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Is Anton Chigurh an Angel?

Yes, you read the title right. Is Anton Chigurh, the sociopathic hitman from No Country For Old Men who kills his victims an instrument used to cull cattle, an instrument of divine will? I stumbled across an interesting argument on-line which proposed that McCarthy (who is – apparently – staunchly conservative) wrote the character as an angel who was sent down to purge all those connected in anyway with the money from the drug trade – bringing on the old-school biblical wrath which you don’t see too often these days. Talk about executing your purpose with zeal.

Everytime Chigurh kills somebody, an angel gets its wings. It's pretty crowded up there, too.

Everytime Chigurh kills somebody, an angel gets its wings. It's pretty crowded up there, too.

Of course, the argument cited is based upon Cormac McCarthy’s book, which I admittedly haven’t read. I thought it might be interesting to apply it to the movie. So could this methodical serial killer be a divine herald?

But he killed innocent people! you protest. It wasn’t just drug dealers and sellers or even those who had touched the money. He killed Llewellyn’s young wife, despite the fact he already had the money he wanted and she never profitted from it or touched it. He killed a young deputy who arrested him at the start of the movie. He kills at least twice in order to swap vehicles (and in one case because he was too lazy to jump-start his car). Surely that isn’t the kind of policy you’d expect from an agent of the almighty, is it? We’ll return to that final conversation with Llewellyn’s wife shortly.

Being honest, this isn’t the kind of message which the New Testament God would send – what with all the emphasis on free will and judgement upon death and all that. Actively purging the sinners is a very old school move. It’s the modus operandi of Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, who decided to kill all the first born suns of Egypt to send a message to the Pharaoh or wiped out entire cities for the actions of a mob. This isn’t a deity who is particularly worried about collateral damage, who isn’t very forgiving or very understanding. What matters is that the point gets made.

The symbolism certainly fits, as the article points out, and the choice of weapon that Chigurh uses surely isn’t without meaning:

With a seeminlgy [sic] creepy touch, McCarthy employs a strange, animal method with which Anton kills the innocent victims during his all important fight against the devil. Anton guns down every person directly involved with the drugs and the money, but for those few he must sacrifice who are not culpable, he kills them with a livestock stun gun. This symbolizes how we are the “sheep” and he is the Shephard. It is not “random” or sick or anything but another sign that Anton is doing God’s work and that sacrifices must be made in order to obtain His goal.

It certainly fits in that context and the shephard/livestock metaphor is a traditionally religious one.

There’s even more evidence in Chigurh’s apparent lack of free will throughout the course of the movie (“I can’t call it for you,” he assures a gas station operator as he asks him to call a coin flip with deadly stakes). When he is ascribed malice, it is only by other characters – such as Carson Wells’ warning to Llewellyn that Chigurh will kill him just for inconveniencing him. A joking comparison is made between Chigurh and the bubonic plague, itself at one time considered to be God’s judgement upon a sinful world. In the film’s final conversation, Chigurh assures Carla Jean that his word is very much alive. Given that Yahweh was prone to using angels as his voice (in particular Metatron), maybe Chigurh’s word is The Word, still alive and well – though we may have reason to doubt.

In the movie, Anton clothes himself entirely in black. He rarely speaks. He is always carrying an oversized metallic weapon. He can’t be reasoned with or negotiated. Chigurh is death incarnate – the grim reaper, the angel of death. I accept that the film does paint him as a vaguely supernatural character, but I’m not sure that the Coens intend for him to be divine. The article mentions a quote from Sheriff Bell which does not make it into the movie, where the aging lawman ponders God’s role in the creation of narcotics. Such an omission from the film is no doubt intentional – and what is excluded in this context can be as important as what is included – perhaps suggesting that the brothers wish to remove the religious context from their version of the story?

In response to all this, you might suggest that Chigurh bleeds. He is wounded in the shootout with Llewellyn at the hotel. He has to improvise surgery on himself in order to remove the pellets. I don’t think that this is an argument against his divinity – mortals have always had the capacity to wound and damage the angels – it’s a common misconception of Catholic catechism that angels are immortal, they are not.

One aspect of Chigurh’s character gives me pause (only one? you proclaim). The coin. Twice he uses the coin as a means of deciding whether an individual merits punishment. The first example is in the case of a shop owner who appears to offend Chigurh by making polite (if awkward) small talk. Why does Chigurh need the coin to determine if he should be judged? He is capable of executing the guilty without recourse to the coin (the Mexicans at the hotel, for example), the innocent without recourse to the coin (the two motorists), and is also capable of refraining without the use of the coin (for example, not executing Sheriff Bell despite having the perfect opportunity to do so in the motel room). Maybe the coin is the way of divining God’s will in specific cases – Chigurh makes it perfectly clear that he can not choose himself (as God gave free will to man and man alone). Still, I am not entirely convinced.

