Good and bad ambiguity

Alexander Mackendrick is one of the greatest and least known figures in British cinema. Director of films as diverse and brilliant as Whisky Galore, The Ladykillers and The Sweet Smell of Success, he is also regarded as one of the best — if most idiosyncratic — teachers of film-making that there has ever been. He was a hard task-master, one of whose cardinal rules was that “Student films come in three sizes: too long, much too long and very much too long”, something that anyone who’s been to a short film festival will understand.

Another mantra was that “Ambiguity does not mean lack of clarity. Ambiguity can be intriguing when it consists of alternative meanings, each of them clear”. I was reminded of this when watching the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men, the ending of which has provoked a mixture of admiration, frustration and sheer fury from critics and viewers alike.  The debate (leaving aside who killed Llewellyn Moss: it was the Mexicans) is focused on the motel room scene, in which assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) appears to be hiding behind the door when Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, channelling Droopy) comes in to search the place. But once the Sheriff enters the room, sitting on the bed with his head in his hands, there’s no further indication that Chigurh is in the room. So: is he in the room or not, and if he is, why does he not (given past form) take the opportunity to kill the Sheriff? Or: is this, in Mackendrick terms, “good” ambiguity or “bad”?

The Coen brothers themselves, of course, have no intention of clarifying the ambiguity. Like David Lynch, their answer is, in essence, “it means what you think it means”. It’s actually perfect Mackendrick, in that it can be read either literally or allegorically. Literally, it appears that Chigurh is indeed in the room, and allows the Sheriff to live — but the experience (was he offered the coin toss?) nonetheless prompts the Sheriff’s early retirement. Allegorically, it presents Chigurh as Death: the inevitable assassin waiting for each of us. The film supports either reading, but the Coens, and Mackendrick, give us the clue: he is both, because that’s what stories are for. 

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