Formalities first, go see this movie. All of you, because it's going to be all spoiler-y up in this here ma'fa, 'aight?
Let me get the fanboyishness out of the way first. This is a perfect film. There, I've said it.
I know that a lot of people are looking at it through the lens of being a "revisionist western", I think mainly because there were a couple other big ones this year and people love trends. I'm contemplating coming up with my own category for it, "rural noir". The only other film that fits this description (off the top of my head anyway) is Paul Newman's revisit of the Harper (Archer) character in "The Drowning Pool".
But at best the categories only describe the story and the style. The big game with this movie (and indeed most Coen Brothers flicks) is figuring out how to best read the movie. What are the hidden themes? What is the symbolic significance of X or Y? How do you infer a larger philosophical construct from the Coen oeuvre? Or on the flip side of the coin (which it just so happens is a quarter from 1958) is the possibility that the Coens are just fantastic stylists and any larger meanings that one may glean from their works are just reflections of the viewer. Let's forget this last and plunge ahead with the speculation!
Totally Unsubstantiated Theory Ahead
I've seen it debated (here and here) that Anton Chigurh may or may not be the main character in the movie. I think that the case could be made for any of the three male leads as the main character. But who the hero is, is I believe a separate discussion entirely. If you take out Ed Tom Bell from the running (he could be considered the Greek Chorus of the piece) that leaves us with Lewellyn Moss and the "hitman" Anton.
Consider our introduction to Moss, we see him taking aim at an antelope through the scope of a rifle, his physical remove from his target seeming to mirror his emotional state. He pulls the trigger, but only succeeds in wounding the animal. He begins tracking it, only to be distracted by another trail of blood that intersects the path of the antelope. Peering through the brush he finds that this trail comes from a wounded dog. Here he gives up his pursuit of the antelope and backtracks along the trail of the dog to find out how it got injured in the first place. By choosing to do so he essentially sentences both the antelope and the wounded dog to die slow painful deaths out in the desert. This also sets up a pattern of behavior that Moss repeats time and again in the movie. He thoughtlessly causes pain to others and refuses to take the responsibility for what he has done.
So if Moss's actions are morally questionable what are we to make of Chigurh's? He is seen taking an active role in far more deaths than Moss. However he does seem to feel the weight of his crimes, and seemingly tries to understand the people he is visiting death upon. (This is entirely based on the way he is played by Bardem, whose eyes seem so inquisitive right before he sends his victims to their great reward.) He is also the only character who is brought up in the film as having a set of ethics:
Llewelyn Moss: If I was cuttin' deals, why wouldn't I go deal with this guy Chigurh?
Carson Wells: No no. No. You don't understand. You can't make a deal with him. Even if you gave him the money he'd still kill you. He's a peculiar man. You could even say that he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that.
Now, it is true that no one in, or out of the film for that matter, actually understands or could enumerate the rules that Chigurh lives by, but he does have them, and he follows them strictly from what we can see. He does so in his quest for something larger than the 2 million dollars (we are led to believe at least). If the movie were framed a little differently I believe that Chigurh would be our hero, or the anti-hero at least. He actually brings to mind other characters from fictional America's epic cinematic mythology: The Man With No Name, Harmonica (Once Upon a Time In The West), Leon (The Professional), Travis Bickle. All of these men do terrible things, but we are asked to believe that to do them for a good reason. Chigurh could be merely The Man With No Name stripped of context. Maybe "revisionist western" isn't such a bad label after all.
10 ultimate badasses out of 10