Reading Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, I’ve been struck by the character of Anton Chigurh. In the novel, he is a cipher, a phantom who stalks the narrative. He is almost the stuff of horror films, but is still fallible and liable to injury. As I finish the novel, I wonder at his motives. What does he really want?
Clearly, he is a sociopath. He’s all surfaces with no depth. While Ed Tom Bell and Llewellyn Moss have significant amounts of characterization, Chigurh does not, even though a good portion of the text is from his point of view. His inner life, goals, desires, emotions, or history are never revealed to the reader. He simply is. This is in accordance to the general description of a sociopath. And his disregard for the consequences of his actions (either for others or for himself) is emphasized.
But what I’m really interested in concerning Chigurh is not so much his inner life or his personality, but why is he after the money? Clearly one of the interested parties at the botched drug deal hired him. But who?
That is a tough question. From what little information there is, there were either two or three parties involved in the deal. Clearly, one of the parties is a Mexican drug cartel running heroin to the U.S. Another party (or parties) must have been the buyer(s). My guess is that one party betrayed the other. Who did what is unknown, but it is obvious that both sides didn’t walk away with both the drugs and the money.
Anton Chigurh is clearly hired by the buying party to recover the money, while the various gangsters are probably from the cartel trying to steal it. He is just as okay killing the gangsters as he is hunting Moss. However, this raises a new problem. Who hired Carson Wells?
My guess is that members of the organization who hired Chigurh developed buyer’s remorse. Chigurh is far too much of a “loose cannon” for people who want to avoid detection and attention. Given that Wells comes in after the Eagle Pass fiasco, it is unsurprising that Chigurh’s employers will want to get rid of him. Therefore, Wells is sent in to kill Chigurh and try to make a deal for the money. Unfortunately for Wells (and his employer), Chigurh figures out their intentions.
So then, with the money following Moss’s death, Chigurh goes to visit his employer. There, something curious happens. He wants a more permanent position with the organization. He even dresses up for the occasion! So, what is Chigurh’s game? I’m thinking that Chigurh was doing at least two things during his pursuit of the money: 1) Get the money back to its owner and 2) Remove the people associated with the deal on his employer’s end (much like what happens in Diamonds are Forever). Chigurh admits to his employer that he was executing members of the organization for their failures, as a contrast to his own success. Maybe Chigurh hopes to replace the man who hired Wells?
This new success may, of course, be short lived as Chigurh must keep his promise to Llewellyn to kill Carl Jean. While the visit adheres to his honor code, it does him no material benefit, and indeed it damages him severely (unexpected though it may be). Yes, Chigurh is one tough customer, but an injury of that seriousness has got to put him out of commission for several weeks at least. And given his penchant for self doctoring, is he even capable of dealing with fractures of that seriousness?
Anton Chigurh is an image of evil. Of the creeping sociopathy of modern America. He is a symbol for all of the terrible things that happen in the novel. But even he is not perfect.