Call it: Heads or Tails?
Some folks think that the outcome is random, but it is not. You have two chances—one that you have control over and one that is random, or, if you will, in the hands of God or Fate. And those two possibilities must intersect and match. You must be in agreement with the Universe—or be able to predict its course—in order...well, in order to keep playing. It's "Sudden Death," as they say in the "sports" world. Sometimes those sports-guys are pretty smart.
This scene from the 2007 Oscar winner for Best Picture No Country for Old Men, (adapted and directed from the Cormac McCarthy novel by the Coen Brothers) is maddening in its suspense and its seeming arbitrariness. The coin has come all this way, Chigurh has come all this way, and the Proprietor of the store has come all this way. They have all made the journey through time and space to intersect here. This is not random, nor is it arbitrary. The stakes are high, but the contest is simple. The coin is "lucky," but it's just a coin. It's maddening to be put in this position, but "maddening" has nothing to do with it.
The choice is there. The choice is yours.
It has been all along. It is, after all, your life.
It is one moment in your life, but it is the moment you've been moving inexorably to your entire life, be it the last moment of your life or the first moment of the rest of your life. It is no more precious than any other moment of that life, despite the ramifications.
A lot of people have seen Anton Chigurh as an arbitrary angel of death. I think that's a value-judgement that's not there or necessary. Anton Chigurh is a murderer, an assassin, who is a bit different than your average professional "hit" man. He's a murderer who takes life, and takes it seriously, understanding the value of what he has taken. The precious uniqueness of every human life.
And takes it anyway.
Just as a coin, although indistinguishable from the thousands of coins that pass through a register, a pocket, a hand or the air can be a "lucky" coin, for that moment that it passes and intersects with the Path of the Universe.
The Set-Up: Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is a rolling death machine. He has been hired to recover money from a drug-deal gone wrong, and the money keeps moving away from him. The more he keeps travelling, the more death is on the line as he kills for transportation, for access, for information, to rid himself of interference, to eliminate his track, whatever is necessary for him to complete the task. And this is just a stop along the way. "Just" a stop along the way.
GAS STATION / GROCERY SHEFFIELD
At an isolated dusty crossroad. It is twilight. The Ford sedan that Chi-gurh stopped is parked alongside the pump.
Chigurh stands at the counter across from the elderly proprietor. He holds up a bag of cashews.
Chigurh: How much?
Proprietor: Sixty-nine cent.
Chigurh: This. And the gas.
Proprietor: Y'all getting any rain up your way?
Chigurh: What way would that be?
Proprietor: I seen you was from Dallas.
Chigurh tears open the bag of cashews and pours a few into his hand.
Chigurh: What business is it of yours...
Chigurh: ...where I'm from...
Proprietor: I didn't mean nothin' by it.
Chigurh (mocking): Didn't mean nothin'.
Proprietor: I was just passin' the time.
Chigurh: I guess that passes for manners in your cracker view of things.
Proprietor: Well sir I apologize. If you don't wanna accept that I don't know what else I can do for you.
Chigurh stands chewing cashews, staring while the old man works the register and puts change on the counter.
Proprietor:...Will there be somethin' else?
Chigurh: I don't know. Will there?
Beat. The proprietor turns and coughs. Chigurh stares.
Proprietor: Is somethin' wrong?
Chigurh: With what?
Proprietor: With anything?
Chigurh: Is that what...
Chigurh: ...you're asking me? Is there something wrong with anything?
The proprietor looks at him, uncomfortable, looks away.
Proprietor: Will there be anything else?
Chigurh: You already asked me that.
Proprietor: Well... I need to see about closin'.
Chigurh: See about closing.
Chigurh: What time do you close?
Proprietor: Now. We close now.
Chigurh: Now is not a time. What time do you close.
Proprietor: Generally around dark. At dark.
Chigurh stares, slowly chewing.
Chigurh: You don't know what you're talking about, do you?
Chigurh: I said you don't know what you're talking about.
Chigurh: ...What time do you go to bed?
Chigurh: You're a bit deaf, aren't you? I said what time do you go to bed.
Proprietor: Well...(A pause.)...I'd say around nine-thirty. Somewhere around nine-thirty.
Chigurh: I could come back then.
Proprietor: Why would you be comin back? We'll be closed.
Chigurh: You said that.
He continues to stare, chewing.
Proprietor: Well - I need to close now -
Chigurh: You live in that house behind the store?
Proprietor: Yes I do.
Chigurh: You've lived here all your life?
Proprietor: This was my wife's father's place.
Chigurh: You married into it.
Proprietor: We lived on Temple Texas for many years. Raised a family there. In Temple.
Proprietor: We come out here about four years ago.
Chigurh: You married into it.
Proprietor: ...If that's the way you wanna put it.
Chigurh: I don't have some way to put it. That's the way it is.
He finishes the cashews and wads the packet and sets in on the counter where it begins to slowly unkink. The proprietor's eyes have tracked the packet. Chigurh's eyes stay on the proprietor.
Chigurh:...What's the most you've ever lost on a coin toss?
Chigurh: The most. You ever lost. On a coin toss.
Proprietor: I don't know. I couldn't say.
Chigurh is digging in his pocket. A quarter: he tosses it. He slaps it onto his forearm but keeps it covered.
Chigurh: Call it.
Proprietor: Call it?
Proprietor: For what?
Chigurh: Just call it.
Proprietor: Well - we need to know what it is we're callin' for here.
Chigurh: You need to call it. I can't call it for you. It wouldn't be fair. It wouldn't even be right.
Proprietor: I didn't put nothin' up.
Chigurh: Yes... Chigurh: ...you did. You been putting it up your whole life. You just didn't know it.
Chigurh: You know what date is on this coin?
Chigurh: Nineteen fifty-eight. It's been traveling twenty-eight years to get here. And now it's here. And it's either heads or tails, and you have to say. Call it.
A long beat.
Proprietor: Look... I got to know what I stand to win.
Proprietor: How's that?
Chigurh: You stand to win everything. Call it.
Proprietor: All right. Heads then.
Chigurh takes his hand away from the coin and turns his arm to look at it.
Chigurh: Well done.
He hands it across.
Chigurh:...Don't put it in your pocket.
Chigurh: Don't put it in your pocket. It's your lucky quarter.
Proprietor: ...Where you want me to put it?
Chigurh: Anywhere not in your pocket.
Chigurh: Or it'll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin.
Chigurh: Which it is.
He turns and goes. The proprietor watches him.
No Country For Old Men
Words by Cormac McCarthy and Joel & Ethan Coen
Pictures by Roger Deakins and Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
No Country for Old Men is available on DVD from Miramax Home Video.