Wednesday, October 16, 2013

An Analysis of Anton Chigurh

Javier Bardem
If there is one singular fact about the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men regarding the praise that I give it, it is this: I haven't always liked No Country for Old Men, but I have always enjoyed Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Weeks after the Academy Awards, I saw the film at a second-run venue with terrible seats waiting for the film to impress me. Much like two different parties who were moaning as they shared their opinion moments after Tommy Lee Jones woke up, I was left sort of baffled by the praise. At the time, I perceived it as an underwhelming film. That is, in every category except one: Chigurh and his cattle gun.

Over time, the film that I had essentially written off slowly grew to become a favorite of the Coens, second only to A Serious Man. There is this odd intrigue that goes beyond genre and understanding. It was in traditional sense of the word a Coen Brothers adaptation at its bleakest. To date, the directors haven't made a film that is darker, more perverse, and oddly cinematic than this one. Featuring bad haircuts, awkward moments of humor, and plenty of odd intricacies, this is a film that defies genre and goes straight for the philosophical debates that are reflected in the best work of author Cormac McCarthy, whose wrote the book from which this was adapted. It seemed like a match made in heaven.

It is strange to note that this film was shot in Texas at the exact same time as director Paul Thomas Anderson's masterpiece There Will Be Blood. Both were Best Picture nominees at the Oscars and both featured award winning roles with Javier Bardem winning Best Supporting Actor. In fact, Bardem's win is significant on the basis that it entered the history books by making him the first Spanish actor to win an acting award. 

It's no wonder that the film was such a success. Time again there comes up debate on whether Anderson or the Coen Brothers released the better film in 2007 (my money is on Anderson). In the Coen lexicon, the better question is finding a character that rivals Anton Chigurh for screen presence. Even if Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski is more iconic and Frances McDormand in Fargo has more appeal as a hero, I feel that nobody has come close to featuring as many memorable moments as Chigurh. This is largely thanks to Bardem's performance, which along with Skyfall, has convinced me that he is the best actor to play villains in this generation.

It isn't that he tries hard to be over the top. In fact, his calm, almost wooden nature is unnerving. He lives his life often by a coin toss and isn't afraid to shoot anyone that steps in his way. He is ruthless. However, he is also somewhat apathetic and at times philosophical in his diabolic schemes. Just check out this scene from late in the film in which he does nothing more but sit in a chair and talks to Carla (Kelly MacDonald):

He almost seems to be drifting off to sleep in his deep, creaking voice in which not a syllable is wasted. It also is haunting that this character is almost too simple in morals. He spends a good chunk of the film tossing coins to determine who lives or dies. It doesn't serve a purpose other than to convince himself that what he is doing is right. We don't see him have any emotional core nor do we understand him at all. Quickly try and recall his back story. We don't get a sense of who he is outside of the drug business. He is in all sense of the word a mystery. He is independent of every character and his presence almost always implies death.

The film itself is an intriguing cat and mouse game in which almost everyone seems to be a little bit foolish. Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) spends a good chunk of time trying to dispose of a large bag of cash that he finds. He is incompetent in true Coen Brothers form, and almost everyone he runs into is blinded by greed and nonsense. The only character lacking any attachment to money is Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who is on the verge of retiring, but has to face one last fear: Chigurh. Unlike Chigurh, we have some back story to all of these characters, at least well enough to distinguish them as upright citizens compared to the drug traders that seek the money.

I think to even attempt to add some origin to Chigurh would be to tarnish the imagery that has been placed around him. We don't know where he learned his methods or what he had done before the arrest that begins the story. We just know that he will weasel his way out of any situation, including blowing up a car to steal medication and walking away from a car crash after being badly injured. He is almost mythologized as this superhuman who can withstand any punishment. In these regards, he is an unstoppable force. After the car crash, we don't know what happens to him. There is implication based on Sheriff Bell's closing story of a dream he had, but otherwise, there is this sense that Chigurh is still out there causing menace. That is more haunting than any character.

