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).