Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men

[warning: spoilers]

Watched No Country for Old Men over the weekend – Joel and Ethan Coen’s impressive but ultimately unsuccessful adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name to the big screen.

The problem the Coens have with No Country is the problem any film maker trying to adapt a book more intelligent than, say, Harry Potter, has – how to portray the inner life of the novel’s characters? And McCarthy’s book, for all its pulpishness – the soaring body count, the stolen cars, the cheap motels, the cattle gun – is, in the end, a deeply contemplative, even meditative novel. Much of the real action of the book takes place in the minds of its two central protagonists – Llewelyn Moss and Sheriff Bell. Minds that the Coens, despite the occasional exclamations from their characters, don’t really give us access to.

What the Coens do do is a marvelous job of bringing the more violent elements of the book to life, capturing precisely the stark but down to earth brutality that we’ve come to expect from the makers of Millers Crossing and Blood Simple. Forget Tarantino, if you want to see violence done right, depicted not just in its savagery but in its seedy casualness, its throwaway banality, the Coens are the people to watch. The Brothers also succeed in improving on the book in one way – they make it funny, adding the little comic touches that we remember from Fargo and Raising Arizona, polishing the dialogue to the point where horror meets humor.

Where they fail is in doing justice to the two central characters of the book, and, as a consequence, in bringing out the sense of struggle, of confrontation, that the book fairly reeks with. The Llewelyn Moss in the book is sharp, quick-thinking and practical, a skilled ex-sniper who may, just may, have a shot at beating the bad guys. The Moss in the movie comes across as a hapless tough guy in way over his head. One could argue that the movie’s view of Moss is the more accurate one, especially given how things turn out, but that’s irrelevant. By placing us inside Moss’s head, by showing us the way he analyzes each situation, plans ahead, reacts coolly and efficiently in a crisis, McCarthy is making us share his hopes and delusions, is convincing us that the odds against him are not as small as everyone else believes, that the chase Moss leads his opponents on is a genuine running battle, not a rabbit hunt. Without that perspective the hunting down of Moss becomes a question of how and when, not a question of whether.

But the greater loss here is the character of Sheriff Bell. In the book, Bell is a center of reluctant gravity in a world rapidly falling apart, an Old Testament Elder trapped in an endless wrestling match of conscience with demons both old and new, a man of contemplation who opposes, to the almost messianic violence of Chigurh, the slow wisdom of his own tiredness. In the movie, he’s just a good-natured, folksy and somewhat rambling Sheriff who has a panic attack when the big boys come to town. Bell’s past – and the crisis of memory that Chigurh’s actions trigger – is left out of the plot entirely, his deductive sharpness blunted. We get one lengthy monologue from him right at the start, and a couple of serious dialogues in the end, but for the most part he’s a vague, somewhat flaky figure, just clowning around. Yet without Bell’s presence, McCarthy’s novel becomes an out and out crime thriller, with none of the larger themes of a nation haunted by a history of violence it can no longer deny. No Country for Old Men is not (or not just) a novel about a drug deal gone wrong, it is a novel about the way bloodshed never ages, never grows old, is passed down, like sex, from generation to dying generation, with each age convinced that they have invented it anew. The realm of murder is no country for old men because the elderly need to believe that they have outlived the violence, that they have fought and defeated it, made the world safe for their children; while the present reminds them that violence survives and breeds, and it is they who are outlived.

For all that, No Country for Old Men is an exhilarating film. With Moss and Bell turned into caricatures, the figure of Anton Chigurh – already the most memorable character in the book – is allowed full reign, and as played by Javier Bardem emerges as the archest and most terrifying of villains, an inexorable psychopath who considers himself the instrument of fate, a man who kills at the drop of a coin, the anti-christ with a bad haircut. But Bardem is not the only one who turns out a great performance here. Despite the limited role he is given, Tommy Lee Jones is spectacular as Sheriff Bell, radiating, with every gesture, every expression, the soul-weariness of an authentic old-timer. Josh Brolin turns in a fine performance as Moss, and Woody Harrelson, though a little outclassed by all the talent around him, manages to have fun strutting and preening as Carson Wells.

In the end, perhaps the best tribute I can pay to No Country is this – that at a little over two hours running time, it still felt way, way too short.

[cross-posted on 2x3x7]

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