American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Two doors, mirror images. Two sides of a coin that's about to be tossed, and called, by Ed Tom Bell when returns to, and enters, room 114. The crime scene tape stretches across both, visually tying them together.
Because I brought this up in a larger context in "The Uncertainty Principle (or, The Easy Read), I figured I may as well follow through with it. (If you don't want to read another post about that movie, here, just keep a movin' right on through. You can't stop what's coming.)
So, let's take a look at what's here, and what's not here. And by that I mean what's in the movie, not what we might have seen if we'd been somehow been able to enter the picture as invisible ectoplasmic entities, free to wander back and forth at will between the membranes of those motel walls. We may draw different conclusions about what we see (and about how important it is), but let's not invent extraneous fictions beyond what the movie shows us (like Chigurh hiding under the bed or slithering down the drain)....
If you don't know how this is going to turn out, proceed no further.
Returning to the crime scene. From Bell's POV, the camera moves in on room 114, where he has previously been, arriving too late to prevent bloodshed. The lock on door 112 is... dark, obscured by a shadow at this moment. Notice two sources of practical illumination here: the light between the doors, and Ed Tom's headlights (which we'll see when he opens the door).
As Ed Tom approaches 114, it is cast in shadow and the door to room 112 is now in light.
The blown lock on the door of room 114, now illuminated, from Ed Tom's POV to the right of it.
Chigurh on the other side of a door. The source of the light shining on Chigurh is ambiguous to say the least. Looks like it's shining up on him from inside the room, not through the hole in the lock, which would cast shadows in the other direction. Not that this matters much. Happens in movies all the time to light what needs to be lit within the frame. Note the gold color of the "hole." We're seeing the inside of the casing, the curve that's facing away from Chigurh. Could this be Ed Tom's POV" shot of something he can't actually see?
After cutting outside again, we return to a tighter shot on Chigurh, this time without seeing the light coming through the hole. This is not the first time we've been at a hotel/motel room door trying to intuit what's on the other side.
Close-up of the hole. Looks like a reflection of Ed Tom in the housing, but how is light bent around the inside of a rounded surface? What is the source of the light streaming to the left? The previous shot would suggest this is from Chigurh's POV, but we don't know to a certainty (see Eagle Pass Hotel conversation between Chigurh and Wells).
Ed Tom prepares to enter. Again, the shot emphasizes another space, room 112, even as it presses in on him entering room 114. Again, the lock of room 114 is in shadow; the lock of room 112 is not.
Ed Tom pushes open the door (visual echo of Chigurh entering Llewelyn's trailer), which goes flat against the wall. Nobody is behind it. If you don't believe me, you can watch the shot frame-by-frame on DVD. Notice headlight behind Ed Tom.
Entering the room. Multiple shadows, sources of light, reflections (see silhouette in mirror on extreme right) fragment the space. Ed Tom could be walking into a hall of mirrors, entering a shattered world of illusions, possibilities. You know how this is going to end, don't you? No. No, you don't.
What's most obvious about the way this sequence is constructed is that it is deliberately ambiguous. Maybe you prefer to think that the Coens are just "cheating." OK, fine. But what if Chigurh has been inside room 112? In a comment at Glenn Kenny's back in December, I suggested a few reasons we should consider the possibility (although Glenn, who has written brilliantly about "NCFOM," reads the scene differently):
But, again, the important concept to grasp here is that there doesn't have to be one definitive answer. The Coens make sure we know there is room for more than that. And they do it throughout the movie.
He[Llewelyn] took a room adjacent to Moss'shis own [38, on the back of 138] in the earlier motel/vent scene. [Chigurh pulls up outside of the visually paired 138 and 139; he checks into 130.]
2) The set-up shot equally emphasizes the two motel doors (with the yellow tape running all the way across both doors -- and the screen).
3) Chigurh is never where you expect him to be, when you expect him to be there.
4) Sheriff Bell is indeed visibly relieved that he did not find Chigurh in that room (the two doors are the equivalent of his "coin toss" -- then he finds a coin on the floor). But he did enter it, looked around, and Chigurh was not there.
5) If Chigurh wanted/needed to shoot Sheriff Bell (say, if he were discovered standing behind the front door, where we can see he isn't), he would have. But the movie is about how we all carry on living in the shadow of death.
6) We're never given any indication that Chigurh has "supernatural powers." Yes, he represents impending mortality (he's always lurking out there somewhere), but if you shoot him, does he not bleed? Yes, he does. We even see him treating his wounds, and he's as much of flesh and blood as Moss.
