No Country for Old Men is a 2007 neo-western written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. The film is based on a 2005 book of the same name written by famed writer Cormac McCarthy. The film is frequently counted the greatest movies of the 21st century for its screenplay and performances.
Of the main cast, Javier Bardem features in a breakout role as the hired hitman Anton Chigurh. The actor’s take on the chilling character earned Bardem an Oscar, and Chigurh is often counted among the greatest screen antagonists of all time. Let us take a look at what it is about Chigurh that makes him such a compelling and terrifying villain.
Anton Chigurh is first introduced as he is in the process of killing a police officer, one who had picked him up for killing another civilian who had been behaving in a rude manner. Right off the bat, audiences are made aware that Chigurh is an unusual villain, who cannot be stopped by the law or any of the usual moral concerns that prevent a regular person from committing crimes.
As the story progresses, we learn a few more things about Chigurh. None of them good. He is a hitman who works for the drug cartel. He is extremely efficient at his job. His associates are deathly afraid of him. And he operates by an unusual code of conduct when it comes to dealing with enemies. Once Chigurh is sent to hunt down a person, or if a person gets between him and his mission, nothing will stop Chigurh from killing all and sundry.
Anton Chigurh is a lot like a slasher horror movie villain like Jason Voorhees or Micheal Myers. But while not being blessed with any supernatural abilities, what makes Chigurh so terrifying is his extreme intelligence in hunting down his prey. He may be completely relentless, but Chigurh is never impulsive or lacking in planning. Chigurh is also excellent at thinking on his feet and improvising in the face of danger.
All these qualities make Chigurh a nightmare for Llewelyn Moss, the closest thing to a protagonist in No Country for Old Men. After Moss stumbles across a bag full of drug cartel money, Chigurh is sent after him to retrieve the money and kill Moss. Despite being a formidable army veteran, Moss just barely manages to stay a couple of steps ahead of Chigurh, who weaves a path of destruction toward his target that includes murdered civilians, police officers, and even Chigurh’s own bosses.
While it might seem that Chigurh is a completely amoral being, he actually does have a moral code. Like the coin flip that Chigurh sometimes offers his targets, allowing the ones who call heads or tails correctly to escape with their lives. Chigurh does not see himself as a villain. Rather he views himself as the personification of destiny, who is only sent to kill people whose actions in one way or another has led them down a path that can only end in death by his hand.
Despite his grandstanding, at the end of the day Chigurh is nothing but a sadistic psychopath, and in fact, he is one of the most medically accurate versions of a psychopath ever seen in films. Through his actions, Chigurh becomes death personified, striking down anyone at random under circumstances of pure chance or bad luck. The killings don’t make sense for anyone but Chigurh himself, whose demented moral code has little bearing on humanity’s understanding of justice or fairness.
Throughout the movie, Chigurh is shown to be a larger-than-life figure of doom. But the ending shows Chigurh himself is not exempt from the random cruelty he inflicts on others. A meeting with Moss’ wife, whom he had sworn to kill, shakes Chigurh to his very core when she refuses to play his game of flipping the coin. Soon after that Chigurh almost dies in a car accident.
Although he manages to escape with his life, Chigurh’s arm gets horribly mangled, and he can only hobble away in pain before the cops arrive. It is probable that in his incapacitated state, Chigurh’s own days might be numbered since he is no longer the alpha predator in his world and is being hunted by the police and drug cartel. And so Chigurh succumbs to the same kind of senseless violence that he had inflicted on the rest of society for so long.
There are no easy lessons to learn from No Country for Old Men. Chigurh does technically manage to escape the law despite his many misdeeds, leaving behind only a long trail of bodies. This ending can be seen as a meditation on the randomness and senselessness of death, and the people the Grim Reaper so often brings into his fold without warning or the possibility of escape.