Matt Watson

“No Country for Old Men” is about not making a deal with the devil

Matt Watson

I recently re-watched one of my favorite Coen brothers films, “No Country for Old Men” and liked it so much on this second viewing that I started reading the original novel by Cormac McCarthy. In the film, as the astute movie critic Father Robert Barron pointed out years ago, the bad guy, Anton Chigurh, represents evil and death, which follows all the characters who pursue a briefcase of money left in the desert after a drug deal gone bad. Certainly the movie and the original book are full of biblical metaphors, and the Coen brothers often deal in them. The one that stuck out to me most of all was that Anton Chigurh seems to represent not just evil, but a very biblical variation of the devil himself.

The devil believes in a kind of free market, a certain kind of justice, in which everyone gets what they deserve and may sell their soul if they so choose. That is why in the book of Job and in the temptation of Christ, Satan takes the form of a tempter who will take advantage of his prey’s rightly ordered sense of fairness. Job only fears God because he’s wealthy enough to afford to, Satan argues. He appeals to Jesus’s rightful status as Lord, saying “[i]f thou be the Son of God,” you could make stones turn to bread or take possession of “all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them” (Matt 4:3, 8).

Chigurh, who always carries a coin like an amulet, uses money (and other principles of exchange) throughout the film to lure others into cooperating with evil. In truth, he rarely ever barters to benefit himself directly. He doesn’t really care about money. He uses it only as bait to pull unwitting people into the game, because he knows people put more value on money than it’s really worth.

I think a good argument could be made that Chigurh was the one responsible for the drug deal gone wrong, a mystery never actually solved in the film. Who else would have busted up a perfectly good deal? The dead bodies strewn on the scene from the beginning look a lot like his work, and when two American dealers higher up in the mob come with him to the scene to search for clues, he kills them too. But he keeps the device that tracks the location of the satchel of money. He knows it will take him to his next victim, whom he must kill out of some twisted sense of fairness, as if the man who has the money deserves it, because he has bought in to the devil’s game.

A conversation between Llewelyn Moss, the poor hunter who now possesses the money after happening upon it, and Carson Wells, Chigurh’s rival assassin, spell out Chigurh’s devilish priorities clearly:

Llewelyn Moss: If I was cuttin’ deals, why wouldn’t I go deal with this guy Chigurh?

Carson Wells: No no. No. You don’t understand. You can’t make a deal with him. Even if you gave him the money he’d still kill you. He’s a peculiar man. You could even say that he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that. He’s not like you. He’s not even like me. (IMDb)

Chigurh eventually does try to cut a deal with Moss, who has heroically escaped from his grasp time and again. On a phone call with Moss, Chigurh says he will not hunt down and kill Moss’s wife, Carla Jean, if Moss will give up the satchel of money and, most importantly, his life. “That’s the best you’re going to get,” Chigurh says.

Perhaps Chigurh just wants the money for himself, but then again, probably not. What he seems to care about in trying to make this deal is satisfying a blood-sacrifice sense of justice, for lack of a better term. If Chigurh can’t get to Moss, Carla Jean will do. Moss doesn’t accept the offer and stubbornly believes he can take down Chigurh, who has become “a special project” of his. If we view Chigurh as the devil, then Chigurh doesn’t need to pursue Moss anymore. For one thing, Chigurh now only needs to kill Carla Jean to satisfy his justice, and for another thing, he has already won Moss over to his world of vengeance and power by becoming his “special project.” Moss has essentially signed his own death warrant, for no one can escape the world into which he has plunged himself.

Chigurh eventually finds Carla Jean, just as she arrives home dressed in black, returning from her mother’s funeral. After she serenely protests the notion that justice demands she be killed, Chigurh hesitantly makes her the only offer he can, his most signature offer throughout the movie. She must call a coin toss and let fate decide.

To his surprise, the first time he is surprised in the movie, she tells him, “I ain’t gonna call it.” Finally, someone has stood up to the devil, and she has done so not by trying to avoid death and grasp on to a worldly hope, like her husband, but by not agreeing to play the game in the first place.

This throws off the devil’s sense of justice. In the devil’s view, justice is absolute, leaving no room for mercy or forgiveness. Neither is their hope in the future or the procuring of wealth, because death comes no matter what, the devil, in the form of Chigurh, being its minister. It doesn’t make sense for Carla Jean to refuse the game. Doesn’t she realize she will surely die otherwise? The dignity she seeks to maintain will not serve her then, or so Chigurh would have his victims believe.

We don’t see Chigurh kill Carla Jean on screen, but as he walks off of her front porch, he checks his boots for blood, which he often does after murdering someone. Even so, he has been defeated by Carla Jean’s meek resistance. When Chigurh’s car is randomly sidelined at an intersection after he leaves her house, badly injuring him and possibly killing the other driver, it serves as a metaphor for the fact that his world has been rocked.

But he gets back up and keeps playing the game. When two kids standing by come to his aid, he asks for one of their shirts in which to hang his broken arm. As sirens ring in the distance, Chigurh hands the kid some money. The kid refuses at first, saying he doesn’t mind helping someone, but Chigurh insists he keep it and tell the first responders he was long gone when the kid got there. The kid accepts the money, and as Chigurh walks off, the two kids immediately start arguing over it. The kid who accepted it very reasonably points out that he is the one without a shirt, and therefore the money is his. It paints a very clear picture of how the devil in the form of Chigurh draws others into his own corruption simply by dropping down some cash.

In the final scene, Sheriff Bell, with an air about him similar to Carla Jean before she is killed, has chosen to retire, realizing he will never catch the perpetrators now nor the perpetrators to come. The very person who should buy in to the game – the sheriff, representing true justice – has chosen instead to put away his sword. You can’t win this game, not on this earth. He recounts a dream to his wife in which his father, also a sheriff, has ridden a horse deep into the darkness ahead and is preparing a warm fire in the midst of the cold wilderness.

This recalls Scripture in John 14, in which Jesus promises to go to his Father’s house to prepare a place for his disciples, who must in the meantime endure “the prince of this world” by holding fast to “the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him.”

Similarly, Bell and Carla Jean hold onto this hope for a true and peaceful justice they know can only be possible in the world to come. Until then, the only way out is brave resignation and martyrdom in the face of pervasive injustice.

We live in a time of a heightened sense of justice that can be disordered. I think it’s safe to say that polarized political views in our country testify to that, whether liberal or conservative. The Coen brothers, as well as Cormac McCarthy, remind us that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12). It is a wickedness that seeks to turn us against each other with reasonable-sounding appeals to power, power that, in reality, is as fleeting as Llewelyn Moss’s satchel full of hundred dollar bills.

Correction: I originally wrote that Chigurh never gets the money, but there is an insinuation that he does find it. I also wrote Carla Jean is returning from her husband’s funeral at the end, but it is her mother’s.