This latest feature article, delving into the spirituality (or lack thereof) in the world of the Coens, comes courtesy of Rick Olson. Once finished, be sure to skip, jump, and hop on over to Coosa Creek Mambo, Rick’s stomping grounds where film and religion intersect.
When Evan asked me to write a piece on spirituality in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, I said “Huh? What spirituality?” Because as big a fan as I am, the last thing I think of when I think of the Coens is spirituality. But as I began to think about it, some spiritual chinks in the brothers’ cynical armor, and thought why not? I can do that . . .
The first thing one has to understand about the Coens is that they are consistently post-modern in outlook. Their films are steeped in irony and ambiguity, and they’ve never met an authority figure they like—all avatars of the post-modern zeitgeist. Modernity — loosely associated with the Enlightenment and the Industrial Age — was all about a constant progress, a constant advancement in knowledge and understanding and, thus, human wellbeing. Postmodern theorists say that all that has ended; perhaps more accurately, people no longer believe it is true. The notion of continuing progress, of things continually getting better, has become obsolete. In a post-modern world-view, change is constant, but it’s a zero-sum game: there is no direction to it, for good or bad, it is random.
This is very clearly seen in the Coen oeuvre, where nothing really changes or, if it does, it’s the result of random chance . . . in The Man Who Wasn’t There, their film noir mash-up, the hero’s search for advancement and “getting ahead” are nullified, leaving the hero no better off—and in this case, much worse—than he was before. Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thorton) attempts to get ahead through a blackmail scheme that gets out of control. But although he tries to take the rap for his nominally-femme-fatale wife (Frances McDormand), she is not his undoing; it is blind fate that gets him – he’s not executed for the murder he does, but for the murder his victim does.
Interestingly, throughout it all, Crane is unmoved, unchanged by his experience. Even though he is going to die, he has not “grown” an inch. His character arc is more like a character loop, where many things happen, but he ends up basically the same. As the priest and warden come to get him for the chair, he muses in voice over about his fate: “[They] also asked about remorse . . . yeah I guess I’m sorry about the pain I caused her,” talking about his wife, “but I don’t regret anything, not a thing . . . I used to, I used to regret being a barber.” He’s on his way to the chair, but hey! At least he’s not a barber.
The message of the creation story in Genesis —the first one, anyway—is that God creates order out of chaos. For Israelite subsistence farmers, in the seemingly random, marginal Palestinian climate, this was of paramount importance. If you could count on conditions being predictable, you could do much better for yourself and your family. Order, in other words, was vital. In the Coen filmography, that is no longer assured, no longer to be counted upon. And nowhere is that seen more clearly than in two films that are in many respects alike . . . in Fargo, Chief of Police Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), representative of order and control and authority, is challenged by a completely amoral force represented by the killer (Peter Stormare). Grimsrud is implacable, cold, and without affect . . . an impersonal force that opposes the ordered life of the little town of Brainerd. Grimsrud represents chaos—he’s unpredictable, a random act, you can’t control him.
In No Country for Old Men, the theme is more explicit . . . here again, order and control are embodied by a law officer, this time Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). Bell is an avatar of the old days, the old ways. In the film’s prologue, he muses on the difference between being a lawman “back then” and now: “Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lot of folks find that hard to believe.” In the old days, the force of the office of Sheriff itself was enough to carry the day, but no longer. The counterpart to Grimsrud in No Country is of course Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who is even more emotionless, even less human. He embodies the new, the amoral, the orderless which Bell laments.
The amorality that Grimsrud and Chigurh represent is unfathomable to those with conventional morals; although there may be an internal compass governing their actions, it is known only to them, and available only in hints and flashes to the outside world. The Coens understand this well—witness the coin-tossing of Chigurh, the rules which only he can understand. To the conventionally-moral, their actions seem random, but they flicker with an internal logic.
In the end, in Fargo, order is restored and chaos is banished, for the moment, at least: Marge rides in her squad car with Grimsrud in the back, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is captured ignominiously in his underwear, and the last we see of Marge and her husband is in bed, watching television, in an embarrassingly normal scene.
In No Country, it’s not so simple . . . after killing off Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) Chigurh disappears into a calm, structured Texas neighborhood. That he does so in broad daylight is telling: he is no longer a creature of darkness, but of the light. He is no longer the exception, but the rule. But though he disappears, it’s not before he is touched by fate himself . . . a car runs a light and broadsides him, completely at random, and his “rules” are compromised by the chaos he himself represents.
Although Chigurh gets away, the last words belong to Bell, that symbol of law and order, of the fight against the primordial chaos that threatens to envelop us all. He sits in his bright kitchen window and recounts a dream to his wife. Two trees are in the background, one dead, the other alive but twisted. And even though he’s done, even though the forces of chaos have won, he still hopes, if only at night, when things are quiet and dark. In the dream, his father rides on before him, carrying the light, carrying the hope in a horn. “And I knew he was going on ahead,” Bell says, “and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there, he’d be there.” The past carries the hope of the future into the darkness, the hope of a return to some kind of order and moral rightness, but Chigurh disappeared in broad daylight, poisoning the order of that Texas neighborhood, and Bell’s dream falls short of the mark as well. Before he can catch up with his father, before he can get to the light, it all ends. “And then,” he says, “I woke up.”
The other day, I talked to an older pastor who was enraged by this film, and especially its conclusion. It wasn’t the lack of a conventional happy ending, where the good guys win and ride off into the sunset—he’s too much of a realist for that. What he objected to, whether he fully understood or not, was the negation of his conventional view of the divine, which is very deeply ingrained into believers of a certain generation. They are profoundly invested in the view of an orderly, moral universe, created by a God who protects us from the forces of chaos. In Joel and Ethan Coen’s universe, that just isn’t the case.