“The only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair.”
—Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight
Carla Jean: The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.
Anton Chigurh: Well, I got here the same way the coin did.
—No Country For Old Men
There has been a rash of coin-flipping killers in the movies recently—well, only two, but they are from two of the most important and memorable movies of the last decade.
Both titles are in IMDb’s ranking of the top 50 titles of this decade, with The Dark Knight in the top spot—granted the list is severely flawed (Up is No. 2 and Gran Torino is actually on the list), but it is a clear indication that these films had resonance.
The cultural importance of DK and NC is heightened even more when we consider the vacuum in culturally important movies over the last five years. On IMDb, which tends to be incredibly present-biased, most of this decade’s top films come from its first half. Even among the more recent ones, three are Pixar and six are foreign (not that these facts make the films bad or insignificant, just not the types of pictures that resonate with the culture at large), and I don’t think Star Trek or The Hangover will last long on the list.
Basically, DK and NC are on a very short list of recent films that A) most people saw and B) most people liked. So what does it say that these two very successful films came out within eight months of each other and each featured pretty heavy metaphors about chance and morality with regard to leaving a person’s life up to a coin-toss?
But DK and NC were not really all that similar in design: The latter was a respectable, Oscar-timed release, from one of the most respected directing teams around, adapted from one of the most respected novelists of his generation; the former was another comic book movie, released as a summer blockbuster with a budget over seven times that of NC.
It doesn’t seem like an accident that these two films, very different in conception, actually ended up so thematically similar and (also not by coincidence) so resoundingly successful. No, if movies still say anything about us culturally (and I, obviously, believe they do), then it seems very important indeed.
ALERT: This post contains spoilers pretty much left and right. If you haven’t seen either of these films (shame on you) and you plan to, you probably shouldn’t read ahead.
I. What the Coin Says
Harvey Dent and Anton Chigurh are two very different characters, but they each use the same basic shtick: Confront a target and flip a coin. If the coin lands one way, you let the target go. If it lands the other way, you, well, don’t.
How they each get there, though, is where they differ.
Harvey Dent is, at heart, a moral character. The Dark Knight really tries to hammer that point home: Dent is the “white knight,” the “best of us,” and “heroic,” before The Joker gets involved. As the D.A. of Gotham, he stands up to the forces of crime and corruption.
Early in the movie a witness in his courtroom tries to assassinate him on behalf of the mob. Dent takes the gun, punches the witness and continues with the trial LATER THAT DAY. The message, in case you really weren’t paying attention, is that Dent does not back down to the bad guys. Even Batman sees him as the ultimate, non-vigilante, unmasked, pure conqueror of the evil forces of Gotham that he himself can never be.
All it takes, however, is one little unfortunate incident like his girlfriend dying in an explosion to turn Harvey around. The Joker arranges for Dent and his girlfriend Rachel Dawes (who happens to be Batman’s former squeeze) to be kidnapped and tied up in buildings with explosives (in one of the many abandoned warehouses that the populate cities where superheroes tend to live). Part of the game the Joker is playing, however, is that these buildings are on opposite sides of the city, and Batman has to choose whom he is going to rescue. Yet another twist is in store, however, when Batman arrives to save Rachel, only to find Dent. As a result, Rachel dies, whereas Dent half-avoids harm, with half of his body unscathed, the other half hideously burnt from the explosion.
With the loss of his girlfriend (who accepts his marriage proposal seconds before she dies) comes the loss of Dent’s belief in righteousness. Instead of believing in moral order and dignity and all the things Batman and the city of Gotham invested in him, Dent succumbs to the moral vices of vengeance and apathy after the explosion. He embraces the nickname “Two-Face” and embarks on his coin-flipping rampage.
The coin, which was originally a double-sided coin until one side was burnt in the same explosion that took half of Dent’s face (in case you haven’t caught on, subtlety is not a primary concern of DK), becomes a symbol of random cruelty and destruction, where it used to be a symbol of moral fortitude and certainty.
Of course, Dent himself doesn’t really change. Unlike the Joker, who relishes anarchy and destruction, Dent is a whiner. His “embrace” of destruction and random cruelty really consists of a lot of lamenting those things: “How come I was the only one who lost everything?” “You wouldn’t dare try to justify yourself if you knew what I’d lost!” “You thought we could be decent men, in an indecent time….The world is cruel and the only morality in a cruel world is chance.”
In other words, Dent is still looking for some kind of morality, even if it is completely random. He flips a coin because it’s the only “right” thing to do.
Chigurh, on the other hand, is not worried about morality; his only concern is efficiency. Chigurh is a hired gun, a blunt instrument, a weapon. But he’s a very good weapon and very proud of it. When Chigurh finds out that his boss has hired another group of outlaws for the same job he was hired to do (and, of course, all they’ve managed to do was screw it up) he says: “That’s foolish. You pick the one right tool.”
Violence is not fun for Chigurh like it is for the Joker and it is certainly not a way to achieve some moral righteousness, like it is for Dent and Batman. Violence is simply effective. It is disturbing how simple, effective and downright polite his brutality can seem:
He kills people because he has a job to do, and killing someone is the most effective way to do it. It’s not a matter of right or wrong; it’s just what has to happen. The coin tossing is not how he imposes morality—it’s not a trademark like it is with Dent; he only saves it for special occasions—it’s just a matter of determinism. For Chigurh, every murder is simply a matter of fact, as opposed to one of will. He tells a gas-station attendant—whom he has otherwise NO reason to kill—to call a coin without telling him what it’s for: “Do you know what date is on this coin? 1958. It’s been traveling 22 years to get here and now it’s here. And it’s either heads or tails…call it.”
