Glimpses of Grace in the Films of the Coen Brothers
Image: Miramax Films

I am drawn to lively conversations about movies. That’s why this weekly column is called “Viewer Discussion Advised.” So when I’m invited to discuss big-screen beauty, I go.

Last weekend, I accepted an invitation to St. Leo University near Tampa, Florida, to participate in a public discussion about—of all things—the movies of the Coen brothers. Brent Short, the school’s director of library services, organized this seminar, and we were joined by Erica Rowell (author of The Brothers Grim: The Films of Ethan and Joel Coen) and Mark T. Conard (editor of The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers). For three hours we learned from one another and took questions from the audience.

It all seemed so Halloween-y. We talked about the Coens’ catalog—so genre-diverse, so full of tricks and treats. We talked about their crazy characters—H. I. McDonagh, Barton Fink, Jeffrey Lebowski, Marge Gunderson—all of whom deserve to become Halloween costumes.

But the film that haunted me all weekend was one that opened nine years ago this month. No Country for Old Men seems to resonate more meaningfully every time I see it.

As it begins, gun violence erupts near the border of Texas and Mexico. Stumbling into the bloody aftermath, a self-interested fool named Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) steals a cash-stuffed briefcase. He doesn’t guess that his greed will bring trouble neither he nor his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) can afford.

It comes in a form that seems superhuman: Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is a killer who isn’t content to fulfill his assassin’s assignment; he’ll flip a coin—life or death?—for everyone he meets.

As bodies pile up, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is troubled. He has given his life to the nostalgic ideal that American “law and order” can hold the devil at bay. No Country shows that evil is no respecter of laws or borders. No walls can be raised against it. And the innocent have no advantage. This Western icon realizes that the world has changed, and he is not the center of it anymore. He never was.

I thought about this on Friday as I watched St. Leo students gather in a Halloween-decorated cafeteria, while wall-mounted TV screens blared the “breaking news” of election-season ugliness. I felt Sheriff Bell’s sense of foreboding: You can’t stop what’s comin’. I wondered how this generation and the next will manage in this increasingly toxic environment.

Perhaps that’s just it—the transcendent hope in these films inspires me because the darkness rings so very true.

I spoke to students that day about their writing assignments: They’re reviewing Raising Arizona and True Grit. I asked them how many movies by the Coens they had seen. A young woman answered: “How can we know? We don’t really know who directs the movies we see.” When I mentioned O Brother, Where Art Thou?, several students lit up in happy recognition. I mentioned The Big Lebowski. Cheers! (To my dismay, they didn’t know A Serious Man, Barton Fink, or The Hudsucker Proxy.)

As I talked about these films, I was again impressed with how the Coens’ films seem to have a spiritual center, one that—like Lebowski’s precious rug—ties their whole cosmos together. It has something to do with their affection for idiosyncratic fools; their love of comedy (from the most straightforward slapstick to the most subversive satire); an understanding that salvation cannot be earned with righteousness; and a strong apprehension of… no, not goodness, but grace and evil.

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Glimpses of Grace in the Films of the Coen Brothers