Sometimes the real auteur of a movie is the author of the novel it’s based on. For instance, John Huston’s triumphant 1941 directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon, demonstrated undeniable skill with camera and actors, but, as Pauline Kael pointed out, it’s “an almost perfect visual equivalent of the Dashiell Hammett thriller.”
And No Country for Old Men is the almost perfect visual equivalent of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel. The story is so lean and action-packed, and so concretely conveyed by the prose, that the filmmakers, Ethan and Joel Coen, must have felt they had the first draft of a script in their hands. Only refinement and tinkering were needed, not demolition and invention. Their cinematic translation conveys all the merits of the book-its solar plexus-punching suspense, moral fierceness, pithy dialogue, and sharply etched characters. And it also inherits the novel’s one serious flaw-inherits it and lays it bare. But first praise.
The story is a cat-and-mouse game played by two cats-one benevolent, the other a walking plague-and one fairly tough mouse. The latter is Moss, a welder and Vietnam vet who chances upon the remains of a drug deal gone wrong in the sizzling countryside of southwestern Texas: many corpses baking in the sun and a lot of money with no one to claim it. So he claims it himself. Several hit men pursue but the direst of them, Anton Chigurh, eliminates most of the competition. Also on the trail is Sheriff Bell, grim, kind, and so appalled by the ever-mounting pile of corpses that he begins to suspect a new brand of evil has escaped from some Pandora’s box.
Many recent movies and novels (notably Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, and its movie version starring Bill Paxton) have used this situation, but Cormac McCarthy, interspersing the violent events with Sheriff Bell’s interior ruminations, makes it a parable about the consequences of moral abdication. Though the title comes from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” more relevant is the same poet’s “The Second Coming,” with its “blood-dimmed tide” and its judgment that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Moss shows courage and resourcefulness under fire, but his appropriation of the loot betrays a lack of any moral center and, worse, a fecklessness about what will happen to others, whether his wife or any other innocent bystanders. Chigurh, by contrast, a sociopath who fancies himself an agent of destiny, is “full of passionate intensity.” As another character remarks, “You might even say he has principles.”
All this is implicit in the story itself. So the Coens eliminated most of Sheriff Bell’s moralizing and hurled the action onto the screen. Almost every move and countermove in the chase is straight from McCarthy’s narrative, as well as most of the laconic dialogue. But the fact that we are always witnessing everything from the best vantage point, framed and lighted superbly (cinematography by Roger Deakins) and choreographed with breathtaking economy, is to the credit of the Coens.
They have used locale and atmosphere the way other moviemakers use music, to presage the action and set it off. (There’s no actual music on the soundtrack until the final credits.) In the early outdoor scenes, the lowering Texas sky presses down on the parched landscape like an Olympian bully, daring Moss to do something stupid just to escape his hardscrabble life. Later, with violence taking place mostly within hotel and motel rooms and on deserted nocturnal streets, the urban squalor exudes the air of doom we know from film noir, but the usual romantic patches of darkness are missing: this isn’t an amiable crumminess in which Philip Marlowe can relax with a few inches of bourbon and a cigarette but something from which Moss must escape as soon as possible. The very barrenness of the rooms seems to be waiting for violence to happen.
And that violence isn’t meant merely to shock; the Coens want it to haunt you. As Chigurh strangles a deputy to death with handcuffs, the camera looks away from the victim’s contorted face and down at his thrashing feet; the heels of his boots are scuffing a pattern into the floor, and those scuff marks leave a horrible seismogram of the man’s suffering long after his death. When Chigurh dispatches a hit man cowering in a shower stall, he first draws the shower curtain before firing, not out of any unwillingness to see a man die but because he doesn’t want blood spattered on his clothes; there’s an atrocious daintiness in this. After Moss plunges into a river to escape mercenaries, they send a vicious dog after him. Both bodies make incongruously graceful progress downstream in the darkness but when Moss clambers ashore, he is all frenzied, clumsy desperation while trying to reload his gun as the beast glides mercilessly closer and closer. Here, the balletic beauty of movement ratchets up the suspense.
The directors repeatedly emphasize the parallel actions of the men hunting each other down. Chigurh wings Moss and follows a trail of blood down an alleyway, then Moss fires back and gets to pursue his assailant’s own sanguinary path. At one point, the wounded Moss overpays a teenager for his jacket so that he can cover his wounds and avoid the law’s notice. Much later, Chigurh bribes a kid into surrendering his shirt so that the damaged bounty hunter can turn it into a sling. It’s as if greed and violence were turning these two into rats in a laboratory maze: no matter how different they are, they’re running through the same tunnel and jumping over the same hurdles.
Josh Brolin gives Moss a blend of yeoman sturdiness and redneck obstinacy that’s perfect for a fellow good at tactics but lacking in strategy or any long-term wisdom. As his spouse, Kelly Macdonald radiates the sort of neediness that makes you think of her as an eternal girlfriend who can never mature into a wife.
Javier Bardem’s Chigurh has won the most praise for magnetic villainy since Anthony Hopkins played Hannibal Lecter. It’s easy to see why. Bardem’s slow, slightly thick, carefully enunciated speech, and plodding, ursine gait capture this maniac’s inexorability. (I recently caught The Dancer Upstairs on TV, and there was Bardem as a Graham Green-ish hero, sensitive, gallant, conscience-stricken, and utterly convincing.)
While reading the novel, I realized that Tommy Lee Jones was so apt for the role of the sheriff-was indeed the only actor capable of playing it to perfection-that I feared he would coast on sheer suitability and not bring his full talent to bear. A groundless fear. Jones pulls out all the stops, but quietly. Who else, while investigating a corpse-strewn crime scene, could reply to his deputy’s “It’s a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff?” with “If it ain’t, it’ll do till the real mess gets here” and manage to suggest stoicism, sarcasm, disgust, and devotion to duty in one breath?
Then why hasn’t this performance received the kudos Bardem has garnered? Or that Jones himself got for In the Valley of Elah? Here we come to the novel’s one great flaw, preserved by the Coens along with the book’s many virtues.
Whatever the Coens thought of the sheriff’s monologues indicting the degeneracy of our times (in the book, they made a believably stoic lawman sound like a Texan Andy Rooney), the Coens had to eliminate them: they halt the narrative in a way no movie can afford. But, alas, once these meditations are scrapped, it becomes all too clear that Bell is mostly just a witness of atrocities rather than a vital participant in the plot. Bell may be the moral center of the story, yet the character drifts to the periphery of the dramatic action. Despite Jones’s immaculate performance, the role itself goes lame.
Nevertheless, Cormac McCarthy’s overall narrative drive and corrosive moral vision, faithfully captured by the Coens, make this film unforgettable.
About the Author
Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.