The Zero Theorem
Terry Gilliam's first science fiction film since "12 Monkeys" is an inventively designed but oddly inert satire on technology, God and the future of humankind.
UPDATED 03/03/08: The author of the original letter expands his thoughts:
We received this very fine letter to the editor yesterday at RogerEbert.com. It's from Nicholas Rizzo and it offers a deeply felt understanding of "No Country for Old Men" (and one I happen to share). The "Country" of the movie's title is America, and the West, but it's also age, and death:
I've just seen “No Country for Old Men”. And I'm wondering about something. I'm at a crossroads in my life. And for the first time I’m feeling left out. I'm 39, about to turn 40. I work as a physician, and my practice is in a transition due to forces beyond my control. After hours I coach a high school wrestling team and that has to go by the wayside as our head coach is finally stepping down and I've injured my neck. So my coaching days may be over. I'm divorced, have some gray hairs, and am essentially in between the young daters and the "available divorcees" in age -- kind of in a relationship limbo. Admittedly, I'm facing my own mortality on several fronts. And this movie hit home for me because of this. But after that hit, there was something more that I found, and I’ll cover that at the end of this writing. Regarding your review, I agree with it entirely. It's an incredible film, and in all the aspects you mention. Except, you didn't mention the point of the film, at least as I see it. The first clue to it lies in its title, which is a double entendre. That is, "country" as in place to seek a safe place to be, and also "country" referring to the U.S.A. and our way of life. The latter relates obviously to our society's neglect of older generations, as the younger ones just pass us by. But that's another conversation. This film is expertly crafted in three layers. The first layer is the literal one, where there is a cop chasing a killer chasing a victim. The real treasures of this film lie in its abundant symbolism and meanings – all on a secondary level. The third level may only be my invention, but I like it.
I think this movie is not about Moss or Chiguhr. But rather about Ed the Sheriff and his coming to terms with his retirement, especially as it functions as a herald of his mortality. Put another way, Ed is coming to terms that the “living” part of his life is over. His usefulness to society has ended. A man is often defined by his work, and his effectiveness in that work. How poignant were the descriptions of the dreams at the end of the film. Additionally, Ed retires because he's "outmatched". By who? Today's society’s killers? The Reaper? I think both here. And I think it relates back to the double meaning of the title. In contrast, and told in parallel to Ed in the film, was Moss – he was representative of people trying to outrun their own mortality. Especially as illustrated by when Chiguhr said to Moss’ widow "he tried to save himself by using you." This is a key usage of "save himself". The killer Anton Chighur was illustrative of the Grim Reaper. Guy wore all black, no one could stop him, and he carried a black weapon with a silver end to it not unlike a scythe. Not even the car crash at the end could kill him. He even had a 1960's haircut like he never aged. He was referred to as a ghost. His name was even ambiguous, sometimes pronounced like “sugar” (ah, sweet slumber) and at other times like “chigger” (an annoying bug you can’t seem to catch but is always there.) This ambiguity is key here, and is in stark contrast to the stark stereotypes attached to the Mexican drug runners in the film. (I sometimes wonder if our society views multi-racial people as the most beautiful because, if we cannot determine which racial group they belong to, no racial stereotypes are attached and then we see their beauty purely and unencumbered.) I don't think this movie was so much about an ultimate evil so much as our ultimate ending. But rather about our ultimate aging, decline in usefulness whether true or not or simply relative to the youth of any generation. The ultimate finality of our time. Its categorical nature is represented by Chigurh’s "code of ethics" that can't be broken. A person asking “You don’t have to do this” is their bargaining with the finality of their own death... not with Chigurh. Indeed, bargaining is a well-described phase of the dying or loss process. Chigurh is also representative of the Reaper in the most important of ways. To me, the most intriguing thing about the Reaper is that he walks among us. He doesn’t kill some of us, he doesn’t even look at some of us, and is only visible to those he’s about to take. So there are four types of interactions he has with people. The first is with those he’s about to take. Notable in the film is that those he’s there to kill with individual intent he kills with the rifle and silencer – his scythe, a device that exists only for the purpose of killing humans. The second group of people he encounters consists of the ones that simply get in his way. Those people are no different than the deadbolt on a door obstructing his path… so he uses the cattle air gun to clear the way – not the rifle. Using the cattle air gun may even be a reference to people as no more than cattle, and Reaper is in fact an agricultural term. The third group contains the ones he lets call the coin flip. These are people not in his way, are not on his “list” per se, but are peripherally related somehow to his