The Gurdjieff Journal—Fourth Way Perspectives

Film Reviews: The Satan Idea—
No Country for Old Men & There will Be Blood

Directed by Joel & Ethan Cohn and Paul Thomas Anderson respectively


Shot in the bone-dry, empty, no man's land along the Tex-Mex border, No Country for Old Men is so washed in blood and bodies that viewers with an appetite for violence will surely be satiated. If that was all there was to it, it would best be ignored. But the film, this year's Oscar winner, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is based on Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name (its title from Yeats' poem "Sailing to Byzantium"), and McCarthy is a serious novelist with deep questions. He uses the western-thriller genre to depict the world we're living in, showing its extreme margins to reveal the corrosion at the center.

Gurdjieff, Fourth Way, Film Review: <em>No Country for Old Men</em> and <em>There will Be Blood</em>Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) & Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem)

The Coen brothers faithfully follow McCarthy's novel, set on the physical and philosophical borderline between two worlds, that of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a menacing bounty hunter, both wedded to living what they consider a principled life. While Bell's principles are rational and based in society, Chigurh's are based on not being vulnerable, of having no living enemies. Look at him a bit strangely and he flips a coin demanding that it be called, the outcome deciding whether you live or die. To Chigurh (it's pronounced "Suggrrrh," so you get a bit of sugar and an animal growl), blowing people apart is like flicking a fly off your hand.

Man in the Middle

Between the two men is Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin); he has the principles of neither Bell nor Chigurh. He's just living as many people live, getting by any way he can. A welder and ex- Nam vet, Moss lives in a broken-down, trash-filled trailer with his nineteen-year-old wife, Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald). Moss chances upon a desert drug deal gone bad—bodies of bloodied men and dogs strewn everywhere amid Uzis and pickup trucks riddled with bullet holes. He finds a satchel loaded with two million dollars. It never occurs to Moss to turn the money in, and so a hunt down ensues, with Chigurh, a drug lord's bounty hunter, on one side and Sheriff Bell on the other.

Just who is Chigurh? What does he represent? A fellow bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson) who knows him says, "he has no sense of humor." That is, no perspective other than his own. At one point a victim asks him—"Do you know how crazy you are?" But in Chigurh's world he is not crazy; he is just getting by, same as everybody else. We see something of the wasteland he inhabits when Carla Jean, who has been forced to call a coin flip and lost, tells him [McCarthy uses little grammatical punctuation and this is the way the characters in the film speak]:

    You dont have to, she said. You dont. You dont.
    He shook his head. You're asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do. I have only one way to live. It doesn't allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps. In this case to small purpose. Most people don't believe that there can be such a person. You can see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of. Do you understand? When I came into your life your life was over. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the end. You can say that things could have turned out differently. That they could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way. You're asking that I second say the world. Do you see?
    Yes, she said, sobbing. I do. I truly do.
    Good, he said. That's good. Then he shot her.

One phrase sticks out: You're asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do. I have only one way to live.

So Chigurh's fear is becoming vulnerable, exposed to other ways of thinking and living. Within his world he's secure, fearless, it all makes sense. He's gone beyond questions into a certainty nothing and no one can alter. In that sense, the devil's advocate could argue Chigurh is living within his world the same as everyone else. The only difference is he is completely dedicated to it and willing and able to kill to protect it. That it's the life of a human animal and not a human being…well, how many people in back of that ready smile and handshake are just as much an animal, just not a physical predator? Sheriff Ed Tom Bell's world looks to be fast fading from view. It was a world, he says, where sheriffs didn't have to carry a gun, where people said "Sir" and "Ma'am" and had good manners. Now young girls walk around with green hair and bones through their noses and parents don't want to raise their kids. The grandparents do. So what happens when these kids become grandparents and don't want to raise their kids' kids?

Where We're Headed

His lined face blank and his eyes uncomprehending, Bell says:

    I think I know where we're headed. We're being bought with our own money. And it aint just the drugs. There is fortunes bein accumulated out there that they dont nobody even know about. What do we think is goin to come of the money? Money that can buy whole countries. It done has. Can it buy this one? I dont think so. But it will put you in bed with people you ought not to be there with….

How is it that things have gotten so bad?

Opines Bell:

    I think if you were Satan and you were settin around tryin to think up somethin that would just bring the human race to its knees what you would probably come up with is narcotics. Maybe he did. Told that to somebody at breakfast the other morning and they asked me if I believed in Satan. I said Well that aint the point. And they said I know but do you? I had to think about that. I guess as a boy I did. Come the middle years my belief I reckon had waned somewhat. Now I'm startin to lean back the other way. He explains a lot of thins that otherwise dont have no explanation. Or not to me they don't. I wake up sometimes way in the night and I know as certain as death that there aint nothing short of the second comin of Christ that can slow this train.

