Great Scene: “No Country For Old Men”

“You need to call it. I can’t call it for you. It wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t even be right.”

The coin toss scene from No Country For Old Men (2007), screenplay by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, one of the most riveting scenes in the movie:

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Here is the scene from the movie:

As I was reading through the scene, I was thinking that if a student handed me these script pages, I would have most likely suggested they trim it. After all, the scene is 7 pages long. What’s the point of the scene? The coin toss. How long does it take to get to the coin toss? 5 pages. Do you really need all that business up front before the coin toss?

But looking at the scene as it was shot (its actual screen time is 4:25), we can see at least one big reason why the Coens wanted the scene to play out with that lengthy run-up of dialogue before the coin toss: Chigurh’s sense of who deserves to live and who deserves to die extends to everyone he meets.

At first, he gets agitated by the Proprietor’s prying questions (even though they’re entirely innocent queries). Then he gets pissed off at the old man’s slow mental capabilities, not picking up quickly enough on Chigurh’s questions (again the Proprietor is totally innocent, how could he expect to follow Chigurh’s line of questions, he has no idea of Chigurh’s violent world view). But what really seems to seal the deal re Chigurh is the fact that the Proprietor “married into” this business (the gas station, store, house behind the store). For some reason, that is a determining factor for Chigurh (“I don’t have some way to put it. That’s the way it is.”) because directly after, Chigurh asks, “What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?”

So the run-up to the coin toss takes us down a seemingly meandering set of questions by Chigurh, ending with a bit of business — the Proprietor marrying into his current gig — that leaves us with a mystery: Why is this so damned important to Chigurh that he determines to put the guy’s life at risk with the coin toss? That the old guy benefited from something not directly related to his own hard work? Marrying into the gig is somehow a dishonest way of getting ahead? Those questions are left unresolved — all we know is that Chigurh has determined that the coin he’s tossed, its twenty-two year journey to “get here,” that destiny is now tied up with the Proprietor’s fate — and it’s Chigurh’s calling to execute whatever ‘justice’ is determined by the coin. And all of that plays under and through the tense moments of the coin toss and its resolution.

It’s interesting to compare this scene, where the Bad Guy asks a series of provocative questions with the threat of violence looming in the not so distant future, with the “What do you mean I’m funny” scene in Good Fellas. Similar rising tension to both scenes, only in Good Fellas, one big difference is that Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) goes at Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) not because of some sense of right or wrong, who should live or who should die, but just because he likes to fuck with people:

Two great scenes for the price of one today!

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