goal/adventure. So why the coin? Obviously the coin represents the fates. But why does the Reaper need a coin? I think it’s because he’s the Reaper and nothing else. For example, he has rules he has to follow. They are referred to as his “code” in the movie, but I doubt they are rules he made up. Rather, they would be made up by God or gods, and he has to follow them. He fulfills his job’s duties, but I don’t think the Reaper created his job. In the film, he doesn’t need to kill the clerk at the store. He doesn’t need to kill Moss’ widow. So, because they are not on his hit list, and they are not in his way, it’s really not his job to determine if they get to live or die. As the Reaper, he just does the collecting once that determination is made. For me, the best part of this was when Chigurh brings out the coin for Moss’ widow, and she asks about it. He mentions that it’s a quarter. The first thing I noted was that he states that it got there the same way as he did. So, he’s not referring to the coin itself, but rather the flipping of the coin – the fate it represents, and that his code/rules are not his. The second thing I noted was a less common usage of the word “quarter” defined as “mercy, indulgence, or clemency especially when given to an enemy.” As an example of usage, the phrase “give no quarter” is similar to “show no mercy.” So a favorable coin flip is Fate (not Chigurh/Reaper) showing clemency or mercy. The fourth group of people consists of those that are not on his list, are not in his way, and are not even tangential to his purpose… the ones he walks among but doesn’t touch. And this is referenced a few times. This relates back to my point about one of the most intriguing things about the Reaper is that he walks among but does so unseen. So in the instances of the accountant and the later on the kids who happen to see him but aren’t necessarily supposed to, the deciding factor is whether he was seen or not. The subtle point about the kids is that as they are minors who wouldn’t know any better, he specifically tells them “you didn’t see me” as a bit of parental command, whereas he asked the accountant as a knowing adult “did you see me?” Interestingly, Sheriff Ed falls into this group as he fails to see Chigurh in the motel room at the end of the film. And, while we initially see Chigurh in the Motel room, he seems to vanish and we as the audience fail to see him also. In an eerie way, the last shot of that scene( where our viewpoint is one looking out at Ed’s silhouette against the light from the door) was like Chigurh looking out at us from the screen, telling us he’s there but it’s not our turn yet. So, why does this guy who represents the Reaper care about the money? Obviously, this guy has the wherewithal to steal or make any kind of money he wants. And why does he care about this money? I don’t think he really does, so much as he cares about what it represents. When people think of “millions” of dollars, winning the lottery for example, they think of life without worries… endless possibilities, etc. Another shot at life, if you will. So I think it represents the illusion of immortality we often chase. For example, people never win the lottery and think “I won, I’m going to die now” – they think the exact opposite along the lines “the world is my oyster”. And this is illustrated when Moss is in the Mexican hospital, calls Carson and gets Chigurh on the phone, and Chigurh states “you know how this is going to end”. He’s telling Moss that someday he has to die. Moss doesn’t accept it even at the expense of his wife. (This is the only contrast between Moss and Ed… Moss not only doesn’t accept his mortality but he denies it. Ed realizes it, struggles with it, and then accepts it.) Chigurh, knowing he’s not “human” and that no human can stop him from doing his job never shows any uncertainty or fear. So I wonder if he’s not so much after the money per se, so much as he’s not allowing others to have it. He shows no worry or need for it, no materialism, etc. So not only does he escort people across the River Styx, he also guards it. The Woody Harrelson character bears quick mention here. Here was a guy hired to “outwit death”. At the end, I think he knew he couldn’t, even though he tried to sell his skills as such. He was also trying to get the 2 million dollar ride to immortality. I think it was no coincidence that an actor who made his career playing a young comedic naive barkeep from the country was cast in this role. Ed follows in his father’s footsteps, and then he realizes he’s blinked. He did get his job well, but it’s passed him by. These realizations sometimes occur over a cup of coffee, and sometimes in company – a reflection of thought… maybe the reflection in the TV is just that… reflecting. This film is not a study of the ultimate evil, but rather the inevitability of our mortality, and as long as we delude ourselves into thinking 1. we are as useful as our prime, or 2. we can beat our mortality we view that mortality as something weevil when it’s not. It just is. The most poignant thing for me of the film though, illustrating this point, I think, was that the Coen brothers. ended this film so well. First, the end came abruptly without warning. It just cut from Tommy Lee Jones speaking to blackness. The screen said "End Credits" and it stayed there for a long, long time. And then never showed any credits. If you think about the roots of those words... Credit comes from Credulous... i.e., believe. So, I think it lends itself to the conclusion "End Belief", and its message