[(essay date 2011) In the following essay, McCaffrey explores how Sartrean existentialism helps the reader understand the choices made by the three main characters of the film No Country for Old Men.]
The point is … there is no point.(No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy 2005)
In this chapter, I want to demonstrate how we can use Sartrean existentialism to understand the choices and freedom faced by the three main characters in the multiple-award-winning film No Country for Old Men (2007) by the Coen Brothers. No Country for Old Men is a crime thriller adapted for the screen from the Cormac McCarthy 2005 novel of the same name, which in turn is the first line from the W. B. Yeats poem Sailing to Byzantium, first published in his 1928 collection The Tower. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, the film stars Tommy Lee Jones (Sheriff Ed Tom Bell), Javier Bardem (Anton Chigurh) and Josh Brolin (Llewelyn Moss). It tells the story of a drug deal gone wrong and the hunt for the stolen money across the West Texas landscape in the 1980s. Behind the narrative thread, the film explores the themes of chance, free will, fate and predestination—familiar territory for the Coen Brothers in films like Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987) and Fargo (1996).
Two questions, in no particular order, come to mind after watching No Country for Old Men: Is existentialism still relevant today and can film philosophise? In an era where the depth of philosophical inquiry has been, arguably, subsumed and reshaped by the surface textuality of cultural relativism and postmodernity, it seems apposite to ask what a philosophy such as existentialism can say to us about Western culture, particularly when one of existentialism’s key ‘points of departure’ (the acknowledgement of the contingency of existence) is itself at the heart of the debate on cultural relativism and postmodern bricolage. It comes, therefore, as a pleasant surprise and salutary reminder to rediscover that Sartre’s 1946 Existentialism Is a Humanism attests not only to the continuing significance of existentialism in our contemporary cultural era but also to the broader relevance, adaptability and pertinence of philosophy per se, and particularly today. Couched in a connecting discourse on subjectivity, intersubjectivity and universality, Sartre writes:
In choosing myself, I construct universality; I construct it by understanding every other man’s project, regardless of the era in which he lives. This absolute freedom of choice does not alter the relativity of each era. The fundamental aim of existentialism is to reveal the link between the absolute character of the free commitment, by which every man realizes himself in realizing a type of humanity—a commitment that is always understandable by anyone in any era—and the relativity of the cultural ensemble that may result from such a choice.(Sartre  2007: 43)In other words, existentialism, as a humanism, fulfils vital links between ‘free/individual being’ and ‘absolute being,’ as well as between ‘being temporarily localised’ and a ‘universally intelligible being’ (Sartre  2007: 44). For Sartre, times change but...