Summary: In response to those who quarrel with the ending of "No Country For Old Men," all I can tell you is that I had no problems with it. Here's why.
When people complain about the ending of "No Country For Old Men," as some have, I'm not entirely sure whether they're upset about what the Coen brothers show or what they don't. Perhaps it's the abruptness of the cut after Tommy Lee Jones, as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, finishes the movie's final bit of dialogue that spooks people. Bell tells his wife (Tess Harper) about a dream he's had. The screen goes black as death before the credits roll. Maybe we feel uneasy because we can't help but yearn for a little reassurance after watching a movie that has spent the better part of two hours demonstrating that none shall be forthcoming.
It's also worth remembering that the movie began with Sheriff Bell talking about where he thought he'd been and where he found himself at the moment the film starts. Evidently Bell believes that, in the not-too-distant past, criminal activity was connected to motives. A lawman who fought crime eventually might get around to understanding what he was up against. In any case, Bell's two monologues -- one off-camera and one on -- serve as battered old bookends, leaning against all the sorrow and horror the movie has to offer.
In the opening monologue -- delivered while the Coens' camera reveals a desolate Western landscape -- Bell recounts the story of a 14-year-old boy who not only committed a senseless murder, but made no attempt to hide a matter-of-fact attitude toward the evil he had wrought. Bell made the arrest. The kid went to the chair.
What a waste. It wasn't even a crime of passion. Crimes of passion can't be justified, but they can be understood.
"No Country For Old Men" deals with incomprehensible violence, incomprehensible to everyone except Chigurh, the character played by Javier Bardem. Chigurh, whose first name is Anton, operates on a different plane than those he pursues. Although he's versatile when it comes to killing, Chigurh's preferred method involves use of an instrument normally employed to kill cattle in slaughterhouses. People. Cattle. It's all the same to him.
Chigurh has principles of some sort, although we're not entirely sure what they might be. Whatever they are, they're not the same as whatever motivates folks in the ordinary world -- greed, lust or a desire simply to get away with something. No, Chigurh brings a purer kind of menace to the proceedings, and maybe he stands for just about everything that's driving Bell toward defeat, the horror he (and we) can't see coming.
But back to that final scene. The newly retired Bell sits across the breakfast table from his wife. He's just hung up his badge, which we take as less of an act of satisfaction than an abandonment of hope. We may fairly conclude that Bell's twilight years will be tinged with puzzlement and sorrow. In his troubled leisure, he'll probably dream the same dream again and again, the one he describes to his wife, the one in which his lawman father rides ahead of him, negotiating a dark mountain pass to make a safe place for his son. Each time Bell dreams about the father who silently rides ahead, he'll awaken to a defenseless world in which there are no safe places.
We're chastened at the severity of the movie's view. To build that feeling into something even more powerful, the Coens don't bother to show us the biggest murders in the movie. They offer no climactic satisfaction in the bloodshed and no solace for those who hope for even the mildest expression of optimism. As Bell says about Chigurh -- whom he never lays eyes on -- the man's got some hard bark on him.
So does the movie. So does the ending. I have no complaints about it. Not one.