Monday, March 03, 2008

Plumbing The Heart of a Villain

North Texas is under a tornado alert right now. I'm going to do my post and then turn off the computer. We're expecting heavy thunderstorms, possible flash floods, and very cold air, perhaps including snow flurries.

Somehow the possibility of tornadoes, thunderstorms, flash floods, and snow--all within 24 hours--doesn't seem fair. But I guess the people living along the San Andres fault probably feel the same way about earthquakes. When we choose where to live, we accept the consequences.

In a way, that's the subject of today's post. Before I start, let me warn you: If you have not seen No Country for Old Men, this post contains spoilers.

There was a discussion about No Country for Old Men on one of the writers' loops to which I belong. We were talking about the Javier Bardem character, Anton Chigurh, the killer who hunts for Llewelyn Moss in order to recover the $2 million in drug money that the welder stole.

One writer said she disliked the "pure evil" of the villain. Another said she didn't think Chigurh was evil. To her, he was so insane he was beyond labels such as sociopath or psychopath.

I responded that I did not agree with either one. I don't believe Chigurh is either evil or insane.

Let me start with what is--to me--the easier question: Whether Chigurh is insane.

First of all, insanity is not a psychiatric term; it's a legal term. According to Wikipedia, the insanity defense is invoked when an evaluation by a forensic professional indicates "the defendant was incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong at the time the offense was committed. In addition, some jurisdictions require that the evaluation address the issue of whether the defendant was able to control his behavior at the time of the offense."

At no time do we see any indication that Chigurh is incapable of determining right from wrong. The fact that he simply doesn't care how others judge his behavior is not an indication of a mental impairment.

He controls his behavior to an extreme degree, even to the point of disregarding physical pain. When he is talking to the manager of Moss' trailer park, he hears someone in another room and refrains from harming the woman who is refusing to give him the information he wants. He is clearly capable of moderating his behavior when necessary.

While I don't think he's insane, I do believe Chigurh is an amoral sociopath.

The word sociopath was created by two combining forms: the Latin socio meaning society or social and the Greek patho meaning disorder.

So a sociopath is one who suffers from a social disorder. The Science Dictionary defines sociopath as "someone whose social behavior is extremely abnormal. Sociopaths are interested only in their personal needs and desires, without concern for the effects of their behavior on others."

I would argue that Chigurh's social behavior is extremely abnormal and that he has no concern for the effects of his behavior on others.

And finally, let me explain my use of the word amoral.

There are two English prefixes, which I believe are often confused. One is im and the other is a.

The prefix im is used with words beginning with the letters "m" or "p." Its purpose is to represent the exact opposite of the word it precedes. Therefore, impersonal means not being personal. And immoral means the opposite of moral.

The prefix a means lacking in. Therefore, asexual means lacking in sexuality. And amoral means lacking in morals.

Where immoral implies bad, the opposite of moral (good), amoral connotes a lack of any morals.

The distinction is fine, but it exists. And I think Chigurh fits the definition of amoral. Good and bad as part of a moral construct have no meaning to him. They are just words, not a part of a value system for him.

Just because Chigurh does not embrace the prevailing moral system of right and wrong does not mean he has no value system. He does. It's just hard for us to recognize as such.

Chigurh apparently considers the universe a random place, and his coin toss simply concretizes that randomness. In the same way that the bulk of humanity abides by its moral system, he is true to his own value system. He says at one point, "What's done cannot be undone." Note that when he gives his word to Moss that he will kill Carol Jean, he follows through with the thoroughness of a man swearing on a Bible.

While Chigurh's coin toss seems trivial to us, it is his value system, and he is faithful to it. He scares us because of this "otherness." He seems alien.

Where does a man like this come from? He does not display the rage, the need to hurt back that a physically abused child does.

If I had to write his backstory, I would have him spend his early years in one of those East European orphanages where babies are left alone in their cribs for long hours at a stretch. They are not abused outright; they are fed and bathed. But the sensory deprivation and a failure to bond makes it impossible for them to develop normally.

The other day, a young woman died in Dallas when an 18-wheeler careened off an overpass and landed on her car on the road below. It was a totally random event. Had it happened five minutes earlier or five minutes later, she would not have died. Such events are frightening precisely because of their randomness.

Humanity prefers a world presided over by a God who imposes His own rules. Even when those rules seem arbitrary, we find solace in the sense of order they represent. Chigurh personifies the exact opposite: a random and impersonal Nature. I think that's why he scares us at such a deep level.

Think of that other monster of literature and film: Hannibal Lector. He, too, ignored the rules of humanity, but faithfully adhered to his own bizarre value system.

These are great villains.

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