‘No Country for Old Men’: Bell and Chigurh and the motel room

In a previous post, we talked about an element of “No Country for Old Men” that had led to misunderstandings. Now we address something where there truly are several possible explanations: Sheriff Bell and Anton Chigurh in the motel room. Were they there at the same time? What is the deal with that scene?

First, the events leading up to it. Bell arrives at the hotel just as the Mexicans are fleeing the scene. (They learned where Moss was by talking to his mother-in-law at the bus station, you’ll recall.) Bell sees numerous spent bullet shells next to the wall outside the swimming pool, where Moss was standing the last time we saw him; floating in the pool is, presumably, the woman he’d been talking to. Bell hurries to Moss’ hotel room, where a wounded Mexican is crawling away and where Moss lies dead just inside the door.

It would appear the Mexicans arrived while Moss was still talking to the pool girl. Moss was carrying his rifle (in a case), so he was able to return fire on the Mexicans before fleeing to his room. With one of their own having been hit, and with the money not sitting in plain sight, and with Moss fighting back, the Mexicans aborted their mission and took off.

Bell informs Moss’ wife of her husband’s death, then goes to the morgue, then has coffee with the local sheriff, who tells him the money was not in the hotel room. He guesses the Mexicans must have taken it, but Bell points out that they were speeding away pretty quickly.

During this time is when Anton Chigurh visits the hotel room. When Bell returns after having coffee, the lock has been blown off the door. He stops outside the door. We can see the reflection of something off the shininess of the blown-off lock, but it’s impossible to tell exactly what we’re seeing, whether it’s Bell’s own reflection or the reflection of someone inside the room.

The sequence of shots then proceeds like this:

– Bell looking at the lock.
– Another shot of the lock, from Bell’s POV.
– Chigurh, mostly in darkness, inside the room, in the corner behind the door.
– Bell outside the door, mustering the courage to enter. The look on his face is one of fear — not, in my estimation, the grown-up kind that adults have when facing difficult situations, but the kind that children have when they are truly terrified of something beyond their control. Bell is genuinely afraid.
– Chigurh again, same as before.
– The blown-out lock, this time from Chigurh’s POV. Light from outside is coming in through the hole.
– Bell again. He finally summons his courage.
– Bell unholstering his gun and cocking it.
– Bell carefully but deliberately pushing the door open.

The next shot is from inside the darkened room. The door swings open with a creak and quietly but noticeably strikes the wall. There is no one behind the door. The door has swung open too far for that to be possible, and while it is in mid-swing we can see there are no feet darkening the stream of light underneath it. Chigurh is not in the room.

Bell enters, looks around, notes that the bathroom window is locked from the inside, meaning no one escaped that way. He sees the grate removed from the vent and the dime — which we recognize as Chigurh’s calling card — on the floor. The money was hidden in the vent, and now Chigurh has taken it.

(I was surprised that anyone had questions about who wound up with the money. The movie is pretty straightforward on that point, even giving us the dime to confirm that Chigurh had opened the grate and taken it — not to mention the crisp $100 bill he pays the boy with later.)

So the question remains: What about those two shots of Chigurh standing behind the door? We must accept that when Bell opens the door, Chigurh is not behind it. It’s easy to miss this, to assume he’s hiding behind it the whole time Bell is in the room. But on looking at the DVD screener that Miramax sent, it’s quite evident that he’s not.

Could he have been behind the door and then, just before Bell opened it, moved to another hiding place, like maybe the closet? It’s possible, but unlikely. Chigurh is a careful, methodical killer. Why would he choose a hiding place and then, at the last split-second, suddenly change his mind?

I believe those shots of Chigurh behind the door exist only in Bell’s imagination. He knows Chigurh has been here and could very well still be here. He’s imagining having to confront him. That’s why he takes so long to summon his courage. When he finally does it, the way he pushes open the door is not exaggerated or forceful, but it is deliberate. Bell has worked himself up imagining Chigurh is standing behind it, and now he’s snapping back into reality.

It’s like scaring yourself into thinking a burglar is lurking in your closet, and while you know it’s probably not true, you make sure to open the door all the way anyway to prove it. Bell doesn’t look behind the door because he doesn’t have to. He heard it open all the way — and besides, he knew he was only imagining things anyway.

I think the purpose of that shot of the locked bathroom window is to confirm that Chigurh’s presence in the room was imagined. Without it, we might think he escaped just before Bell opened the door. With it, we realize he wasn’t here to begin with (or, rather, that he came and went before Bell arrived).

But the locked window also conveys another message. If Chigurh represents Bell’s fears, then in a sense he is still here, and Bell must confront him, metaphorically if not literally. Bell’s showdown is with his fears, and the film’s subsequent scenes indicate that he has decided he’s not up to the task anymore.