Unlike a novel, a movie has very little time to set up a character and get us interested, particularly a villain in a hero-driven work. There has to be a singular scene that defines our villain and makes us as the audience learn all about their character and see the threat they truly are. It doesn’t have to be their first scene, but it has to come fairly early in the film (barring a twist in which a character is later revealed as the villain). There’s a reason people still remember The Joker’s pencil trick in The Dark Knight, the chestburster scene in Alien, Ghostface’s horrifying murders in the opening scene of Scream, and Captain Hadley beating a new prisoner to the point of death in The Shawshank Redemption. From the original Star Wars, there’s Grand Moff Tarkin blowing up an entire planet or Darth Vader choking one of his own men for insulting his belief in the Force. There is no better scene, though, to tell us who we are truly dealing with than the coin toss scene from No Country for Old Men.
By this point, we’ve already met Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), and we’ve even seen him kill. He’s broken out of police custody, but this scene teaches us more about Anton’s motivations, if you can call them that. He simply walks into a gas station and forces the unassuming owner (Gene Jones) to predict the outcome of a coin toss. Even after Anton says the famous “What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?” it doesn’t seem that the man behind the counter truly understands that his life is on the line.
Anton never outright says why he kills, but his lines throughout the film seem to imply he feels a requirement to do it. Listen to the sigh he gives before he says “Call it.” He doesn’t really get any enjoyment out of it, but he sees himself as the hand of fate, saying “You need to call it. I can’t call it for you. It wouldn’t be fair.” We know Chigurh is a killer, but now he has been set up as a truly strange one indeed, a man who believes he has to be the Angel of Death.
The Coen Brothers set up incredible tension in this scene, accentuated by absolutely no music. It’s deathly silent in the background, so every noise makes an impact. We are so on edge that a candy wrapper coming unwrinkled on the counter is unnerving.
What is truly amazing about this scene, though, is that the man doesn’t die. So many filmmakers after setting up this Grim Reaper killer would have had the man call it wrong and die, just for impact, but the Coens truly show us who Anton Chigurh is. When the coin toss is called correctly, that’s it
The scene is also helped by some incredibly dark humor, mostly from the man not understanding what’s going on, which has led me to deem this “The Scariest Who’s On First Scene in History.” It’s strange that later in the film, a bounty hunter describes Chigurh as having no sense of humor, when this scene clearly shows that he does. He makes an incredibly wry joke when the man tries to put the quarter in his pocket, “Don’t put it in your pocket… Or it’ll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin, which it is.” He even gives a goofy smile as he leaves.
No Country for Old Men is an amazing film, one of the best thrillers ever made, but it is this scene that makes you realize you’re in for something truly different. It leaves an impact on you long after you’ve seen it, one that arguably would be lessened if Chigurh had actually killed the man.
Tomorrow, we break into the second half of the list as I take a look at my favorite animated scene of all time.