On first viewing No Country for Old Men, I was surprised by how suspenseful this supposedly literary movie was. I found myself pulling for the Josh Brolin character, Llewelyn Moss, just as I would for the hero in a really good action flick. When (spoiler alert) the cameras find him dead in a hotel room, I felt like I'd been had. Here was another perfectly good story ruined by the author's compulsion to preach to us about something every seven-year-old knows: this is just a movie and real life doesn't work like this.
But if this was supposed to be a movie to upset our notions about what movies are and to sabotage narrative's influence on how we view reality it was a really bad decision to have the story feature a villain right out of a comic book. And Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem, really does play a comic-book villain--as Tommy Lee Jones ought to know. He's supposed to symbolize death and randomness, and on first glance it seemed to me the role was created pretty heavy-handedly. After Moss's death, which was built up to brilliantly but for that very reason comes as woefully disappointing, I lost interest in the rest of the movie. Chigurh shows up to kill Moss's wife after the main conflict is over just rub in how evil he is and how horrible it is that the good guy lost. But,then, as if it was supposed to be some revelation, he gets t-boned while driving away from her house--death personified suffers from the whims of chance too. I walked out wishing I'd left twenty minutes earlier.
Watching it again was different. I'd been reading William Flesch's Comeuppance for a paper on James Joyce's story "The Dead." This time the reason why Moss is a sympathetic character was more clear. He could have absconded with the money he finds at the scene of a drug deal that went bad, but he returns later that night to bring water to a man who begged him for some earlier. Moss is doomed because he was acting in his rational self-interest when he took the money. But we want to see him get away with it because he's also profoundly altruistic.
Everything about Chigurh says selfish actor, so we want to see him thwarted and punished.
But the main character in the movie isn't Moss. The narration begins and ends with Jones's character Sheriff Bell. The struggle framed in the opening scene is not between Moss and Chigurh but between the salvation and loss of Bell's soul, which is threatened by all the violence and senseless death he's made to witness. Moss's off-screen death isn't designed to cast us out of the narrative frame (though the Cohen brothers might not have realized this) but because that's just how it happens for Bell. Soon after Moss's shooting, there's even a tense near-confrontation between Chigurh and Bell, like a proxy for the confrontation we were expecting to see. Ultimately, Bell has to quit his post as Sheriff to save his soul--meaning he's not responsible for the murder scene after the death of Moss's wife.
The costly signaling in this story is not of McCarthy's recognition and volunteered affect for his character's altruism, but of the author's willingness to concentrate so long and so intently on the darkest corners of human nature. His proxy character is Bell, not Moss.
And Chigurh does something interesting at the end--something which echoes Moss's behavior at the beginning of the story. He has the money. He could easily take off. But he'd tried to make a deal with Moss for the life of his wife and Moss turned it down. On principle, Chigurh fulfills his promise and returns to kill her--and he pays the price for it when he gets in the wreck. This, oddly enough, is an example of costly punishment. It even has a tinge of altruism: if people don't keep their ends of deals, how can a cooperative society function? So we're not looking at purely rational self-interest--what we're used to rooting against in stories--but rather altruism turned inside out. The second time watching the movie I actually felt slightly sympathetic toward him after the wreck. Hadn't he killed the selfish bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harlson) and the drug lord (Stephen Root) who hired them both? He'd even killed two other bad guys at the outset of his search for Moss. True he kills good guys too. But he's something different, something more interesting than the run-of-the-mill killers for hire. And he's more than what his character is supposed to symbolize.