Jim Emerson writes at his blog Scanners…
(A comment by Phillip Kelly in reply to an earlier post made me chuckle and got me thinking. He wrote: “I guess my theorizing [of] Anton Chigurh as main character doesn’t stand now that Miramax is touting him for Best Supporting Actor. Too bad.” That’s the jumping-off place for this entry.)
The New York Film Critics Circle gave Javier Bardem its 2007 Best Supporting Actor award for his role as Anton Chigurh (“shi-GUR”) in Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country For Old Men” (which was also named Best Picture). The funny thing is, so much of the discussion of the of the movie centers around Chigurh that you’d think he was was the lead. And critical reservations about “No Country” tend to focus on interpretations of Chigurh, and whether the critic accepts him as a character or a mythological presence or a haircut or some combination thereof.
Go read the rest of it, because he’s got more interesting points. Actually read all the articles he’s got there about “NCFOM”, and then all theearlier posts here. It’s a great film to discuss. That being said…
I still won’t relinquish my feeling that Chigurh is the lead character. He’s the only one we get to know well enough to understand his tics. Sure Carla Jean’s fate is sealed off camera, but he checks his boots. And what is it that we know he doesn’t like getting on his boots? We don’t get to know any of the other characters this intimately. He’s the only character talked openly about as having a code, which as I’ve written before a main character will either come around to a common belief or believe so strongly in something that the other character’s in the filmcome around to his – Anton falls under the latter. He’s really the only character others react to within any level of emotion for goodness sakes! I’m sorry but if Hopkins can win for best actor as Lecter, then this a lead role. But no, instead the character that we don’t get to see until several scenes in, the one whose demise we don’t even get to witness, whose face is hardly seen when we realize he’s dead, who merely steps into this story that’s already happening without him and would continue without him…who really just holds things up briefly in the grand scheme of things (boy if he represents mankind in this mess we’re in trouble!) is made to be the lead character. Only because he’s the closest thing to a “hero” we have. He’s fighting for his life after all, right? Just like we do every day. But we know better, just as Chigurh does when he tells him over the phone, the best deal he’s going to get is the one offered, and no offer says he’ll live. Does his life have the same meaning as even Tom Bell’s does? Is there hope for him afterwards, someone waiting for him? He doesn’t even make it to be one of the old men that the title refers to. We have no idea what he does for a living until he’s practically dead!! Main character my foot.
Speaking of Bell, Jim, mentions the idea that a “key” character exists.
The Coens often like to work into their movies a small character who offers a way of understanding what the movie is doing. (I’ve called this character the “key” to the film before, but that’s a little too tidy.)
I feel that here we have the anit-key character in Bell. We’ve also seen in other Coen Brother films their flippant use of narrator, like “In the Man Who Wasn’t There” when Ed (Thornton) returns from killing Big Dave Brewster (Gandolfini) he picks up his narration as if nothing happened. In “NCFOM” Bell acts as the anti-narrator. The anti-key. Like the narrator he thinks he’s wise at the beginning, he’s going to tell us this story, but how can he when even our narrator doesn’t want to be a part of the story for the longest time? And when he does, it’s too late. Then to have those beliefs that we know as an audience to trust in because he is the narrator turned on him and in doing so us, well what kind of narrator is he, what kind of “key”? To me though, he’s the closest thing to a key. He’s the closest thing to a character that knows what is going on and what Anton is (though he doesn’t meet him) he’s the only one that truly understands the danger, and that there’s something even beyond Anton. This might veer a little from Emeron’s idea of what key is when he mentions that it’s usually a smaller character, but how big a character is Tom Bell. He certainly doesn’t effect the “story” or it’s outcome, but gives us the opportunity to see beyond the story, beyond the characters, just like any good narrator should, even if it means we find out he’s incorrect in his code.
The Coens have crafted something that lies on the outside of the awards boxes and even the studio. The characters appear to follow the standard outlines, the studio wants us to believe they do, and they are probably meant to. It’s one of the things that makes “NCFOM” so watchable to the general public – the chase scenes. Good guy running from bad guy. But it’s far more complicated than that, and far more interesting.