It’s easy to understand why, for their first literary adaptation, the Coen brothers would choose Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country For Old Men. To begin with, McCarthy’s book often behaves like a screenplay, giving nothing away of what’s going on in its characters’ heads; it lets you figure that out from what they say and do.
What they say is almost only what they need to, so all the dialogue sounds excellent and efficient. What they do is chase each other across the wilds of West Texas, which allows for some magisterial silence and landscape photography (the latter courtesy of Roger Deakins), not to mention a generous, highly cinematic helping of suspense and violence. The Coens—that’s Joel and Ethan, who here shared the duties of scripting and directing—have made the absolute most of it.
While hunting antelope one sun-bleached afternoon, a wily, unemployed welder and Vietnam vet named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) happens upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone way wrong: a pile of dead men and a suitcase full of cash. He figures maybe two mil, give or take. This being 1980, that’s probably still enough to get away from it all. Assuming he can get away.
This being Cormac McCarthy, the character who wants the drug money back is not just some nasty dude but Death himself, or at least one self-appointed functionary thereof: a huge, gloomy man who somehow glides unnoticed among the unbroken landscapes and motel hallways with a shotgun in one hand, a lethal pneumatic slaughterhouse tool in the other, and, perhaps most conspicuously, a Prince Valiant haircut framing his immovable face. His name is Chigurh, and he’s played with perfectly magnetic, warm-and-cold-at-once sociopathy by Javier Bardem. You thought your Austrian cyborgs were ethnically exotic? You should meet this terminator. Or not: meeting him usually means also meeting your maker. The closest Chigurh comes to mercy is asking if you’d prefer your fate decided by the flip of a coin.
In other words, evil is real, and random, and without reason, and relentless. McCarthy’s novel makes a good movie—and, particularly, a good Coen brothers movie—because it has genre preoccupations but literary manners. It’s at once a neo-western, a crime novel, a noir thriller, and a plainspoken hymn. With its bare minimum of punctuation, it seems brusquely pared down, as if the prose itself has been rubbed raw by its own dry desert heat and moral duress.
Also, the Coens like to end their stories with characters making philosophical speeches, and McCarthy offers plenty of those. In the movie, it helps a lot to hear them from Tommy Lee Jones. He’s perfectly cast as county sheriff Ed Tom Bell, himself a veteran of an earlier war—one that at least made sense—who’s now feeling worn out and ready to retire, and wondering what happened to the era when lawmen could do their jobs without wearing guns.
Well, it’s gone is all, and that’s that. “It’s a mess, ain’t it Sheriff?” asks a deputy in one characteristically grim scene. “If it ain’t, it’ll do till a mess gets here,” Bell says. That wry riposte may sound like a classic Coen coinage, but in fact it’s right from the book. What matters most, though, is that Jones gives it the real woundedness it needs.
In fact, all three of No Country’s lead performers do wonders with consistency and straightforwardness. Readers discovering the book after seeing the film will find it nearly impossible to imagine anyone other than these actors as those men. And that’s a good thing.
As Hemingway’s heir, and Faulkner’s, McCarthy sometimes gets a little self-parodic, see. How weird and exhilarating to think that the makers of Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, Fargo and Intolerable Cruelty, of all people, should steer him away from caricature. Conversely, McCarthy’s material simply won’t let the Coens crouch behind their usual affected irony and snicker at the audience. It compels them to be laconic, not loquacious, for once, and that’s to the story’s advantage. No, No Country for Old Men isn’t quite a masterpiece, but that’s OK. It’s simply an exercise in fine craftsmanship, whose craftsmen suit each other superbly.