Coen Bros: No Country For Old Men part 3

Two sides of the same coin?

Again, as this excellent movie is still in general release (and not in release at all in other parts of the world), I beseech the reader to see it before reading the below, where I discuss the personality of the movie’s enigmatic bad guy, Anton Chigurh.

WHAT DOES CHIGURH WANT? The narrative of No Country makes it pretty clear that Chigurh wants the same thing that Moss wants — that suitcase full of money.

A suitcase full of money, no matter what the amount, is always a symbol of transformation in American movies, a chance to start your life over again, escape the bonds of your class, your birth, your family, your job, whatever is keeping you down. Traditionally, in the course of American movies featuring suitcases full of money, the expected transformation does not happen — instead, a world of pain is visited upon the receiver until they finally have to give up the money or lose it or give it to charity. A suitcase full of money is a shortcut, a way around the forces of the American system, where People With Money have all the power and People Without Money have none. An appreciable amount of money falling into the hands of People Without Money upsets the system and the system, in one way or another, always retaliates. In America, the movies keep telling you that Money Cannot Buy You Happiness, while the rest of the culture tells you every minute of every day that Money Can Buy You Happiness Beyond Your Wildest Dreams. The system asserts its prerogative: there are no short cuts to improving your life (“There are no clean getaways” is how No Country‘s poster puts it), only hard work and, occasionally, dumb luck. Just look at the Coens’ other movies — whether it’s gangsters, car salesmen or trailer trash families, their movies are full of poor saps struggling to overcome their circumstances, and resorting to crime to do so — and ultimately failing to accomplish anything.

(When Moss finds the case in the novel, he looks inside and author Cormac McCarthy notes: “His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down to forty pounds of paper in a satchel.” I’m tellin’ ya, the guy can write.)

So Chigurh, we could say, is all about the money. It cannot be a coincidence that, in addition to killing anyone who impedes his progress toward the suitcase full of money, he decides innocents’ fates with the flip of a quarter and uses a dime to unscrew the vent covers where Moss has hidden the case.

(Incidentally, here is another argument for Chigurh being in the room with Bell when Bell shows up to look for him — Bell looks down and sees the vent cover sitting on the floor with the screws and a dime sitting next to it. It seems Bell interrupted Chigurh at the precise moment of his retrieval of the case — otherwise why would the otherwise lack-of-evidence mad Chigurh leave a trace of his being there?)

(And let me add here one more layer of coolness to “that one scene:” Sheriff Bell enters the room and stands in the doorway, and he sees his shadow on the opposite wall, turned into two shadows by the headlights of his cruiser. I think that Chigurh is that “second shadow,” one of a number of visual cues [the both of them gazing into the blank TV set in Moss’s trailer is another] meant to connect Bell and Chigurh visually. If Chigurh is Bell’s second shadow, then perhaps that is how he can be in the same room with him but undetected. Or, more interestingly, what if, Donald Kaufman-like, Chigurh and Bell are the same guy? Maybe that’s what

  meant by the scene being “Lynchian.”)

(However, the screenplay, for what it’s worth, seems to state pretty clearly that Chigurh is in the room when Bell gets there, hiding behind the door, then scrambles to hide somewhere when Bell enters, then goes out the door when Bell is in the bathroom. Just saying.)

ABOUT THAT QUARTER: Is Cormac McCarthy aware that Chigurh is imitating Batman villain Two-Face in deciding innocents’ fates with the flip of a coin? If even my wife, a non-comics-reader, refers to the habit as “Chigurh’s Two-Face Routine,” how could he not?

(Gasp! Two-Face was played in Batman Forever by — omigod! Tommy Lee Jones! And while I’m here, I should remind the reader that the Coens were offered the job of making the 1989 Batman before Tim Burton landed the job. Wheels within wheels!)

