"His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down into forty pounds of paper in a satchel."
I came across a digital version of Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men and, with the movie fresh in my mind (it's aired on one or another cable movie channel routinely), I decided to read it.
First of all, the widely celebrated Coen Brothers film, though it possesses a few virtues (mostly from its brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins), is crippled by what I would call a conflict of intent. It has elements of a thriller, with a quite monstrous antagonist, what I called in my review of the film, "a kind of serial killer for hire," and the elements of a chase, with the hero trying to get away clean with a satchel full of money. There are gun battles and plenty of graphic violence.
McCarthy has had more than one brush with Hollywood. His Border Trilogy started its life as a movie script. Billy Bob Thornton, with every good intention, tried to make a decent adaptation of All the Pretty Horses and failed, presumably because of interference from the film's producers. Having seen the film, it would've been hard, even without interference, to make a creditable film out of the material. What you find in McCarthy is an exclusively male ethos. So whatever conviction the individual novels have relies on the relationships among their male characters. I agree with James Wood that while he is capable of writing beautiful prose, especially in his descriptions of nature, McCarthy has a tendency toward grandiose - and often theatrical - flights of language. Within a page of No Country, for instance, the philosophical murderer Anton Chigurh steals a sheriff's cruiser and pulls over another vehicle. Asking the driver to step out of the car, Chigurh kills him with a pneumatic gun used to kill steers in a slaughter house. "The man slid soundlessly to the ground, a round hole in his forehead from which the blood bubbled and ran down into his eyes carrying with it his slowly uncoupling world visible to see." I don't imagine the "uncoupling" happened slowly. And "visible to see" is not only redundant but meaningless.
Quoting James Wood, "The danger is not just melodrama but imprecision and, occasionally, something close to nonsense." And although he called McCarthy's No Country for Old Men "an unimportant, stripped-down thriller," the Coen Brothers' movie adaptation leaves far too many loose ends dangling, as if they were trying to improve on McCarthy with an artiness the book scrupulously avoids. "Everything is tight, reduced, simple, and very violent. McCarthy’s idea for the Border Trilogy (which comprises All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain) began life as a film script, and No Country for Old Men has already been sold to the producer Scott Rudin, so perhaps it is easier to think of it as a script than as a novel. That is to say, the book gestures not toward any recognizable reality but merely toward the narrative codes already established by pulp thrillers and action films. The story is itself cinematically familiar."(1) But what the Coen Brothers ended up with, despite it winning accolades including an Oscar for Best Picture of 2008, is a flawed film, crying out for clarity as it hurtles toward a muddy conclusion. There are at least three places in the last ten minutes of the film that could've been made a lot clearer if the Coens had wanted to be more honest and more faithful to McCarthy's novel.
In the movie, when Moss checks into his last motel, a woman by the pool flirts with him and offers him a beer. Next we see them after a shootout and they're both dead. We never learn the circumstances of either's death, which is one of the glaring loose ends the Coens just leave dangling. In the book Moss picks up a 15-year-old girl hitchhiking. In a lengthy exchange between them, Moss tries to set her on the straight and narrow and even gives her some money. Then a Mexican in a black Barracuda shows up, takes the girl hostage, and Moss comes out of his room with a machine gun. Seeing the Mexican's gun at her head, Moss puts his gun down, prompting the Mexican to shoot them both dead. But not before Moss shoots down the Mexican. I suppose the Coens believed all this was unnecessary, so they cut it. What they forgot is that the audience that has followed Moss with great interest for the length of the film might want to know the circumstances of his death.
The Coens' next big misstep occurs when Sheriff Bell returns to the motel where Moss was killed. In the movie, Chigurh is still in the room when the sheriff returns. I watched the scene several times trying to figure out where Chigurh was hiding but I could never figure it out. A friend who admires the movie a lot more than I do told me Chigurh was hiding in the closet. But what closet? If there was a closet in that room, I'm going blind betimes. In the book, Chigurh, having already retrieved the case of money from the airduct (another detail omitted from the movie), is sitting in his truck when Bell returns. Bell realizes this and calls for backup. But Chigurh gets away again.
The third dangling loose end in the movie comes when Carla Jean finds Chigurh waiting for her in her house. He's there to kill her in fulfillment of a promise he made to her husband. But he gives her the option of a coin toss. She loses. Next we see Chigurh driving away before his truck is t-boned by a car running a stop sign. What became of Carla Jean? The Coens doubtless believed her fate could be inferred. In the novel there is no such deliberate vagueness, or what you might also call pussyfooting:
"She looked at him a final time. You dont have to, she said. You dont. You dont.
He shook his head. You're asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do. I have only one way to live. It doesnt allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps. In this case to small purpose. Most people dont believe that there can be such a person. You can see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of. Do you understand? When I came into your life your life was over. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the end. You can say that things could have turned out differently. That they could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way. You're asking that I second say the world. Do you see?
Yes, she said, sobbing. I do. I truly do.
Good, he said. That's good. Then he shot her."
At least you could say that McCarthy, like Chigurh, had the courage of his convictions. The Coens had not.
The Coens' discretion at choosing not to show us how Moss and Carla Jean die is not as admirable as they perhaps thought it would be. It is utterly inconsistent with every other detail they chose to show us. And it is certainly far from Cormac McCarthy's cruel intentions.
There are other differences between the book and the movie that are minor, but that sacrifice realism for the picturesque. Moss finds the "ultima hombre" from the Mexican shootout dead among some rocks, not under a completely incongruous shady tree. When Moss returns to the scene of the shootout, Mexicans pursue him. In the movie, they set a dog on him and Moss shoots it just as it is lunging at him. There's no dog in McCarthy's account. And, inexplicably, in the movie Chigurh kills the business executive in his office. In the book he simply delivers the satchel of money and departs. Chigurh is a man of his word, for what it's worth.
Worse than all these little objections to the film's violation of the novel is the obvious pains the Coens took to replicate the violence, down to the smallest detail. This sort of thing is relatively easy for any decent filmmaker. It goes back to what James Wood wrote about how "the book gestures not toward any recognizable reality but merely toward the narrative codes already established by pulp thrillers and action films." But just thinking of the care with which the filmmakers planned and staged Chigurh's killing of the three Mexicans in the motel, with the different calibured guns, the squibs - exploding pockets of blood attached to the actors who get shot - the careful sound effects, points to a grisly kind of pedantry. And all McCarthy did was write down a few hundred words.
So I suppose that James Wood's opinion that the book was ready-made for a screen adaptation was incorrect. Even as attenuated and discreet as the novel is, compared to McCarthy's other work, his pen can go where a camera cannot always follow - even when it's the camera of Roger Deakins. Despite his obvious efforts at a stripped-down style, like the best - or the worst - of Hemingway, there is evidently no such thing as a text that is "ready-made" for the screen. I wasn't surprised when the movie got so much praise and won some awards. For the first time in their careers (always with the exception of Fargo), the Coens were depicting people who were more than caricatures and events that weren't whopping contrivances. McCarthy's novel is emphatic about fate, even as Sheriff Bell awaits his inevitable meeting with Chigurh, who seems to be Fate personified, at the story's end. Everything that happens was bound to happen, which is the opposite of the Coens' usual philosophy. But their faithful adaptation could've been more faithful if they had disregarded the presumed sensitivities of their audience. Their movie would've impressed them more, and would've been worthier of all it's awards.
(1) James Wood, "Red Planet," The New Yorker, July 25, 2005.