The thirteenth of nineteen reflections on the Coen Brothers’ filmography and the season of Lent. [View Series]
by guest writer Tyler Berkley
You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.
No Country for Old Men has the audacious honor of depicting the Lenten season’s sober parade of mortality. As an aging sheriff takes the path of righteousness, a working man falls down the path of greed. Neither will escape the orbit of the dreaded antagonist, Death personified.
Anton Chigurh wears the infamous mask of Death as he hunts and the sheriff follows his trail. Chigurh certainly dons this role with exceptional fervor, but in the end a servant of Death will succumb as do we all. The audacity of the world to continue, of the sun to keep on shining, or the galaxy to go on spinning in sight of Death’s parade is so overwhelmingly unjust few of us ever wish to give it thought.
Now some may ask, “Wait, didn’t the sheriff live and retire in the end? Didn’t he become an ‘old timer’?” The sheriff has seen much death, but that is not what haunts his dreams in the end. What haunts the old timer is “what’s coming.” As narrator and protagonist, he is the fearful proclaimer who, along with Qoheleth, cries, “Fleeting, vapor…all is fleeting.” He does this not for pleasure but because he is compelled. Jaw clenched, glaring toward the setting sun, the sheriff’s visage is a mask of determined humanity behind which the man faints to find Death takes us all. He finds that to be an old timer is not to escape Death in all the forms he has seen, but to become the herald of the parade.
Lent reminds us that all of this is vanity; hebel; the fleetingness of existence; the very injustice of Creation that demands a divine response to the cosmos. The wilderness stretches before us as YHWH sends us out for forty more years. The centuries of exile weigh on our psyche and we need Qoheleth to give us an answer. We do not need the answer, that is God’s to provide, but if we “can’t stop what’s coming,” and it is vanity to assume it is “all waiting on” us, then what can we do? When we consider Ecclesiastes, Lent, and this film together, we find there are two types of old timers – no offense to our sheriff. Many old timers sleep terribly. In their dreams, Chigurh leads an army of Death’s soldiers through their communities built to deny or forget Death’s presence. Mortality still causes these ol’ folks to shake. The second type will take Qoheleth’s advice: Work and live to the only One who is above the sun. These wizened people embrace the hebel world and turn existential terror into good, tilled earth. They do the good they are able to accomplish and their work is beautiful.