Just one of the reasons that No Country For Old Men was my favorite movie of last year is because it was my favorite film experience of last year. The vagueness of two significant moments in the film’s final third made Joel and Ethan Coen’s Cormac McCarthy adaptation more than just a masterpiece worth savoring. It made No Country a film worth debating, unraveling, decoding and re-reading. I saw No Country three times in the theater, in part because I just plain enjoyed it, but also because my first viewing left me with questions I wanted to resolve.
One of the biggest questions, and the topic of this post, is: “Where is Chigurh?” If you’ve seen No Country, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t and thus don’t, you must stop reading this post and go rent the movie immediately, though at this point I’ll quote Jim Emerson from his recent post on this same topic: “Why you would be reading this blog if you haven’t seen (No Country) is beyond me.” Indeed! The Cooler doesn’t have anywhere near the readership numbers of Emerson’s Scanners, but we deal in movies here, friend-o. By now you’ve at least figured that out. But, presuming you’ve seen No Country, have you figured out the other part? Can you answer with confidence: “Where is Chigurh?” I can.
Before I do, I need to give credit where credit is due. This is hardly the first “Where is Chigurh?” entry in the blogosphere. In fact, the blog world has never been more exciting for me than it was in the days and weeks after my first viewing of No Country on November 22. With more and more movie fans, many of them friends and readers of The Cooler, going to the cinema less and less (instead opting to watch movies on DVD), the blogosphere provides the community conversation experience that would otherwise be hard to find. Just because I had to wait for some of my friends to see No Country didn’t mean I had to wait to discuss it.
Back in November, Emerson wrote about the Chigurh motel room mystery, and other things No Country. In December, Glenn Kenny analyzed the scene specifically. At the time, there was no better place to debate No Country’s finer points and attempt to bring some level of clarity to the Coens’ intentional fog than those two posts. I made myself part of the discussion (those hip to this blog’s title will be able to spot me in the comments section at that November Emerson post under my pre-Cooler alias). And though I reveled in the enlightenment that came from those blog discussions, even more I enjoyed the collective experience: movie fans coming together to unravel a mystery. Though Emerson and Kenny appeared to have access to screen captures from screener DVDs, the rest of us were working from memory and working together. We’d think, we’d write, we’d submit our analysis and then we’d wait to see if it would hold up to group scrutiny. If we all had DVDs to review at the time, we could have come up with answers faster and more definitively, but it wouldn’t have been as much fun. But I digress.
Over time, in multiple conversations with friends and through the posts linked above (including analysis offered in the comments sections), a few popular theories surfaced in the attempt explain Chigurh’s whereabouts in the moment late in the film when Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Tom Bell throws open the door at the El Paso Desert Sands Motor Hotel (where hours earlier, in plot time, Llewelyn’s flight with the satchel came to a fatal end) and finds nothing but an empty room. Below, I take on these theories point by point. My arguments, all these months later, will seem overly exhaustive to some of you, but for others it might finally solve at least part of the riddle (feel free to write in to tell me any theories I missed).
Before we get to that, however, let me quote Emerson once more from a recent post about a Q&A at Ebertfest that inspired his latest analysis of the “Where is Chigurh?” mystery. He’s speaking of what Bell sees in the final motel room nonconfrontation (a dried pool of blood, an apparently empty room, a locked bathroom window, an open air vent, etc.) and what he (and we) don’t see (Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh). He’s speaking of what’s on screen and what isn’t.
“What more do you need to know? I'm not saying it's unreasonable to want to know. But take a moment to look before you start jumping to conclusions. What is there and what is not there. Does the movie provide the answer(s) to your questions, or does it not? If not, what does that decision tell you? That the Coens are sloppy or forgetful? That they're interested in something else, like the experience Ed Tom has just gone through? That maybe you're asking the wrong questions?”In other words, just because we want to know where Chigurh is at that moment doesn’t mean that we need to know. His actual location may be superfluous. The Coens must think so, or else they would have been more explicit. Certainly the Coens didn’t pick the finale of a meticulously-shot movie to suddenly get lazy. Their decision to leave Chigurh’s exact whereabouts in doubt is a deliberate decision, and I happen to love it. Yet just because I’m completely content to bask in No Country’s shades of gray, just because there are a few possible interpretations of the final motel scene, doesn’t mean that all analyses are correct. When you slow down and really look, the mystery isn’t so complex after all.
