The Nostalgic Old Man
For a lawman, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is a lot of talk and not very much action. Maybe that's because he's old and winding down—or many because the Coens' wanted him to be the voice constantly asking (but not answering), "What does it all mean?"
When you get down to it, the guy never actually participates in any direct action. There's no final showdown with Anton Chigurh, no heart-to-heard with Moss, and no last-minute rescue of, well, anyone. In the end, all he gets to do is agonize over how awful the world has become and how overwhelmed he feels with it. When his deputy laughs at the story of graves being dug in a friendly couple's backyard, Ed Tom can only answer, "Well that's all right. I laugh myself sometimes. Ain't a whole lot else you can do."
Of course, that isn't really the only thing Ed Tom does. He's actually a pretty effective sheriff and detective—or, we get the feeling that he would be if he weren't up against forces he had no chance of understanding. The movie is full of little details that tell us what a sharp mind he has: he notices the fresh milk in Moss's trailer indicating that Chigurh had just left; he realizes that Chigurh is killing with a steer gun; and he's the one who spots Moss's truck in the first place. (Bet he wishes he'd just kept going…)
These little details tell us that, however much time Ed Tom spend dreaming about the past, he's also really good at his job. Tracking down a gang of drug dealers? No problem. But his basic competence makes it even more frustrating when he comes up against a force of nature like Chigurh.
The Sky Is Falling!
Ed Tom is convinced that the world is sliding into total chaos. He draws a sharp line between The Way Things Used to Be (read: better) and The Way Things Are. Right from the beginning, we know this is a guy who lives in the past. He even opens the movie by telling us, "My grandfather was a lawman. Father too." Ed Tom is proud of this lineage: "I always liked to hear about the old timers," he says.
See, Ed Tom is what you would call nostalgic. He loves to believe that things were much better in the past. The problem is that you can't think the past was that awesome without also thinking the present is horrible. He closes his opening speech by saying, "It's not that I'm afraid of [today's crime]. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But I don't want to push my chips forward and go out… and meet something I don't understand."
And that's what Ed Tom fears the most—running into things he can't understand. But is the future (or present) really as incomprehensible as he things? Maybe—but that doesn't mean the past was all intact families and obedient children.
Advice from an Even Older Man
Toward the end of the movie, when Ed Tom struggles to make sense of all the violence he's encountered, he visits another old lawman named Ellis to look for counsel. Ellis tells Ed Tom a story about a brutal murder back in 1900, saying, "What you got ain't nothing new. This country's hard on people. You can't stop what's coming. It ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity."
Translation: Ed Tom is really philosophical, but he's also pretty self-involved. He spends more time wondering what the meaning of life is than he does actually getting involved in the activities of his sheriff's department.
Ellis basically tells Ed Tom that acceptance is the only way a person can deal with the violence and evil of the world. Evil always been here and it always will be, and anyone hoping to fight against it needs to accept that the world will still be that way when they die. If old men like Ed Tom are going to be whiny about it, then West Texas truly is No Country for Old Men. (See what we did there?)
I Dreamed a Dream
Ed Tom opens the movie, so it's fitting that he closes it. The move ends when he tells his wife about his two dreams. The first one is vague, something about meeting his father in town and getting some money that he then lost. But the second is really something. In it, Bell and his father are riding their horses through the mountains at night. Bell's father rides past him and just keeps going ahead into the night without saying a word. He's carrying fire in an old horn the way people used to back when you couldn't just flick a lighter. In the dream, Bell knew that his father was riding ahead so he could go make a fire somewhere out amongst all the darkness and cold. And Bell knew that whenever he got there, his father would be there.
If you want our take on this dream, head on over to our symbols section. For now, we're more interested in why the movie ends with Ed Tom's dream. We already know that he's got a dreamer's take on the good old days—in other words, a not very accurate one—but in this dream, he seems to take that fuzzy, nostalgic glow and apply it toward the future. Is this Ed Tom's way of telling us that, no matter how grim the world is, good men (and women, we suppose) always offer a small light of hope? Is there room in this country (i.e. world) for old men, after all?
Or is the fact that goodness only appears in dreams just another sign that we're all doomed?