A familiar scene of pistols: No Country for Old Men’s adaptation of Target Pistol and Man

Curator's Note

In this tense and ambiguous scene from the Coen Brothers’ award-winning No Country for Old Men (2007), killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) lounges in a chair in the corner of a bedroom as Carla Jean Moss (Kelly Macdonald) pleads for her life. Seemingly leaving it up to fate, Anton tosses a coin and tells her to “call it.” Carla refuses, saying “the coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.” The camera then cuts to Anton inspecting his boots on the front stoop. Unlike the film’s other graphic moments of assault, this scene weaves a debatable plotline of past and future violence by suspending visual evidence of Carla Jean’s possible off-screen murder. This particular clip recently appeared in the Alex Colville art exhibit displayed in the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario, positioned alongside the iconic painting, Target Pistol and Man (1980). Labelled a pop culture pairing, both images supply an unsettling taste of possible danger that leave audiences pondering the varied moral and physical outcomes of those within, outside, and between their frames. On the surface, Anton’s expressionless stare and black clothing bear a striking resemblance to Colville’s self-portrait. However, the Coen’s adaptation differs in an important respect: The gun is absent. This omission is surprisingly overlooked in the exhibit description of the pairing - surprising since Colville’s gun is such a memorable and apt part of Target Pistol and Man. This difference illustrates how a filmic adaptation brings multiple other scenes to bear on an ominous-looking static image. Through the gun’s absence, the scene provides a renewed yet more fixed meaning than its painted predecessor, as the visual blanks are 'filled in' through the audience's memories of Anton's prior violence. As such, a clear vision of Carla Jean’s possible fate is constructed through the visual absence of weaponry and assault. This potential knowledge is ultimately drawn from memorable and graphic preceding scenes. As a revitalization of Target Pistol and Man, this clip challenges our capacities to witness and know 'the truth' or 'the whole picture' of a narrative that is always ever-partial and interpretive. Similar to Colville, whose style offers an intriguing in media res glimpse of potential (and/or past) violence, the Coens' nuanced use of partly-absent, partly-present pop culture texts render ‘the truth’ a familiar and terrifying projection of viewers’ own imaginations.

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