The great thing about how the Coens have written the character and how Javier Bardem plays him is that he manages to be both weirdly unplaceable and recognizably human. Take the scene where he walks into the gas station and does his Two-Face Routine with the attendant: he threatens the man’s life with his menacing tone, then suggests that the poor guy’s life, which he doesn’t seem to have given a moment’s thought, is a series of choices that have irrevocably led him to this moment in time, where his fate will be decided by the flip of a coin. When the man wins the coin toss, Chigurh warns him not to put the coin in his pocket, because it’s a special coin, the coin that marked a change in his life. Then, just before he leaves, he gives the man a half-smile and says that it’s an ordinary coin after all. This last line achieves two things. First, it suggests that Chigurh never intended to kill the guy and was just messin’ with him, then it suggests that any ordinary object can be the tool that decides your fate.

(He goes on quite a bit more in the book: “Dont put it in your pocket. You wont know which one it is,” he says, then adds: “Anything canbe an instrument. Small things. Things you wouldnt even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People dont pay attention. And then one day there’s an accounting. And after that nothing is the same. Well, you say, it’s just a coin. For instance. Nothing special there. What could that be an instrument of? You see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if the parts of some moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, it’s just a coin. Yes. That’s true. Is it?”)

(Chigurh seems disgusted with people in general, but he saves an unusual level of contempt for the gas station guy, perhaps for not paying attention to his life enough. In the book he goes so far as to call him a “cracker,” a word I have a hard time imagining coming from the Chigurh as played by Javier Bardem. What riles him so about the attendant? I think it’s that he married into his job — just like both Ed Crane and Big Dave did in The Man Who Wasn’t There — and is therefore less than a man. He didn’t seek out his fate, he just kind of let it happen to him without thinking about it.)

Now then: Chigurh in the book ends up in a totally different place. He kills everyone in his way to get the money, and then he returns it to its rightful owner, much to the owner’s bafflement, as the owner did not hire Chigurh and has no idea how he found him. Chigurh in the book wants to set things right, to return the life-changing suitcase full of money to its rightful owner (that is, Capital) and preserve what he sees as his natural function, quite literally a capitalist tool. A well-paid tool, but a tool nonetheless. Perhaps Chigurh understands, like Mose the Magic Clock-keeper in Hudsucker, that capitalism is the thing that keeps this old Earth a-turnin’, and by keeping the money for himself he would be upsetting the gears of that unstoppable machine. Chigurh is not swayed by the promise of the suitcase full of money — he “knows his place” and, ultimately, is a “good boy” who restores economic equilibrium to his world.

Chigurh, in the movie, is a man (a deeply insane man, but still a man) who embodies a more savage and cutthroat image of capitalism. The Man Who Hires Wells refers to him as a “loose cannon,” that character most reviled by The System, the lowly tool who Goes Into Business For Himself. In the movie he has what we screenwriters call a Bright Idea: he’s going to kill everybody and run off with the money. He’s a “maverick,” he’s going to rip everybody off and live happily ever after, chuckling to himself about how much smarter he is than everyone.

But, as Mamet would put it, There Was One Thing He Forgot. Chigurh does his Two-Face Routine with the attendant and with Carla Jean, Moss’s wife, emphasizing the effect of chance on the lives of innocents. The attendant, one of the working stiff sheep that wander through Coen movies without a clue, obeys Chigurh’s commands, but Carla Jean calls him on his bullshit. Chigurh says the coin, chance, will decide his victims’ fate, but Carla Jean recognizes that even the decision to leave someone’s life up to the toss of a coin is still a decision — in a heartbreaking act of bravery, she refuses to play his game — and it is a game. Chigurh likes to think of himself as a god, but he’s something sadder and more pathetic — he’s a man who likes to go around pretending he’s a god. So Carla Jean refuses to play his game and Chigurh kills her anyway, and then goes outside and gets creamed by a station-wagon in a totally random accident. The man who teases others with his pretensions to chance gets laid low by the genuine article. Of course, he walks away from his random accident (his money buys the silence of the boys who see him) but that’s another story. As far as the movie is concerned, Chigurh may have beaten The System, but the Universe has other ideas.

