The first time we truly see Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in No Country for Old Men, he’s a figure out of focus, a ghostly presence. He sits quietly in the background of a scene as a policeman discusses what to make of him over the phone. It’s in this moment that the sense of dread that blankets every first watch of the film begins to build while we watch the oblivious cop chat away as the hazy menace behind him slowly rises and steps out of his handcuffs. He comes into focus as he approaches the officer, pulling the links of his cuffs around the man’s neck, strangling him in the film’s most brutally violent scene.
As the two fall to the floor in a scuffle, the camera highlights the officer’s wildly kicking feet as he struggles to live before it slowly zooms in on Chigurh’s mad, wild face—eyes bulging, hair splayed out, the muscles in his neck tensing and tightening. Blood soon spurts from the doomed officer’s neck, and after he finally dies, Anton relaxes with a sensual exhale and removes the cuffs, washing the blood from his battered wrists.
Instead of taking a beat, the Coens bring us seamlessly into the next scene. This time we watch Chigurh flag down another victim in the dead officer’s police car. The man dutifully pulls over, and Chigurh approaches, politely asking the man to step out of the car, an action that now fills the audience with dread having seen what he’s capable of. He ignores the man’s confused questions, asking only that he hold still while he places the barrel of a captive bolt pistol (a device resembling a hose and helium tank that’s virtually unrecognizable to modern audiences) against the man’s head before pulling the trigger and killing him instantly.
Nowhere near as graphic as the first death, it’s alarming and horrifying on a psychological level. A criminal killing a cop that had arrested him is a crime we can understand. It’s terrible, but it makes sense to us. The murder of a complete stranger after a series of polite exchanges with a weapon we can’t explain? That’s something else entirely, and it’s this knowledge we carry with us through the rest of the film. We know that this is what’s coming. This is the force that will soon be after Llewellyn (Josh Brolin).
All of this follows after the opening monologue, delivered in voiceover, from Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) where he ruminates on the senseless crime of a man he sent to the electric chair. Disturbed by the cavalier and unremorseful attitude of the man, Bell recognizes his own limitations in understanding it saying, “But, I don't want to... go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, ‘O.K., I'll be part of this world.’” This, then, is what the movie asks of us with these opening moments. It presents us with graphic and unrelenting violence, offering no explanation, as if to say, “This is the world. Will you be part of it? Do you know what to make of it?”
We meet Anton Chigurh and immediately are forced to reckon with the fact that this is not a typical man. His motives are indiscernible. He seems unstoppable. But the more we understand of Chigurh and the larger his presence looms, the less we see of the violence he inflicts. It’s the inverse of what we expect, and the Coens’ way of suggesting that what matters are not the deaths themselves, but what they mean and how those around them respond to them.
The first death is so intimate, it’s almost sexual. We know almost nothing about what’s happening or why. But as the film progresses and we learn more, the Coens are careful to distance Chigurh from his victims little by little. Anton draws the curtain before killing a man in the shower, protecting himself from the blood splatter; he chases down Llewellyn in a shootout, the space between them wide enough that the two barely share the screen together; and all we see of Carson’s (Woody Harrelson) death is a puff of pistol smoke and the rocking of a chair before Chigurh carefully moves his boots out of the way as Carson’s blood pools on the floor.
The final death, that of Carla Jean’s (Kelly Macdonald), is one of the most intimate sequences in the film as well as the only death scene completely devoid of violence. There is no blood and no smoking gun. The only proof we have that anything has happened at all is that Chigurh checks the soles of his boots as he exits the house, and by this point we know exactly what he’s checking for.
It feels significant that only Carla Jean gets this treatment. She’s the only one to question Anton’s philosophy. Throughout the film, he’s acted as an odd sort of agent of chaos and moral center. In fact, he is one of the only characters that does not lie. His sense of duty, the immense responsibility he feels to follow through with every promise, while at the same time toying with the idea of chance in a way that relinquishes his control of any situation is almost paradoxical. Though Llewellyn is already dead and the money gone, Chigurh shows up at Carla’s doorstep intent on making good on his promise to Llewellyn that he would kill her. Attempting to make a plea for her life, Chigurh asks her to gamble it on a coin toss, only Carla refuses to play his game: “The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.”
Which brings us back to the beginning. Being a part of this world, which is both beautiful and terrible, requires us to accept the role we play in our own fates. Circumstances can arrive beyond our control and all we can do is choose how to meet them. At the same time, we have to accept that our actions have consequences, and that we do not exist in a vacuum. All of which goes to say that regardless of whether we understand everything in this world, we are still a part of it, and what we make of that is up to us to decide.