Great Scene: “No Country For Old Men”

August 31st, 2013 by

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:

GAS STATION/GROCERY SHEFFIELD

At an isolated dusty crossroad. It is twilight. The Ford sedan that Chigurh stopped 
is parked alongside the pump.

INSIDE

Chigurh stands at the counter across from the elderly proprietor. He holds up a bag 
of cashews.

CHIGURH
How much?

PROPRIETOR
Sixty-nine cent.

CHIGURH
This. And the gas.

PROPRIETOR
Y’all getting any rain up your way?

CHIGURH
What way would that be?

PROPRIETOR
I seen you was from Dallas.

Chigurh tears open the bag of cashews and pours a few into his hand.

CHIGURH
What business is it of yours where I’m from, friendo?

PROPRIETOR
I didn’t mean nothin by it.

CHIGURH
Didn’t mean nothin.

PROPRIETOR
I was just passin the time.

CHIGURH
I guess that passes for manners in your cracker view of
things.

A beat.

PROPRIETOR
Well sir I apologize. If you don’t wanna accept that I don’t
know what else I can do for you.

Chigurh stands chewing cashews, staring while the old man works the register.

PROPRIETOR
…Will there be somethin else?

CHIGURH
I don’t know. Will there?

Beat.

The proprietor turns and coughs. Chigurh stares.

PROPRIETOR
Is somethin wrong?

CHIGURH
With what?

PROPRIETOR
With anything?

CHIGURH
Is that what you’re asking me? Is there something wrong
with anything?

The proprietor looks at him, uncomfortable, looks away.

PROPRIETOR
Will there be anything else?

CHIGURH
You already asked me that.

PROPRIETOR
Well…I need to see about closin.

CHIGURH
See about closing.

PROPRIETOR
Yessir.

CHIGURH
What time do you close?

PROPRIETOR
Now. We close now.

CHIGURH
Now is not a time. What time do you close.

PROPRIETOR
Generally around dark. At dark.

Chigurh stares, slowly chewing.

CHIGURH
You don’t know what you’re talking about, do you?

PROPRIETOR
Sir?

CHIGURH
I said you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Chigurh chews

… What time do you go to bed.

PROPRIETOR
Sir?

CHIGURH
You’re a bit deaf, aren’t you? I said what time do you go
to bed.

PROPRIETOR
Well…

A pause.

…I’d say around nine-thirty. Somewhere around nine-
thirty.

CHIGURH
I could come back then.

PROPRIETOR
Why would you be comin back? We’ll be closed.

CHIGURH
You said that.

He continues to stare, chewing.

PROPRIETOR
Well…I need to close now–

CHIGURH
You live in that house behind the store?

PROPRIETOR
Yes I do.

CHIGURH
You’ve lived here all your life?

A beat.

PROPRIETOR
This was my wife’s father’s place. Originally.

CHIGURH
You married into it.

PROPRIETOR
We lived in Temple Texas for many years. Raised a family
there. In Temple. We come out here about four years ago.

CHIGURH
You married into it.

PROPRIETOR
…If that’s the way you wanna put it.

CHIGURH
I don’t have some way to put it. That’s the way it is.

He finishes the cashews and wads the packet and sets it on the counter where it begins to
slowly unkink. The proprietor’s eyes have tracked the packet. Chigurh’s eyes stay on
the proprietor.

…What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?

PROPRIETOR
Sir?

CHIGURH
The most. You ever lost. On a coin toss.

PROPRIETOR
I don’t know. I couldn’t say.

Chigurh is digging in his pocket. A quarter: he tosses it. He slaps it onto his forearm but
keeps it covered.

CHIGURH
Call it.

PROPRIETOR
Call it?

CHIGURH
Yes.

PROPRIETOR
For what?

CHIGURH
Just call it.

PROPRIETOR
Well–we need to know what it is we’re callin for here.

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

PROPRIETOR
I didn’t put nothin up.

CHIGURH
Yes you did. You been putting it up your whole life. You
just didn’t know it. You know what date is on this coin?

PROPRIETOR
No.

CHIGURH
Nineteen fifty-eight. It’s been traveling twenty-two years
to get here. And now it’s here. And it’s either heads or
tails, and you have to say. Call it.

A long beat.

