The Coen Brothers’ neo-Western thriller No Country for Old Men (2007), adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same title (2005), does the same things and hits the same notes as the original—with one notable exception. In the words of literary critic John Cant (2012), “No Country for Old Men is Sheriff Bell’s book, but it’s Anton Chigurh’s film” (98). Most critics agreed. Chigurh, the story’s villain, is given relatively more screen time in the adaptation than he was lines in the novel, but the reason Cant’s statement is true has more to do with the character’s chilling on-screen presence per se than with its duration. Chigurh dominates the film.
Scholars have debated whether Chigurh is best understood as a man or ghost, a cipher or a force of nature (King, Wallach, and Welsh 2009). In this article, I will analyze him as a villain—as an antagonistic force integral to the meaning and moral vision of No Country. I aim to explain why the character, described by Rolling Stone reviewer Peter Travers as “a monster for the ages,” has attained exceptional notoriety. A moral psychological analysis, I will show, can answer the question in a way that captures our intuitive sentiments about the character and puts those intuitions on a firm explanatory foundation (Smith 2017).
My argument will be that the imaginative dominance of Chigurh is crucially dependent on No Country’s agonistic structure—its organization of sympathetic and antipathetic characters (e.g., Carroll et al. 2016, Plantinga 2010). The philosopher of art Noël Carroll (2002) has argued that a great many fictions are built around character “virtue wheels”—arrays of characters that embody social dispositions in “highly structured, systematically varied, and subtly polarized” ways (13). Such fictions analyze and relate competing values through their characters in a kind of narrative thought experiment: what would happen if loyalty, embodied by character A, came into conflict with compassion, embodied by character B? Engagement with fictional characters can thus prompt audiences to reflect on moral questions and even to revise their own moral-conceptual maps. This contrastive inquiry, Carroll argues, is a main attraction of whole classes of narrative. No Country builds the same kind of attraction, but the film crucially expands the unipolar scope suggested by the term virtue wheel to encompass the negative moral agency of Anton Chigurh. That negative agency is countered by the film’s protagonist, Ed Tom Bell, whose essential goodness amplifies Chigurh’s evil by contrast. The antonymic framing of these two main characters, I will show, runs through virtually every level of presentation of No Country to create in Chigurh a studied and deeply resonant contravention of basic human sociality.
Appearance and Demeanor
Blue eyes. Serene. Dark hair. Something about him faintly exotic. Beyond Moss’s experience.McCarthy 2007, 112.
Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is an imposing but peculiar presence. The name alone, reportedly chosen by McCarthy simply because it “sounded cool” (AntonChigurh.com), is cryptically dissonant, combining the European given name Anton with the non-Western, neologistic Chigurh. The hefty hitman has an unplaceable accent, filtered through a deep and hoarse voice, and a strange “soup-bowl” haircut. His blank, emotionless expression evokes the mystery of an Olmec head. He wears almost exclusively black. Co-director Joel Coen has stated that they wanted someone “who could have come from Mars” (Covell 2009, 97). Bardem’s version of the character has that quality; he does not seem to hail from anywhere in particular, and he looks wholly misplaced among the male denizens of West Texas. These men wear cowboy hats and colorful shirts, and they all speak with a Southern accent. In addition to such superficial differences, Chigurh shows no trace of stereotypical Southern amenity. The killer’s social conduct, in contrast, is eccentric and deeply cynical. As an illustration, consider the following early exchange. Chigurh has stopped at a gas station to supply his stolen vehicle with gas, and to buy snacks. He enters the station and addresses the proprietor:
Chigurh (staring down at his money): How much?
Proprietor: Sixty-nine cents.
Chigurh: And the gas?
Proprietor: Y’all getting any rain up your way?
Chigurh (looking up): What way would that be?
Proprietor: Well, I seen you was from Dallas.
Chigurh (menacingly): What business is it of yours where I’m from … friendo?
