The key ingredient in the film is the antagonist Anton Chigurh, a remorseless killer with a Prince Valiant hairdo and an air tank. He's as omniscient as the next psychotic villain, but he's not invulnerable; Moss, his quarry, can injure him, and you wonder if that means Moss will be able to turn the tables. Even so, Chigurh has a formidable willingness to dispatch you for the sake of getting your car and continuing his pitiless and emotionless pursuit of Moss, as well as anyone else who crosses his path or even looks at him.
One of the most memorable scenes is the 'coin toss', which appears early in the film. It's a model of how to write film dialogue. At the counter of a gas station, the Proprietor bumbles onto Chigurh's bad side with a casual question about where he's come from, and Chigurh won't let it go. He draws the Proprietor deeper into the conversation and thus deeper into trouble.
Unlike the dialogues I study, it's a fictional conversation, but it lends itself really well to analysis. Two items in my bag of tricks are Conversational Analysis (CA) as elucidated by Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson, and game theory, especially Bill Mann's Dialogue Macrogame Theory (or DMT). CA is concerned with the mechanics of dialogue, particularly the back-and-forth of its parts. Game theory, as I'm using it here, refers to the way people make 'bids' to take the dialogue in this or that direction.
From the top:
CHIGURHSo far, all standard. Chigurh initiates the dialogue with a question, the proprietor answers. This is known as an adjacency pair. We use adjacency pairs habitually; questions lead naturally to answers, comments lead to acknowledgements. It's the unconscious nature of adjacency pairs that will draw the Proprietor into this tense and dangerous exchange.
And the gas.
PROPRIETORThe Proprietor innocently starts a question-answer adjacency pair. But it's not a question Chighur likes, so he doesn’t answer it. Instead, he takes control by asking a clarification question of his own.
Y'all getting any rain up your way?
What way would that be?
PROPRIETORUh-oh. Someone has noticed Chigurh's point of origin, and could rat him out. The Proprietor's original question is still hanging, unresolved.
I seen you was from Dallas.
What business is it of yours where I'm from, friendo?
PROPRIETORThe Proprietor attempts to repair this situation, but Chigurh won't have it.
I didn't mean nothin' by it.
Didn't mean nothin.
PROPRIETORThe Proprietor is trying to preclude any further repair attempts. Then:
I was just passin' the time.
If you don't wanna accept that I don't know what else I can do for you.
PROPRIETORPeople don't like to close a dialogue down too abruptly, so most dialogues have a 'pre-closing' stage, just to make sure nobody has anything else to say. Here, the Proprietor makes a bid to 'pre-close' (wouldn't you?), but instead of meeting the bid with a yes-no answer, Chigurh thwarts the bid with another question. Which the Proprietor needs to address.
...Will there be somethin' else?
I don't know. Will there?
PROPRIETORYou give a question, you expect an answer, but Chigurh isn't cooperating.
Is somethin' wrong?
PROPRIETORChiguhr does it again -- he's not letting the Proprietor take the 'initiative' -- the first step -- anywhere, he's not resolving any of these adjacency pairs, and he's using another question to push the dialogue down one more layer. We're three levels down in this dialogue, which is about as much as people are good at handling. Any deeper and the Proprietor will be lost. So it's another attempt at pre-closing:
Is that what you're asking me? Is there something wrong with anything?
PROPRIETORChigurh gives not another question, but a hostile meta-comment on the dialogue. The Proprietor only has one way out: make a bid to terminate the dialogue proper.
Will there be anything else?
You already asked me that.
PROPRIETORBid rejected, using an acknowledgement. Now Chigurh takes control, issuing question after obliquely threatening question.
Well...I need to see about closin.
See about closing.
CHIGURHA question-answer pair, but Chigurh's not happy with it. He will decide the level of specificity required.
What time do you close?
Now. We close now.
CHIGURHAt last, something resembling a completed adjacency pair. But Chigurh isn't content to let it rest:
Now is not a time. What time do you close.
Generally around dark. At dark.
CHIGURHThe Proprietor no longer knows how to play this. He lets Chigurh take all the initiative.
You don't know what you're talking about, do you?
I said you don't know what you're talking about.
CHIGURHYou don't want this guy to come back when you're in bed.
What time do you go to bed?
You're a bit deaf, aren't you? I said what time do you go to bed.
Well...Somewhere around nine-thirty. I'd say around nine-thirty.
I could come back then.
PROPRIETORIt's the first time in a while that the Proprietor has taken the initiative in this dialogue, but Chigurh shuts him down with another meta-comment about the dialogue itself. Now the Proprietor makes another bid to terminate the dialogue, but Chigurh quashes it with another question.
Why would you be comin' back? We'll be closed.
You said that.
PROPRIETORHe knows where you live.
Well...I got to close now--
You live in that house out back?
Yes I do.
CHIGURHChigurh does not attempt to conceal his disdain. The Proprietor must realise he's in danger, but can't stop babbling. He's in this conversation now.
You've lived here all your life?
This was my wife's father's place. Originally.
You married into it.
PROPRIETORChighur now owns this conversation, and isn't going to make any concessions.
We lived in Temple Texas for many years. Raised a family there. In Temple. We come out here about four years ago.
You married into it.
PROPRIETORAnd this takes us to Chigurh's game, which establishes another part of his character -- he's murderous, but also capricious and arbitrary. The coin toss is probably more interesting for philosophical reasons than for its dialogue, so I'll stop the analysis there.
...If that's the way you wanna put it.
I don't have some way to put it. That's the way it is.
...What's the most you've ever lost on a coin toss?
It is interesting, however, to note the way Chigurh and the Proprietor discuss the stakes of the game. The Proprietor is no doubt aware of the danger he's in, but is carefully trying to determine the nature of the danger. They both avoid talking about the stakes of the game directly -- the Proprietor, because if he says it, it might happen; Chigurh, because he considers himself an agent of Fate. Discussing it directly would make him responsible, and he's not; the evil swirling through the film is bigger than this one man.
It's a rather long scene. One screen-writer says he might have suggested trimming the first part. But you can't. You can't just start The Game. First, you have to draw your victim in. Chigurh does this by manipulating the conversation -- grabbing the initiative, refusing to resolve any of the Proprietor's adjacency pairs, and pushing the dialogue down level by level until the situation is inextricable.