When I read Cormac McCarthy’s spare and elegant novel of horrific violence, No Country For Old Men, I was aware that the Coen Brothers were adapting and directing a film version. Therefore, when I got to the end and, well, I don’t want to even hint at a spoiler, I wondered how they were going to change it to satisfy filmgoers. It turns out they didn’t, and the result is one of the most faithful film adaptations I’ve ever seen of a novel. It will certainly baffle and annoy many in the audience, but a part of me is very glad they didn’t mess with it.
McCarthy wrote a book about the nature of evil by using a very familiar plot device: a character finds a suitcase full of money, decides to keep it, and there is hell to pay. In this instance it is Josh Brolin as Llewellyn Moss, who while hunting antelope in the wasteland of west Texas finds a grisly scene: some pickup trucks and several dead bodies. One of the trucks contains a huge shipment of heroin, but Brolin is more interested in a satchel full of hundred-dollar bills.
Brolin then does something pretty stupid, and even he knows it’s stupid, but he won’t be able to live with himself if doesn’t do it. His actions end up making him the target of a variety of people wanting to get the money back, none so deadly as Anton Chigurh, a man of indeterminate ethnicity and a haircut that recalls Mike Nesmith’s days as a Monkee. Chigurh, played to chilling perfection by Javier Bardem, is evil through and through, but he has a code of ethics in the way he dispatches his victims. In one early scene, he is annoyed by a salesclerk in a gas station. He flips a coin and asks the man to call it. It is clear that if the man loses the call, Chigurh will kill him, though the man doesn’t realize how his entire fate rests on a fifty-fifty chance.
Chigurh is something more than human. He is referred to at one point as a ghost, though he does bleed. In one scene he calmly goes about treating himself for shotgun wounds, after first pilfering Lidocaine from a pharmacy. The film is set in 1980, and a minor character mentions that times are changing for the worst. He calls it the “dismal tide,” but cites as examples kids with green hair and bones through their noses. That’s kid stuff–the dismal tide is men like Chigurh, who kill without emotion and would seem to have been conjured up from Hades.
As Chigurh tracks Brolin, other characters are involved in the mix. Most prominent is Tommy Lee Jones as a local sheriff, who is a third generation of Texas lawman. His character acts as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action without being able to do anything about it. He seems to understand what the dismal tide is, and who Chigurh might really be, but is powerless to stop him.
This is the most satisfying film from the Coens since Fargo. It is certainly there most serious. There is little room for the macabre humor they usually lace through their films. A few laughs slip in, especially when Brolin awakens bloody in Mexico while being serenaded by a mariachi band, but overall the mood is excessively grim, almost apocalyptic. They also do a masterful job of creating tension. I read the book and knew what was happening, but I still sat in the theatre dry-mouthed while Brolin was being stalked. This is the first time the Coens have adapted another person’s work (not counting the very freely adapted Odyssey in O Brother, Where Art Thou) but they are able to take McCarthy’s language and make it sound distinctly Coenian, particularly in the lines spoken by Jones.
Also notable in this cast is Kelly MacDonald as Brolin’s wife. To start with, it’s kind of amazing how a Scottish woman can get a Texas accent down so well, but aside from that she gives a small part a good deal of heft, particularly in her last scene.
I’m not sure if I consider this the best film of the year so far. Its competition would be Michael Clayton, which has a much more conventional, crowd-pleasing ending. But No Country For Old Men is far more thought-provoking and better exhibition of film craft. It is a stunning achievement.