Glimpses of Grace in the Films of the Coen Brothers

Beyond their penchant for the macabre, the directors’ films also display transcendent hope.
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.

And I realized that No Country for Old Men and True Grit bear surprising similarities. Both begin with corpses, bodies connected to ill-gotten gains. Both involve a manhunt driven by righteous anger. Both lead to dismaying “collateral damage.”

Yet, neither ends in despair. Both of them point to hope. It isn’t the hope that law enforcement can ensure a better world. (In both films, “heroes” in cowboy hats end up more injured than exalted.) No, the hope arrives in strikingly similar visions. In No Country, the disillusioned sheriff dreams that his father rides through the darkness to wait “with fire in a horn.” In True Grit, a hired gun becomes a father figure who rides through the night with a dying child in his arms, and he shoots bright blasts like prayers into the sky. World-weary saviors, riding through this present darkness, carrying fire—icons of salvation.

It’s not the sort of double feature you’d expect to bring you solace: one full of slaughter and injustice, the other set in a lawless wilderness. Perhaps that’s just it—the transcendent hope in these films inspires me because the darkness in both rings so very true.

It’s only right that True Grit leaves us with this closing-credits hymn: “​What have I to dread, what have I to fear—leaning on the everlasting arms?”

I recommend No Country for Old Men to mature moviegoers with the stomach for a harrowing story about greed, violence, terror, and the insufficiency of human strength. I recommend True Grit for anyone 16 and up who loves Westerns—although it, too, contains some graphic violence.

Questions to Discuss and Consider:

  1. In No Country for Old Men, which characters seem to have a grasp of good and evil? Does their understanding serve them in any meaningful way?
  2. What is the nature of evil in No Country? What can we discern about the killer called Chigurh? Do you think he is human or something more? Where does he come from? Does his code of action make any sense?
  3. Do you see any moments of goodness, humility, generosity, or grace in No Country? Do they make any difference?
  4. Why is Sheriff Bell so discouraged? Discuss his conversation with his Uncle Ellis and its relevance to Western myths about “white hat” good guys as figures of heroism and hope.
  5. One of this film’s primary characters comes to an end so suddenly that some moviegoers are upset by it, as if some rule of storytelling has been broken. What purpose might this storytelling twist serve?
  6. What do you make of the conclusion to the story? Do you find it hopeful or bleak… or both?
  7. How does the lack of music affect your experience of this film? Do you think its absence is a meaningful choice?
  8. In True Grit, young Mattie Ross is a spirited heroine, fiercely intelligent, and driven by a desire for justice. Do you find her inspiring? Or naïve? Both?
  9. Talk about the two lawmen who travel with Mattie on her quest for justice: US Marshal Rooster Cogburn and Texas Ranger LeBeouf. What are their strengths? Weaknesses?
  10. Discuss the way in which this party means to carry out justice. Does it work? Is justice served? What do their actions cost them? Was it a cost worth paying?
  11. What lessons does Mattie Ross learn along the way?
  12. What is the significance of the hymn that gives this film its main musical theme? Does it influence the way you interpret the movie?
December
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.
Christianity Today
Glimpses of Grace in the Films of the Coen Brothers