PROPRIETOR
Look…I got to know what I stand to win.

CHIGURH
Everything.

PROPRIETOR
How’s that?

CHIGURH
You stand to win everything. Call it.

PROPRIETOR
All right. Heads then.

Chigurh takes his hand away from the coin and turns his arm to look at it.

CHIGURH
Well done.

He hands it across.

…Don’t put it in your pocket.

PROPRIETOR
Sir?

CHIGURH
Don’t put it in your pocket. It’s your lucky quarter.

PROPRIETOR
…Where you want me to put it?

CHIGURH
Anywhere not in your pocket. Or it’ll get mixed in with the
others and become just a coin. Which it is.

He turns and goes.

The proprietor watches him.

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!

[Originally posted March 6, 2009]

4 thoughts on “Great Scene: “No Country For Old Men”

  1. hobbs001 says:

    Really interesting that you mention these two particular scenes because both movies feature scenes of horrific violence at the outset. Thereafter, any scenes involving the characters we saw commit the violence – and particularly the two scenes you highlight – are fraught with danger because the audience know exactly what these people are capable of. The “coin toss” scene is one of the best in film history – there’s a lot going on there….

  2. While watching (and for the first time as well), the biggest guess is why the hell he never finished that Proprietor fella.

    By the time of that scene Chigurh has already been introduced as universal kind of evil, uncompromised and whatever comes along with it. Basically we need just his hairdo to get us reminded someone’s gonna die, let along his methods. However, he has never done so in this particular scene. And it is impossible to miss its tension.

    In the scene with landlady (the woman, 50-ihs), the one where he forcefully asks “where does he [Moss] work?” –obviously he got frightened off by unknown party in the toilet.

    For some other of his reasons he leaves un-acted the last scene with Sheriff Bell and as far as it goes their only scene. He decides not to step in this line of narration. Although he is the major part of Bell’s Journey.

    And there’s this final scene with Moss’ wife, Carla Jean. It is not clear, but it has been hinted he does her, when it pointed that he checked his feet.

    In the scene with shopkeeper it’s quite interesting mentioning the ‘slowly unkinking packet’. I was surprised this brief and nonetheless impressive moment was in the script (saw movie first). Earlier in the script there’s one similar little thing that got my attention as well – the spent casing after the Moss’ first shot, he picks it up – and that one was scripted too. I think picking up that casing pointed to his some kind of professional chaser\military or whatever background where you had had to count on all such little things, and how long you’re gonna last depends on the fact whether or not you do those little things.

    And this unkinking packet is exactly the one for Chigurh. Something has appealed to curiosity of his conscious attention, this makes his mind reluctantly to react and tosses him some good reasons to spare life of this here fool.

    Chigurh was harshly provoked with Proprietor’s pointless curiosity and thus returned him «What business is it of yours where I’m from, friendo». He prefers to deal with that kind of friendliness in only one way. But the ‘married into’–line softened him a little, so he lets his coin to sort this out.

    Maybe Proprietor’s honesty about those things. Chigurh may admire such straightness. And it is unclear whether this kind of admiration can control his life – as in scene with Carla Jean.

    I think he killed her because unwittingly she trespassed his vital personality trait – which is the coin must be tossed, no matter how much you’re honest and dignified about your future. Because without it he’s the one who got married into it.

  3. I thought I remembered reading somewhere that finding out that the Proprietor married into the store and home made Chigurh feel sorry for him, and that killing the man, in Chigurh’s mind, would be an act of mercy — to put the man out of his “misery.” But in the end, he let the man and the coin decide. I like the script and the film because they don’t work too hard to explain every character’s decisions or M.O.’s. As long as it’s consistent and drives the plot, you don’t need a hundred flashbacks or expo monologues.

  4. Kalen says:

    I find it fascinating that the gas station scene is seven pages long, filled with clipped dialogue, no revealing descriptions of character emotions, and no drastic turn of events — yet it’s one of the best in film history. This only reaffirms my belief that lengthy, one-on-one scenes that reveal raw character are sort of the holy grail of scriptwriting. When done right they’re unbeatable, memorable, perhaps even the only thing we take away from a film; at the same time, you can only have about one or two in an entire film. This is where artists shine and separate themselves from the pack.

    Love both of these.

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