is "Believe in your End -- it's coming and there's nothing you can do about it. There's no country for you." It could have just as well said “Credit the End”. More importantly done was the third layer of communicating this message. The first level was literal -- the Moss/Chigurh chase was illustration. The second level was the story of Sheriff Ed and his approaching retirement – that communicates it via empathy. The third, and I think most creative level is via audience experience. Yes, the third level of meaning here is us -- this movie is experiential. It was this aspect that led me to look upon my own life and led to this writing. This layer is best illustrated by the above point about the audience not seeing Chigurh in the motel at the end is really Chigurh looking at the audience and not being seen, and by the effect the Coen brothers achieved in the theater logistically and its impact on the audience. Think about the following environment during the last few minutes of the film and the end credits: Tommy Lee Jones is abruptly taken away. The screen is black except for two single syllable words. The blackness of the screen contributes to the blackness of the entire theater. One of those words is “End”. It stays there for a long time – much longer than expected and you are just left sitting there in the blackness. The icing on the cake is hearing maracas shaking from left to right, starting in the rear surround speakers and then moving to the front and then stopping – as would Chigurh’s footsteps coming up behind you, getting louder and louder, and without seeing him. Missed this? Play the last ten minutes of the film in a darkened room, be sure the surround sound is on, and experience it again. What a perfect “Ending.” So how does this relate to us as an audience now, after the film is over? Here’s how I see it. Tommy Lee Jones retires because he’s at retirement age (and that is not necessarily 65). Others in the film met their end. But we haven’t. Me, well, I blinked. The last ten years of my life seem like just a few moments. Granted, the past ten years working with the kids on this wrestling team, being there with my patients as they got ill, got better, lived and died, working as a professional entertainer in earlier years, etc., has been a wild ride. I feel incredibly fortunate to have lived as much as I have – probably more than most at my age. Ed is realizing that we weren’t designed to function past our prime. In fact, most great achievements by society’s geniuses occurred when they were in their twenties. How often do we re-live our lives and reflect on the good times we had in our youth and early adulthood, and then just “accept” that those times are gone and just amble through our daily work? We often miss out on our dreams by getting caught up with life all the while forgetting to live. Or, our dreams really weren’t what we wanted, or if it was, it’s simply over now. So, to the degree that his life is over, Ed is a tragic character. But not as tragic as Moss because he never got it at all, and died missing out on his life never having really lived. Ed got it, but at the time of his retirement. He takes a moment (more than once in the film) to reflect over a cup of coffee. There’s lots of “reflection” symbolism in the film and I’ll leave that to other reviewers. But I’d like to add that “reflection” here be noted as a verb for us, and not just as something seen in a camera shot. I’d like to think that its these realizations that Ed came to, and is referenced by the last lines of the film when he states “Then I woke up.” First, that he’s 20 years older than his father ever was and realizes that he has another chance to do something “living”, albeit different from what he thought it would be and now in the context of retirement. Second, that he “can’t stop what’s coming” and accepts his mortality (even his being “outmatched” in his previous job capacity), and then can live actually connected to reality instead of pursuing a 2 million dollar suitcase that you’ll never get. Giving up the myth that we could ever get a 2 million dollar suitcase of immortality allows to actually start living. As long we don’t, we are not living in the moment, we are out of touch with the “rhythm of life”, getting caught up in the “drone of life” and then we lose a decade in a blink – like I just did. Good art always gives us something – it makes us richer than we were before experiencing it. In the case of “No Country for Old Men”, we get an extremely well-crafted adventure, and the message of “don’t blink”. So, there’s Moss, who denies, tries to cheat death and die trying, or Ed who ultimately accepts death as a part of life, “wakes up” and finally has a shot at “being a part of this world”, and we as the audience -- we get the message Ed got but are fortunate enough to “wake up” now instead of on the eve of our retirement. I’m taking a step back. I’m evaluating which dreams I’ve achieved, which ones are no longer dreams, and creating new ones. Putting it another way, “there is no country (haven) for those who try to outwit death” like Moss and Wells. And maybe more properly stated “this isn’t a great country (U.S.A.) for aged men.” But for us, if we accept our mortality now, if we know this life will end then we can savor every moment. If we can wake up now (and see if we are living trying to outrun death and then stop it), there’s no law that says we have to act old… at least until we’re really are. Don’t blink… Chigurh’s coming for ya’.
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