An Exploration into Qadr and the Limits of Human Agency
*Disclaimer: this is a film analysis and contains spoilers*
Chigurh: Let me ask you something. If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?
No Country for Old Men is a film which encapsulates the age-old question philosophers have pondered over for centuries: how much responsibility do we have over our destiny? Rather than answer the question, the film explores the dichotomy between free will and determinism. There are some things that we can change and other things that we have to accept, but to what extent do we have agency over divine decree? The film centers around three main characters: Llewelyn Moss, Sheriff Tom Bell, and Anton Chigurh. The linear plot is based on a cat-and-mouse game between Moss and Chigurh in a pursuit for stolen drug money that Bell attempts to fruitlessly intercept. Both of these characters represent the dichotomy of predestination and human agency.
The film opens with Sheriff Tom Bell’s monologue over a backdrop of a desert landscape in Texas; the Sheriff describes an encounter he had with a boy that murdered a young girl in cold blood. When asked whether it was a crime of passion, the boy says ‘there wasn’t any passion to it’ and that ‘he’d been planning to kill someone for as long as he can remember’. His last words before being sent to the electric chair were that ‘he knew he was going to hell’, welcoming his eternal damnation. The boy accepted his fate, but at what cost? This small anecdote opens up the underlying philosophical paradox within the movie and serves as a premise for the film’s antagonist, Anton Chigurh.
Anton Chigurh and the Principle of Fate
Chigurh’s disposition within the movie favors a determinist outlook on life. He perceives the world as ordered and has a set of principles and rules he sticks to throughout the film; anyone that directly gets in the way of him and the cash is disposed of and those who happen to accidentally stumble into his path are faced with an ultimatum based on a coin toss. We see this ultimatum used twice, once in his encounter with a gas station owner and also later on with Moss’ wife, Carla Jean. Chigurh’s intense dialogue with the gas station owner encompasses the philosophical dilemma between qadr and rational action.
Chigurh: 1958. It’s been travelling 22 years to get here. And now it’s here. And it’s either heads or tails and you have to say. Call it.
Like the coin, every single one of us is not here by mistake; we are controlled by the law of cause and effect. Chigurh posits the opinion that no person, situation or thing is left to chance but that it was destined, whether through God, the universe or some other divine entity. He never adheres to any religious belief throughout the movie; however, he bases his philosophy on the principle of fate. He dislikes spontaneity and misalignment, evident in his dismay of the fact that the gas station owner decided to marry into his profession, to which Chigurh scoffs in disgust.
In Surah Al-Hadid, Allah declares:
No calamity befalls the earth or in yourselves but is inscribed in the Book of Decrees (al-lawh al-mahfooz), before We bring it into existence. Verily, that is easy for Allah. (Quran 57:22)
Belief in qadr is one of the 6 pillars of Iman, amongst other metaphysical beliefs, so in this light it is incumbent on every Muslim to acknowledge the existence of written fate. The tribulations we face in this dunya have been allotted to us specifically and have happened through Al-Mashee’ah, the permission of our Lord. Therefore, the view that Chigurh takes is ironically one that Islamic jurists may agree with. The concept of Al-Mash’eeah is even mentioned in the Bible, as Paul writes to the Ephesians:
Also, we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to his purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11).
Divine will is a universal belief shared by Ahlul Kitab, the people of the book, and solves the loose ends associated with Chigurh’s philosophy. The sequence of events in the film were supposed to happen in that order and in one way or another, just like the sequence of events in our own lives. From Moss’ accidental discovery of the drug deal mishap to his untimely death at the hands of a band of Mexicans who were also after the same cash Chigurh was in pursuit of, all of these events happened through fate. Despite Chigurh not being the one to kill Moss like he had planned, his philosophy was still substantiated.
