Last year's Academy Award for Best Picture went to the Coen Brothers' haunting film No Country for Old Men, based on the novel of the same name by (University of Tennessee alum) Cormac McCarthy. In one of the most important scenes-- which actually occurs twice--the film's murderous, mysterious, and thoroughly amoral antagonist, Anton Chigurh (Javier Barden), comes face-to-face with someone who we are led to believe will almost certainly not survive the encounter. But instead of killing his victim(s) straight away, Chigurh flips a coin and asks them to call it. Chigurh does not explain what the coin flip is meant to signify or determine, nor does he explain why his putative victims are "lucky" enough to be afforded this "chance." We (the audience) implicitly understand, however, that the result of the coin flip will be a life-or-death determination and that, as such, it is meant to signify... um... well...
What IS the coin flip meant to signify?
[Spoiler Alert: I will reveal semi-significant plot details in the following!]
In the first iteration of this coin-flip, which happens fairly early in the film and is really a character-establishing scene, Chigurh tests the fortitude of a boorish, maladroit, back-country gas station attendant with his coin. This scene is really one of the Coen brothers' finest-- Chigurh is as intense and determined as the gas station attendant is bumbling and hapless, producing the sort of uncomfortable contrast of emotional intensities in which one can't decide whether to laugh or cry at the spectacle of it. (The skill with which the Coens are able to produce these moments of uncomfortable, forced, nervous laughter in their audience is one of their greatest virtues as filmmakers.) Because we, the audience, don't yet understand Chigurh, we are allowed to believe that the first coin-flip is in good faith, that the wretched attendant has a real chance at a lucky call that will save his life. And, of course, this intuition is partly confirmed when the attendant does correctly call the flip and is spared.
If the film stopped there, or if the coin-flip weren't repeated later, I think that we would be led to belive that the character of Chigurh is attempting to impart the lesson of Nietzschean amor fati ("love of fate") to his target. After the attendant guesses correctly, Chigurh gives him the "lucky" coin, and then promptly chastises the attendant when he attempts to thoughtlessly stuff the coin in his pocket. The attendant, confused, asks where he "should" put the coin and Chigurh answers, cryptically:
"Anywhere not in your pocket. Or it'll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. Which it is."
So, on this first rendering of the coin-flip, we are permitted to indulge whatever pretense of a-morality we can muster. Here, Chigurh is merely the messenger and the executor of Fate, and the result of the coin-flip no more confirms the evil of his soul than it does the innocence of the attendant. The virtue lauded in this scene, such that it is, is only to be found in embracing (and loving) the non-knowledge with which we call "heads" or "tails" in a game of chance-- even and especially when we are ignorant of the stakes of the game.
However-- alas!-- there is another coin-flip at the end of the film, long after the audience has been permitted the luxury of making what seem like "justified" moral judgments about the characters. When Chigurh finally meets up with Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald)-- the wife of Chigurh's prey throughout the film and, in terms of the narrative, a total "innocent"-- we know by this time that Chigurh will no doubt kill her. But the Coens/McCarthy reproduce the coin-flip exchange again here... only this time, we know in advance that neither we nor Carla Jean can possibly "love" the "fate" that will soon be confirmed. Like the gas station attendant before her, Carla Jean wants to know the stakes of the game, which Chigurh refuses her, but unlike the gas station attendant, she refuses to play. Not only does she refuse to call the coin, but she refuses the very pretense of the flip, saying to Chigurh: "The coin don't have no say. It's just you."
To which Chigurh replies:"I got here the same way the coin did."
And so, it seems, we have moved from a story of amor fati to a story of fait accompli. The coin, which in the earlier scene seemed to represent a kind of subject-less agency, is now no more than a ruse, a distraction, an ornament. It determines nothing and it signifies nothing. Just like real people.
In the end, No Country for Old Men is a tale about the evils we do not, and can not, understand. In fact, we cannot even understand them enough to know whether or not they are, really, "evils." The west Texas country is an unforgiving, uncaring, and an unaffected place-- least of all forgiving of, caring for or affected by the suffering of we random individuals. The film and novel No Country for Old Men asks us to consider what might be if we encountered a human being just like the west Texas country. What would become of our ultimately makeshift and incomplete notions of morality then? Can we love that fate? Or, as the penultimate scene of the film suggests, is our response-ability to that-which-will-be, ultimately, beside the point?
If, in the end, we all "got here the same way the coin did," does that mean that there is no difference between ourselves and the coin? I wonder...