This philosophy is just some sick version of determinism. Either it’s heads or it’s tails. Either I will kill you or you will live. Choice has nothing to do with it. Dealing with another victim (this one does not get the benefit of a coin toss), he tells him: “You should admit your situation. There would be more dignity in it.” In other words, “Everything that will happen to you has already happened. There is no sense in trying to change it.”
II. Visions of the Future
What connects NC and DK, beyond a mere reliance on coin imagery, is that both films present moral nihilism as the inevitable, ultimate victor in the modern context. In No Country for Old Men, the “good guys” of Llewelyn Moss and Sheriff Bell end up dead and defeated, respectively. Chigurh, however, emerges even from his own clash with random violence; in a car crash near the end of the film, he fashions a sling out of a kid’s shirt and walks away, despite having a bone coming through his skin. Chigurh not only perseveres, he takes a principled pride in his victory. When one of his victims calls him crazy, Chigurh asks, “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”
Dent, on the other hand, does die. But not before his morality is completely inverted. The tone of the film’s end is decidedly pessimistic, with Batman on the run and Lt. Gordon declaring that, “The Joker won.”
Which brings us to the Joker himself, the most memorable character in both of these films. It seems pointless to reiterate all the positive things said about Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, but suffice to say: It was really good. I could watch pretty much all of his scenes on loop and be happy. What makes the performance so mesmerizing is the way Ledger taps into the psyche of profound nihilism. Unlike Dent and Chigurh, the Joker represents violence and destruction for the sake of themselves. There is no higher cause, not morality or fate. It’s just fun.
The Joker doesn’t offer anything in the place of what he tears down, he just wants to destroy things. He even says as much to Harvey in the hospital.
This is the starting point of DK, the essence of the world the Joker inhabits. Again, in DK’s nonsubtle style, the Joker is asked in the very first scene, by a banker who is himself a criminal, “What do you believe in?” The answer, of course, is nothing. Nothing besides anarchy and violence.
This profound nihilism resonated with audience members so well because it has been bubbling under the surface of film and culture for years. It was present in Chigurh, it was present in The Departed’s comically violent ending, it was present in Fight Club’s glorification of punching someone in the face because he is your friend, it’s been present in Tarantino movies for over a decade, particularly in the literally hundreds of dead bodies in Kill Bill.
Compare the violence in these films to violence in films of the past. Murder and violence are now done as some kind of hip rejection of something’s authority, either traditional morality, consumerism or Jack Nicholson. Killing is presented as eminently “cool” and “badass” because it is not beholden to any system of value. Compare that to violence in The Godfather, which is a matter of defending your family, or in Apocalypse Now, where Kurtz’s murder is basically a moral judgment, or in Taxi Driver where it is downright naïve in its attempt to liberate a young girl. The violence in those films is anything but morally nihilist.
This is not limited to violent movies. Think of how even recent comedies and nonviolent dramas turn apathy and laziness into heroism (Office Space, Lost in Translation, Sideways). Look at modern television, where the antiheroes (Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Vic Mackey, Dexter Morgan) now greatly outnumber good, old-fashioned heroes.
Just look at regular, day-to-day, mundane life. It’s not violence, but hipster nihilism, the knee-jerk rejection of any popular or established sentiment that permeates everyday interactions. Criticism and rejection are the default response to pretty much everything: the iPhone, print media, The Hills, the blogosphere, Barack Obama, Juno, Fox News. When such contrarianism becomes so pervasive and automatic, when it applies to basically everything, it is, essentially, nihilism. When every fixture of established authority, from George Bush to Sheriff Bell*, is basically seen as hollow and illegitimate, and there is no viable alternative, what is left standing?
*There is a scene in No Country in which Bell declares that, “Once you stop hearing ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, the rest is soon to follow.” How in the world are we supposed to relate to a “good guy” that views bad manners and mass-murder as two of a kind? What kind of outdated moral authority is this?
The Joker and Chigurh represent the culmination of a trend away from moral assertiveness that goes as far back as Martin Luther (if you can’t tell, I’m aiming for gravity here). Both of them end up surviving because A) they represent such forces of destruction that they, themselves, cannot be destroyed and B) they are really good at what they do. Chigurh is almost appealing in his efficiency and the Joker is just charming. They are the amoral, nihilistic faces of our culture.
III. What’s Left?
Now, obviously not all criticism is nihilistic and amoral. There is always a place for criticism (this is, after all, a BLOG) and the link between criticizing Fox News and blowing up hospitals is, admittedly, tenuous. Some things deserved to be criticized from a moral or practical perspective. The problem, however, is with our obsession with destruction—not physical destruction (because it’s always been enjoyable to watch stuff blow up), but the destruction of established values. Figures like Chigurh and the Joker represent the moral vacuum that results when we rely excessively on criticism and repudiation; they don’t glamorize violence any more than other villains, but they do glamorize the unprincipled and inhuman aspects of it more.
When the default status becomes negation, we’re not seriously engaging the heavy questions. Take this scene from the end of No Country, between Chigurh and Carla Jean Moss, the wife of the man he has just hunted down:
Of course, Carla Jean is right. He doesn’t “have to” do this. Even if he leaves it to a coin toss, he’s still the one making the choice: “The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.”
Chigurh’s defense—that he is no different from the coin—ultimately fails. Of course he is different. He is the one coming back based on promises. He is the one choosing which “rule to follow.” No matter how Chigurh acts, he is choosing.
Ultimately, everyone endorses something. Every action, even inaction, is a choice, and therefore an endorsement. You can pretend that you are not committed to anything, that you are aloof and relativist and unfazed, but even that is a choice. The logic of destruction ultimately destroys itself. But not before blowing up a few buildings.