(This all plays out slightly differently in the novel. Carla Jean protests his Two-Face Routine, but ultimately calls the coin-toss — and loses. Chigurh is then hit not by an anonymous station-wagon but a carload of drug-addled teenagers. The book seems to want to say that Chigurh is hit by the ultimate product of his trade [drug-addled teenagers], but the movie turns the accident into a Message From God. Both work on different levels, and the movie does an excellent job of taking the plot-points of the novel and, through canny compression and subtle changes, turning those plot-points into the soul of the book, the spirit between the lines, and is reason enough to call No Country one of the great adaptations of all time.)

NEXT, I will gas about generally cool stuff in the movie

web metrics


10 Responses to “Coen Bros: No Country For Old Men part 3”
  1. curt_holman says:

    ZOMG! Chigurh = Two-Face = Tommy Lee Jones = Best Movie Observation EVAR!

    Is it possible that Chigurh still returns the money after the end? I know there’s no evidence of this on-screen, but is there anything to contradict the possibility?

    I like the way Chigurh comes across to the audience as “the ultimate badass” and Moss refers to him as such, but Woody Harrelson’s character denies that he’s so extraordinary. It humanizes the seemingly-superhuman bad guy. Of course, it’s also the Harrelson character diminishing the abilities of a rival.

    Something that bothers me about No Country for Old Men is a gut reaction that it lays the problems of violence in the world today at the feet of the younger generation, which seems a little easy. This was more a problem for me with the book than the movie, and certainly the Uncle character says that there’s always been violence in the West. After Chigurh gets hit by the car and the two boys meet him, I had a sense that their reaction would point to the fate of society. And rather than run from him or otherwise reject him, one of them takes Chigurh’s money and, in effect, abets his escape. So the young generation can’t recognize evil when they see it. These kids today!

    • Todd says:

      The Man Who Hires Wells is presented as “Capital” in the vocabulary of the movie — that is, he is The Man. When Chigurh kills him, there’s no indication that there is any higher authority. This, in and of itself, does not prove that he doesn’t turn the money in to somebody, but the fact that he hands $100 over to a teenage kid for his shirt indicates that he has money to burn at the time he kills Carla Jean.

      The kids who witness Chigurh’s accident, in the book, not only abet his escape, they steal his gun and later sell it to a third party, who ends up using it to kill someone. So, yeah. The cycle of capital-fed violence goes on.

  2. jbacardi says:

    The film is set in 1980, so the “younger” generation it may be indicting is in its 30s now.

    But I, too, wondered if Chigurh didn’t return the money to the Mexicans…

  3. dougo says:

    During the scene at the gas station, where Chigurh keeps asking him if he knows what he married into, I got the impression that Chigurh thought that the gas station was a lot more valuable than the cashier thought. Which sort of reminded me of The Pledge, which I just saw a few weeks ago, when Jack Nicholson’s character walks into a gas station and decides to buy it. (That movie also has a coitus-interruptus failure of the hero and villain to meet, which also haunts the hero into his retirement. But there the villain doesn’t survive his random karmic car crash.)

  4. dougo says:

    Oh, also, Chigurh reminded me of Jubal, the philosophizing bounty hunter, from the “Objects in Space” episode of Firefly. But I suppose that’s somewhat of an archetype, sort of like the hooker with a heart of gold.

    • Todd says:

      Well, and Chigurh is also, in Coen terms, another version of The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse from Arizona, and Gaear from Fargo — almost a combination of the two, the magic of the first and the ordinariness of the second.

  5. r_sikoryak says:

    I’d heard that Billy Dee Williams auditioned for the roles of both Chigurh and Bell.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Am i the only person that noticed the dried blood
    on the quarter Anton pulled out of his pocket the day after the gas station incident which implies he did in fact kill him?

  7. ominousred says:


    Another awesome explanation to a movie I desperately needed help understanding.