“What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?”
– Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men
In our daily lives, the most we bet on a coin toss is a couple of dollars or an embarrassing public act. We think it is a fair way to make an arbitrary decision: the coin has an equal probability of landing on heads or tails so we leave it up to chance to decide. Consequently, we associate coins with chance and randomness. On the other hand, in the Coen brothers’ film No Country for Old Men (2007), coins represent more than just chance. Serial killer Anton Chigurh flips a coin to determine whether or not he will kill his victims because, for him, luck is intrinsically related to fate. He believes that determinism drives the coin to reveal his victim’s future because fate has already determined which way the coin will fall. However, Chigurh’s idea of luck and fate is problematic because if luck is by nature a force beyond our control, then we have significantly less freedom to determine some of the outcomes in our lives. By analyzing the use of the coin toss in both No Country for Old Men and Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1967), we find evidence to critique this assumption of luck and fate. Ultimately, both texts use the coin toss to demonstrate how luck and fate operate in a compatibilist framework. Luck can help justify our choices and fool us into believing that our lives are predetermined. In reality, we have much more freedom in our decision-making as long as we realize our ability to choose regardless of our luck.
In No Country for Old Men, the coin toss embodies more than mere chance and luck; in fact, it appears to operate beyond the laws of probability. For example, Chigurh forces the man at the gas station to bet his life on the flip of a coin, telling the man that he has been “putting it up [his] whole life.” The coin toss becomes a manifestation of the man’s fate. This is made clear when he says the coin has travelled 22 years to be used at this specific moment to determine whether or not the man will live. Chigurh suggests that fate has already determined the result of the coin toss. If luck were operating as a random force, the coin could not have travelled 22 years to be in Chigurh’s hand. There would also be an equal chance that the coin lands on heads or tails. For Chigurh, the coin simply acts as a tool to reveal his victim’s fate. His ideology introduces an interesting paradox to the question of luck and fate: how can the same coin that symbolizes randomness also be used to symbolize fate?
To resolve this paradox, first consider that the coin toss produces the illusion of free will. Chigurh gives the man the impression that he is choosing his fate by allowing him to call the toss. Yet, Chigurh is also forcing the man to determine his own fate, taking away his freedom to choose to take part in the coin toss in the first place. Furthermore, Chigurh believes he is following certain rules, unknown to us, which have already determined the result of the toss. He demands that his victim needs “to call it.” “ I can’t call it for you,” he tells the man, “It wouldn’t be fair.” Chigurh implies the result of the coin toss has been determined and the man is calling his own fate. In this case, it is no longer a fair toss because the man does not have the freedom to choose to opt out of this gamble. He is forced to call the outcome of his life because fate has already determined on which side the coin will fall. Although one could argue he can still exercise freedom by choosing one side over another, nevertheless, he is essentially making a blind choice. At best, he could arbitrarily choose a side but the outcome is predetermined and out of his control once the coin has landed. Since luck and fate are working together, his freedom is severely reduced. In fact, this example shows luck in the traditional sense becomes irrelevant when it does not operate independently but functions as a subtle representation of fate.
Fate is the predetermined path our lives will follow while luck may intervene and potentially change our fate. Consequently, people often rely on luck to justify their choices because they reason that the luck they have was fated all along so they do not need to make their own choices. For example, Chigurh forces the man to call the coin toss so as to prevent himself from making the decision about whether or not to kill the man. This relationship between luck and fate allows him to relinquish control; he gives up his own freedom and uses luck and chance as an excuse to avoid taking responsibility for determining the man’s fate. In Chigurh’s mind, the man’s luck will dictate whether or not he kills him. This idea of luck and fate causes people to become complacent when making decisions because, ironically, they freely choose not to exercise their free will. In other words, people choose to give up their human freedom instead of realizing that luck does not bind them to their fate. Chigurh chooses to follow the man’s call instead of making his own decision about whether or not to kill him. The man also acquiesces to Chigurh’s demand to call the toss partially through fear of Chigurh, but mostly through a sense of resigning himself to his own bad luck.
The Coen brothers’ idea of luck and fate is problematic because it assumes too much about the agency of the coin. How can a coin be a mechanism to determine our fate? By analyzing Stoppard’s use of the coin toss in his play, we can question our underlying assumptions about luck. Stoppard suggests we yield too much importance in luck, as if it represents the will of a divine power, whereas, in reality, luck is random and based on chance. He introduces the coin toss in Scene One where Rosencrantz flips heads 92 times in a row. Stoppard uses this scene to question our belief that luck is meaningful. As coins have an equal chance of flipping heads or tails, the fact that it lands 92 times on the same side seems ridiculous but not altogether impossible even though the odds are very slim. While Stoppard may be using this sequence of 92 consecutive heads to suggest that his characters do not reside in the real world where the laws of nature hold sway, we can also interpret this scene as showing the arbitrariness of chance. The scene reveals that there are really no rules to coin flipping and probability does not determine on which side the coin will land. Stoppard’s play critiques the notion found in No Country for Old Men that luck is deterministic because it points out that a coin toss cannot be a meaningful determinant of our fate since it is random. In fact, even though Chigurh believes he is following some unknown rules, even he hints at the idea that we cannot determine our fates based on a coin toss when he tells the man to keep the coin because it is his “lucky quarter,” despite having earlier admitted that it is “just a coin.”
