“Zen Psychopath” – a (sort of) character study of Anton Chigurh


I am not one for complaining about films being “unfaithful” to the books they are based on. Books and films are different. They serve different purposes. They tell stories in different ways, and more often than not a book will tell a story over a greater span of time and will be richer in detail, characterisation, etc. And a film will be more visual. And a book will more deeply explore characters’ thoughts and motivations. I will say, however, that upon reading Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, it is quite uncanny how closely it resembles the film. If one did not know in which order the two products were produced, one could be easily forgiven for thinking the book was written after the film, and so based upon it. This is, however, not the case, which is a simultaneous testament to the literary skills of McCarthy and the film-making skills of the Coen brothers.

The characterisation of the “Zen psychopath,” Anton Chigurh, is in both cases a dark and bloody and serenely violent pleasure to behold. Let us, however, start by getting one thing straight… Anton Chigurh is a killer. He is not a good person. He is what many folk might call “evil.” But what a fascinating, artful portrayal of “evil” he is! I say “portrayal,” because I suspect there is a possibility that Anton Chigurh does not exist. By which I don’t mean that he is a fictional construct of Cormac McCarthy (which is, of course, the case), but that he is a metaphor – he is a symbolic representation of an aspect (or aspects) of society. Which is to say that there is a possibility that his character, his person, his personality, does not and has never existed throughout human history. Of course, a lot of people have come and gone, so I can’t say what the chances are that someone has never existed who at least closely resembles the fictional “Anton Chigurh,” but the point I am trying to make is that I don’t think Cormac McCarthy intended for us to believe that the character of Anton Chigurh could necessarily physically exist (or at least his embodiment in some other person), but rather his presence is intended – his role in the story is intended – as a symbolic representation of something… or as Jung would have it, an archetype. An archetype of what, I’m not quite yet sure, but that’s what I intend to herewith explore…

(there is, of course, on the flip side of all this, the possibility that an almost identical version of Anton Chigurh does exist somewhere in the world – maybe even numerous Anton Chigurhs – and in fact, as the ghoulishly wise Mr Chigurh himself advises to Carla Jean about a minute before he shoots her, “most people don’t believe that there can be such a person” and “how to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of?”)


As I said above… Anton Chigurh is a killer. I do not, therefore, morally speaking, condone the emulation of any of his actions. There is, however, much to be admired in the way he goes about those actions. He is calm. He is methodical. He takes his time (except where circumstances necessitate greater speed). He is, as far as is possible, honest. He has principles. He is a man of his word. He attempts, as much as he can, to imbue people (usually people he is about to kill) with some degree of understanding with respect of his reasons for doing what he is doing. He is thoughtful, philosophical, he considers some of the great mysteries of life and his purpose within it. How, other than the fact that he goes around killing people (largely because he doesn’t “permit” himself to have enemies), can one not admire such a man? If he had chosen some other path in life, something more respectful, less frowned upon by society, would not society hold such a man in great esteem? Mass murder is, of course, not a particularly socially acceptable pastime, hence his general lack of regard amongst “right-thinking” folk, but since he also does not seem particularly concerned about what most “right-thinking” folk think… well… is not this also perhaps an admirable trait?

I find Anton Chigurh to be a fascinating character… and I also feel he is one we can learn a lot from… but I also find myself to be in a moral quandary for saying that we can learn a lot from a psychopathic killer! So I find myself asking… can one, should one, separate a man’s acts (however despicable or “evil” those acts are) from other aspects of his personality, and “learn from” the side(s) of his personality we find more acceptable? Should we admire Hitler for (apparently) being a lover of dogs? Should we think well of Jesse James for loving and providing for his family?

I would suggest that perhaps we can learn more from such characters than those who are more clearly Good or Evil, on account of the fact that we are forced to analyse and separate different aspects of their personalities and not presume that because they are A, then they must be B… Indeed, Anton Chigurh is calm, methodical and all the other things described above, but he is also a psychopathic killer, which proves that we cannot presume that calmness and methodicalness goes hand-in-hand with Goodness. This also relates to another issue I am sure I have spoken of elsewhere on this blog (don’t ask me where!), whereby I have said or suggested that a person should not be admired for working hard, irrespective of what he/she works hard at. This latter point is, I will admit, a particular bugbear of mine, as one so often finds that working hard is non-contextually lauded, whereas idleness is derided… this, I will hereby categorically say, is wrong! The output is what is important, not the means by which one produces that output

…which brings me back to Chigurh! Should one admire his methods and his overarching philosophies, separating such from the undeniable (amongst most “right-thinking” folk) Evil of his actions? I will ponder further on this and return if/when I think of more to say…


3 comments on ““Zen Psychopath” – a (sort of) character study of Anton Chigurh

  1. […] “Zen Psychopath” – a (sort of) character study of Anton Chigurh … that an almost identical version of Anton Chigurh does exist somewhere in the world – maybe even numerous Anton Chigurhs – and in fact, as the ghoulishly wise Mr Chigurh himself advises to Carla Jean about a minute before he shoots her, “most people don’t believe that there can be such a person” and “how … […]

  2. Steven says:

    A lot of interesting points. I would agree that ‘psychopaths’ have morals it’s just that they are a bit different from most of us. I knew one who was very conscious of when he was wronged but poor at recognising or caring when he wronged others. This is the same with anton his sense of morality only exists in relation to him, not to anyone else. Everyone else is expendable. Anton has no sense of the ‘otherness’ of other people outwith the ‘part’ he ascribes them in his own world. They don’t exist outwith this, for him. He thinks he’s a god, a symbol of fate when in fact he’s a sad excuse for a human being. I don’t mean that judgmentally or in condemnation but just as an observation. He is incapable of forming any bond with another person and has instead developed an addiction for murder. All his codes etc are focused around this, it’s not about money it’s about the power to kill. He enjoys it. He is gripped by what Freud called ‘the death instinct’ but not for himself but for others. He wants to destroy because he can’t do anything else.He is not in my view a happy person and God only knows what happened to him. Psychopaths are products of nature via nuture. Ted bundy was raised by his grandfather who was a sadistic bully. His grandfather raped teds mother and this is why he was born. His father /grandfather tortured animals and lexposed tes to pornography. What was antons childhood like?

  3. pepsoid says:

    Thank you for your comments, Steven! It’s nice to be reminded of something I wrote several years ago. Although I must add another pic of Anton, as the original one seems to have disappeared.

    Interestingly, my own personal ‘context’ has changed quite a bit since writing this piece. At time of publishing, I was just a few months into parenthood. Also I have since changed my career, such that I now work in special education. Both of which alter my perspective of such matters. Although, I will say, not fundamentally. If anything, I would say I presently have more insight into how childhood affects adult choices, and such things.

    Anyway, onto that pic of Anton!

    Done! 👍

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