Carla Jean is more closely related to the drug money than most of the victims of Chigurh. Yes, the hotel clerk did take a bill from Llewellyn to keep an eye open, but the local deputy was arguably killed by Chigurh before the drug buy had even gone wrong. Llewellyn’s wife had not spent any of the money (she had only seen it), and perhaps her confession to Sheriff Bell represents some small manner of repentance (which perhaps merits a second chance), but it seems odd that she should receive an opportunity for escape that numerous others did not. I don’t think any rational person would suggest that she deserves to die for the actions of her husband, but if you follow the cold harsh logic of the rest of the movie there’s no reason she should be spared either.

So, I am not sure if I give the theory the same weight as the original blogger (though it is possible that the viewpoint got lost in the transition from book to screen), but it is insightful and clever and inspired. Being honest, it wouldn’t surprise me if this was how McCarthy himself interprets the text and certainly speaks to the work’s brilliant ambiguity and moral uncertainty. It’s truly the sign of a great movie (and, admittedly, source novel) that it merits and provokes this sort of discussion and debate.

Personally, I prefer to think of Chigurh as the embodiment of the 20th (and, based on what we’ve seen so far, 21st) century. Death, destruction and violence, mostly without reason. The example which Sheriff Bell is given of equally senseless violence was cited as occurring in 1905, perhaps suggesting that the senseless brutality is a characteristic of our time and our place. Like the times, Chigurh is always moving, shedding and changing cars (as a snake may shed its skin) as he closes in on his target, yet always remaining consistent. He is what our century has wrought. The concept of a killer representing the violence and brutality of the modern era is not a new one – Jack the Ripper himself (or one of the countless busybodies who wrote letters in his name) claims to have been nursemaid to the 20th century – but I think Chigurh is a particularly strong example.

7 Responses

  1. Intriguing idea you pass along here. I suppose I always thought of Anton Chigurh as sort of a human embodiment of evil in its purest form — no rhyme, no reason, no explanations or motivations provided, just total badness. I just started the book, so I’m interested to see how the character changed on the screen (I suspect he did).

  2. Sorry but that is super retarded if you’ve read the book. Chigurh professes himself to be a “non-believer.” He doesn’t even believe God exists. He tries to model himself after God- but only for the sole purpose of trying to preserve himself at any cost. That’s the eery part- the only lesson he takes from the idea of God is how to be ruthlessly self-sufficient. He was NOT written as an angel.

  3. Also, in the book he ends up using the money to further his hitman career with a new crime boss- to achieve HIS ends and not God’s. When talking to Wells, he remarks that all who are brought to death by him, even the innocent, are following a weak, insufficiently self preserving law. He scoffs at Wells saying “I am sitting here and you are sitting there, and in a few minutes, I will still be sitting here.” It’s all about his own life.

  4. I’ve read the book and watched the movie a number of times, and always been fascinated by the character of Chigurh. I don’t think he symbolises religion in any way, regardless of how the author purportedly intended. I came to the conclusion that he’s a self-serving nihilist at the end when he barely survives a car crash by jumping to the passenger side (he never wore seatbelts for that reason, it says in the book). The coin flipping, his presence, is ultimately a product of calculated randomness, if such a thing exists. In that sense, he’s the embodiment of the ‘bad toss.’ If you see him, you die, and it’s just bad luck. Carla knew she was going to die: I don’t think he would’ve let her live if she called the toss correctly, because it would be a liability to him.

  5. But maybe he would’ve, because according to the book he looked like every other guy. The fact remains that whenever he flipped the coin it always ended with them getting it wrong, and him walking away.

  6. No, the gas proprietor called it right and survived, as I recall. In the book, Bell saw the motel lock was smashed out and left the scene until back up arrived, at which point Chigurh was long gone. So the proprietor was the only one to survive Chigurh, and he was lucky. Even Harrelson’s character, hired on the basis of personally knowing Chigurh, was killed in the end.

  7. I was intrigued by the portly woman, who was the manager or desk clerk, whom Chigurh questioned at the trailer park where LLewellyn and Carla lived. She was firm and blunt with Chigurh and showed no fear nor the least inclination to be bullied into giving him information. As this scene was ending, I was expecting that Chigurh was going to do the coin toss with her, but he just gave her an intimidating look and she gave it right back, and Chigurh left. As I recall, she was the only person to make Chigurh back off, and I think he had a grudging respect for her. Perhaps he recognized her as someone who could deal harshly with evil herself. And, I do think of him as a character that is other than human, like some avenging angel who has been sent to earth to kick some evil-doing ass. And, if he has to take some innocent bystanders out at the same time, that is in keeping with “the wrath of God” which will destroy entire nations, children included, when it is necessary to make an example.

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