Movies by the Coen brothers tend to leave me hot or cold but never lukewarm. No County for Old Men is no exception. It’s a dark movie (maybe their darkest), but it has something to say— especially in the character of Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommie Lee Jones).
The story (adapted from the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy), is a simple one that incorporates some of the most sinister aspects of fallen man: the exploitation and suffering of the drug trade, the callous disregard and depersonalizing of life via contract killing, and the pervasive greed that fuels it all. Give the Coens credit for showing the putrid, destructive nature of it all.
It’s 1980 and Llewelyn Moss is a Vietnam veteran who stumbles across a drug deal gone bad in the open country of west Texas where there are nothing but dead bodies and two million dollars in cash. He takes the money unaware that there is a transmitter hidden inside. Soon, both sides are in pursuit of him—a group of faceless Mexicans representing one side, and a hit man named Anton Chigurh working for the other side. Chigurh is deranged, diabolical, and there is a relentlessness in his pursuit of Moss that is unnerving. (Javier Bardem certainly deserved the Oscar awarded him). In pursuit of these the two is Jones’ character, who is the sheriff.
Ed Tom Bell is older than either of the two men he is after. In fact, he is contemplating retirement. But it’s not his age that is pushing his decision, it’s his weariness. He not only feels he’s fighting a losing battle against evil, but he’s in one that he no longer understands. He says: I don’t know what to make of that. I sure do don’t. The crime you see now, it’s even hard to take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. Man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, ‘Okay, I’ll be a part of this world.’”
As a result, he half-heartedly pursues them and is always a step behind. The climax of the movie occurs when Bell walks into a motel room where Chigurh is hiding behind the door. Bell makes no attempt to check behind the door, exposing his back to Chigurh while he goes to check out the bathroom where he sees that the window there is locked from the inside. He wrongly concludes that Chigurh had left before he arrived, reholsters his gun and sits on the bed and lets out a sigh of relief. He notices that the air conditioning return vent has been opened and understands that not only has a killer eluded him, but he also made off with the money. He has learned what we already know from his failure to detect Chigurh in the room and the plodding way he has handled the case—it is no country for old men, or at least, not old men like him. Shortly after this, Bell retires and the movie ends with him having nothing to do but wait for death.
One of the metaphors for following Christ is that of a soldier. Writers of hymns picked up on this theme and wrote songs like Onward Christian Soldiers and Battle Hymn of the Republic. Those songs are rarely heard anymore and there’s a real sadness in that for whatever their faults might have been, they reminded us that we were in a war—a reality religious consumers choose not to embrace but something disciples must understand. Wars are not pretty, neat, or packaged. They are chaotic, bloody, and exhausting in a way that nothing else is. They are about surviving, rescuing others, and defeating opposing forces.
If you are following Jesus, you are in a war. There might very possibly come a time when you will feel like Ed Tom Bell. Elijah felt this way in 1 Kings 19:1-4. You will feel overwhelmed, discouraged, and possibly even defeated. Like Ed Tom Bell, you won’t feel like surrendering, you just won’t want to fight anymore. Church membership lists contain the names of countless people who fit this description. Once their faith was alive, vital, and pushing them and others forward in the kingdom of God. Then they were wounded by the enemy, worn down by the battle, or maybe even shot by friendly fire. Whatever the cause, they retreated and haven’t been back to the battle since. Like Ed Tom Bell, they are just waiting for death.
I’m guessing this is how the disciples felt after Jesus’ death. If the world has become so evil that they killed the Teacher and Healer, what’s the point? What difference can we make?
The answer is: more than they could have ever imagined!
The resurrection changed everything for them and it should for us. Weariness and despondency (and all other opponents), were defeated by Jesus Christ one Sunday morning outside Jerusalem. When everything was said and done, they were in the grave and He had risen.
In this life we face very real foes that seek our destruction. We have a God who wouldn’t allow that to happen to His Son and won’t allow it to happen to us. That said, we need to keep in close contact with our Leader. And it’s never a good move to separate ourselves from the rest of the troops. Strength is in numbers; the enemy isolates and intimidates. Ed Tom Bell could tell us all about that.
We have something to do besides wait for death!