The significance of Sheriff Bell’s dreams at the end of No Country for Old Men

April 14, 2014 § 5 Comments

While the film No Country for Old Men contains several overlapping storylines and themes, perhaps the most significant and central to the movie – indicated by the title – is that of Sheriff Bell, an aging lawman in West Texas who finds himself on the trail of a ruthless killer. Nearing retirement, he questions his preparation and capability to deal with such a violent case because it is unfamiliar to him, part of a changing world that he cannot keep up with. As opposed to the classic Western film, in which the sheriff normally faces off with the outlaw in the deserted streets of some dusty town, the movie does not end with a confrontation between the hero and villain, but rather with Bell sitting down with his wife at the breakfast table and relating two dreams he had the night before over their morning coffee. This anti-climax takes the place of a gun fight and occurs just before the credits roll, relating the movie back to the title and the poem that its borrowed from – “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats – by highlighting the struggles of an old man in a young man’s world.

The first dream that Bell relates is of him meeting his father in town. His father gives him some money, and he loses it, but he cannot remember how. Bell shrugs the dream away without much thought because it is a representation of youth. The young live life for the moment and look for instant gratification in improving the present. Bell could have lost the money in many ways: spending it on something, gambling, drinking, dropping it in the street and forgetting about it; he does not specify. The point is that whatever he did with it was not important enough to remember, paralleling the first stanza of Yeats’s poem, which carries the themes of fertility, pleasure, and transience throughout. The last line of the stanza reads “Caught in that sensual music all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect,” which could easily refer to Bell as a young man, using the money to be happy without much care for remembering the past or saving for the future.

Bell relates the second dream in much more detail, as it is clearly more pertinent to his current state as a man who finds himself receding into the obscurity of retirement and old age. He imagines that he is on horseback with his father in older times, going through a cold mountain pass at night. His father rides ahead, and Bell says he was, “carrying fire in a horn the way people used to do.” The fire in the horn could represent the older ways that Bell longs for, which have been snuffed out by the passage of the time. He has the sense that his father is riding ahead to start a fire for them in “all that dark, all that cold.” Bell most likely sees death looming in the future, but he trusts that his father, who passed away a long time ago, is waiting for him somewhere out there in the great unknown. He has come to the realization that he is living in “no country for old men,” and is contemplating his passage into the “artifice of eternity” (Yeats).

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§ 5 Responses to The significance of Sheriff Bell’s dreams at the end of No Country for Old Men

  • […] The first dream Sheriff Bell has is less significant than the first. The first dream was about some money that his father gave him and he misplaced it. The point is that whatever he did with it was not important enough to remember, which could easily refer to Bell as a young man, using the money to be happy without much care for remembering the past or saving for the future.https://vusf.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/the-significance-of-sheriff-bells-dreams-at-the-end-of-no-count… […]

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  • mike says:

    During his exchange with his uncle Ellis, Bell mentions his disappointment that god failed to enter his life now that he was older. His uncle chides him for trying to affect events which are beyond his control: ….”you can’t stop whats coming.” At the breakfast table recounting the 2nd dream, Bell appears to be at peace in recognizing the dream’s profundity. Knowing that his father and the cone-of-light “would be there, in all that cold….in all that dark.” God finally came into his life, perhaps? “…and then I woke up.”

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  • hunch says:

    There are actually at least four dreams.

    A short preamble justifying the rest of this comment should include that when Ed Tom is in the motel room with Chigurgh he is shot and mortally wounded.
    In that room note the exceptional cinematography, which at this moment carries the story alone and without script. It subtly appears, especially but not exclusively, at the end of the scene. Ed Tom sees the venting removed from the air shaft, which in this motel but not the others, is located, (conveniently I would add), at his eye level, where he lies on the floor. The texture and the color of the carpet bleeds, as Ed Tom does, into the forlorn landscape at the ramshackle ranch with the stilled windmill, leading us to the origin of the first dream, which is where we meet Ellis.

    During this imaginary conversation and after wrestling, unsuccessfully I think, with the notion of a god, the camera clues us as it begins moving very slowly to close in on Ellis as he is recounting how Uncle Max died. Ed Tom wants to know when he died – which might seem to be, but is surely not, (as explained in my opening remarks), an extraneous question. The camera has now closed in on him, also. Ellis responds with the year of death but the response Ed Tom wanted, (and it truly pained him to ask again, as he too was suffering), was how long he himself might linger with his own wounds. The bitter solace he received from Ellis was that death was on the way and he couldn’t stop it. It was “nothing new”, “not all about you”, and to think otherwise was vanity. “What’s coming” is the inevitability of non-existence, as it comes to all.

    The second dream, with his wife, (and my god!, what un-worldly, beautiful eyes, which were meant to be cast here), who in this scene he idealizes to his simple expectations, is a bit harder to discern but is clearly there. She denies him the opportunity to go riding with her or to help with chores, saying, “best not” and that he was, (I deduce euphemistically), “retired now”- not out of coldness or indifference but rather because, in this dream, he imagines her telling him it’s okay to let go…..
    Of course the third and fourth dreams, (and who hasn’t experienced dreams within dreams?), are subsets of dream two, and relate not only to his father but the insignificance of the chase, (which is his life’s purpose), and the self-deception of a desire for an afterlife complete with warmth and re-unification. This final sequence is what brings Ed Tom to acceptance of his fate, which echoes Chigurh’s earlier statement, in yet another hotel room, to Carson – whether, indeed, there would be “more honor in it” or not.

    The final insight , “And then I woke up.” —- and died.

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  • […] as to how to interpret the end of both the movie and the book (Sheriff Bell’s two dreams): click and […]

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  • […] a lot of theories and explanations as to why they chose this ending. My two favorites can be found here and […]

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