Saturday, 2 January 2010

No Country for Old Men: The coin-toss scene, as seen by a linguist

By now, everyone must have seen 'No Country for Old Men'. I've only just watched it now -- I don't often have the chance to sit and watch a movie. It's one of those that keeps coming back to you days later.

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.

Watch:


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:
CHIGURH
How much?

PROPRIETOR
Sixty-nine cent.

CHIGURH
And the gas.
So 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.
PROPRIETOR
Y'all getting any rain up your way?

CHIGURH
What way would that be?
The 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.
PROPRIETOR
I seen you was from Dallas.

CHIGURH
What business is it of yours where I'm from, friendo?
Uh-oh. Someone has noticed Chigurh's point of origin, and could rat him out. The Proprietor's original question is still hanging, unresolved.
PROPRIETOR
I didn't mean nothin' by it.

CHIGURH
Didn't mean nothin.
The Proprietor attempts to repair this situation, but Chigurh won't have it.
PROPRIETOR
I was just passin' the time.
If you don't wanna accept that I don't know what else I can do for you.
The Proprietor is trying to preclude any further repair attempts. Then:
PROPRIETOR
...Will there be somethin' else?

CHIGURH
I don't know. Will there?
People 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.
PROPRIETOR
Is somethin' wrong?

CHIGURH
With what?
You give a question, you expect an answer, but Chigurh isn't cooperating.
PROPRIETOR
With anything?

CHIGURH
Is that what you're asking me? Is there something wrong with anything?
Chiguhr 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:
PROPRIETOR
Will there be anything else?

CHIGURH
You already asked me that.
Chigurh 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.
PROPRIETOR
Well...I need to see about closin.

CHIGURH
See about closing.

PROPRIETOR
Yessir.
Bid rejected, using an acknowledgement. Now Chigurh takes control, issuing question after obliquely threatening question.
CHIGURH
What time do you close?

PROPRIETOR
Now. We close now.
A question-answer pair, but Chigurh's not happy with it. He will decide the level of specificity required.
CHIGURH
Now is not a time. What time do you close.

PROPRIETOR
Generally around dark. At dark.
At last, something resembling a completed adjacency pair. But Chigurh isn't content to let it rest:
CHIGURH
You don't know what you're talking about, do you?

PROPRIETOR
Sir?

CHIGURH
I said you don't know what you're talking about.
The Proprietor no longer knows how to play this. He lets Chigurh take all the initiative.
CHIGURH
What time do you go to bed?

PROPRIETOR
Sir?

CHIGURH
You're a bit deaf, aren't you? I said what time do you go to bed.

PROPRIETOR
Well...Somewhere around nine-thirty. I'd say around nine-thirty.

CHIGURH
I could come back then.
You don't want this guy to come back when you're in bed.
PROPRIETOR
Why would you be comin' back? We'll be closed.

CHIGURH
You said that.
It'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.
PROPRIETOR
Well...I got to close now--

CHIGURH
You live in that house out back?

PROPRIETOR
Yes I do.
He knows where you live.
CHIGURH
You've lived here all your life?

PROPRIETOR
This was my wife's father's place. Originally.

CHIGURH
You married into it.
Chigurh 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.
PROPRIETOR
We lived in Temple Texas for many years. Raised a family there. In Temple. We come out here about four years ago.

CHIGURH
You married into it.
Chighur now owns this conversation, and isn't going to make any concessions.
PROPRIETOR
...If that's the way you wanna put it.

CHIGURH
I don't have some way to put it. That's the way it is.

CHIGURH
...What's the most you've ever lost on a coin toss?
And 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.

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.

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