Chigurh responds to the proprietor’s conversational overture with hostility. The very act of engaging the hitman in small talk is offensive to him because it is an expression of human sociality, of seeking social interplay for the sake of social interplay. Chigurh represents the antithesis of this attitude, and it shows in his nonconformist appearance and lack of adjustment. Both markers are agonistically emphasized with the recurring contrast of the protagonist, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). Bell is conservatively clad and deeply enmeshed in the norms of his community. He speaks with the same Southern accent as almost every other character in No Country. The contrasts between Chigurh and Bell underscore the contradictions between what the characters respectively emblematize. The young, alien, and fully present Chigurh outmatches Sheriff Bell, whose title, age, and nostalgic disposition connote moral sentimentalism and conservatism. A moral psychological perspective predicts such superficial contrasts: villains, the embodiments of selfishness and antisociality, are likely to be foreign and maladjusted. They represent an outside threat, something to be fought and banished. Familiar and sympathetic heroes, on the other hand, affirm the prosocial ethos of society. They defend their communities against corruption (Kjeldgaard-Christiansen 2016). In constructing this binary, No Country employs ethnolinguistic markers to flag the film’s antisocial villain as a threatening outsider. Ethnolinguistic markers perform this function particularly well because they reliably demarcate “them,” the out-group, from “us,” the in-group (Kinzler et al. 2009). In the real world, such a perceived divide allows for the fomenting of prejudice and, in extreme cases, dehumanization. In No Country, it places the alien villain outside the existing social order (fig. 1).
Do you have any idea how crazy you are?Dialogue between Wells and Chigurh.
You mean the nature of this situation?
I mean the nature of you.
The deeper psychological layers of Chigurh can be prodded with a continuation of the gas station dialogue quoted above. Leading with the mocking address of “friendo,” Chigurh starts to twist the prosocial purpose of small talk:
Chigurh: You live in that house out back?
Proprietor: Yes, I do.
Chigurh: You lived here all your life?
Proprietor: This was my wife’s father’s place originally.
Chigurh: You married into it?
Proprietor: We lived in Temple, Texas for many years. Raised a family there, in Temple. We come out here about four years ago.
Chigurh: You married into it.
Proprietor (with a defensive simper): If that’s the way you wanna put it.
Chigurh: I don’t have some way to put it. That’s the way it is.
Chigurh’s hostile questioning, punctuated by close shots of the increasingly distressed proprietor, betrays a functional inversion of small talk. Whereas the proprietor’s questions constitute a friendly invitation, the unmarked purpose of small talk, Chigurh’s probe for weaknesses and flaws. Chigurh picks up on one such flaw that the viewer understands to be especially egregious because of the killer’s sudden choking upon hearing it: the proprietor, he learns, has “married into” his current business. While the proprietor sees this wording as just “one way of putting it”—an unjustifiedly unflattering way—Chigurh sees it as simply and solely “the way it is.” The prosocial institution of marriage, a primary and cross-culturally universal way of building and consolidating communities (Henrich 2015), registers to Chigurh only as a contemptible charity that exposes the weakness of those forced into it (note, in telling contrast, Bell’s strong emotional bond with his wife). Chigurh proceeds to order the proprietor to “call it” in a coin toss. The coin toss, as the viewer infers from Chigurh’s previous killings as well as the mounting dialogic tension, is for the man’s life. The point is formalistically synchronized by subtle close-up zooms and an eerily swelling hum that rises to meet the intensity of Chigurh’s threat. The buildup creates a screeching dissonance between the triviality, peace, and insignificance of the setting and circumstance, on the one hand, and the sense of sudden, unmotivated fatality on the other. The viewer understands that Chigurh will kill not just instrumentally, but also out of commitment to a kind of fatalism that is never fully articulated.
Chigurh’s fatalistic ideation did not have to be antisocially motivated—it could have been the case that he did not feel in control of his actions—but the viewer is nonetheless led to believe that the killer is animated directly by malice. One source of evidence is his dialogue with the gas station proprietor; another is the sadistic smiling that accompanies some of his killings. Consider when Chigurh is preparing to kill another hitman, Carson Wells, with whom he is somehow already acquainted. Wells has been hired by a corrupt organization to obtain the drug money that Chigurh is also after and to deal with Chigurh. Chigurh, however, outsmarts Wells and engages him in conversation at gunpoint. As he tries to get Wells to “admit to [his hopeless] situation,” we see an energized if not outright amused version of the killer. It is as if he is toying with his prey. Chigurh’s sadistic smiles are a telltale sign of his essential antisociality. They afford the viewer a fleeting peek into the mind of the killer, and a glimpse of what truly motivates him (fig. 2).