A commenter named Aron at In the Company of Glenn got it just right, as I see it:
Living with uncertainty, with possibilities, with a coin toss that could just as well have turned up heads or tails. That's where this movie lives, in the valley of the shadow between life and death.
I think this is a deliberate discontinuity here and there is no guaranteed explanation. The movie in its final sequences accelerates the rate at which you as a viewer become dissociated from omniscience.... [The Coens use ellipses frequently in the last half-hour of the film, pushing many key events off-screen.]
The point is to make us feel overwhelmed in a similar fashion as Bell by our inability to understand it all.
This particular example is one that steps slightly over the line into Lynch, and its a great example of artistic decision.
- - - -
Chigurh checks in: In the near-miss at the Regal Motel, Llewelyn has two double beds in room 138 and in 38, the room directly in back of it. Chigurh, following the transponder, has pulled up in front of rooms 138 and 139. He checks in to room 130, on the inside corner, and kills the Mexicans waiting for Llewelyn in room 138. A pattern is developing...
Bonus image #1: Regal Motel: Chigurh pulls up outside rooms 138 (Llewelyn's) and 139, responding to the transponder. As he backs up (look at all the reflections), 139 is visually (and audibly) eliminated from consideration.
Bonus image #2: Note the glimmer of light through the peephole when Chigurh shuts the door of room 130 at the Regal Motel.Here's the scene (imagined slightly differently) from the shooting script (pp. 108 - 110):
Now very late, empty of onlookers and emergency vehicles.
Sheriff Bell's cruiser pulls up just inside the courtyard.
He cuts his engine.
Sheriff Bell sits looking at the motel.
After a long beat he gets out of the car. He pushes its door shut quietly, with two hands.
He looks up the veranda.
The one door, most of the way up, has yellow tape across it. Its loose ends wave in a light breeze.
Sheriff Bell looks up the street.
Nothing much to attract his attention.
EXT. MOTEL VERANDA
Sheriff Bell steps up onto the veranda. He takes slow, quiet steps.
We intercut his point-of-view, nearing the door marked by police tape.
As he draws close to the door he slows.
The yellow tape is about chest high. Above it is the lock cylinder. It has been punched hollow.
Sheriff Bell stands staring at the lock.
Very quiet. The chick. chick. of the tape-ends against the door frame.
INT. MOTEL ROOM
Chigurh is still also. Just on the other side of the door, he stands holding his shotgun.
From inside, the tap of the breeze-blown tape is dulled but perceptible. It counts out beats.
Chigurh is also looking at the lock cylinder.
The curved brass of its hollow interior holds a reflection of the motel room exterior. Lights and shapes. The curvature distorts to unrecognizability what is reflected, but we see the color of Sheriff Bell's uniform.
The reflection is very still. Then, slow movement.
Sheriff Bell finishes bringing his hand to his bolstered gun.
It rests there.
Still once again.
His point-of-view of the lock. The reflection from here, darker, is hard to read.
Sheriff Bell, his hand on his bolstered gun. A long beat. His hand drops.
He extends one booted toe. He nudges the door inward. As the lock cylinder slowly recedes, reflected shapes scramble inside it and slide up its curve. Before the door is fully open we cut around:
The door finishes creaking open. Sheriff Bell is a silhouette in the doorway.
A still beat.
At length Sheriff Bell ducks under the chest-high police tape to enter.
The worn carpet has a large dark stain that glistens near the door. Sheriff Bell steps over it, advancing slowly. The room is dimly lit shapes.
There is a bathroom door in the depth of the room. Sheriff Bell advances toward it. He stops in front of it.
He toes the door. It creaks slowly open.
INT. MOTEL BATHROOM
The bathroom, with no spill light from outside, is pitch black.
Sheriff Bell reaches slowly up with one hand. He gropes at the inside wall.
The light goes on: bright. White tile. Sheriff Bell squints. A beat.
He takes a step in.
He looks at the small window.
He looks at the window's swivel-catch, locked.
INT. MAIN ROOM
Sheriff Bell emerges from the bathroom. He sits heavily onto the bed.
He looks around, not for anything in particular. His look catches on something low, just in front of him: A ventilation duct near the baseboard. Its opening is exposed; its grille lies on the floor before it.
Sheriff Bell stares.
At length he leans forward. He nudges the grille aside. On the floor, a couple of screws. A coin.
* * * *
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