Wednesday, March 12, 2008

No Country For Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy (book) and Coen Brothers (movie)

It is impossible to say what I want to say about this movie without disclosing at least one important detail of the plot. I've now read three of McCormack's works (No Country..., Blood Meridian and The Road) and they all share the same characteristic; their central figure, hero if you like (although as heroes they have their flaws) dies. In Blood Meridian it is the kid, the father in The Road and now Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin).

He's a pretty ordinary sort of fellow; you can't get much more blue collar than a welder. He lives in a trailer park in Texas with his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly McDonald). As he says, towards the end of his story
Three weeks ago I was a law abiding citizen. Workin a nine to five job. Eight to four, anyways. Things happen to you they happen. They don't ask first. They don't require your permission,
Out hunting one day, he comes across a bloodbath in the desert; several dead bodies, a bunch of drugs and, that most American of conveyance, some trucks. He's smart, he can work out there must have been a fellow who got away
with the money. He's brave, maybe a little foolhardy, because he decides he'll take the money. He must know the kind of people who'll have an interest in it but he wants the good life. the risks must seem worth it. I love the way he tells Carla Jean about what he's done. He walks into the house with a satchel of money, around $2 million:
She looked at him over the back of the sofa and looked at the television again. What have you got in that satchel?
It's full of money.
Yeah. That'll be the day.
And that's it; he doesn't press the point, and she doesn't believe him, just asks him to get her some cigarettes. Of course, a point does arise where she's forced to believe him. I like their relationship; there's a kind of dry humour to it and she actually has a rather touching faith in him. It doesn't come out in the movie very well but Llewellyn really loves his wife. For a start, of course, he takes the money because of her. But there's a telling episode in the book, where he picks up a hitch-hiker, a young woman; she's pretty persistent in her offers to him. They've had a few drinks and she wants him to change his mind about saying no:
All right. You aint changed your mind have you?
About what?
You know about what.
I don't change my mind. I like to get it right the first time...
I'll tell you somethin I heard in a movie one time, she said.
He stopped and turned. What's that?
There's a lot of good salesmen around and you might buy something yet.
Well darlin you're just a little late. Cause I done bought. And I think I'll stick with what I got.
This episode was so truncated in the movie, I really don't know what I'd have made of it without having read the book.

Now, the money is owned by some pretty bad guys, and there are some cops after him too, but they're not Llewellyn's major threat. That would be Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem),
who is given an extra level of menace by his choice of weaponry. The book leaves a little to the imagination, but there's a scene in a hotel where his equipment can be heard coming down the corridor. He has this trademark way of blowing out the locks in doors, and using the same device to punch a hole in people's foreheads. When he's not using that, he delights in having rifles with ostentatious silencers.

He's an implacable threat but, in his own special way, a man of his word. He promises Llewellyn that if he doesn't hand over the money, he'll kill Carla Jean. Llewellyn's life is already forfeit at this point, but he can still save her. When he doesn't, well, then Chigurh has to keep his promise.

McCarthy presents this in his characteristic flat style, where something quite dramatic can happen, such as a killing, but be told as a simple continuation of the mundane. The one variation is that he has an alternate narrator, who turns out to be Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the old sheriff, in a state of despair about the state of the world, one where a couple would rent out rooms to old people and then kill them but "they'd torture them first, I don't know why. Maybe their television was broke.":
Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I don't want to confront him. I know he's real. I have seen his work. I walked in front of those eyes once. I won't do it again. I won't push my chips up and go forward and meet him. It aint just bein older. I wish that it was. I can't say that it's even what you're willin to do. Because I always knew that you had to be willin to die to even do this job. That was always true. Not to sound glorious about it or nothing but you do. If you aint they'll know it. They'll see it in a heartbeat. I think it is more like what you are willin to become. And I think a man would have to put his soul at hazard. And I won't do that. I think now that maybe I never would.
This is how the novel starts! Despite the loss of several of his men, and his sympathy towards the Mosses, the good sheriff never really gets involved.

The movie is pretty faithful to the novel, with some liberties taken towards the end of Llewellyn's life. One thing made clearer in the movie than the novel was that Chigurh seemed to have an odd fascination with older women, particularly those who were running accommodation establishments. When Chigurh was going about his daily life, if he encountered any resistance, he'd normally just kill whoever got in his way. If he's feeling kindly, he might flip a coin. But he went into the trailer park where the Mosses lived, and asks where Llewellyn works:
Sir I aint at liberty to give out no information about our residents.
Chigurh looked around at the little plywood office. He looked at the woman. Where does he work.
Sir?
I said where does he work.
Did you not hear me? We cant give out no information.
A toilet flushed somewhere. A doorlatch clicked. Chigurh looked at the woman again. Then he went out and got in the Ramcharger and left.
I really liked this: she's fairly much a loser, to be her age, working in a shoddy little office and yet she stands up to him, almost parodying the snooty kind of refusal a five star hotel would give ; he just accepts it and mooches off. This happens all over again, at another hotel.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Charley said...

I haven't seen the movie yet, but I liked the book and like McCarthy's style. The opening chapter was so great. I'm hoping to read Blood Meridian soon.

5:55 PM  
Blogger Marlene Detierro said...

If you decide to see No Country for Old Men, don't do it because of the hype about the Coen brothers, the awards, or my commentary. This film means something different to everyone, and you may say it's just a waste of time. Or you may end up agreeing with me that it's a masterpiece. I'll go flip a coin now and see what you decide.

Marlene
View this site for Fishing Lodge Alaska Website

10:35 PM  

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