While viewers only get a glimpse at Chigurh’s mind, they get to all but inhabit the mind of Sheriff Bell. The Sheriff represents for the viewer an empathic anchorpoint, an involved perspective through which to apprehend the evil of Chigurh. At numerous points in the film, the distraught sheriff discusses his and the world’s predicaments with others, including his wife and uncle. Moreover, the opening scene of No Country features Bell’s troubled reflections in an intradiegetic voice-over. In the voice-over, Bell expresses his nostalgic sociocentricity and how it is being eroded by the iniquity he sees around him:
There was this boy I sent to the ‘lectric chair at Huntsville Hill a while back … Papers said it was a crime of passion but he told me there wasn’t any passion to it. Told me that he’d been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he’d do it again … I don’t know what to make of that. I surely don’t.
In giving the viewer access to Bell’s thoughts and background, No Country aligns our perspective with Bell’s, and we come to feel the full force of his plight (Smith 1995, Andriga et al. 2001). By contrast, Chigurh’s cryptic dialogue obscures his background and invites the viewer to attribute the character’s antisociality to his essence, or nature; Chigurh comes to embody “the Myth of Pure Evil” (Baumeister 1997). The Myth refers to the psychological finding that evil shows itself as antisociality that seemingly cannot be explained—or explained away—by brain damage, a bad upbringing, or other forms of negative moral luck (Nagel 1976). This lack of an incidental excuse, of some unwilled circumstance that overrode the agency of the offending party, licenses our full condemnation (Kjeldgaard-Christiansen 2016, 2017). So too with Chigurh. The causal opacity but undeniable immensity of the villain’s evil invites the interpretation that he channels some primeval animus. At least Bell thinks it necessary to invoke something like that to account for Chigurh and other psychopaths like him. As he muses in the novel, “[the idea of Satan] explains a lot of things that otherwise dont have no explanation. Or not to me they dont” (McCarthy 2007, 218).
Bell’s moral dumbfounding at Chigurh (“I don’t want to go out and meet something I don’t understand”) is that of a man failing to grasp Chigurh’s motivated antisociality from within his own humane social outlook. He fails to do this since it cannot be done. The killer’s irreducible and inexplicable evil is continually set in dialogic tension with the essential prosociality of Bell—a character about whom we learn, in the very first scene in which he appears, that he lends his and his wife’s horse to the local police force, and therefore by proxy to the common good, free of charge. We feel something like Bell’s hopelessness as we witness Chigurh’s indiscriminate slaughter of guilty criminals and innocent victims alike, and we recognize the threat of a killer whose evil is beyond the imaginative horizon of the existing moral order.
An Imaginative Dyad
No Country’s expansive moral vision, then, is cast in the imaginative mold of a narrow dyadic template: Bell stands for what is moral, Chigurh for what is immoral. That is not to say that the film does not show moral nuance in its other characters. Most prominently, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), the third major character in the film, seems to feature as a relatable and “all too human” intermediate suspended between the moral extremes represented by Bell and Chigurh. He, like most people, is neither all good nor all bad. Moss does not wish for anyone to get hurt as a result of his actions; yet they do, and yet Moss does not change his course. As outside spectators we can locate the moral ambiguity of Moss’s character within the moral vision of No Country without also affirming that the moral vision is itself ambiguous.
In centering the moral clash of its two main characters, No Country taps directly into the human moral imagination. Cross-culturally, people intuitively and principally think of the evil act as one in which an intentional agent physically harms a suffering victim, and they are more emotionally incensed by this primordial form of immorality than by conceptually remote cases (Gray, Waytz, and Young, 2012):
The combination of ‘intentional agent and suffering patient’—or even more simply ‘thinking doer and vulnerable feeler’—gives [a] formula for understanding the moral world. People are most morally incensed when powerful thinking doers harm powerless vulnerable feelers.Schein, Goranson, and Gray, 2015, n.p.
