Friday, February 01, 2008

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men (2007), scripted and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is not a line-by-line adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel. Many if not most of the events in the novel are there, though some significant ones are not. The important characters and conflicts are present, and in general the main thrust and vision of the novel are preserved. But the film, as we should expect, is a different work than the novel. In the novel the tone and mood are a product of McCarthy's prose style, and that prose style is not present in the film, except in a few voice-over moments spoken by the sheriff. The film compensates for the lack of McCarthy's language through pacing, cinematography, and characterization. Landscape cinematography in particular can serve as a partial substitute for McCarthy's prose. Mood is an important element in McCarthy's work. Any film based on his novels must face this challenge of transforming the world created by McCarthy's prose into the language of cinema: adaptations of The Road and of Blood Meridian (Ridley Scott directing) are now in the works.

Three central characters in the film are Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the murderer Anton Chigur (Javier Bardem), and Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin). Moss accidentally stumbles across a murder scene in the desert where a drug deal has gone wrong and finds a satchel containing two million dollars). He takes it. Chigur is asked by the men responsible for the drug deal to find the money and the man who took it. He agrees but immediately kills them. Chigur's characteristic method of death is an air-powered piston that punches a hole in the skull, exactly the kind of device used to kill cattle in a slaughterhouse. To Chigur, there's not much difference between cattle and humans. Chigur is highly intelligent and crafty and gradually comes to identify the man who stole the money. Moss is intelligent as well, but not intelligent enough. A cat and mouse game ensues.

Sheriff Bell becomes aware of these events and because Llewellyn is from his own town takes an interest in saving his life and stopping Chigur. Bell is the moral center and point of view in the film (as he was in the novel). He often expresses disgust with the state of the modern world, with how brutally murders are committed, without compunction or hesitation. The drug murders in the desert and Chigur himself are a confirmation of what he contends the modern world has become. Tommy Lee Jones is not an actor I would have chosen to portray Sheriff Bell, but he is excellent in the role. Within a certain range, there is no better actor. His beaten pockmarked face, his deep appearance of fatigue, serves him well. He acts mainly with his eyes and his voice. Late in the film, a retired lawman, played by Barry Corbin, reminds Bell that times were as deadly and brutal in the old days as in the current ones. It's not clear how Bell reacts to this pronouncement, but in the final scene of the film he seems to have retired. Perhaps it's not modern times that Bell has tired of, perhaps it's just human kind in general, to which his job as a sheriff has given him more than ample exposure.

The Coen brothers have always excelled in lampooning particular types of human characters, especially character marked by geographical place. We saw this especially in Fargo and in O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Coens also have a dark, relentless sense of sardonic, satiric humor. There is no open humor in No Country for Old Men. The Coens use their talent for representing place-marked characters in their portrayals of numerous minor figures in the film—Chigur's victims, law enforcement officers, others. One of the best examples is a scene early in the film where Chigur, who has already killed a deputy and a man whose car has broken down on the side of the road, stops to buy gas at an isolated gas station in the desert. The middle-aged man who runs the store speaks kindly to Chigur, who asks the man to call the coin he is about the toss—heads or tail. The store manager knows he is up against something dangerous and threatening, and he is clearly frightened, but he doesn't know how to act. Chigur, on the other hand, is self-contained and calm. The man calls the coin toss correctly (Chigur tells him that it is the most important call he has ever made), and his life is saved. This is a disturbing and frightening scene not only because of Chigur's demeanor but also because of the store manager's fear and confusion. He works in an isolated little store and gas station. He's never had to face danger of any sort. He's not especially intelligent or experienced in the ways of the larger world. With Chigur, he confronts something otherworldly, something beyond his understanding.

Among the dominating elements in this film were Chigur's single-minded pursuit of Llewellyn and his impersonal, clinical murder of one person after another. Llewellyn's attempt to outwit and elude Chigur is also a focus. As determined and resolute as he is, as we move through the film his efforts seem increasingly pointless and he seems increasingly vulnerable and doomed. Sheriff Bell's meditations and despair over the state of the modern world finally become irrelevant. The modern world is the way it is. He's an archaism, and is out of place, and he recognizes the fact.

Some criticize McCarthy for his portrayal of a male-dominated world in which women have only subsidiary roles. This is the world McCarthy writes about—a world that exists—not a world in which woman have overturned gender-based hierarchies. There are strong women characters in this film, especially the wives of Bell and Llewellyn (played respectively by Tess Harper and Kelly McDonald), but they do have secondary roles. It is Llewellyn's mother-in-law who gives out the fatal information about his whereabouts. Thus the woman who dislikes him, and whom he dislikes, brings him down.

Woody Harrelson has a minor role as a man hired by one of the drug lords to hunt Chigur down and eliminate him—everyone recognizes that he has run out of their control. Harrelson's character explains to the man who hires him that he has a kind of admiration for Chigur, who actually operates according to a peculiar kind of principle. Yet admiration does not save him. When Moss' wife returns home from his funeral, she finds Chigur waiting for her. As he prepares to kill her, she tells him that there is no reason to do so, and he tells her that because her husband has broken an agreement with Chigur, she must die. When she persists, he offers to let her call a coin toss and let the outcome govern her fate: "That's the best I can do," he tells her. But she declines to call the toss. We never actually see her murdered; we only see Chigur inspecting the soles of his boots as he leaves her house, making sure they are not marked with her blood.

Some may find McCarthy's novel or the Coen's film cruel and inhumanly brutal. But it is Chigur who is cruel and brutal, and even more so the world that produced him.

Is this film a masterpiece? Some have said so. Others have found it lacking. The more I consider the question, the more convinced I am that No Country for Old Men is the Coen's best work.


Anonymous said...

Bell's wife doesn't call the toss incorrectly. She refuses to play along at all.

Hugh Ruppersburg said...

Thanks for the correction. I've revised the posting to reflect it.