Everyday Semiotics

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

In “No Country for Old Men” (2005), Cormac McCarthy leaves it almost entirely up to the reader to determine what motivates Moss, or rather lets the reader superimpose his own desires. Moss is an underdog and self-effacing -- and clever -- and so we can see ourselves doing as he does. McCarthy creates a solid enough shell of a character for us to climb inside.

The author provides the most open-ended, vague, preliminary reaction of his character to the almost-inconceivable sum of money he finds, and never supplements it:
There was a heavy leather document case standing upright alongside the dead man's knee and Moss absolutely knew what was in the case and he was scared in a way that he didnt even understand.
[...]
It was level full of hundred dollar banknotes. They were in packets fastened with banktape stamped each with the denomination $10,000. He didnt know what it added up to but he had a pretty good idea. He sat there looking at it and then he closed the flap and sat with his head down. His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down into forty pounds of paper in a satchel.
The money is metanym for almost any opportunity. When one first presents itself, before all the what-ifs are sketched out, it is unreal, exhilarating, terrifying.

If Moss is a cipher, then Anton Chigurh is an alien. With Sheriff Bell’s soliloquies as a guide, we inevitably come to him as a force virtually extraterrestrial; non-human at least. His motivations are opaque; as opposed to Moss’s, which are indeterminate but certainly there.

Bell speaks of a kind of harbinger:
Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him. I know he's real. I have seen his work. I walked in front of those eyes once. I wont do it again.
The boy Bell sent to the gas chamber seemed a sign of dark things to come, people without souls; Chigurh then must be that thing: he is a cipher for Bell’s and our worst fears about the outer limits of moral turpitude.

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