" and I thought I'd jot down the thoughts, before I forgot them, or they could be influenced by anyone else's opinion.
I've never read any Camus, but I believe his early philosophy was that the world is meaningless and one tragedy is that humanity goes around trying to enforce meaning on the world. The film seems to have a lot of the same philosophy - a psychopathic killer goes around killing for no good reason, and there is no obvious conclusion to the film. The killer complains that people always say to him "you don't have to do this", which seems like an objection to people trying to attach meaning to his actions.
A couple of times the killer gives someone the option of tossing a coin. The first time a shopkeeper calls the toss correctly and is not killed. The second time the person refuses to call it, and we do not find out if she lives or dies. At another point in the film someone asks "are you going to kill me" and is answered "that depends - did you see me?" All this is very reminiscent of Schrödingers Cat, where a cat lives or dies based on a random quantum event, and until that event is observed the cat is in a superposition of alive and dead.
Agreements seem important - the killer goes to kill the hunter's wife merely because he said he would, which I think can be taken as a reference to physical laws. In combination with the quantum reference above, this seems to lead to a conclusion that our scientific world ruled by laws and quantum events is essentially meaningless.
Further reinforcement comes from the character of the Sheriff. All through the film people are trying to stay alive, attaching meaning and value to life, but the one character who reaches old age and retires seems depressed and entirely unsure of the purpose, which may be a comment that atatching meaning to life is foolish.
It reminds me a lot of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. Firstly from the refrain that everything is meaningless. Later on in Ecclesiastes (2:24-26) the Teacher says "A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind."
Many of the few areas of satisfaction we find in the film are when the Sheriff is eating, drinking, or finding satisfaction in his work. Interestingly though the one who gathers and stores up wealth to hand it over is the hunter, who we would assume to be the hero, and the one whom he hands the wealth over to is the psychopathic killer. So is the killer being set out as the one who pleases God, or even God himself? Perhaps the Coen brothers are saying that any God who constructs a random universe where people live or die by quantum events can be equated to a psychopathic killer.
We also see one other character who gets a happy ending - a boy who helps the serial killer out of grace, and is given some money and does not die.
"Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
"I find no pleasure in them""
Throughout the film there is a recurring theme of dogs being killed or placed in similar situations to humans, reminiscent of Ecclesiastes 3:18-21: "I also thought, "As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?""
And the hunter spends the film trying to protect the money, and fight death, only to inevitably fail. Eccl 9:11 "I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all. "
The film ends with the Sheriff saying "and then I woke up" and we are thrown bluntly into the final credits. Reminding us that it was a film, and despite the apparent meaningless it has an author - the Coen brothers. So maybe they are to be equated to God in the world of the film. For despite the apparent meaningless, everything in the film has been included by their careful design.
I've just re-read Ecclesiastes looking for these quotes, and there is much more that seems to chime with the film. I think I'll let this book, one of my favourites in the Bible have the last word on what the film is about ...
"When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man's labor on earth—his eyes not seeing sleep day or night- then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it."