No Country for Old Men: a Comparitive Essay
Caroline Auxier English Honors 11 Mrs. Huber April 6, 2010 No Country for Old Men: A Comparative Review Cormac McCarthy reveals a soulless America in his 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, which depicts a country unfit for anyone, especially old men. The Coen brothers’ script of the 2007 film follows the novel almost scene for scene, showing a point in time when the last vestiges of frontier morality have been washed away by a pitiless modern crime wave fueled by drug profits.
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Both movie and book offer glimpses of a huge, mysterious pattern that readers and viewers, as well as the characters, cannot see, a pattern only God could see- if he had not packed up and gone home. Sometime in the mid-sixties, after mowing every yard in their neighborhood, little Joel Coen saved enough money to buy a Vivitar Super-8 camera for him and his brother Ethan. They were soon proud filmmakers, and produced their first movie, Zeimers in Zambia.
Loaded with amateur special effects, the film featured a “spectacular” shot of a man parachuting from a plane, the boys using miniatures and a white sheet as a background. The problem was, their suburban Minnesota home was nowhere near a flight path, so they had to wait for weeks to get a shot of a plane passing overhead. This kind of patience, present in them even as children, was just one of the qualities that would establish them as modern cinematic marvels (Brent 2). After finishing college the pair began patiently forging their niche in the film industry.
With Hollywood budgets growing grossly obese, the idea of making an independent film appealed hugely to the Coens. They spent a year or two pounding the pavement in search of investors for their own feature film Blood Simple. Unsettling and stylish, the film was a huge critical success, and helped usher in the era of the independent film. From this point on their success only grew, producing man big hits such as O’ Brother Where Art Thou? (Biography. com 1, 2, 3). Cormac McCarthy’s works reveal the shadows of human nature, but Cormac had a surprisingly conventional childhood.
He was born in Providence, Rhode Island on July 20, 1993. McCarthy grew up in the Catholic Church and attended Catholic high school, and enrolled at The University of Tennessee in 1951. After one year he enlisted in the U. S. Air force and served four years in Alaska before returning to the university, but soon left in 1960 to pursue his writing career. He spent most of his early life traveling around with various grants he won for writing. In 1976 he moved to El Paso, Texas and has pent the remaining part of his life in the Southwest writing (Priola 1 and 2).
His past books were hailed for having elevated the western from a pop amusement to a high-art form and he was designated as Hemingway and Faulkner’s sole legitimate successor. He might have been wise to let his writing hand to be removed at the wrist and embalmed and bronzed, but instead he decided to have some nasty fun and write like a person who is still alive, shedding the murky, grand philosophizing that bogged down his last two books for a sleeker, slimmer linguistic manner and a darting movie-ready narrative that rips along like hell on wheels because it has no desire to break new ground, only to burn rubber (Priola 3).
Misguided souls will say that No Country for Old Men is out for blood, focused on vengeance and unconcerned with the larger world outside a standard-issue suspense plot. Those people, of course, are deaf, dumb and blind to anything that is not spelled out between commercials on dying TV networks. Set in 1980 in west Texas, where the chase is on for stolen drug money. The film and book both appeal to America’s bloodlust for the easy fix and are also very entertaining. But what do the criminal acts of losers in a flyover state have to do with the life of the mind?
Plenty as it turns out. The so-called codger representing the law and order is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones with the kind of wit and assurance of a master actor. In the book the Sherriff is a tad bit more folksy, dishing out cracker-barrel wisdom to his good wife Loretta, with a twinkle written into his homespun truths. In the movie Mr. Jones does not twinkle. He is a hard-ass, and when he chews into a good line, the viewer can see the bite marks. Here is the Sherriff on how crime has gotten so out of hand, “It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners.
Anytime you quit hearin’ ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am,’ the end is pretty much in sight” (Coen). That unpretty end takes the form of Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem in the movie, an assassin who rivals Hannibal Lecter for dispatching his victims without breaking a sweat. Bardem, with pale skin and a haircut that resembles a Beatle from hell, is incredible in the role, a monster for the ages. Beneath his dark eyes lies something darker, evil topped with the cherry of perverse humor. Chigurh carries around a bulky cattle gun.
He will politely ask a mark to get out of a car before he caps him in the head; that way the car will not get messy with gristle and brain matter. “Death walks hand in hand with Chigurh wherever he goes, unless he decides otherwise… if everything you’ve done in your life has led you to him, he may explain to his about-to-be victim, your time might just have come. ‘You don’t have to do this,’ the innocent invariably insist to a man whose murderous code dictates otherwise. Occasionally, however, he will allow someone to decide his own fate” (McCarthy, Todd 3).
He lets them decided their fate with this little game he likes to play. Staring at the human species like a visitor from another planet, Chigurh flips a coin. A victim’s choice of heads or tails might just save his or her life as long as they do not make him angry. It is Llewellyn Moss, played by Josh Brolin, who manages to do just that and comes down hard on Chigurh’s bad side. Moss is a cowboy in a world with no more room for cowboys. He enjoys teasing his wife Carla Jean, played by Kelly Macdonald, but the reader can feel his discontent.
Then one day, when he is out hunting antelope, he gets his shot at the big score. Right out there in the desert are half-dozen dead bodies drawing flies. One man, barely alive, sits in a truck and begs for water. It is a massacre. There is also a stash of heroin and two million in cash. Moss takes the cash and runs. Would not anyone? That question sets up the story’s moral dilemma and puts the viewers in Moss’s boots. Moss even returns to the scene that night with water for the dying man. Huge mistake.
