No Country for Old Men
The nature of it all
Back when I was still teaching English online, my wife one day recorded a short video of me playing a conversation game with one of my students. The question that came up while she was recording was "What's your favorite movie?" Assuming you're not some kind of a weirdo who doesn't like movies, it's an almost impossible question to answer, even if English is your first language. And if the movies that make it to the top of your favorites list are more like friends than movies to you, as they are to me, then settling on an answer, even when speaking as an English teacher with a 7-year-old, doesn't get any easier.
My wife showed me the video after the class and my indecision was palpable. In the end, though, I defaulted to the answer that I pretty much always default to when serious conversational examination of the question is not really an option: No Country for Old Men.
The book and movie both came up recently in a Zoom meeting I had with a writer whose work I'd soon be editing. It was a quick aside to our work-focused conversation, but it's proven to be the part that has stuck with me most. In short, we were both in agreement that No Country for Old Men is a masterpiece.
Some days after we spoke, I came across this article that looks at polling data about Americans' different worldviews through the lens of No Country for Old Men’s themes and characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who is disenchanted with a "world he no longer understands," is representative of an older cohort of Americans with a more skeptical worldview. In contrast to this is a younger generation "that tends to see more good than bad in others" and has a more optimistic worldview. I'm not sure how true that second point actually is, as I sure do see a lot of young doomers out there. But I'm not any more sure that it isn't true, so I'll leave it be.
Generational differences aside, the "starkest divide in views about humanity emerges along partisan and ideological lines," the author of the piece, John Halpin, writes. He goes on:
Consider this: 69 percent of Biden supporters, 68 percent of self-identified Democrats, and 72 percent of ideological liberals believe that the world is full of mostly good people and that we should embrace each other more and try not to be isolated. In contrast, three quarters of Trump voters—and 7 in 10 self-identified Republicans and conservatives, respectively—hold more skeptical views about others and desire greater protection from bad actors.
I mention that only to bring us to the third worldview, the one that most closely matches my own: the Llewelyn Moss worldview. Introducing it, Halpin writes:
Interestingly, independents are basically split 40-40 between optimism and skepticism about others, with one fifth unsure—perhaps taking a position more like the Vietnam veteran Llewelyn Moss in McCarthy’s book (played by Josh Brolin in the movie) who just tries to look out for himself and his wife by charting his own way through a confusing and violent world.
That resonates with me. The being split in two, the looking out for myself and my wife, the charting my own way—the nature of it all.
A bit later in the article, after laying out some of the likely differences between the more optimistic and more skeptical perspectives, Halpin expands on this, and again speaks to my inner Llewelyn Moss:
If you find yourself in between these two perspectives, like political independents or Llewelyn Moss, you probably formulate your own path forward in dealing with others and want the government to find a more practical way to deal with people as they are, both good and bad. This third-way path requires a basic openness to people and fair treatment of everyone, coupled with a realism about the world that removes the bad actors from society while expecting others to act lawfully and with basic decency towards others.
This third-way realism may not create the exact country that the good-hearted but world-weary Sheriff Bells of America want to see. But it could create a stronger country that blends the optimism and desires of the young with the realism and experience of the old.
That sounds like a pretty decent country to me. But suppose time keeps passing and such a country one day emerges from our current contorted mess, and suppose that the other Llewelyn Mosses and I are still around to witness it. Will we, in fact, be able to witness it as such? Or will we have already become a bunch of Sheriff Bells? I don't know the answer. As usual. But the question sure does make me wonder what is and isn't worth fighting for in the here and now. It’s probably no coincidence, though, that that strikes me as something Llewelyn Moss might say and wonder, too.
After leaving the Zoom meeting and reading Halpin's article, I went and read the Cormac McCarthy book (for the first time, somehow) and rewatched the Coen brothers film version of it (for the umpteenth time), and let's just say that the next time someone asks me what my favorite movie is, I will be far, far more sure of my answer.
Whatever your worldview is now, my gut tells me that we're all probably headed the way of Sheriff Bell. To get ahead of that, or something of the sort, I will leave you now with a few of his words of wisdom, passed on from one old man to (what eventually became) another:
My daddy always told me to just do the best you knew how and tell the truth. He said there was nothin to set a man’s mind at ease like wakin up in the morning and not havin to decide who you were. And if you done somethin wrong just stand up and say you done it and say you’re sorry and get on with it. Dont haul stuff around with you.