Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Searching for Chigurh

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.

The Evidence:
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


Richard Bellamy said...

Your shot-by-shot visual scrutiny of the Great Where is Chigurh Debate is masterful. What a passion for the filmed image! What does the filmed image reveal to us? What does it say to us?

Just last night I engaged in such a scrutiny of a minor B-film noir GUN CRAZY, which I was piqued to buy a year ago when I saw a single image in the great "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die," edited by Steven Jay Scheider. The black and white image shows bank robber/lovers Bart Tare and Annie Laurie Starr retreating across the street in front of the bank they have just held up. Annie Laurie, crazier about guns than Bart, turns to shoot the bank manager. Behind her, back of money under one arm, twists to throw his other arm around Annie's gun arm to stop her, his mouth open in twisted exclamation. That single image is vintage film noir. Last night, I paused it and slow reversed it until I had matched the exact image captured in the book. Why such a passion - such an obsession - for that exact image? Because, as you say, that image has meaning to us - and we watch it repeatedly for that meaning. And there might be some confusion about that image - or there might me multiple theories about the meaning of that image, but it speaks to the artistry of film that we take so much time examining and pausing and rewinding and marveling at and debating and discussing and writing about that image - and for me a most thrilling aspect is that the image may mean different things to different people - or it may even come to mean different things to you as you view it over years - but it always HAPPENS the same way.

Which leads me to again compliment you for your great analysis the Where is Chigurh? sequence - and to offer my theories.

First of all, I went to see No Country for Old Men a second time in theaters just to pay close scrutiny to that sequence.

First viewing - my impression was that he looks out the hole and then quickly retreats to the dark luggage alcove that most motels have across from the bathroom, and he stays there whole time.

Second viewing - it really looked to me and seemed more logical to me that he's in the other room.

After reading your article and examining the images - I seem to see an answer to the mystery in image #9. Chirgurh could definitely be lurking in that darkness on either side of the door. Bell enters. Then, like a ghost, Chigurh slips out. Still, I'm fine with him being in the other room - inconsistencies (even mistakes) and all - because those appear in the best of films. It's enough that Chigurh he's really there. I agree with that. For the meaning of this dark, tense sequence, that's all that matters to me. Chigurh is lurking in the darkness like a ghost.

Thanks for the great article.

Mark said...

Like hokahey, I really appreciate and thank you for this excellent analysis. Without taking the time to analyze the scene as thoroughly as you did, my sense on watching the movie twice -- once in the theater, once on DVD -- also was that Chigurh was in the room and somehow escaped undetected.

But I also wonder if another radical theory might hold water: that Chigurh is in Room 114, yes, but that he doesn't escape like a ghost. What if Ed Tom's visible sense of relief isn't relief, but acceptance? What if he sees Chigurh and relaxes because he knows that his fate is now not in his own hands; he's not going to win a fight. He sees Chigurh, Chigurh sees him, they share a moment and, essentially, let each other go. To me that fits with Ed Tom's general sense of resignation and also with Chigurh's willy-nilly ethics. You could also read the dime on the floor as not only a tool, but as a coin-flip. Ed Tom got lucky!


Thanks again for your great post.

Allison said...

Wow Jason!

I just got around to watching No Country last weekend.

Now I would like to watch it again.

This was a VERY interesting and insightful post.

Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey: "It always happens the same way." Indeed. And bless movies with ambiguity! Just to pick out one: I have a different hunch about what the couple does at the end of "Unfaithful" about every time I see it. (And I believe there's a DVD extra that might resolve the mystery, but why in the world would I watch that? The ambiguity is the fun!)

Likewise, I meant to work into my post but didn't: In several blog posts/comments about "No Country" folks have attempted to resolve the Desert Sands mystery by going to the novel or the screenplay. Maybe that's fair, but it certainly isn't fun. And, bottom line, the film is the film. The intent of the filmmaker matters, but that intent can only be evaluated based on the film itself. (In other words, it's OK to point out the Coen patterns in "No Country," but once you start evaluating their personalities based on stuff you read you've wandered off the reservation.)

Anyway, Hokahey's comment is interesting, too, because Errol Morris' "Standard Operating Procedure" will enjoy a wider release soon (I think), and from the little I've read (I'm trying to walk into the film fresh) it plays with this very notion: perceptions of an image can differ and perception can differ from reality, but the image is the image.

Moving on ...

Mark: My quibble with your analysis is that Bell enjoys his moment of relief (or acceptance) and THEN looks over at the open air duct. If the scene ended with the sigh, I'd be right with you.

That said: I know it can only be one thing or another, but I don't believe for a second that it's a coincidence that the dime on the floor is showing heads. Remember, that's what the gas station attendant called (and won with).

But getting back to Chigurh in the shadows: Don't forget about the scene when Chigurh goes into the office of the man who hired him and blows him away. The other man in the room (the accountant?) then asks if Chigurh is going to kill him. Chigurh says, "That depends. Do you see me?" That's called foreshadowing, folks! Chigurh is there in room 114 (at least for a while). Bell just doesn't see him.

A-Ross: Heck, leave the DVD in the player all week. Glad you enjoyed.

Fox said...

Whoa! awesome post, Jason. This is like a thesis! :)

Let me throw in my own (kinda) theory that (kinda) drags on the coattails of Theory 2: Chigurh Is A Ghost. But this doesn't really have to do with room 114, b/c I think you are right about your conclusion.

I just read his character as being this metaphysical and/or metaphorical force in the story. He exists in physical form, for sure, b/c he leaves behind traces of himself... but I never consider him to be human, if that doesn't sound wacky enough.

Maybe we can also ask "Where Is Chigurh?" after the car accident as well. That's what lingers for me. When the kid on the bike gives him his shirt, Chigurh says "you didn't see me, ok?" and walks off. To me, at that point, he vanishes.

RC said...


i definitly never interpretted chigurh as a ghost type character...more just a wierd-o killer

how interesting..i loved your thoughts and analysis.

it totally interested me in a rewatch since i honestly wasn't totally into it as a whole on my one and only viewing.

Jason Wilde said...

It's true what they say about The Cooler -- miss a little, miss a lot! Went to Made of Honor tonight -- a blissfully cliched, straightforward, formulaic film with a predictable happy ending and no such ambiguity -- and wanted to catch up on my reading of The Cooler since I hadn't been on for about a week. And lo and behold, I stumble upon this and now it's 1:23 in the morning.

Hokahey put it best -- this is a masterful post. I have to be honest, though, I never even CONSIDERED the possibility that Chigurh wasn't in room 114. I began reading the entry thinking I'd get an answer to where Chigurh is after he walks away from the crash at the end of the film. Analyze THAT, Captain Cinema.

Anyway, again, excellent work. Hooked me right in and got me reading all the linked blogs on the subject, too. (Although I must be pretty dim-witted not to have figured out your posting name on the Premiere.com blog.)


Jason Bellamy said...

Jason: I’m not sure how dim your wits are, but I didn’t leave any comments over on Glenn Kenny’s Premiere blog. So if you want to crack the pre-Cooler alias mystery, you’ll have to go to Jim Emerson’s Scanners blog and play Sherlock there. Speaking of Kenny though: Sad news for folks who haven’t heard. This week Kenny became another casualty in the eradication of the paid film critic, which has been a previous topic here at The Cooler. Kenny has a new blog up and running, but I hate to think that all the Premiere stuff might get thrown on the cyber bonfire. We’ll see.

But back to “No Country” …

Fox: I don’t think your reading of Chigurh is wacky at all. Back in high school I used to shake my head at Lit teachers who would go out of their way to find Christ symbolism in just about anything, but in this case the symbolism of Chigurh has all the subtlety of a bomb (which isn't to imply he's Christ-like). He is indeed a metaphysical/metaphorical force, flesh and blood though he is. I agree. That’s why I’m not in the camp of those who try to undermine “No Country” by complaining that they don’t know Chigurh’s backstory. What does it matter? Death announces itself whenever it wants and however it pleases. It requires no justification.

Thanks, Cooler readers, for all the kind words.

Craig said...

First, thank you for resolving a mystery -- although ancillary to the central one you address here -- about Chigurh and the motel room map. I never could figure out why Chigurh takes that room (nor his odd close-the-door-and-quickly-reopen-it gesture), and Emerson's "he's always next door" theory compounded my confusion, especially after counting the doors separating Chigurh from the Mexicans. It makes perfect sense now.

As for the Sheriff Bell/Chigurh non-showdown, I should probably explain my reaction the first time I saw that scene. When Bell enters the room and we are given a close-up of the window, I interpreted that to mean that Chigurh had in fact escaped via that route. Bell's sigh of relief as he sits on the edge of the bed immediately afterward seemed to confirm this; so too did the later scene between Chigurh and Carla Jean, when she sees the open window to her house right before encountering Chigurh in her room.

While I may be influenced by the fact that my own windows are impossible for the uninitiated to tell when they're in the latched position and when they're open, I'm willing to accept the conventional wisdom that the bathroom window in the film is in fact locked.

But while you make a compelling case that Chigurh is in the room when Bell enters, I still don't quite buy that reading. I just watched the movie again last night, focusing particularly on that scene. For starters, it's not a large room. Secondly, I think Bell doesn't turn on the main light because there's quite a bit of light from the outer hallway already coming into the room for him to see. He does turn on the light in the bathroom, so why would he be afraid of seeing in one room but not the other?

Finally -- and this also bothered me with regard to the possible escape out the window -- as you touched upon, Chigurh isn't one to run from a fight. The only instance where he does is when Moss shoots him in the leg (and vanishes a little too easily and unconvincingly). Envisioning Chigurh hiding behind the door, under the bed, in the alcove, or even in the shadows is too ridiculous for me. Thus, I'm leaning to the idea that Chigurh's presence behind the door is in Bell's mind. That Bell doesn't know what he looks like doesn't bother me terribly -- it's a visual representation of the idea that matters. You are correct that a "nightmare vision" doesn't jibe with everything that precedes the scene, but I think it does fit thematically with what comes after: Bell's final scene and the recounting of his dreams.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: As far as cinematic 'cheats' go, I'll give you that showing us the Chigurh we know as the visual representation of Bell's fear wouldn't be much of a cheat, even though Bell has never actually seen Chigurh. And in that sense the locked bathroom window could be read as underlining that, no, no flesh-and-blood person escaped the room. Still, it would be inconsistent, so I'm sticking with Chigurh being in 114.

As for running from a fight: You're right, he doesn't. And that's why he wouldn't go out the back window or through the air duct. But just because Chigurh doesn't kill Bell doesn't mean he's running. It just means he doesn't have a beef with Bell and doesn't see him as a threat. Chigurh didn't run from the guy at the gas station, but he lived. And Carla Jean might have lived too if she'd played the coin game. And that's why I'm so convinced that Chigurh is in the room, because it fits with his strange moral sensibilities.

But that's me. As I've said elsewhere, it doesn't really matter (what matters is that Bell thinks/fears Chigurh is in the room and goes in anyway). Thanks for adding to the conversation!

Craig said...

Thanks for responding, Jason. I certainly agree that Chigurh deciding to let Bell live is perfectly plausible within his own particular sensibility -- though he does tend to announce his presence to others before deciding their fates. What I find unlikely is that an experienced cop like Bell would fail to notice a tall, rather distinctive-looking individual with a shotgun in a motel room roughly the size of my living room and kitchen. Admittedly Bell leaves a bit to be desired in a law enforcement officer, but I don't see anything prior to this scene that suggests he's that incompetent.

I actually prefer your theory to the "Bell's imagination" argument. Perhaps if the final scene between Chigurh and Carla Jean had been played instead between Chigurh and Bell -- regardless of the novel -- it would have been even more compelling (though less fun to argue about).

Anonymous said...

Jason--your case seems airtight. But there is a final detail you didn't mention, which I saw come up in a huge debate on this subject on IMDb. It's for the "Bell's imagination" thesis. The shot of Chigurh crouching in the shadows is the only time we see him look scared! Reaching, I know. But it could be argued that he looks nervous--or at least unsure of himself, which would be a first for this character. In literally every other shot, his expression is stern, or determined, or cocky--but not here. Why??

Combine that with the absurdity that he'd be under the bed, hiding in the alcove, squatting on the floor, whatever, and I still have my reasonable doubt that he's in the room at all. If he is, then I'd almost have to go with Mark's theory that Bell is aware of his presence--or else Chigurh (here's a weird thought) is actually afraid of Bell.

Anonymous said...

I like your theory and your blog. I do, however, feel the need to bring up the mystery of 13. In an earlier scene, Wells (Harrelson) tells his employee (Stephen Root) that his building is missing a floor. I assume it's the 13th floor, as most building of that height skip the floor out of superstition. In this case, where is Room 113? Just wondering if it has anything to do with the mystery of where is Chigurh?

Jason Bellamy said...

Luke: Interesting. It is a reach to use Chigurh’s obscured facial expression as evidence that he’s not actually in the room. Then again, there does seem to be an element of tension (I’m not sure I can go as far as fear) in Chigurh’s face that is unusual. Can’t say I’d picked up on that.

I agree that the under-the-bed idea is absurd. But I think the truth is somewhere in the periphery of Mark’s theory: I don’t think Bell sees Chigurh, but I do think it’s entirely possible that he looks right at him and doesn’t see him, because deep down he doesn’t want to. Craig noted earlier that there’s quite a bit of light coming from the headlights of the truck, but honestly: If you were walking into a dark room that might contain Chigurh, would you settle for that? Only if you didn’t really want to see him.

Which brings me to this: If Chigurh is indeed scared on the other side of that door, doesn’t that eliminate the possibility that it’s Bell’s vision? Because Bell is undoubtedly scared, and Bell knows just how unrelenting Chigurh is (just by following his path of destruction). I don’t think Bell pictures Chigurh as possessing fear.

But back to the room: Yes, as Craig noted and others have implied: it’s small. That’s why I think that to miss Chigurh you’d kind of have to want to miss him. My point is only that the Coens are explicit in showing the latched bathroom window but they do not show every nook and cranny of darkness in the room. Thus, however implausible they seem, there are several areas of the room I could tell you that Chigurh must be (because we’ve just seen him behind the door) and no one could argue any different. Beyond the story-significance factor (it’s simply worth more to both characters if Chigurh is in the room), I’m left with this: There is visual evidence that Chigurh is in 114. There’s no visual evidence saying that he absolutely could not be in 114 (all those unexplored corners). Thus he must be in 114.

Wally: As for the “missing floor” mystery: I’ve read theories related to this, too, but I think it’s a lot of talk about nothing. Your assumption about there being no floor No. 13 is perfectly logical and simple. And so that’s what I’m going with (note: couldn’t it also be that one of the numbered floors is below ground, since Wells mentions counting them from outside?). When it comes to the Desert Sands motel mystery, I admit of course that there’s room for debate. But I still conclude that most of the clues point to Chigurh being in 114. That’s the simplest reality and the most straightforward reading. And I think the same applies to the missing floor mystery.

Thanks, all, for the continued discussion. Feel free to keep the comments coming, and to tell me I have it all wrong. It’s wonderful to have such thoughtful readers.

Anonymous said...

I think this has been the most brilliant plot device in at least the last 30 years and I love that we are all thinking and talking about this. Here are my thoughts after multiple viewings:

Chigurh would never draw upon Bell. The psychosomatic legend that he has imbued upon this lawman is enough. And Chigurh knows and loves both the psycho and scheming somatic aspects of this. He likes people to call it. Having the upper hand is the brilliance of this film. Chigurh knows he could blow Bell away. But he can’t call it. He’s waiting for Bell to call it.

I believe Chigurh is there, hiding in the shadows but spares Bell. He is not scared, there is no fear in his face, but he will kill anyone if drawn upon. But Bell knows this, sort of. In the back of his mind, Bell knows he’s there, somewhere, everywhere. Isn’t that the point?

Bell is giving up. He has already given up. Chigurh IS a ghost, the one Bell has never seen but has been hunting. The brilliance of this is that they are finally in the same room. Bell knows he’s there, in person, realizes this later becomes his internal monologue to his old man’s partner and his dream to his wife.

Meantime, it’s real. Bell, by not flinching, doesn’t for a second. He sits quietly, just as they both sat quietly on that couch of Moss’ trailer and drank from the same milk jug, Chig’s new, Bell’s slightly sweating.

Guys like Chigurh will multiply and he never signed up to be in the nasty business that this is/was this part of having a gun and hunting bad guys. He walks into that room knowing who is there but he is ready for his life to end. He knows he has been beaten. Thus he turns in his gun.

I hate to say it but Bell and Chigurh have followed the same path and each chose their final branch. But both know what exactly that entails.

Smart movie. Smart people. Smart comments.

Daniel said...

Reading this was almost as much fun as watching the film again. The Coen Bros. would be very proud, I think - nicely done.

Anonymous said...

Amazing analysis.

I'm going to consult the script. It should be there in black & white.

My own take is that it's Bell having a dream.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of people are misinterpreting the dime on the floor. It does't indicate Bell won a coin toss. Calling "heads" wasn't necessarily a winner; Chigurh gave the person the option of calling it. Furthermore, Chigurh flipped a quarter, not a dime. The quarter was the right tool for the coin toss. The dime was the right tool for unscrewing the vent. Also, we don't need the dime to tell us Chigurh was had been in the motel room. We already knew that from the blown lock and the open grate. Only Chigurh knew Moss hid the money there. The dime tells us more! The tool being left on the floor, and not returned to Chigurh's pocket as it had in the Del Rio scene, indicates that Chigurh was INTERRUPTED by Bell's approach to the door. This explains Chigurh's presence behind the door as Bell observes from the other side. Chigurh dropped the dime, grabbed the shotgun, and hid behind the door.

I'm also not in agreement with the theory that Chigurh cannot be a "ghost" because nowhere else in the movie did he appear supernatural. Effortlessly sliding handcuffed wrists underneath his feet and defeating a highly-successful police restraint seems pretty unlikely for all but a circus freak contortionist. (try this one at home). And I don't think it has to be black and white. There can be a duality to Chigurh's character, both as a human for plot sake and as a symbol/metaphor for meaning. The Coens stated in their interview with Charlie Rose they purposely tried to make Chigurh's appear more humanlike (the long scene with him tending his wounds). Why would they need to do that if he was in fact solely human?

Finally, one must consider several dialog clues given in the film. The accountant wasn't killed because he did not "see" Chigurh. Wells exclaimed surprise at Moss's claim that he had "seen" Chigurh and was not dead (Moss had in fact seen only a window reflection). Chigurh told the boys "You didn't SEE me" so he would not have to kill them. Bell stated at the beginning of the movie that he did not want to "meet" something he did not understand. Given these clues it is reasonable to conclude that Bell did not metaphotically "see" Chigurh in the motel room because he was unwilling/unable to see the death/evil he stated he feared in the opening monologue.

Jason Bellamy said...

Drew: Welcome to the debate!

First, one clarification: In the conversation that has unfolded here, the dime on the floor is a metaphorical coin toss only. I don't think anyone has meant to suggest that Chigurh actually had a coin toss with Llewelyn. Yes, the dime is the tool to unscrew the vent and nothing more. That the Coens give it a close-up just shows that they understand the symbolism.

That said, you're the first person to note that the dime on the carpet could suggest that Chigurh was interrupted by Bell. I like that reading. Makes sense. (However, we should also remember this: Previously when Chigurh unscrewed the vent, he didn't find the satchel. It could also be read that he dropped the dime to reach in and grab the money.)

I like your reading of the duality of Chigurh, though I do have some quibbles: 1) We watch Chigurh step out from those handcuffs. Javier Bardem does it. It's certainly possible. Not superhuman. 2) Ghost or not all those people wind up dead, from gunshots. Is there a duality to Chigurh's character thematically? Sure. But my opinion still stands that he's all man.

Maybe this will seem like a contradiction, but I can argue that Chigurh is 100-percent real and that Bell doesn't see him for the very reasons you described.

For all that I think is clear by analyzing these scenes, there are certainly shades of gray. That's what's so much fun.

Anonymous said...

Instinctively we know this scene is the key to the movie. I can't help but feel that what happens here must be interpreted by the viewer. It is not shown onscreen by the filmmakers. The precedent for this was Moss' death. I'm reminded of the double shadow as Bell pushes open the door. I feel it symbolizes the duality of Bell-Chigurh. And what about the parallels between the three characters? Chigurh says "Hold still" and the next line of the movie is Moss saying "Hold Still". When injured, both trade shirts for cash. Chigurh and Bell drink milk and watch their reflections in the TV set. They all share traits and they never meet each other.

Anonymous said...

I watched this film last night for the first time and had several questions, particularly about this scene. I've seen several theories on the web, and I think you've analyzed them excellently. Some things I thought about:

#1: It's obvious that Bell never considers room 112. No coin toss here.

#2: No argument necessary.

#3: This is a popular theory among those that don't accept #5. However, in a film with so much subtlety, why would the filmmakers need to SHOW us what Bell is thinking. We've seen the blown lock, Bell's fear and his hesitation. We already know what he's imagining.

#4: The front door is the only way out. Obvious.

#5: The only acceptable theory. It provides the most closure and meaning.

I've also seen another theory that wasn't addressed here. I don't personally agree with it, but the idea is that we do see Chigurh in 114, but at an earlier time, and he is long gone by the time Bell arrives. As I said with #3, why would they need to show us? We know who's been in the room.

Alonzo Mosley (FBI) said...

Great analysis, sir. I think you pretty much have it wrapped up.

There is one other mystery, though, that I haven't heard answered.

Most people have dismissed the option that Chigurh escaped through the opened vent, and I agree. However, I also doubt that the money was in there, too. The perspective provided by the dime shows us that the vent in this motel is much smaller than the one that Moss used to hide the money before.

The first one was large and square-ish (not quite "Die Hard" size, but close). The second is near the floor and has a circular opening that looks to be about the width of a 2 liter coke bottle. This opening may open wider deeper in, but it wouldn't be wide enough for that large case that held the money.

At least, that's the way it appears to me. I'd be happy to be proven wrong. But if I'm not, why was the vent opened? Moss and Chigurh seem smart enough to look at that opening and immediately decide its too small for the money. The only thing I can figure is that perhaps Chigurh, having returned to the room, was starting to get desperate in his search for the money and was exploring possibilites that were less likely (Moss would have had to taken the money out of the case and inserted them into the hole bundle by bundle). Could it be that he was in the midst of exploring the vent when Bell interupted him, thus the reason he seems ever so slightly anxious/nervous in the shot of him behind the door?

I would love to hear anybody's input on this.

Jason Bellamy said...

Alonzo: I think the satchel would fit into the rectangular area just on the other side of the vent plate (prior to the circular duct).

Actually, this got me to look again at that image (in the post above) and if you look carefully there appear to be drag marks in the dust of the rectangular duct, similar to the marks Chigurh finds at the previous motel after the satchel has been removed.

I think the first duct seems misleadingly large ("not quite 'Die Hard' size" -- I like that) because the camera takes us inside it for so long, playing a trick on the brain that makes us feel as if we fit in the duct.

Others chime in if you disagree.

Thanks for joining the discussion, Alonzo.

Sugar? said...

Any Friendo notice the shadow of the chair on wall opposite motel room door had moved when bell came out of the bathroom - was Chigurh behind the doourh?

...there's bills a plenty to pay yet...

Jameson said...

I read an interview with the Coens where they said the shot of Chigurh was intended to illustrate Ed Tom's fear that he might be there - and only that. I agree with previous comments that it's a misleading shot because they don't use that device anywhere else in the film, but that's what they say they intended with that shot.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jameson: It's definitely misleading, because they don't use the device elsewhere. Although, that option is supported by the close-up of the locked window, which is screaming: "NO, HE DIDN'T SLIP OUT THE BACK." And it reenforces the notion that Chigurh is behind THAT DOOR (because Bell wouldn't worry about him standing behind a different one).

That said, I'm always of the mind that what the filmmakers say in interviews is irrelevant. Because intent is irrelevant. We see this in everyday life all the time: There's what we mean to say, and then there's what we say.

That said, you've provided an interesting tidbit that in some ways ends the mystery. But since the interview doesn't appear in the film, it shouldn't really be part of the discussion, in my mind.(If the Coens wanted it to be obvious, they should have made it obvious.)

That's my thinking anyway. Thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...

I think we can eliminate one hiding place in room 114. Chigurh is not behind the door when bell enters. If you up the brightness and contrast on the screen shot above of Bell in the door, you will see nothing behind the door in the shadow. Bell does not really look to his left so we don't get a shot of that side of the room.

Anonymous said...

This is such a key scene in the movie, I think you've done a great job debunking the duff "two rooms" theory. Clearly it's explicit that Chigurh is in room 112 when Bell is hesitating outside the door, the whole fear and tension of the scene depends on it as does the outcome of the film. I don't ascribe to the theory that Chigurh is either an actual ghost or a figment of Bell's imagination. Therefore, I think Bell walks in end either fails to see Chigurh because he is too well hidden in the shadows somewhere, or because he daren't actually see him.
However something REALLY bugs me about this scene: the shadow of the tape on the wall. As Bell walks to the bathroom, the tape is starkly shadowed on the wall. When he comes out, the shadow is gone. Does that mean Chigurh slipped out of the door and broke the tape...? That would seem silly, surely he'd just duck out quietly. Then - this bit is the one that I don't get: when Bell sits on the bed, we look past him to the open door, and the shadow of the tape is back again, against the door! The only explanation I have is that there was a continuity error in filming the room from the two angles - looking in from the door, and looking out towards the tape. Probably the scene needed to be lit in different ways for the two points of view. I dread to think so but it's the only explanation I've come up with. If so, sloppy work :( And if not - what the heck is it supposed to mean?

Unknown said...

This is the key scene in the movie and consequently I would like to say you've done a great job in providing a logical arguement to support what the audience believes on first viewing only to question later given the difficulty most people not Chigurh would have in effecting an escape undetected in the time Bell enters the bathroom.

However I although I believe you are spot on I would like to point out a fairly obvious hole in the script - Chigurh had to have left with his gun, the money bag and the humane killer (tank, hose etc).

Ben said...

Great analysis! My favorite scene of the film. IMO, it's pretty damn clear that Chigurh was merely a symbolism of the fear confronting Bell as he deliberated on entering the motel room. When he saw the signature of Chigurh of the blown keyhole, Chigurh really was in the room in Bell's thoughts (brilliant depiction of this by showing Chigurh eerily standing in the dark, half his face covered with pure evil in his one eye).

Practically, Chigurh couldn't have been there; the room was searched and the bathroom door was locked. Room 112 wasn't significant at all (the only reason why the rooms were switched at the previous motel was because the protagonist saw that his room was occupied).

Disregarding all of that, the fear symbolism makes the most sense in the No Country for Old Men's theme.

Anonymous said...

I hesitate to comment on a posting from 2008. However, since I don't see anyone proposing my theory, here goes.

Chigurh is in the room, behind the door. The statement from Chigurh to the accountant is key "That depends, do you see me?". Chigurh clearly follows some strict code of rules. Initially Ed Tom does not see him. When he does, Chigurh has his gun aimed and there is no question of the outcome of the showdown. Instead of dying, Ed Tom "does not see" Chigurh. He lets him escape.

This interpretation makes the movie more interesting, IMHO. The showdown does happen but Ed Tom is "over matched" and not up to defeating the modern evil. The first dream references this failure. His has failed his father's legacy by no protecting innocent people and not defeating evil. The second dream suggests forgiveness however. Ed Tom's death in the hotel room would have served no purpose. Sometimes evil wins but that does not mean his whole life was a failure. It's time to retire and leave the fight to the next generation of lawmen.

Anonymous said...

I think the sequence symbolized Ed Tom wanting to catch and arrest chigurgh, he wanted him to be there, hence he imagined him standing behind the door, only to discover the harsh that he hasn't found him and probably never will, thats why in the next scene he says he feels overmatched, because in the end, i don't think it's the criminals who have become more evil, i think what ed tom fears the most is not the fact there are new modern criminals, he fears he is too soft and to old to stop them.

Unknown said...

The significance of the close up of the dime is the superimposiotion to the country landscape.also his sigh of resignation. relates to the phrase " accept all that comes to you in life with simplicity . opening quote from " A Serious Man". This is the end of Bell's life . He was blind sided , which happens like clock work throughout this film and "A Serious Man. The film dissolve denotes the Hindu Vedic idea of the Bardo moment When someone who is searching for god. Remember : Bell says I was hoping God would enter my life and he never showed up. If the Bardo moment happens to kill you instead of lifting you to a higher level .This step to enlightenment continues . His conversation with the the blind seer ,d├ęcor is dark dingy and dirty, then later the conversation with his wife is clean full of light not claustrophobic because we can see thru the window sunlight and trees.Although Bell says he's been known to laugh we don't see him smile until this conversation with his wife. He recalls the afterlife dream.Final words" and then I woke up.waking, sleeping and dreaming are different states of consciousness.Bam he moves up to a higher level thru the redeeming love of his wife and Bam we the audience wake up from our collective dream experience of watching this movie and we transition back to our waking state and perhaps see the world thru new eyes. leading back to their opening line from A Seriuos man.Accept all that happens to you with simplicity. Brian Lizotte