Chigurh is a doer: a competent agent animated by malicious intent. The role of sufferer lies with Bell. It is construed through his elegiac monologue and by close shots of the character that convey his dejection. In no small measure, No Country can be parsed into a series of “action shots” of Chigurh terrorizing the locals followed by reaction shots of Bell attempting to grasp the measure and motivation of the bloodshed. Most victims of Chigurh’s evil never get to express their own suffering, but Bell’s deep-felt agonization—centered not on himself, but on the depravity that surrounds him—lends them a resonant outlet. The sheriff symbolically stands in for his county (fig. 3).
No Country’s unashamed contrapositioning of the good and the bad is not the mark of kitsch. It subtly and suggestively inflects every scene and plot point, thus heightening their impact. Consider when, late into the film, a hapless truck driver pulls over to help Chigurh, whose depleted car battery has left him stranded by the road. When the farmer cordially greets Chigurh (“What’s the problem there, neighbor?”), the viewer immediately registers the direness of the situation. The folksy Texan, an unconditional cooperator, leaves himself open to be exploited. Handing over his jumper cables in a symbolic gesture, the man literally and figuratively allows Chigurh to drain his power. Chigurh, meanwhile, starts questioning him about how to reach his destination. The killer extracts the information he needs and proceeds to murder the man at the exact moment he realizes the man possesses something of value to him—his car. It is as if Chigurh’s antisociality feeds off others’ social trust. The scene gains thematic import because of its overt similarity to an earlier scene featuring Sheriff Bell. In this scene, Bell notices that a reckless truck driver is transporting insecurely fastened human bodies. He stops and rebukes the man in a shot and a setting that match those of the later scene with Chigurh and the prosocial truck driver, inviting thematic comparison. Whereas Bell imbues the lifeless bodies with transcendental dignity, Chigurh treats his live victim, the farmer, as an intrinsically worthless accessory to his plans. The formal chiasmus brings into relief the clashing motives, goals, and, at a higher level, social philosophies of the sheriff and the hitman: Bell sees value and dignity in human life; Chigurh does not (fig. 4).
You can’t make a deal with him. Even if you gave him the money back, he’d still kill you just for inconveniencing him. He’s a peculiar man. Might even say he has principles.Carson Wells.
As already mentioned, Chigurh never articulates his fatalistic social vision or the role he sees for himself in it, but much can be gleaned from what little he does say and from the nature and framing of his actions. A recurring motif in No Country, especially in connection with Chigurh, is an unsettling juxtaposition of the human and the non-human animal. An early scene shows Chigurh liquidate an oblivious man with a cattle gun, asking that he “hold still” before pulling the trigger. The camera then cuts to Llewelyn Moss as he mutters the same words while fixing his rifle’s reticle on an antelope in the distance. Moreover, when Bell and Chigurh engage the truck drivers in the matched scenes discussed in the previous section, the drivers transport chickens and human bodies, respectively, and the viewer is shown equal disregard for both. These scenes reveal how Chigurh sees his conspecifics: as an exploitable resource—human livestock—valuable only as a means to an end. The few times Chigurh openly considers his social world, he does so in asocial terms: past antecedent, present circumstance, future necessity. His outlook is captured in his saying that his murderous presence “got here the same way the coin did,” whereas Bell’s lies in his wife’s admonition that he “Be careful … and don’t hurt no-one.” Bell apprehends human actions intentionalistically, as the product of mutable desires and intentions. Chigurh, in continually marked contrast, appeals solely to mechanistic and immutable causation. His is a worldview divested of the basic social orientation to life that, to most people, makes ethics a source of objective truth (Schein, Hester, and Gray 2016). This empty social vision is what allows Chigurh to say to the gas station proprietor, after the man objects to the charge that he “married into” his business, that it is simply “the way it is.”
