The Cohen brothers’ film, No Country for Old Men (Cohen Brothers, 2007), is a brutal, bloody film about power of greed, and how greed ultimately destroys everything it touches. Based on McCarthy’s bestselling novel, it tells the story of Llewellyn, who stumbles on a suitcase full of cash and ends up running from a blood-thirsty killer in desperate pursuit of the suitcase. Like all of the Cohen’s films, No Country for Old Men is movie filled with symbols, metaphors, and multiple layers. However, on its glossy surface, the movie also a terrifying picture of a now violent world. The title itself is both a reference to a Yeats poem and a five-word description of the world of the film. This world is a horribly violent one, filled with drug trades and dead bodies. Chigurh stands at the heart of the violence, and he represents something more than a bloodthirsty villain. He represents the depraved world itself.
After viewing No Country for Old Men, I felt a curious change. I felt a little more on edge, and a little more fearful. Suddenly motel rooms seemed creepier (but weren’t they always creepy?); half-opened bathroom doors appeared more sinister; the dark-haired strangers in gas stations felt more menacing. I will admit here that No Country for Old Men was not the first movie I’ve seen to feature a collection of ominous hotel rooms, alleys, and gas stations. But here’s the point: after so many movies of, well, creepily edgy gas stations, when does an overall feeling of terror start to set it? Have movies like No Country Old Men slowly conditioned me to be more afraid of the world?
Dr. George Gerbner, a professor and media theorist, had the same question about entertainment. His studies were more focused on television than film, but I think he would agree with my assertions about films like No Country for Old Men. Gerbner’s primary concern with television was its cultivation of anxiety through the TV’s presentation of violence. Kevin Williams describes Gerbner’s theory in Understanding Media Theory as this: “Gerbner found that those who viewed a great deal of television were found to be more likely to be concerned about crime and violence as the medium tended to report and represent this much more often than it happens in real life.” Essentially, Gerbner postulated that TV was worming its way into the consciousness of the collective public and slowly inundating the mind with a warped, and decidedly more dangerous, view of the world. In same way, the Cohen brothers have also presented a slightly distorted picture of life in No Country for Old Men. (You could, of course, argue that McCarthy, the author of the book on which the movie is based, is more responsible for the skewed image of the world than the filmmakers who adapted it.) In the Cohen’s film, violence and danger are everywhere. The film seems to cry out: Lock your doors! Turn off the lights! Keep your sawed-off shotgun close because Chigurh may be waiting right around the corner. Admittedly, the movie is brilliantly made—it even snatched up a best picture Oscar— and the realistic feel of the movie is what truly produces a palpable anxiety in us. This anxiety thrills and provokes and ultimately makes for a satisfyingly grim film experience. However, it also leaves a bitter aftertaste of fear and hypersensitivity.
No Country for Old Men is not the only movie to affect us this way. Countless movies tell similar stories, and with similar goals of producing fear in the audience. And these movies, these horror films and these thrillers, are popular. So here’s the real problem—we have consumer public eating up film after film, TV show after TV show, news broadcast after new broadcast of violence, rape, drug abuse, and pervasive debauchery. I think Gerbner would say that collectively these movies cultivate a feeling of panic inside of us. And maybe they do. Maybe.
Does that mean I’m going to stop watching movies like No Country for Old Men? Of course not. I love thrillers, and I don’t mind violence. For me, the experience of watching a great film by veterans like the Cohens is worth the little dose of anxiety. But maybe ten years down the road, when I’m locking my doors, and turning off the lights, and holding my sawed-off shotgun waiting for a serial killer to break his way in, I might regret that decision. After saturating myself with dozens of years of violence and fear, I may not have the nerve to face the real—and shocking safe—world.