“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry.” St. Luke 4:1-2
Today is Clean Monday which, according to the Byzantine Church calendar, marks the beginning of the season of Great Lent. In the West, Lent begins of course on Ash Wednesday which is also this week. Lent consists of (roughly) the last forty days before Our Lord’s resurrection on Easter Sunday, or Pascha, and is characterized by stricter fasting, more solemn liturgy, and an intensified spirit of penance. Prostrations are in abundance during Lent. Vestments are dark. The traditional fast (for those that keep it) requires abstention from meat, fish, oil, win, dairy, and eggs. The strict penitential nature of Lent has its roots in the above verses of Holy Scripture, in which Our Lord fasts in the desert for forty days and is subsequently tempted by the devil (guess who wins).
The idea behind Lent is that of redemptive suffering. There can be no joy in the Life without the sadness of futility and death. There can be no resurrection without the cross. Jesus’ triumph over the devil in the desert is a precursor to his ultimate triumph over the devil in the resurrection. For this reason Lent is often likened spiritually to a desert. Many people believe this is because Lent is suppose to be a spiritually “dry” time of the year. As intriguing as this idea is, it is not completely accurate. As anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in a desert knows, the desert is far more complex than just sand and heat. For hundreds of miles there is nothing but desolate wilderness, bare rock, and dust, and yet suddenly in the midst of all of this there blooms one single beautiful flower, or perhaps one might even come across without warning an oasis filled with lush flora and teaming with well-fed desert birds. The desert shows us, as does Lent, that there is beauty even in the most God-forsaken situations. There is never a time for despair.*
All of this brings us to 1980’s Texas. Specifically the Texas of the 2007 modern Western No Country for Old Men. The film is notoriously dark and bloody, seemingly hopelessly nihilistic, and filled with a plethora of unsavory and unlikeable characters perhaps whose most obvious purpose is to make the audience realize how evil the world really is. The plot concerns an average welder named Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who while hunting stumbles across the corpses of a drug-deal gone bad and makes off with a case filled with two million dollars in off-the-record cash. His delight turns to horror when by some cruel twist of fate the whereabouts of the money is discovered and he sets off on a frantic road trip to escape the coming onslaught of the forces of evil.
The evil is personified in Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a bounty hunter and assassin who is hired to retrieve the lost money by whatever means necessary, truly one of the most frightening screen presences of the 21st-century. He is the embodiment of well-ordered chaos (think of a quiet and humorless version of the Joker), and possesses seemingly omniscient powers of observation and foreknowledge. Now matter how far you run or how clever you think you are, Anton will find you sooner or later, and he’ll kill just for inconveniencing him. He is cold and remorseless, almost inhuman. He kills almost everybody he comes in contact with, and the ones he spares he spares by some strange honor code known only to him. In the end (SPOILER) he escapes with only broken arm. Evil has won, or so it seems.
Most of this drama takes place within the jurisdiction of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). He is the titular old man, an aging policeman at a loss to understand the new kind of evil which has come to rest in his once peaceful and untroubled county. He is haunted by memories of his father, whom he envies as having lived in a better and easier time. The brutal, bloody, meaningless evil he sees in characters like Chigurh leaves him in a state of wanton dissipation, a kind of end-of-life crisis. This new evil he sees sneaking over the border is not the greedy and petty liquor store robberies and family feuds of his father’s time, but a transcendent, unstoppable sickness creeping into the very marrow of society. Bell is overwhelmed by what he cannot understand. There is no country for old men because the only way to escape the turning tide of evil is to fade away and die. Only in death can he escape the unslakable hunger for futility and misery he sees coming. To this fate he comes to a slow, yet noble, resignation.
My, my, this is depressing. And indeed, the film knows it. Photographed by Coen brothers’ favorite Roger Deakins, the screen is soaked in darkness and desolation. There is an overwhelming feeling of emptiness permeating the whole film. The Coens have included no shortage of empty long shots of the vast desert stretching on for miles and miles into the nothingness of the horizon. Even the soundtrack is empty, getting by with little dialogue and absolutely no incidental music until the end credits. The effect is quite jarring. Like their earlier film Fargo, No Country for Old Men is intense in its minimalism, though the former film had a considerably lighter and sardonic tone than this downer. At the end of this film, the dark is closing in and there is no escape.
But is it really as hopeless as all that? Well, yes, but there is a sliver of hope, a flower in the desert if you will. The film begins and ends, as does the book, with narration by Ed Tom, bemoaning the changes in the world around him and pining for a better time. There is a suggestion in the film that perhaps it is not the world that is getting more evil, but that Ed Tom simply notices it more in his old age than when he was younger and more carefree. At the end he has a dream of his father which he explains to the audience:
“It was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin’ through the mountains of a night. Goin’ through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin’. Never said nothin’ goin’ by. He just rode on past… and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. ‘Bout the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead 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 would be there. And then I woke up.”
This is the essence of desert spirituality and of Lent – the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it nor understood it. Thus we mortify the flesh for the sake of the Kingdom.