As consciously held principle, Chigurh’s antisociality informs all aspects of the character, from his nonconformist appearance to his utter disregard for human life. Subtler is the suggestion that Chigurh is unwilling to solicit help or cooperation from anyone. We see this after Moss has injured the killer’s leg with a shotgun volley outside the hotel where they first meet. Chigurh blows up a car in front of a drug store to create a distraction before walking right in to steal prescription medicine. Following this scene are two full minutes of Chigurh skillfully treating his wound. At first the sequence seems a strange intermission, but it communicates something important about the character: that he is, and aspires to be, completely independent. The point is anticipated by an earlier, parallel sequence in which Moss is treating his wound from the same violent exchange. Moss, however, requests and receives help from others, including three young men he meets on his way to Mexico, and later from medical staff in Mexico. Sheriff Bell is never physically injured, but he turns to his family and colleagues for help and advice. The social orientation of these characters is antithetical to the principled antisociality of Chigurh. Wells makes essentially the same point about the killer in relating to Moss, knowingly, that “you can’t make a deal with him.” Chigurh’s self-sufficiency and Wells’s confident pronouncement capture the killer’s conscious rejection of the social interdependencies of human existence. Chigurh’s antisociality is all the more damning precisely because it takes the form of a fully cognizant stance. Chigurh is not simply antisocial; he is opposed to the very idea of sociality (fig. 5).
In the end, Chigurh succeeds almost completely in extricating himself from the social matrix that would otherwise envelop him as it does everyone he meets. The one exception is in the penultimate scene of the film, when Chigurh, as he is driving from the home of his final victim, is rammed by another driver in a freak accident. Chigurh limps from the site, blood gushing from his face and fractured bone protruding from the bend of his left arm. He sits down on the sidewalk to regain his composure. Two pubescent boys approach Chigurh and inform him that an ambulance is on its way. Chigurh addresses one of the boys:
Chigurh: What’ll you take for the shirt?
Boy: Hell, mister, I’ll give you my shirt. (Chigurh refashions the shirt into a makeshift arm sling and hands the boy a banknote.)
Boy: Hell, mister. Look, I don’t mind helping someone out. That’s a lot of money.
Chigurh: Take it! Take it, and you didn’t see me. I was already gone.
In this scene, for the first and last time in the film, we see a visibly shaken Chigurh. The killer’s quavering voice and nervously flitting glances signal that he is no longer in control. The impression is amplified by low-angle shots of the standing boys that show Chigurh’s perspective from his seated position. We sense, from their looking down at him, that he is at their mercy. Curiously, Chigurh insists on paying one of the boys for his shirt even after having twice been told that no compensation is needed. When the act is taken in conjunction with Chigurh’s history, the viewer is never tempted by the inference that Chigurh feels indebted to the boy. Rather, Chigurh’s insistence is a kind of self-affirmation. Seeing as Chigurh is in a helpless state, he would normally receive a social mandate to accept the shirt without payment. The boy does not really need it, but Chigurh does, and therefore the boy ought to hand over the shirt pro bono. Such an altruistic act would represent the inclusion of the killer into a virtual community, a “we” whose individual interests agglomerate in the collective (Hornstein 1978). Chigurh’s antisocial ideals, however, bar him from accepting the boy’s inclusive gesture. He decides instead to pay the boy, transforming the relational mode from communal sharing—a truly altruistic motive—to one of ultimately self-interested equality matching (Fiske 1992). By reconfiguring the transaction as mutually beneficial, Chigurh saps the altruism from it (fig. 6).
