Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2007 take on Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men is a masterpiece. The recipient of scores of awards, 14 years later, the film has aged like fine wine. It blends the themes of fate, conscience, and circumstance that the brothers had explored in their earlier films Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Fargo and perfected them.
Admittedly, a lot is owed to the original story by one of the greatest literary masters, McCarthy. He is the king of modern nihilism, and both the novel and the film adaptation of No Country for Old Men, offer a critical view on human existence and the contemporary world at large.
Ostensibly labelled as a gloomy take on modernity, it can also be taken as a Gnostic discussion that brings into question the organised and deeply-embedded Christianity that is so pervasive in American society. Furthermore, one mustn’t forget that No Country for Old Men is a period piece within itself, written in the weary post 9/11 world. Set in the ’80s, this is an effective means of taking users back to when neoliberalism and technology were starting to take root. It takes us back to when our very distinctly modern problems were beginning to proliferate.
In 2009, McCarthy summed up the violence in his work, positioning himself as somewhat of a modern successor to Thomas Hobbes. He said: “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed. The notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.”
We all will die. There’s no escaping life’s inherent violence. The conduit for this theme is Javier Bardem’s antagonist, Anton Chigurh. This is where the true brilliance of the film lies. On the pages of the novel, Chigurh is a scary, opaque character of unknown origins, which is augmented by the film. Since the movie popularised the book’s themes, a well-known fan theory has flourished that claims that Chigurh is actually the embodiment of the Angel of Death, something that is made very clear upon rewatching.
He is not aesthetically evil in a pantomime way like Lord Voldemort or Darth Sidious, and it is this austere adaptation of Chigurh’s character that makes him so scary. Many parallels have been drawn between his depiction and Bengt Ekerot’s personification of Death in 1957’s The Seventh Seal. With a bowl cut acting as his hood, dressed in black and using the cattle gun instead of the Scythe, Chigurh is Death personified.
Additionally, the way the Coen’s changed his eyes from the deepest blue to dark brown was a masterstroke. There are many other signifiers that suggest he’s the servant of the vengeful Old Testament God come to deliver retribution for humanity’s widespread greed and its manifold manifestations such as the drug trade.
The theory also accounts for Chigurh’s cold killings of his prey. He does it naturally, as if it is nothing, like a bodily function. The harrowing scene where he holds the life of the gas station manager by the toss of a coin says it all.
If we note his speech to the attendant, his Biblical background comes into the light: “What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss? Call it. Just call it. You need to call it. I can’t call it for you, or it wouldn’t be fair. (…) Yes, you did. You’ve been putting it up your whole life, you just didn’t know it. Do you know what date is on this coin? 1958. It’s been travelling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And it’s either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it. You stand to win everything. Call it.”
An ominous, Old Testament force, the more you read about Chigurh and compare him to the Angel of Death, the more his purpose seems to make sense.
Watch a Chigurh compilation below.