As omnipotent as Chigurh thinks he is, it is the force of fate that has prevailed. With that knowledge, Chigurh is forcibly humbled into acknowledging that he is a human with only human capabilities and, like everyone else, has no control over fate. This is especially evident at the end of the film when his car gets T-boned at an intersection by an unruly vehicle, despite following road etiquette. Chigurh’s lack of control over events indirectly hints at the existence of a divine decree. The film thus opens up questions about who really is in control of fate. From a theological perspective, we already know the answer is God.
Chigurh’s total confidence in the principle of fate is met with the question of how much agency we have in dictating the outcomes of our own lives. Yes, Chigurh is correct to assert the principle of fate, but he does not accept the possibility of free will. Moss’s character starkly contrasts the shrewd nature of Chigurh; he has a capricious, fickle attitude in relation to the circumstances laid out in front of him, going against orders and rules.
Llewelyn Moss and Human Agency
In contrast to the beliefs of Chigurh, Moss’s philosophy is embodied more in his actions than his words. Unlike Chigurh, Moss’s character displays conscience and reason; the logic for his actions is grounded in what practically needs to be done as opposed to what absolutely must be done. Upon discovering the scene of the crime, a dying drug cartel member asks for water to which Moss turns his back, too busy wondering where the last-man standing disappeared to. In the evening, after not being able to sleep, he goes back to the scene, mainly in pursuit of the money, but also remembering to bring a jug of water to quench the dying man’s thirst. He finds the man dead, but shows a level of moral conscience and ability to take action when the situation calls for it.
Moss gambles the outcome of each situation, hoping to come out on top. In one conversation between him and Carson Wells – the hitman hired to hunt Chigurh – Wells suggests that he should make a deal with Chigurh by giving him the money in exchange for his life, to which Wells states that Chigurh is a man of principles ‘that transcend money or drugs or anything like that’. This juxtaposes the diverging philosophies between the two men; Moss is so used to leveraging his options in the hopes that he might escape his fate, perhaps a survival tactic he learned in Vietnam, whilst Chigurh makes decisions and sticks to them. Moss convinces himself that he can control any given circumstance, but as seen in the movie, his impending doom was waiting for him, as much as he tried to avoid it.
In Surah An-Najm, Allah says:
And that man shall have nothing but what he strives for. (Surah 53:39)
The verse teaches us that we are the architects of our lives. Moss discovering the scene of the deadly drug deal was pure chance. There was nothing he could have done to prevent himself from being put into that scenario. However, the decision to take the money and to subsequently return at night was out of his own will, a decision that led to more unfortunate decisions, resulting in his death. Had Moss not decided to bury himself deeper into that hole, he would not have found himself stuck in his inevitable fate. In the Quran, Allah promises to his servants that life is what we make of it. In one scene, Sheriff Bell discovers the bodies of 3 drug dealers in whom Chigurh mistakenly killed whilst after Moss. He tells his associate that ‘these boys died of natural causes’, explaining that it was ‘natural to the line of work they was in’. Perhaps if the 3 men had been clean-living, their circumstances would not have led them to their fate, despite not even doing anything illegal at the time. The film thus hints at some sort of divine presence that puts life together according to how one lives it.
Whilst No Country for Old Men never alludes directly to the existence of God, it spurs us to think about the cycle of life as we inevitably come to the conclusion that there has to be a higher being in charge of the good and bad things that come our way. In view of this, the randomness of events in the film, just like in our own lives, are not so random after all. Yet, Allah has given us the ability to make choices and decisions to pave a trajectory towards our own destinies.
About the Author: Maryam Siddiqui is a political science graduate with an interest in philosophy and culture.
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One thought on “Fate and Free Will in No Country for Old Men”
Late comment but anyway….I think a problem with debates re: free will is that people are working with different definitions of “free will.” Some choose to define free will as the ability to do what you want. But that is not the definition that many others, including myself, as well as most of the scientific community have of the concept. Rather it is the ability to have made a different choice or taken a different course of action. Schopenhauer: “Man can do as he wills. But he cannot will what he wills.” We can make choices based on our needs & desires. But we don’t decide what needs & desires we possess. That our choices & actions are dictated by internal processes makes no difference. We are a part of the universe. Not separate from it.