Shots ring out, and Moss, after packing his wife off to her folks, goes on the run with Chigurh on his tail and the sheriff tracking both of them. Bell truly believes in the law and wants to save Moss’s life, but ultimately fails. “It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people can’t be governed at all. Or if they could I never heard of it” (McCarthy 43). The kick comes in watching all the gears mesh with thrilling exactitude. “Taken together these three hombres are not quite the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but each man does carry some allegorical baggage” (Scott 3).
The ending of the movie stays tone-true to McCarthy instead of going for the Hollywood POW. Good and evil are tackled with a rigorous fix on the complexity involved. The best American crime fiction relies on a limited number of simple ingredients. There has to be too much temptation, too little wisdom, too many weak, bad men, too few strong, good ones, and spread over everything, freedom: freedom and space, the freedom to make poor choices and the space to flee their consequences, temporarily, at least.
No Country for Old Men is not about the workings of human justice, but about the dominion of an inhuman time. The crime novel aimed its cheap handgun at the heart of America’s most prized beliefs about its destiny that the loot Americans have scooped up will belong to the people forever and that history allows clean getaways. The compulsory drug deal gone wrong drops the flag on this race with the devil. McCarthy’s snake-and-scorpion theology offers his characters no second chances; and it hints that their first chances never, in fact, existed.
Moss scampers off with the dough because he must, and the gun-toting demons who chase him have no choice, either. The drug trade that yielded the money is also fated: a landside of evil stirred by one kicked pebble that will not let up until the Second Coming. Satan exists, the world is getting worse, and God is too busy with other matters to care. He has written of the human race and moved on to fresh creations. “She kept on, kept on. Finally told me, said: I don’t like the way this country is headed. I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion.
And I said well mam I don’t think you got any worries about the way the country is headed. The way I see it going I don’t have much doubt but what she’ll be able to have an abortion. I’m goin to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she’ll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversations”- Sherriff Bell (McCarthy 82). While No Country is a faithful adaptation of McCarthy’s 2005 novel, the film also revisits themes which the Coens had explored in their earlier movies: themes that focus on points of view, such as pessimism and nihilism.
The novel’s motifs of chance, free-will, and predestination are familiar territory for the brothers, who presented similar threads and tapestries of fate and circumstance in earlier works including Raising Arizona, which features another hit man in a less serious tone (Robinson 2). New York Times critic A. O. Scott says Chigurh, Moss, and Bell each “occupy the screen one at a time, almost never appearing in the same frame together, even as their fates become ever more intimately entwined” (Scott 3). To read McCarthy is to enter a climate of frustration: a good day is so mysteriously followed by a bad one.
McCarthy is a colossally gifted writer, certainly one o the greatest observers of landscape. “McCarthy uses no punctuation, in a style where thoughts and speech go unseperated except by the ‘he said, he replied’ formulation… he takes liberties with structural convention that, I think, hurts the essential power of the narrative” (Brenner 1). The book is somewhat hard to read because of the punctuation and often times the reader has to scroll up on the page just to figure out who is speaking. McCarthy paints a picture in all of his writings. Cormac McCarthy’s novels are a specialized taste, and not just because he leans heavily toward stylized gothic westerns; fans like his arid intensity, while detractors bitch about his punctuation…but that aside, McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men is a taut, engrossing thriller, one that emphasizes its drama by downplaying it, presenting events in a straightforward, low-key, orderly way that builds up far more impact than, say, Dan Brown’s historic attempts to build tension by yelling at the reader that it’s time to be excited” (Robinson 2, 3).
No Country for Old Men was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture. Additionally, Javier Bardem won Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role; the Coen Brothers won Achievement in Directing and Best Adapted Screenplay. Other nominations included Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing (Nominees- Academy Awards 2,3). The film was also nominated for four Golden Globe Award, and winning two at the 65th Golden Globe Awards. Javier won Best performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture and the Coen Brothers won Best Screenplay- Motion Picture.
The film was also nominated for Best Motion- Drama, and Best Director (Golden Globe 3,4,6). No Country does not have to preach or wave a flag; it carries its bones the virus of what people have become. The Coens squeeze the audience without mercy in a vise of tension and suspense, but only to force the human race to look into an abyss of its own making. The story is less interested in who, if anyone, gets away with the loot than in the primal forces that urge the characters forward. “They slaughter cattle a lot different these days,” sighs a weary Bell ommenting on Chigurh’s cattle-killing weapon late in the book (McCarthy 112). But slaughter them they still do, and in the end, everyone in No Country for Old Men is both hunter and hunted, members of some endangered species trying to forestall their extinction. Even Anton Chigurh, it turns out, bleeds when wounded. “Every moment in your life is turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding.
Dir. Joel Coen. Prod. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Miramax, 2007. “Nominees- 80th Anual Academy Awards. ” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 2007. Web. 01 Apr. 2010. . Priola, Marty. “Cormac McCarthy: A Biography. ” The Cormac McCarthy Home Pages: Official Web Site of the Cormac McCarthy Society. 2009. Web. 3 Mar. 2010. . Robinson, Tasha. A. V. Club. 27 Nov. 2007. Web. 4 Mar. 2010. . Woodward, Richard B. “Cormac McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction – The New York Times. ” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 19 Apr. 1992. Web. 01 Apr. 2010. .