A few days ago I watched No Country For Old Men, the Coen brothers’ film based on the excellent Cormac McCarthy novel. I spent the runtime fixated, like always, on the strange game played between Llewelyn Moss and Anton Chigurh: Moss is a man attempting to control his own destiny; Chigurh is an agent bend on revealing the pure contingent nature of existence. It’s a classic clash: chaos and order; meaning and nonmeaning; good and evil.
This time something else stuck out: Carson Wells.
Carson Wells is hired by the corporate drug cartel to kill Chigurh, who at this point has killed both Mexican and American cartel members. In the scene where he is hired, Carson sweats confidence. It helps that he’s played by Woody Harrelson, a man who manages to play “smug” with the best of them.
Wells is somewhere between Moss and Chigurh. He’s a Vietnam war veteran. He’s willing to kill; more than that, he’s willing to kill for money. On the other end, he has some kind of code of honor. Late in the film, he offers Moss a deal: if Moss gives Carson the money, then Carson will protect him. We don’t have any way of evaluating if he’s sincere or not, but we have to be open to it.
That openness is precisely how Wells functions in the film. He exists for such a short time (he is killed by Chigurh), but the possibility of his actions haunt the film. He appears, and we ask “what will he do?” He is killed and we think “what could he have done?” His past is alluded to (a military career; a sighting of Chigurh in years past), and we wonder “what did he do?”
Moss’ is unable to shape his destiny. We were told that he wouldn’t be able to, and it was true. Chigurh kills without punishment and reveals the purely contingent nature of existence. Carson comes into existence and leaves. His echo is not felt. He does not linger in the minds of other characters; there is no remnant of him.