Where McCarthy envisions that train is headed is seen in his next book, The Road, which is also being made into a film, this time directed by John Hillcoat, who brought us another nightmare, The Proposition. Hillcoat is unlikely to do a better job than the Coen brothers, who brought No Country for Old Men so powerfully to the screen.

A little less bloody but just as bleak and focused on evil is another Oscar contender, There Will Be Blood. Based in part on Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil! and the real-life oil tycoon Edward Doheny, director Paul Thomas Anderson gives a visceral sense of what it took to drill oil at the turn of the last century and men like Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) who made it their life.

"I'm an Oil Man"

The film opens in 1898 with silver prospector Daniel Plainview accidentally discovering crude oil in one of his silver claims. All ambition and greed, having no respect for people, Plainview knows he needs to hide himself and project himself as a man of family values if he is going buy oil rights to the land of poor hardscrabble people who own it. To do so he uses an orphaned boy he names H.W. (Dillon Freasier), calling him his son and nominal "partner." Plainview speaks to the dirt-poor people who own property he wants to buy oil rights to in a sepulchral voice, his words resonating much like the preacher the people hear at church:

"I'm an oil man," he intones, "a family man given to good old-fashioned plain speaking." He promises his audience a better life with schools, roads and water. His voice resonates in a deep formal enunciation, much like that of John Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

By 1911 Plainview has become an oil tycoon, one ever on the prowl for new property rights. Learning of a ranch in Little Boston, California, where oil is seeping from the ground, Plainview and H.W. explore the property under the guise of quail hunting. The oil is there and Plainview, thinking he can get it for a song, finds he has to double his initial offer—half to be given later—because Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the owner's son, knows of the oil on the property and its true value.

Smart, self-assured and ambitious like Plainview, only hiding it behind the guise of a humble faith healer, Eli plans to use the extra money to found his own church, The Church of the Third Revelation. In his need to buy the rights to a key property, Plainview, a God-hating atheist, has to submit to being saved at the hands of Eli, who gladly humiliates him. Plainview, who once beat Eli to the ground, smearing his face with oil, when Eli tried to collect the monies promised him, now has to endure being manhandled by Eli and having baptismal water poured over his face while the congregation looks on.

Near the end of this overlong film, Plainview and Eli meet again years later. Eli, now a radio evangelist, well-dressed with a large cross hanging from his neck, wants to sell Plainview some land for oil drilling. He reluctantly admits his need for the money. Agreeing to the deal, Plainview first makes Eli repeat over and over again, saying it louder each time—"I am a false prophet. God is a superstition." The lie of his life announced, Eli crumbles as Plainview tells him that in fact the land is worthless since the oil underneath has been drained off by Plainview's surrounding lots.

Earlier, Plainview, a man who says "I don't like to explain myself," has admitted that he sees "nothing worth liking" in most people; he wants to be wealthy enough to live apart from humankind. If Chigurh in No Country for Old Men had been asked, he would likely be of the same persuasion. Is it possible that the two men are not that far apart in the way they see life?

Neither Chigurh, whose name means "queer," nor Plainview relate to women, and it doesn't seem that Eli does either, both he and Plainview being two sides of the same coin. Plainview, visiting a brothel with the man who claims to be his half brother, only stands at a wall, his face hard set. With Chigurh, who for all his menace wears his hair in a page boy cut, there is a strange glint in his eyes as he toys with people, the power all on his side, his victims-to-be squirming, and he, as he says, not "vulnerable." There is no sex in these films—only depictions of types of male violence. The sex is stifled beneath the surface. What results is what is called "evil." Are all these men illustrations of what happens when si 12, the highest substance man can ordinarily produce, that which will help him to awaken to full three-centered consciousness, is perverted or suppressed in some way? Could our ideas of Satan and the creation and projection of the satanic be, in essence, only si 12 gone bad? Is this ongoing drama between good and evil our societal picture show?

Gurdjieff, Fourth Way, Film Review: The Satan Idea, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be BloodH.W. (Dillon Freasier) legitimizes Plainview as a caring family man


If the ideas and perspectives you've found in this article are of interest, please subscribe to The Gurdjieff Journal. We promise you four lively, provocative issues of the only international journal devoted to exploring self-transformation in the contemporary world and the teaching of G. I. Gurdjieff. The Gurdjieff Journal publishes interviews, book excerpts, essays and book reviews. It does not, and will not, carry advertising. For its publication, it relies solely on the support of its readership.

Subscription Information

» Articles
    » Essays
    » Interviews
    » Working in the World
    » Meetings
    » Film Reviews
    » Book Reviews
    » Subscription Information
    » Description of Back Issues







Recommend This Page: