Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen
Screenplay by: Joel & Ethan Coen
Antagonists are found within most pieces of literature and media – they provide a point of conflict for the protagonist in some form while raising the stakes of the narrative in one way or another. For more light-hearted films, this can be they attack the emotional standpoint of the protagonist such as a bully and for superhero films, they pose a threat on a global or universal scale. However, for thrillers, it’s more intimate. The antagonist is normally targeting the protagonist singularly and anyone that would have an effect on them such as their loved ones.
No Country for Old Men is an American Neo-Western crime thriller which is an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name. It follows the cat-and-mouse chase of Llewelyn Moss and Anton Chigurh which is being monitored by the Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. When Llewelyn Moss stumbles across a drug deal gone-wrong of which he takes a large sum of money from the scene, he is then pursued by Anton Chigurh, a hitman who will stop at nothing to make Llewelyn pay.
The film has been noted by critics as the best in the Coen brothers’ filmography as it defies narrative structure, poses thoughts of morality into the audience watching and creates memorable characters. One of which we are going to discuss today, Anton Chigurh, the antagonist of the film.
Portrayed by Javier Bardem, Anton Chigurh is the hitman who has been hired to retrieve the money that Llewelyn stumbled upon in the drug deal gone wrong. On a base level, he provides the conflict to keep the narrative moving which is the role of the antagonist. But the nuance of him from the classic storybook villain is that Llewelyn isn’t his mortal enemy that he must destroy once and for all such as the likes of Clark Kent and Lex Luthor. He’s just a part of his job.
The film opens with Chigurh being arrested, with the officer detailing over a radio the weapon that he uses – a captive bolt pistol. While waiting in the station, the audience can see him handcuffed in the background while the officer calls in his arrest before he slowly moves forward and strangles the officer to death with the handcuffs. Straight away, the audience are given an insight into two things – his strength and his lack of regard for human life. He doesn’t have anything in mind aside from the job that has to be done and everyone that gets in the way of that is just collateral damage.
He is something of a Grim Reaper who believes himself to be fully tasked with ridding the world of what he believes to be not worth saving. However, the scariest part of that is that he leaves it up to his decision or fate in order to decide who gets to live. One of his most famous ‘bits’ is if the morality in the situation is in the air and he hasn’t been specifically tasked with killing the person, but they do stand in the way of what he needs to get done, he flips a coin and leaves it up to fate. For others, they are killed instantly which shows just how unpredictable he truly is.
The narrative structure in No Country For Old Men is something that can be equally analysed and I no doubt will write another post on that some day but I do want to touch briefly on how it plays into the character of Anton. The film is book-ended by Ed Tom Bell’s musings on the way that the world is changing and growing more violent; but whereas the film closes with him in-shot, it opens with him speaking over the top of Chigurh’s arrest which leads onto his first on-screen murder.
This is important because it gives the audience insight that Moss and Bell don’t have, raising the stakes higher than before. Every interaction that Chigurh has with someone is automatically made more tense as the audience are aware of what he is capable of. The iconic gas station scene which is undoubtedly the best scene in the film would have been completely altered if the narrative structure had been changed. If the film had opened with Moss finding the money and being aware that someone could come after him, the threat would be somewhat empty. But by putting two and two together, the audience knows that Chigurh is the one after him even if it isn’t explicitly said through exposition until later in the film.
McCarthy’s antagonists often fall into the category of an unstoppable evil which Chigurh fits perfectly into – even though we see him wounded, he is almost like a man made of metal as he doesn’t seem to be too affected by his injuries. But the Coen brothers wanted him to be more than that and avoid him being one-dimensional which I think they do perfectly through subtle moments. Yes, the audience knows that he is unstoppable but they also know that he is particular about his boots from how he always checks that they’re clean after a kill. He doesn’t like people who don’t work hard for what they get, shown in the gas station scene where the owner reveals he married into the business. Most importantly, he’s a man of his word; even when that word was given to a dead man.
Overall, the awards that Javier Bardem won for his portrayal of Anton Chigurh are well deserved as he is one of the most enigmatic antagonists I have ever seen in a film. He brings a new option for screenwriters when writing antagonists, presenting new ways to be threatening while not being a cackling presence in the background. The juxtaposition of Bardem’s Chigurh and Bardem’s Salazar is insane when it comes to creating a villain, even though he plays them both with gusto. While I’m not normally a fan of the Coen brothers, I thoroughly enjoyed this film and will certainly be writing more analyses of it in the future. My star rating is only 4 due to the graphic nature of the film which I felt was too much in places as they showed their ability to masterfully tell the story without too much gore.
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