Tuesday 23 September 2008

Chigurh’s coin

No Country for Old Men (2007), directed by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) kills people – but not always. Sometimes, he flips a coin. To all appearances, his would-be prey may be saved by correctly calling either heads or tails. There may be salvation it seems, in the simplest game of chance. Heads you live, tails you die. So, does Chigurh dispense death at random? Not quite, and not usually – but, on occasion, he offers the possible reprieve of the coin toss because, as he tells one of his victims, ‘That’s the best that I can do’. Chigurh is the irresistible force pervading every scene of No Country for Old Men. Even when he is not on camera, the viewer feels the weight of his presence and sees the toll it exacts upon every other significant character in the film. Even those who are fortunate enough to avoid actually meeting Chigurh find that they are altered, deeply disturbed, just knowing that such a man exists – and contemplating how and why such a man can exist.

None of us knows quite what to make of Chigurh. His victims do not understand him, law enforcement officials are baffled by his exploits, the viewer is stunned by his ruthlessness, and yet there remains something about this figure that we cannot quite condemn. Is he, perhaps, beyond condemnation? Is there something, somehow, to admire in this man – even if it only grudgingly and only at a safe distance that one may experience (or admit) this admiration? Perhaps Chigurh is intended to remain a bit of a cipher – an enigma. Even his name, after all, is awkward to both spell and pronounce. He eludes us. We are told of no childhood trauma, no biochemical imbalance or neurological impairment, no ancient outrage for which he now exacts revenge against society at large. There is money involved in the plot, but it becomes clear that this is not his primary motivation, nor is it a sine qua non of the film’s evolution. The matter at issue could just as easily have been a package of cashews, a woman, or even an offhand remark. Chigurh kills almost as does a force of nature (albeit a selective one). Ahab was driven by his irrational hatred of the white whale. Chigurh, on the other hand, does not seem to be driven – he just seems to be. Chigurh kills. That is what he does. So…why toss the coin?

Picture the following scene. A man, known to the viewer to be a ruthless murderer, dripping with obvious menace, flips a coin, and demands that his helpless prey ‘call it’. In such a scenario, is the murder (or lack thereof) causally determined by the flip of the coin (as opposed to something deep in the killer’s psyche)? What if the victim makes the wrong call or, more interestingly, refuses to make any call on the grounds that the ‘game’ is disingenuous, degrading, or perverse? How do we assess the culpability of the killer? He is, of course, the one pulling the trigger – but antecedent events have contributed to his character, and to current contingencies. Does the killer ‘have to’ kill? Is he compelled by his nature, his history, or (perhaps) his ‘principles’ (perverse though they may be)? Are his victims constrained to lay themselves in his path, or could events have turned out differently? All of these questions, and several corollaries, flow as an undercurrent through the Oscar winning Coen Brothers film. These questions are not quite answered, however, and the viewer is left with an interesting set of issues to ponder regarding the nature of the psychopath Anton Chigurh. He appears to operate in accordance with something like an ‘ethical code’. Can we decipher his code? Should we want to do so, or are some matters better left beyond our understanding?

Properly calling the coin toss can save the potential victim, as doing so appears actually to salvage the life of a hapless gas station owner. It is, however, noted by the final not-so-lucky victim that the coin, in and of itself, does not determine the death or survival of those who cross Chigurh’s path. The coin, as she puts it, ‘don’t have no say’. It is, after all, merely a coin, an inert object, and not an agent. Chigurh, it would seem, can pull the trigger irrespective of the coin coming up either heads or tails. He does not, in fact, even have to toss the coin – yet something more is at work here. Blame is not so easily affixed as surface events would indicate. As Chigurh himself tells his final victim in the film, ‘I got here the same way the coin did’. He and the coin are both travelers, storm tossed perhaps, to this place, this time, and, it would appear, this brutal dispensation. Chigurh is, as are the rest of us, at least in significant respects, a product of heredity and environment, nature and nurture.

To what extent, and in what sense, can Chigurh’s actions be legitimately described as ‘free’? Does the coin-flipping ritual actually determine this murderer’s next move – in those cases in which the flip is even on offer? Is it really up to Chigurh, ultimately, that he tenders some potential victims the possibility of reprieve (or, at least, the appearance of such a possibility), or is his pathology, in conjunction with antecedent events, the real determinant of life-and-death in these cases? Perhaps Chigurh is just a killing machine with a built-in abort system that may be triggered under fortuitous circumstances. No Country For Old Men seems to offer a portrait of a man with robust, though imperfect, control over external events and persons that he encounters, but leaves an ambiguous accounting of that same man’s control over his own internal drives and actions.

He grants clemency when the call properly coincides with the toss of the coin, but it is, of course, he who tosses the coin – or does not. He seems uninterested in questions or moral right and wrong (as commonly understood), but keenly attuned to matters of simple (or not-so-simple) cause and effect, as well as violations of his ‘ethical code’. As far as Chigurh is concerned, his victims cause their own demise (or secure their survival) through their behavior. He seems, at some points in the narrative, to behave as an instrument of karmic consequence; he ensures that others reap what, in his estimation, they have sown. We see the outwardly observable expressions of his inner drives issuing in carnage as he carves a swath through those who keep telling him, ‘You don’t have to do this?’ His responses and mannerisms imply that he does have to ‘do this’, because it is either his nature, or it is the product of some irrevocable commitment that leaves him, quite unrepentantly, determined to ‘do this’. He almost seems to want to say, ‘Don’t you people see that this is just what I do? I kill’.

