“What do you say to a man that by his own admission has no soul?”
This year in film has seen a spate of films that are critical of the Iraq war, the Bush administration, and the fact that we in the U.S. don’t seem to care about the carnage that goes on in our name “over there.” Interestingly, these films haven’t really caught fire with the public. Maybe we hear so much about war in the news that the thought of plunking down $10 to see a drama based on a current war with no end in sight is just too much to take.
The Coen brothers, who have displayed their unique perspective of American cultures past and present with mixed results, have shunned the obvious critique of our culture’s insouciance toward violence and have crafted a film that injects a dose of morality. However, it not the preachy kind of “Now kids, don’t hurt one another because that’s just bad” kind of moralism. Rather, it forces the viewer to confront the messy lines that intersect when greed, power, drugs, money, and violence are highly valued in a society such as our.
The early part of the film (echoing note for note the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name) foreshadows the sea change of what’s to come in the course of the movie. Tommy Lee Jones plays the moral anchor of the “old world” in the character of Sheriff Bell. Josh Brolin is the somewhat morally conflicted Llewellyn Moss — who stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad while hunting and ends up taking a suitcase loaded with money (about over $2 million). And Javier Bardem plays the soulless psychotic Anton Chigurh who, it seems, is hired to locate the money and exterminate anyone and everyone involved with it. No Country for Old Men does not present easy answers to the rot embodied in the character of Chigurh, nor does the film shy away from the consequences of violence. What the film does present is an America at a crossroads of sorts. Chigurh is a the kind of psychotic character you hope you never run into, but, in the context of this film, has an unstoppable quality that makes one pause to think of the culture that gives rise to a person like this.
From the outset of the film (as it is in the novel), Sheriff Bell sets up the moral query that’s at the center of this drama as he recalls what he gleaned from the mind of an immoral killer Bell sent to the gas chamber years earlier:
“I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville. One and only one. My arrest and my testimony. I went up there and visited with him two or three times. Three times. The last time was the day of his execution. I didnt have to go but I did. I sure didnt want to. Heâ€™d killed a fourteen year old girl and I can tell you right now I never did have no great desire to visit with him let alone go to his execution but I done it. The papers said it was a crime of passion and he told me there wasnt no passion to it. Heâ€™d been datin this girl, young as she was. He was nineteen. And he told me that he had been plannin to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out heâ€™d do it again. Said he knew he was goin to hell. Told it to me out of his own mouth. I dont know what to make of that. I surely dont. I thought Iâ€™d never seen a person like that and it got me to wonderin if maybe he was some new kind. I watched them strap him into the seat and shut the door. He might of looked a bit nervous about it but that was about all. I really believe that he knew he was goin to be in hell in fifteen minutes. I believe that. And Iâ€™ve thought about that a lot. He was not hard to talk to. Called me Sheriff. But I didnt know what to say to him. What do you say to a man that by his own admission has no soul? Why would you say anything? Iâ€™ve thought about it a good deal. But he wasnt nothin compared to what was comin down the pike.”
“Some new kind” indeed. Chigurh’s view of life and death is exemplified in the coin toss. If you’re lucky enough to pick the right side of the coin, you get to live. However, if you’re not so lucky in the toss, well, it’s the deathly gallows for you son. But the choices aren’t always so simple. Chigurh believes that he’s presenting his prey with moral choices to see which side of the coin they are on. Are they selfish? Selfless? Willing to die for those they love? He may be soulless and amoral, but he has a kind of linear rigidness that compels him to follow through with rules he has socially constructed; rules that give him the impetus to act violently even when his victims make logical arguments to counter his rationale. He exists in a philosophical universe of his own construct where death and mayhem are the only constant. He, like the young adult Sheriff Bell encountered years before, is passionless about the violent behavior he engages in, but cannot change the way he is.
At least with the movie The Terminator you could understand the Terminator’s single-minded desire to kill Sarah Connor as a product of its programming. But with Chigurh, his lack of human morality is something of a riddle to the Coen brothers and to those who view this film. In Fargo, the Coens wanted to know what makes a person kidnap, rob, and kill for “a bit of money?” The answer never came. In No Country for Old Men the answer is there, but you have to look in the margins for that which creeps into the center as we venture down the pike.