Picking the best Coen brothers movie is a fool’s game, even for the most knowledgeable cinephile. Joel and Ethan Coen have made such a wide spectrum of films over the past few decades, ranging far and wide across both tone and genre, that picking favorites mostly depends on personal preferences. But there’s no doubt No Country for Old Men, which opened 10 years ago this week, is one of their most important works. The Cormac McCarthy adaptation is important not just because it earned the Coens a Best Picture Oscar and kicked off a run of critical successes for them (A Serious Man, True Grit, Inside Llewyn Davis), but also because it introduced one of the most iconic movie villains of the 21st century: Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. Even a decade later, Chigurh remains as terrifying a cinematic persona as ever – maybe even more so.
Bardem first reached mainstream recognition for his Oscar-nominated performance as Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls. Chigurh, though, is the role that actually got him his Oscar, and it fits. The Oscars love rewarding roles that break with an actor’s established persona (see Leonardo DiCaprio finally winning his award not for a bright charismatic performance, but for eating raw bison liver in the freezing snow in The Revenant), and there truly is something terrifying about seeing a performer as passionate and expansive as Bardem play a character so cold and unfeeling as Chigurh.
“Coldness” is one of the dominating features of the character, a total disconnect from the usual terms of human interaction. Take Bardem’s Oscar-reel scene with the gas station clerk, a routine interaction which quickly becomes awkward when Chigurh refuses to accept typical conversation tropes like small talk. His coldness makes him stand out; even in the blazing Texas desert, he looks as pale as a ghost. He acts like one too, often haunting graveyard-like scenes of mass death, or flitting away unnoticed in the background of the world. After all, the most unforgivable crime in his book is when people “see” him, and the only way to survive an encounter with him is to forget you saw him at all.
Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the only other character in No Country for Old Men who seems to have any real sense of what’s going on around him, explicitly compares Chigurh to a ghost. The hitman’s ability to survive potentially fatal encounters (whether it’s the climactic car crash or a shotgun bullet in his leg) also connects him to the cinematic undead. Chigurh was crowned as an iconic Hollywood villain almost immediately, making it halfway up EW’s own list of 50 Most Vile Movie Villains mere months after the movie hit theaters. It makes sense when you consider his ghostly nature, which connects him to creatures like Nosferatu — the original villain of cinema.
Like a vampire, Chigurh regards other human beings as little more than meat. This is evident in his use of a cattle gun as his primary killing tool, but also in the visceral disgust he displays at blood and other symbols of human life. Moments after we meet him, Chigurh chokes a sheriff’s deputy to death with his own handcuffs. When the man’s neck starts spurting blood, the unflappable hitman purposely averts his face from the splatter. Later, when Chigurh breaks into a hotel room to murder his Mexican rivals and finds one survivor cowering in the shower, he makes sure to cover the man with the curtain before gunning him down. And toward the end of the movie, after his encounter with Carla Jean Moss (Kelly Macdonald), the only indication that he followed through on his “promise” to her husband is when he checks his shoes for blood after leaving the house.
There is such a wide gulf between Chigurh and other human life. From a distance, he seems like someone who can be dealt with, but once you get close enough, as Woody Harrelson’s cocky bounty hunter Carson Wells does, you realize how big that gulf really is. At that point, there’s nothing much you can do but die. And the worst part about getting killed by Chigurh is that you die knowing your own beliefs about justice and righteousness are not universally held, and maybe never mattered at all. As Chigurh asks Carson moments before blowing him away: “If the rule you followed led you to this, of what use was the rule?”
The Coen brothers’ cinematic universe is mainly one of simpering idiots and know-nothing buffoons, but it’s clear that morality is an important artistic theme for them. On one end of their moral universe, you find characters like Jeff Bridges’ iconic Dude, who may not have a job or any money in his bank account but nevertheless treats his fellow humans with warm beneficence. On the other end, there is Chigurh. Most Coen characters seem like they are embodying or reacting to extant forces in the world, but only Chigurh feels himself like an implacable cosmic force, whose very existence interrogates the moral systems that most other people have built their lives around. Carson puts it well when his boss asks him if Chigurh is dangerous: “Compared to what, the bubonic plague?”
As Bell ruminates throughout the film, agreeing to “be part of this world” means occasionally brushing up against people like Chigurh. He’s not the be-all/end-all; the film’s protagonist, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), doesn’t even meet his end at the hands of Chigurh, but rather some other nameless criminals. Ten years later, the most terrifying thing about Bardem’s on-screen villain, even more than his deathly pallor and murdering spree, is that he serves as a reminder that ideals of justice and mercy are not universal constants and can be stripped away at any time. There are ghosts in the graveyard, and darkness beyond the dawn. Sometimes, all that’s standing between you and that vast screaming void is a single coin toss.