We could probably project our own thoughts onto who he actually is. He could be an amalgamation of whatever you want. However, the other brilliance to his simplicity is that he almost always seems to be hidden and only strikes when you least suspect. Sheriff Bell and Chigurh never actually meet and causes Bell to consider him a ghost. Much like Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight a year later, it isn't so much what Chigurh does on screen that is haunting, but how he almost comes across as a man playing chess, moving people into disastrous situations without being present. The lingering impact that he has is the quintessential element of any great performance, and this is probably what gives him the edge.

There's even this brilliant theory that Rob Ager of Collative Learning put together regarding him as a supernatural character.

Just as I have discussed, a lot of the points are restated in better detail in this video. The most interesting, and the one that separates him from most other Coen Brothers characters is the potential concept that he is actually a messenger sent by God to kill. In reality, the discussion dissects the God complex and how it applies to serial killers. In the video, it is compared to The Dirty Dozen in which the character rapes women in order to fulfill God's prophecy. Chigurh is less blatant with his goals, but he almost feels like he is doing it because of a God complex. He kills because he has an ego to maintain. As the video discusses, he almost sees himself as a terminator, much like T-1000 in The Terminator.

As I stated in the opening, Chigurh is just the most magnetic performance in the movie. He moves almost selfishly through every character's lives and leaves this sense of death knocking everywhere he goes. While the film remains maintains its greatness in film history not only with a Best Picture win, but with consistent praise, I feel like that is largely due to Javier Bardem's performance. It is so full of nuance and the blank slate appeal of his kills almost make us long to throw in a midge of sympathy.By not giving us anything, it makes it all the more bleak. He may not be the Coen's most accessible like Jeff Lebowski (The Big Lebowski) nor is he the most enjoyable problematic like Larry Gopnik (A Serious Man), but it is easily one of the most unforgettable, best performances in their entire catalog. Don't believe me? Consult majority of the websites creating "Best Performances of the 00's" lists.

As I initially stated, I have always enjoyed Chigurh as a character. As time has moved on, I have revisited the film seven times and each time coming away with fonder appreciation. From the limp that he carries for majority of the film to the moments when he is simply sitting in a corner, he keeps making you worry. We want to understand who he is and by sympathizing those around him, he comes across more merciless. The intent was deliberate and the emotional impact resonates as a result. This is the closest that the Coens have come to making a horror film and in some ways, Chigurh may as well be a demon punishing evil. The fact of the matter is that there is an entire page dedicated to themes and analyses on Wikipedia, and not just a subheading either. This film is endlessly dissected and I have only scratched the surface.

In fact, Bardem is quite great at speeches, and it is a shame he doesn't get to do more at the Oscars. Here is an excerpt from his speech:
"Thank you to the Coens for being crazy enough to think I could do that and put one of the most horrible hair cuts in history on my head... Mama, this is for you. This is for your grandparents and your parents, Rafael and Matilde, this is for the comedians of Spain who like you have brought dignity and pride to our profession. This is for Spain and this is for all of you,"
Even if Christoph Waltz' speech acceptance for Best Supporting Actor for Inglourious Basterds remains pinnacle of speeches, it is always charming to hear a love letter to those that influenced you. I can only hope that this will open the floodgates for other countries to have actors get nominations and actually win. It has already happened largely with the African American community, but hopefully more will be recognized.

It is hard to find much to complain about Anton Chigurh as one of the great villains. In closing, I would like to say that it wasn't just him. It was the luck of the Coen Brothers and the resources of Cormac McCarthy's equally excellent book that is well worth reading. It is why I am excited for The Counselor next week and why I long to see Bardem return to the podium. Even if Ridley Scott's latest movie won't deliver on that, No Country for Old Men should hopefully get people to forever recognize Bardem's skills. I mean, he is the main reason to watch Skyfall, with exception to cinematography. Hell, his charisma makes it worth watching anything.

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