And so, with the aid of DVD and all that previous debate, we proceed:
What We Can All Agree On
To make sure we’re on the same page, let’s start with the basics of the scene (a screen grab synopsis appears at the end of this post): Sheriff Bell returns to the Desert Sands motel in the dark of night. He pulls his truck up to the crime scene, where police tape stretches across rooms 114 and 112. He walks up to room 114, where Llewelyn met his death. He looks at the door. The deadbolt is missing. He pauses. Then we (but not Bell) see Chigurh in a space that is dark except for the light shining through a cylindrical space, presumably a hole in a door created when the deadbolt was blown out of it – Chigurh’s preferred method of breaking and entering.
At this point, on at least our first viewing of the film, we assume that Chigurh is on the other side of the door of room 114. Bell draws his gun, pushes the door open. We expect confrontation. Instead we get nothing. Bell searches the modest hotel room, revealing no Chigurh. Then Bell sits down on the bed and turns to see, in the light shining through the still-open motel room door, an uncovered air duct, screws on the carpet and a dime, which we assume that Chigurh used to open the vent, as he had earlier at the Regal Motel. This leads us to question: If Chigurh was just behind the door of room 114, where is he now? Where is Chigurh?
Theory 1: The Emerson Theory: Chigurh isn’t in room 114. He’s in the neighboring room 112.
Back in December, Emerson had six arguments in favor of his interpretation, which he recently restated. Since then, he’s amended one of his proofs, perhaps related to a comment I left on his latest post on the subject, though he still thinks the interpretation holds. Let me paraphrase and quote his six points and offer responses:
1) Earlier in the movie, at the Regal Motel, Chigurh took an adjacent room to Llewelyn’s.
This is the argument Emerson has amended, but I’m sticking with his original point because it underlines an easy-to-make mistake.
At the Regal Motel (where we watch Llewelyn fish for the satchel and witness Chigurh kill the Mexicans), Llewelyn’s initial room is 138. When he returns to the Regal and suspects (correctly) that someone is in his room, he asks to rent a second room and consults the motel map. Llewelyn does this because he needs to select an adjacent room on the backside of room 138, as these rooms would share the same air ducts, allowing him to fish for the satchel. If Llewelyn wanted a room next door to 138, he could have asked for room 137 (which the desk woman recommends to him) or 139. Simple enough. No map needed there. Llewelyn’s purpose is to find the room with a shared back wall, and thus shared ductwork. That’s why he requires the map.
Later, in a darkly comic shot, we see Chigurh consulting the Regal Motel map. Engrossed in all that’s going on, many moviegoers make the mistake of assuming that since Llewelyn needs to find a room directly next to room 138 that Chigurh has the same motivation for looking at the map. Not so. Chigurh consults the map in order to find a room with the same layout as 138 (and perhaps also a room where he can monitor the door of room 138). He ends up with room 130, down the corridor and just around the corner of the L-shaped complex, eight units away from 138. Chigurh enters 130, looks at it with the lights on, then turns off the lights, shuts the door and rehearses breaking into the room, imaging where the gunmen will be hiding or lounging in 138.
Thus, if Chigurh didn’t rent a room directly adjacent to Llewelyn’s room at the Regal Motel, there’s no precedent to suggest that he did so at the Desert Sands.
2) The doors of 114 and 112 are “equally emphasized” and both have police tape running across them.
This is true. Sort of. As Bell drives up to the Desert Sands, both rooms are visible in the shot. But room 114 is at the center of the frame and even appears brighter in Bell’s headlights, so the doors are not equally emphasized. Yes, room 112 is also behind police tape, but this seems to be for practical purposes: with the doors so close together it would be difficult to rope off one door and not the other.
Also, an earlier shot of the crime scene, from just before Carla Jean arrives at the Desert Sands, shows that the lights are on in room 114 (with police going in and out) while the lights are off in room 112 and the door is closed. If room 112 was part of the crime scene, it would likely be abuzz with activity, just like room 114.
3) “Chigurh is never where you expect him to be, when you expect him to be there.”
Also only sort of true. Certainly Chigurh is a man capable of surprise and adept at emerging from the shadows to wreak havoc. But Chigurh does have patterns. Whether or not Chigurh is in room 114 when Bell returns to the crime scene, it’s obvious that Chigurh did in fact return to the scene of the crime, as he has in the past, to retrieve the money. We know this because of the uncovered air duct and the coin (Chigurh’s tool; Llewelyn uses a screwdriver). Obviously Chigurh didn’t unscrew the vent amidst the earlier gunfight, and thus we can assume that the satchel was removed from the motel room after police finished investigating the shootout and left the scene. Thus Bell’s hunch is correct: Chigurh did return to the scene of the crime. Sometimes Chigurh is entirely predictable.
