I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville. One and only one. My arrest and my testimony. I went up there and visited with him two or three times. Three times. The last time was the day of his execution. I didn’t have to go but I did. I sure didn’t want to.
– Sheriff Bell in No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy
No Country for Old Men, a Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, starts today in “selected theaters” — which means not in Boulder Colorado. So while I wait for broader release I’ll think about what it might be like.
I was disappointed with the book, which surprised me since I love just about everything the guy has written. I had a sense that it was a McCarthy book with all the distinctive McCarthyesque features edited out. That left the reader with a stripped-down story involving a couple of men confronting a violent depersonalized world. It is McCarthy’s world to be sure. The characters fill slots straight out of genre fiction: bad guy, good guy, ambivalent guy. The story is formulaic: bad guy is chasing ambivalent guy, good guy is chasing bad guy. It’s similar to other McCarthy plots, which usually entail linear movements of a handful of characters, always men and boys. And there’s the usual sense of inevitability in how the events unfold themselves in a McCarthy book. Despite the fatalism, the forward momentum doesn’t take us to the same old place, and there’s satisfaction in that.
So what’s missing? Well, besides the florid style and the nearly obsessive attention to detail, it’s missing the sense of verticality that characterizes most of McCarthy’s work. In his other books the situations, the roles, the motivations, the events aren’t just genre stereotypes; they’re mythic archetypes. Ordinary, stoic, laconic, the McCarthy hero finds himself being moved across a world rendered desolate by the endless repetitions of whatever impersonal or superpersonal forces traverse it. In No Country, though, it’s all been demythologized, rendered mundane in the sheer materiality of a world stripped bare of meaning. Even brutal transcendence seems more habitable somehow than this coarse brutality.
But there is another spirit infusing No Country that replaces the gnostic sublimity. Incredibly enough, it’s old-fashioned humanism. The main character, an old sheriff, still plays out the usual cops-and-robbers choreography. But he senses that there’s something missing in today’s bad guys. The passions — greed, hatred, love — that used to drive them to violence are gone, replaced by — what? By nothing, by an almost mechanical will to commit mayhem. It’s a nostalgic story, a regret at the loss of humanity even in the most inhumane of killers.
Thinking about a movie based on this book, I’m worried. Billy Bob Thornton directed an awful film version of All the Pretty Horses. Now we have No Country, with its stock genre characters and plots, infused with humanistic nostalgia, engaged in acts of extreme violence — it could be the formula for a really ordinary B movie. But then we factor in the Coen brothers, masters of the extraordinary B movie. Even a stripped-down, rather unsatisfying McCarthy book is still something to be reckoned with. Will it be transformed into an exceptional cinematic adaptation? Hopefully soon, in a theater near me, I’ll find out.