The Brothers Who Mastered the Closing Scene
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because movies move us.
By Michael Nordine
No other filmmaker(s) working today have crafted as many knockout endings as Joel and Ethan Coen, whether it be the surreality of Barton Fink’s beach sequence, The Man Who Wasn’t There’s haunting last words or the beautifully simple conversation about stamps that closes Fargo. Among that strange, moving company are two linked dreams: a father imagining his son in Raising Arizona, a son recalling his father in No Country for Old Men.
The two may at first seem strange bedfellows, Coen connection notwithstanding. Released in 1987, Raising Arizona, the brothers’ second feature, is a comedy about married couple H.I. (Nicolas Cage) and Edwina “Ed” McDunnough (Holly Hunter), who, after learning of their inability to conceive, kidnap one of five children just born to local furniture magnate Nathan Arizona. H.I. and Ed’s story is the beating heart, and perhaps even moral center, of the Coens’ oeuvre; No Country, released a full two decades later, is their bleakest work to date. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) fails to contain the fallout of another heist gone awry, retiring in its wake and feeling “outmatched” by the dismal tide.
Cage’s delivery of this heartfelt monologue is a highlight among an underrated career full of them.
In both cases the vision in question is a clear reaction to the traumatic events that preceded it, with No Country ending, as is true of the film in general, on a more downbeat note. H.I. is nothing if not an optimist, one whose checkered past makes it easy for him to focus on the future after returning Nathan Jr. to his birth parents. Cage’s delivery of this heartfelt monologue is a highlight among an underrated career full of them: “And still I dreamed on, further into the future than I had ever dreamed before, watching Nathan Jr.’s progress from afar, taking pride in his accomplishments as if he were our own.”
Significantly, his dream takes place after Arizona sympathetically tells the couple to “sleep on it” before making the rash decision to split up. Raising Arizona’s last image is of H.I. waking up and opening his eyes, a peaceful act recalled by Ed Tom’s more bittersweet final words: “Then I woke up.” Though we see H.I.’s comforting vision (which is accompanied by one of Carter Burwell’s most moving compositions) along with him, the only visual accompanying Ed Tom’s is his weary face.
H.I. perceives his relationship with Ed as being at a crossroad, and his dream is as optimistic a vision of their uncertain future as his subconscious can muster. Ed Tom, meanwhile, doesn’t see much of a future for himself. Now retired and getting on in years, he sees his entire way of life nearing its end. It’s clear from the first scene that he looks to the past for comfort and regards both present and future with resigned wariness: “I always liked to hear about the old-timers,” he says in his opening monologue, noting how he can’t help but unfavorably compare himself to the lawmen who came before.
Ed Tom’s father was one of those lawmen, and he died decades ago. “I’m older now than he ever was by 20 years, so in a sense he’s the younger man,” Ed Tom says of his father as he tells his wife about his dream, which took place “back in older times” as the two rode through a mountain pass, suggesting a link between this world and whatever precedes it. In the dream, Ed Tom knew he’d see his father again, and for a moment, No Country for Old Men seems on the verge of closing on a note of uplift. But then, like H.I., he wakes up — and unlike H.I., it’s with little to look forward to.