4) Bell is relieved not to find Chigurh in the room, and the decision to select room 114 over 112 stands as his equivalent of surviving the coin toss.
Bell is certainly relieved. But if rooms 114 and 112 were both part of the crime scene, Bell’s search wouldn’t be over the moment he was done searching room 114. Look at it this way: if you were Sheriff Bell and you thought Chigurh might be standing in the room next door (112), would you sit on the bed and breathe a sigh of relief in room 114? I sure wouldn’t. Though it’s true that Bell survives his “coin toss” with destiny, the choice isn’t over 114 or 112 (as he gets out of his truck, Bell never even looks at room 112). The choice is whether to tempt fate by entering room 114 or to play it safe and walk away. That’s his coin toss. And he survives. But that doesn’t mean that Chigurh was absent.
5) “If Chigurh wanted/needed to shoot Sheriff Bell … he would have.”
Well, that’s true. But that’s true whether Chigurh is in room 114 or on Jupiter. Chigurh’s decision whether to shoot Bell is determined by his own strange moral code (as with all his other victims and near-victims), not his geography. The rest of the film clearly demonstrates: If Chigurh wasn’t someone dead, he hunts them until they are. If he doesn’t, he lets them go, even if they’re standing right in front of him. It’s that simple.
6) There’s no indication in the movie that Chigurh has “supernatural powers,” thus Chigurh didn’t just disappear from room 114. Thus, if Bell doesn’t find Chigurh in 114, he must not be there.
True and maybe true. Though I agree with the point about supernatural powers (more on this in Theory 2), several arguments could be made for why Chigurh is in room 114 but escapes discovery. A silly though simple premise suggests that Chigurh hides under the bed and then slips out the door when Bell’s search takes him into the bathroom. I’m not endorsing that interpretation, but there’s no visual evidence to refute it. Using the visual clues available to us, that reading is irrefutably possible.
In conclusion: At best the above six arguments don’t eliminate the possibility that Chigurh was in room 112. But nothing above suggests definitively that Chigurh is anywhere other than room 114. However, evidence does exist proving that Chigurh can’t be in room 112: When we get our glimpse of Chigurh hiding in the shadows, he appears to be standing up against a wall, the door to his left (our right), as evidenced by the light shining through the missing deadbolt in the foreground. This shot suggests that Chigurh in a room with a layout identical to room 114, if not 114 itself. By contrast, if Chigurh were in room 112, we might still see light in the foreground from the missing deadbolt, but we’d also see light in the background, which would be coming through the motel window, which exterior shots demonstrate is illuminated by the headlights of Bell’s truck. Instead, Chigurh is standing in darkness. No light behind him means no window behind him, which means a definitive “no” to the theory that he’s in room 112.
Theory 2: Chigurh is a “ghost.”
Several commenters on various blogs have offered the reading that Chigurh is in fact a “ghost” and thus could magically disappear from room 114. Though it’s impossible to eliminate all possibility of this reading – if you say Chigurh is an actual angel of death, how am I to disagree? – it’s simple to create reasonable doubt. In short, Chigurh is very real throughout the entire movie, as is everything else we see. This isn’t The Sixth Sense, where our interpretation of previous events gets turned on its head in the final moments. The Coens are offering no such twist. All the people Chigurh has killed were real people who are actually dead. The car Chigurh turned into a bomb really exploded. His trail of blood after his shootout with Llewelyn is real. Thus Chigurh is real.
The ghost argument arises from people pointing out that Bell calls Chigurh a “ghost” in the scene prior to going back to the Desert Sands motel, but this is only partially accurate. His conversation with the El Paso Sheriff in the parking lot of the diner actually goes like this:
El Paso Sheriff (on Chigurh): He’s just a goddam homicidal lunatic, Ed Tom.
Bell: I’m not sure he’s a lunatic.
El Paso: Yeah, well what would you call him?
Bell: Well, sometimes I think he’s pretty much a ghost.
El Paso: He’s real, alright.
First of all there’s an enormous difference between being “pretty much a ghost” and being an actual ghost, just like there’s an enormous difference between eating a burger that tastes like shit and eating one that’s actually made of feces. Also, the El Paso Sheriff confirms that the crimes and the perpetrator are real. Thus, the “ghost” theory doesn’t hold.
Theory 3: The image of Chigurh behind the door is Bell’s imagination of what’s there. It’s a symbol of his fear.