The 92 consecutive heads sequence also highlights the absurdity of using a coin as a way to determine our fate. Whenever we make choices, there is not a 50/50 chance that we will choose one option over another. First, there is often more than one option from which to choose. Second, the coin toss is too simplistic and does not take into account the external factors or psychological dispositions that could affect our freedom. Stoppard highlights this absurdity by having Rosencrantz interrupt Guildenstern, who is trying to seriously rationalize why the coins “have consecutively come down ninety-two consecutive times,” by introducing the “curious scientific phenomenon” that “fingernails grow after death, as does the beard” (Stoppard 18). The juxtaposition of these two comments provides comic relief and pokes fun at the seriousness of coin flipping, particularly in light of using it to determine if someone lives or dies. The dialogue suggests that Chigurh places too much trust and power in a coin toss to the point of absurdity.
Another example that demonstrates how we place too much importance on luck appears when Guildenstern tricks someone into betting even though the odds are in his favor. Guildenstern wins the coin toss because he knows the coin will land on heads after his 92 rounds of coin flipping with Rosencrantz. Furthermore, Guildenstern raises the questions of whether luck is within our control and if we can manipulate it. If it is true that we can manipulate our luck, then luck is not entirely deterministic. We should be able to change our fate and thus increase our human freedom. This conclusion supports the idea that luck and fate work within a more compatibilist framework. Luck is deterministic if we decide to follow how fate has preordained our lives. Yet, this strips us of our free will. On the other hand, we do have space to exercise our free will and act against fate as long as we choose to make our own choices and do not allow luck or fate to determine the events in our lives.
The conclusion of No Country for Old Men supports this compatibilist framework when Carla Jean deliberately chooses not to call the flipped coin because she believes “the coin don’t have no say.” She exercises her human agency by rejecting the coin toss and, in the process, decides her own fate. She knows that she is guaranteed to die, admitting to Chigurh,“I knowed exactly what was in store for me.” Nevertheless, she chooses to opt out of Chigurh’s game because she believes a coin toss based on random chance has no power in determining the outcome of her life. She rejects luck as a determining factor and demonstrates that she has more agency than Chigurh, who would rather passively comply with the result of the toss. Carla Jean is a much stronger character than Chigurh in the sense that she recognizes her ability to exercise her own freedom. Conversely, he chooses to give up his freedom by following the toss of a coin and rejecting his responsibility to make a decision about whether or not to kill Carla Jean. He even implies that he allows himself to be buffeted by fate when he says, “I got here the same way the coin did.”
On the other hand, some may argue that Carla Jean is not exercising her free will because Chigurh kills her in the end regardless of her choice. However, this argument does not make her choice any less free. In fact, her choice to exercise her free will, despite the consequences, is a meaningful gesture that demonstrates that not everybody has to conform to the fate their luck delivers. As a courageous character, she chooses to reject the arbitrary forces that do not have meaning in her life even if that means she is sacrificing her life. When Chigurh gets into a car crash at the end of the film, it only reinforces the random nature of luck. The fact that he has killed so many people without any bad consequences beforehand and yet a random accident like the car crash destroys his life is proof of the arbitrary aspects of luck. Furthermore, this incident illustrates that while Chigurh follows what he believes to be luck instead of making free choices, this does not stop luck from buffeting him in negative ways.
Luck is an illusion we use to justify the complacency of not making a choice. It is an easy way to opt out of exercising free will so that we do not have to take responsibility for the consequences of our free acts. While the use of coins in No Country for Old Men and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead offers insightful commentary on the way chance and fate are intrinsically tied, in reality, chance and fate are not as well defined as they are in the two texts. The line between chance and fate is blurred. Yet, this lack of clarity works to our advantage because we have the “power” of luck on our side. That is, under the compatibilist framework, luck turns into a wild card – we can interpret it as chance or fate. For example, if the coin falls on heads, we can believe it is luck or fate, but either way, we will conduct ourselves with the added confidence that we are doing the right thing. The key is to use luck as a psychological boost to give us the confidence to achieve our goal. Therein lies the power of the coin toss, it’s just a decoy that reveals, regardless of the situation, our freedom to choose to act.
No Country for Old Men. Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen. Miramax, 2007. Film.
Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. New York: Grove Press, 1994. Print.