Like Chigurh, Moss receives requited help from strangers, and those encounters set an interpretative frame for Chigurh’s dealings with the boys. After Chigurh injures Moss in the hotel skirmish, Moss staggers toward the border to Mexico, meeting on the way three young adults who appear to be returning to the States from a night of drinking across the border. They are not locals, as we infer from their lacking the distinctive Southern drawl. Moss offers to pay one of the men 500 dollars for his coat. Following an exchange of distrustful remarks, they agree. Later, after having collapsed on a staircase in Mexico, Moss is woken up by the music of a mariachi group playing only a few feet away from him. After revealing his wound, Moss hands one of the men a blood-soaked 100-dollar banknote and requests help to reach a hospital. The man leans forward and, with vigilance, grips the banknote. The camera retreats to a long shot, lingering on the protracted moment when both men still clutch the money. A lit church appears in the frame behind the dark characters. The church could well be seen to symbolize the shared religious faith of all present, but its light does not reach them. Faith is muted in the materialist and materialistic universe of No Country. Moss, we know, is not like the mariachis, just as he is not like the young adults he meets at the bridge. He understands that any help he is going to get will have to go through the men’s self-interest. The reciprocity of these transient encounters, far from an expression of social interdependence, is motivated by blinkered parochialism (fig. 7).
Moss’s one-shot reciprocal exchanges with strangers are exploitative and framed as such. They lay bare the cold opportunism that follows from social fragmentation. We never see Sheriff Bell engage in anything like those exchanges. At just one point does the sheriff address someone with whom he is not on first-name basis, the careless truck driver, and all his interlocutors share his thick Southern accent and traditional outlook. Bell’s protagonistic role as a self-sacrificing communal sharer is reflected in his literal role as public servant, and in the fact that his dealings are always with members of his own community.
Returning to Chigurh’s exchange with the boys, we see that Chigurh’s insistence on paying for the shirt is fully congruent with the character’s essential antisociality when it is taken, as a whole gestalt, with Moss’s prior exchanges and with the fact that Bell is never seen to partake in such exchanges. Tellingly, after having accepted the money, the two boys begin to argue about who is entitled to how much. The boy who receives the banknote swipes violently at the other boy’s hand to keep him from taking it. Chigurh has instilled in the boys the antisocial motivations of greed and envy while also criminalizing them with his bribe (“you didn’t see me”). The scene is an imaginative microcosm of a world in which porous altruism is always threatened by caustic antisociality. In No Country, this abstract dictum is transduced into an engaging social and moral vision. Bell and the boys channel the fragile prosocial ethos of society, Chigurh a destructive outside force that threatens to infiltrate and corrupt it (fig. 8).
In an article in Journal of Forensic Science, Anton Chigurh was appraised by a panel of psychiatrists and film critics as among the most believable and disturbing of movie psychopaths (Leistedt and Linkowski 2014). In the case of Chigurh, they noted, “we could realistically almost talk about an anti-human personality disorder” (172; italics added). This classification matters for my purposes because it expresses what I have claimed and attempted to explain: Chigurh is a singularly terrifying villain whose every aspect negates human sociality. We may know that intuitively when we watch No Country, but we can also come to intellectually appreciate why when we apply a moral psychological perspective to the character.
The agonistic contrasts between No Country’s main characters revolve around basic moral questions of affiliation, the suppression of antisociality, and the preconditions of altruism. They are imaginatively transcoded into the dim but genuine goodness of Sheriff Bell opposite the aesthetically supercharged evil of Chigurh, and they clash at multiple levels: Bell’s conformity opposite Chigurh’s foreignness and mystery; Bell’s benevolent motivations opposite Chigurh’s sadism; Bell’s nostalgic sociocentricity opposite Chigurh’s antisocial principlism. We are fascinated by these characters because they so evocatively embody and “play out,” in Carroll’s (2002) sense, the fundamental human conflict between prosocial communitarianism and antisocial individualism. At the most abstract level, the agonistic structure of No Country emerges in its tonal fusion of the moralistic Golden Age Western on the one hand and the social cynicism and hopelessness of film noir on the other. No Country ostensibly and self-consciously registers as a Western, but it leans toward noir, and the dominant force of Chigurh always threatens to topple it.
The fundamental sociomoral schism between Anton Chigurh and Ed Tom Bell explored in the film explains what Tyrer and Nickell, in their analysis of No Country (2009), see as Chigurh’s enigmatic but palpable “archetypicality” (91). They observe that Chigurh does not seem to belong to any particular region or any particular time. A moral psychological analysis shows why by tracing the character’s impact to basic principles of human morality and sociality, and to the ways in which these faculties are targeted filmically.
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