That would explain why Bell doesn’t find anything on the other side of the door, but it doesn’t explain the following: As with Theory 2, at no time during the rest of the movie do the Coens show us something that isn’t really there. If this is a nightmare vision, it’s the only nightmare vision in the entire film. Also, Bell has never laid eyes on Chigurh. That’s precisely why Chigurh is “pretty much a ghost.” If Bell has never seen Chigurh, how can he imagine what he’d look like standing on the other side of the door?
Theory 4: Chigurh is in room 114, but he escapes by some method other than the front door, such as the air duct.
Ignoring for the moment whether Chigurh could fit through the air duct, or whether he could wiggle himself (and the money and his gun) through that tight space without Bell hearing him, or whether he could escape that way in the necessary time, here’s the problem: Once Chigurh climbs inside the ductwork, how is he planning to get out the other side? He’d be locked in, which makes it a bad escape route. Also, given all that we know of Chigurh’s nature, does shimmying away from a fight through an air duct seem Chigurh-like? I don’t think so. As silly as it is to picture Chigurh hiding under the bed, this image is sillier times twelve.
Remember: the duct is uncovered because Chigurh removed the grate to fetch the satchel of money in his return to the crime scene. Why was the money in the duct? Because as far as Llewelyn knew it was still a terrific hiding place. Earlier, at the Regal Motel, the Mexicans sit in room 138 without detecting the money, and Llewelyn has no idea that Chigurh deduced the location of the satchel after Llewelyn snagged it and fled the scene.
Also supporting the idea that Chigurh must have escaped through the open front door is the close-up of the latched bathroom window. This shot screams, “No, Chigurh didn’t escape out the back!” The Coens may be vague about how Chigurh avoids detection, but they are crystal clear that his escape route isn’t through the bathroom window, and this would seem to apply to the air duct, too.
Why would the Coens be so explicit about one thing and so vague about another? That’s the question to ponder, and that’s what Emerson is referring to when he says, “Does the movie provide the answer(s) to your questions, or does it not? If not, what does that decision tell you?” If we assume that the close-up of the door establishes that Chigurh doesn’t escape room 114 before Bell enters it, the Coens are telling us that Chigurh makes a choice about whether or not to kill Bell. It doesn’t matter how Chigurh gets away. What matters is that we know that Chigurh held Bell’s fate in his hands and let him go, per his bizarre ethics. If the Coens wanted Chigurh’s escape to be entirely vague, there wouldn’t have been a close-up of the latched window. The window shot is a smoking gun establishing Chigurh’s presence in room 114 (and it’s not the only one…keep reading).
Theory 5: Chigurh is in room 114, escapes detection via means we’ll never be able to determine conclusively and slips out the front door while Bell is in the bathroom.
This isn’t just the simplest and most logical theory – the one most consistent with the rest of the film – it’s the only theory left standing. It’s also the theory that provides the biggest punch. Ask yourself: What’s Bell’s deliberation worth if Chigurh isn’t on the other side of the door? What’s Chigurh’s pardoning of Bell worth if he flees the scene a moment before Bell enters it?
We know that Chigurh is in 114 because he’s standing behind a door with a missing deadbolt. On the interior shot of the missing deadbolt – Chigurh’s view – we can actually make out the reflection of Bell in the metal lining of the hole. A ghost cannot see this view, cannot occupy this space. The reflection of Bell cannot be seen through any other door. This shot is yet another smoking gun: Bell and Chigurh stand a door’s width away from one another. Then Bell pauses. And when he opens the door, Chigurh is nowhere to be seen.
Where exactly is Chigurh? He’s not behind the door anymore. That much can be determined by pausing the DVD (and, truth be told, I was pretty confident Chigurh was no longer standing behind the door after my second theatrical viewing, without the benefit of frame-by-frame examination). Chigurh isn’t in the bathroom. He isn’t in the ductwork. He probably isn’t in the opposite corner of the room, because Bell appears to look in that direction when he enters the room.
Could he be under the bed? Sure. Could he be in the luggage alcove to the left of the bathroom? Sure. The reality is he could be anywhere that we cannot see (before escaping through the front door). And that’s the answer: Chigurh is in the shadows. Period. Somewhere in the shadows. What, you think it’s a coincidence that Bell doesn’t flip on the lights when he enters room 114? Of course not! With the lights on in the room, there would be no dark corners for Chigurh to occupy. But with the lights off it’s easy to argue that somewhere, in some patch of darkness, Chigurh is there. Of that much I’m certain.
That’s all we know. That’s all we need to know.
Click any of the following to enlarge:
Sheriff Bell Returns to the Desert Sands:
Initial Crime Scene
Regal Motel Map (as seen by Llewelyn)
Chigurh at the Regal Motel