In the film’s final scene, Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tells his wife of a dream he has lately had. Bell has kept tabs on Chigurh’s exploits and has seen the rivers of blood produced in the wake of Chigurh’s progress, but he has failed to actually catch up with this man who lays waste nearly everyone and everything in his path. As a result, at least in part, of Chigurh’s exploits, Bell has decided to quit his job as sheriff because, as he tells his brother (who has been shot and partially paralyzed by another criminal), ‘I feel overmatched’. Bell has met up with something that he does not understand. The film opened with Bell’s voice-over and his expression of stunned disjointedness as he observes a new form of criminality that seems recalcitrant and unmotivated – resistant to any taxonomy within Bell’s experience or imagination. There is a new darkness afoot, and Bell cannot get his mind around it.

In the dream as he describes it to his wife, Bell’s father, another law man, long since dead, rides into a dark wilderness carrying fire, and the sheriff knows (somehow) that his dad is waiting for him. The filmmakers leave us (or, at least, leave me) with the impression that Mr. Chigurh may have a hand in reuniting Bell and his late father. Chigurh knows that Bell has been on his trail and Chigurh objects to such ‘inconveniences’ as having to evade officers of the law for which he exhibits nothing but contempt and disregard – and the viewer knows what Chigurh did to the first cop that he met in the film.

One suspects that no coin toss will postpone the meeting of Bell and his deceased father. It is difficult to imagine the taciturn (former) Sheriff Bell submitting to Chigurh’s game, and Chigurh seems to be an acutely adept judge of character, so we suspect that he will forgo the offer. In Bell’s case, it would constitute an insult – and it is not as if Chigurh holds any personal grudge against the man. He is simply an ‘inconvenience’. Bell appears to understand, better than any other character in the film (with the notable exception of Chigurh himself), that encounters with this predator are determined by inexorable forces that pay no heed to any exigencies of the human condition. Chigurh is something more than a merchant of death, something more implacable than ‘the ultimate badass’, as was earlier suggested by the stubborn and ill-fated Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). Chigurh is the inevitable. The thing about the inevitable is that there just is no getting around it. Chigurh will not relent. As Bell puts it in his typical understated fashion, ‘He’s got some hard bark on him’.

Randomness, fate, karma, moral right and wrong, and all related considerations are, perhaps, beside the point (at least insofar as the film is concerned). Bell’s wilderness awaits us all. Those who encounter Chigurh just tend to get there a bit sooner than they might otherwise have expected. That is simply what Chigurh does. That is simply what he is. His role, as he conceives it, is fairly well defined. When his victims plead, ‘You don’t have to do this’, they misconstrue his nature – and he regards this as laughable, perhaps even a pathetic form of naïveté or willful ignorance. Chigurh is what the world has made him. He pulls the trigger, but his victims keep placing themselves in his crosshairs. They have all ‘been putting it up’ their whole lives. Chigurh is the implement linking karma and consequence – as he is also a product of karma and consequence. Killing machines do not simply fall from the sky. They are, somehow or other, made – and the wheel of life and death goes round and round. Occasionally, a coin is tossed.

Is Chigurh responsible for his character, for his horrifying deeds, for the monster that he has become? What of the other characters in the film? Why have they been drawn into Chigurh’s sphere of influence – his deadly gravitational pull? Llewelyn Moss took some money that did not belong to him. Of course, he also did not know that it ‘belonged’ to Chigurh. Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) simply had the misfortune of being married to Llewelyn. Then again, she did marry him. Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) had the temerity to try to kill or capture (we suspect he preferred killing) Chigurh. The man is, however, a bounty hunter, and was offered a lot of money to ply his trade. Many other characters just happened to be driving down the wrong road at the wrong time, sitting behind the wrong desk, or drinking beer beside the wrong hotel pool. Even in these instances, however, we might ask what led them to that particular place and time. In fact, and this may be the real point, we may ask what leads any of us to this place, this time, this character, these proclivities, this life unfolding all around and through us. Are any of us, ultimately, authors of the selves into which we evolve? Are any of us in control of the twists and turns our lives take – or are we all simply caught in turning, grinding wheel of karma (or fate, or destiny, or randomness, or call-it-what-you-like)?

What are we to make of Anton Chigurh? Well, he is someone with whom we do not wish to make acquaintance. That much is clear. Beyond that, answers and explanations are elusive. Perhaps there is a more crucial and more immediate question, and perhaps we will ask it if we are attentive to this extraordinary film – and if we have the intestinal fortitude to sift honestly through the stuff of our lives and character. The question is this: What are we to make of ourselves? How far (and by what exactly) are we removed from, different from, the likes of Anton Chigurh? Call it…Friendo.

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