So, the Coens’ No Country for Old Men was on television the other day, which means that I watched No Country for Old Men the other day. A small, likely significant element of the movie hit me that never had so in my many previous outings with the movie.
Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh doesn’t work well with women. The various men he runs across during the film are either bewildered by the man, scared of him or respectful of his ruthlessness. All of them fall under the sway though, with his monotone nature, death-stare and dislike of being questioned. Anton may confound them at first, but he is never thrown off by them; not emotionally.
The gas station attendant, for example, is casual with Anton at first. This good-heartedness is shrugged off, at least until the man asks Anton a personal question. He notes that Anton came from Dallas and the mood changes. Anton swerves from uninterested in the conversation to commanding it. He never outright threatens the man, but Anton intimidates him into a state of panic. The poor guy stutters and states he has to close up shop. Anton asks what time they close and the fellow mumbles, “Now.” Without missing a beat, our antagonist states, “Now is not a time.” By way of a coin-toss for his life, the attendant survives.
There aren’t a lot of moments with the female characters in No Country for Old Men, a fact that flustered some upon its release. Coinciding with Paul Thomas Anderson’s equally unfeminine There Will Be Blood, there grew a thought that the Coens’ film could be deemed a tad macho. It’s interesting though that big-bad Anton is so thrown off by the two women we see him interact with.
The initial female conversation features Kathy Lamkin, whom is the manager of Llewelyn’s residential area. Sitting in her office and working on her nails, Lamkin meets Anton as he asks where Llewleyn is, to which she blithely inquires whether or not he checked the trailer. After establishing he’s not in, Anton asks where Llewelyn works. She won’t tell him. With more authority, Anton asks again, this time getting a, “Sir, I ain’t at liberty to give out no information about our residents.” A third time, with a glare and a step forward he asks. Unphased by his demeanor and haircut, she bluntly and dryly responds, “Did you not hear me? We can’t give out no information.”
Anton stands in shock, his eyes unable to hide his disbelief. He goes to leave, before hesitating. Lamkin is terrific in this ever-so-small part, particularly in this little moment when Bardem’s character gives her one last sense of intimidation. Without saying a word, Lamkin’s manager turns in her seat and gives a look insinuating that she doesn’t want to, but is willing to verbally go at it. The scene is a few ticks over forty-seconds, yet gives an interesting dynamic to the movie’s masculinity themes.
In the final act of the movie, Anton has his second conversation with a woman; it too doesn’t go his usual way either. Sitting in Carla Jean’s home, the wife of Llewelyn, he menaces from the corner of her bedroom with his gun. Kelly Macdonald’s character doesn’t hint at the fear she must be riddled with. Instead, her Carla Jean stares dead ahead at the daunting presence in her abode and declares that she has no idea where his money is and that she needs to sit down. She does so, keeping her eyes locked on his the whole time, even as she steadies herself into a chair.
Carla tells him that he doesn’t have to do this, knowing that he’s there to kill her. Anton smirks and proclaims that they always say that. She asks what it is they always say and he gravely spits out, “You don’t have to do this.” Anton strays from his intended path, allowing Carla Jean to possibly live via coin-toss, his method of letting fate decide a person’s life. He tells her to call it; she refuses. Confusion and anger consumes his face.
Anton of course shoots her.
In all of my revisits with this movie, I don’t know how I’ve never noticed how these two scenes mirror one another. The Coens and original author Cormac McCarthy discuss masculinity, perceived codes between men and the deterioration of each. That it’s two women, who probably have barely more than twelve minutes of screen-time between them, who counteract it is intriguing. One survives and one dies; that’s not the point. The point is that one doesn’t need to kowtow to a macho exterior or respect its authority merely due to its confidence.