The Coen brothers are in the upper echelons of impressive filmmakers for me because of their ability to handle so many different tones and stories. Their impressive work spans decades, but the one I come back to repeatedly is No Country for Old Men.
While it's not their funniest movie, it has a dark sense of humor that fits nicely with its theme. "What's the most you've ever lost in a coin toss?" Anton Chigurh asks in one iconic scene.
For those who have seen the movie, there's a particular scene that stands out against all others. One we all come back to. And it's that of the coin toss in the gas station. For me, this scene perfectly distills what makes this movie a classic. It distills the movie down to the choices we make that bring us closer to life, or closer to death.
It's a scene that embodies the two points of view within the story. It asks the question, "Is the world going to an evil place where only God can save it, or was the world so bad from the start nothing and no one can save it?"
These questions solidify the script's theme of those life-and-death choices.
Check out the scene below, and then let's analyze it after the jump.
How the Coin Toss Scene in No Country for Old Men Grounds the Theme
When you're writing a movie, you have to think about the theme. The theme of your screenplay refers to the issue at the core of the story itself. This isn't mentioned in the script, but it's the emotional or spiritual driving force behind your movie's message. If you don't have a theme, then your plot will feel like it lacks purpose.
Your script theme needs to carry both the weight of the story and a connection to the audience. That's a significant burden to bear.
So how does this apply to the scene in this movie?
In the scene, we see ruthless killer Anton Chigurh fill up at a gas station and enter to pay his bill. But when the proprietor gets a little chatty, Chigurh takes out a coin and decides to let fate decide whether or not he assassinates this man. He even figures out where he lives and what time he has to come back to carry out this plan.
So as the coin flips into the air, we have to ask ourselves a question. Is Chigurh the embodiment of a bad world getting worse without divine intervention, or is he part of an always-bad world where nothing can save it? Because we know that if the coin lands and the gas station attendant calls it wrong, he's dead. God/fate controls the coin, the man controls himself.
The movie's theme is about the choices we make. Do the paths we choose take us closer to life or closer to death?
As it so happens, the man gets the call right, and Chigurh, following his code, is forced to move on. There is free will here. The man is free to call what he wants, and Chigurh is free to do with that call as he pleases.
But the scene is about a lot more than that. We learn this older man's life story. We know why he has the gas station. And we know all the choices in his life that brought him to this random moment. We also see what brought Chigurh here. This sense that none of this is inevitable. It all is random. The only thing certain is that death is going to visit us all at least once.
They both are there because of the choices they made. And while the man presents no danger to Chigurh, the path the man took, by choosing unknowingly, took him closer to death. He escapes with his life, but only because he guessed correctly at this moment.
I love how well this sums up the movie. Age will take us closer to death than anything else, but every decision we make has inherent value. Even decisions that seem as small as a coin toss. This masterful scene sums up the movie's central thesis and shows us how the decisions we see other characters make will amplify their chances at death moving forward.
They might get lucky and make it out alive, or they might not.
Let us know what you think in the comments.