9 November 2007

No Country

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines, Movies — ktismatics @ 1:23 pm

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.



  1. I see Steven Shaviro reviewed No Country a couple years ago and thought more highly of it than I did — here’s his post. I agree that Blood Meridian is a great book, but so do a lot of other people. I thought Pretty Horses stood strong on its own as a great book, not at all a retreat, though there’s no question that Blood Meridian is a darker vision. On the other hand, I suppose you could call Blood Meridian a retreat from earlier works like Outer Dark and Child of God.


    Comment by ktismatics — 9 November 2007 @ 3:38 pm

  2. I just read that Ridley Scott is going to do McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I haven’t seen American Gangster, nor am I very interested in doing so, mostly because it sounds like it’s been done already plenty often enough. But then I think about the android in Blade Runner, standing on the top of the building, reflecting on the things he’s seen in his short life, the majestic and archaic and almost heroic power of this robot. And I think about what the Judge from Blood Meridian could be in a movie, and I know that I’ll want to see Scott try. The problem, though, is that Blood Meridian isn’t pulp, like Philip Dick’s book was, like No Country can easily be turned into cinematically without really losing much. Blood Meridian is art, and I’m not sure Scott can do it justice. I’m not sure any screen adaptation can.


    Comment by ktismatics — 11 November 2007 @ 6:48 pm

  3. Here’s the last paragraph of the Boston Globe reviw:

    Both book and movie offer glimpses of a huge, mysterious pattern that we and the characters can’t quite see – that only God could see, if He hadn’t given up and gone home. (There’s barely any soundtrack music in the entire movie; the angels have packed up, too.) In the end, the film’s central image is Ed Tom’s expression of bottomless sorrow. It’s the grief of a man for a land his fathers tamed and in which he now walks as a stranger.

    I like the idea of soundtrack music being the voices of angels, hovering somewhere nearby, affected but not really involved.


    Comment by ktismatics — 16 November 2007 @ 5:08 am

  4. I saw this movie yesterday, and it conveys the feel of the book in some ways even better than the book itself. But it clearly occupies the larger McCarthy reality in which No Country is embedded. The sheriff laments the good old days when it was possible to understand what motivated the bad guys. And in this story you understand that the usual suspects — greed, ego, revenge, etc. — are on the scene, but they’re relegated to the background. Human agency isn’t the thing; people don’t move themselves through the story through inner motivation, or even motivations imposed on them by larger structural forces like the Mafia or the police. There are forces that move people that cannot be reckoned. Is Evil a superpersonal Force that works its will through the human agents it controls? Or is evil a subpersonal force that flows through people, bubbling up from underneath? Either way, it’s entirely alien to the human scale of endeavor.

    Chigurh, the bad guy, seems like someone who is “in the Tao,” not fighting the forces that move him but rather cooperating with them, going with the flow. He understands that chance or fate (which may be two names for the same thing) has laid his path out before him, and has led others’ paths to intersect with his own. His victims insist: it doesn’t have to be this way; you decide what happens to me. But Chigurh disagrees: he’s acting out what either must or must not happen; he is an excellent tool wielded by an intelligence that keeps its own counsel. And God too, if he exists, exists beyond all understanding, also moving pieces into position for who knows what ultimate purpose, if any.

    Awhile back I had a discussion with Traxus about Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. The only possibilities invoked in that movie were structural forces or individual agency. But both could be grasped, both were motivated in ways we can understand and relate to. Chigurh operates either above or beneath such motivations. He’s either totally transcendent or totally immanent, which from our position in the middle are indistinguishable from each other. McCarthy sees something different, something archaic that’s been all but forgotten but that can still be glimpsed in the barren vastness of west Texas and the small lives that traverse it like the ghosts of legends, teaching us nothing but their own inevitability.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 November 2007 @ 7:24 am

  5. the only mccarthy novel i’ve read is “the road” which immediately became one of my all time favorite books. i saw “no country” recently and was really shocked by the story. mostly it was chigurh’s relentless journey that got me. that he killed everyone, i could live with, but that he simply walked away into a future of more killing kinda took my head off.

    your comments reminded me of two things: the notion of the modern killers are empty vessels for true evil reminded me of an episode of a television show called “angel.” a family was underseige by a possessed little boy and the heroes fought to exorcise the demon. when they succeeded and were about to vanquish it, the demon mentioned that it had actually been trapped inside the boy for years, unable to control him because the boy had no soul. as the demon put it: “i merely sat there and watched as he destroyed everything around him. not for teh belief in evil. not for anything at all.” of course, this is a fantasy show in which you don’t have to consider that such a thing is actually possible.

    the other thing that chigurh’s crazy point of view calls to mind is an old teen book “lisa, bright & dark” about a girl who goes insane in high school. there’s a period early on when she’s fighting the bouts of insanity, and then there’s a point when she gives up and simply rolls with it. when he visits the wife at the end, i thought this might be chigurh’s issue. in the beginning he must have been thinking, to quote “xena: warrior princess” ‘i’m a lunatic with lethal combat skills. sooner or later someone’s gonna hurt,’ but then crossed a point where he simply had to find a way to continue to function despite the madness. he almost seems to walk on another plane. he sees all the shadows right out in plain view that no one is looking in, and walks that path of invisibility through the normal world.

    it was really an unsettling story.


    Comment by belledame — 21 January 2010 @ 12:20 am

  6. Intriguing parallels, belledame. I like the idea (artistically anyway) of the kid being so soulless that even the demon could do nothing but go along for the ride. When Chigurh visits the wife at the end, in the book she calls the coin flip and loses, so Chigurh kills her, just as he let the guy at the store live when he called the coin and won. Fate is out of Chigurh’s hands; he’s just a conduit for larger forces working through him. In the movie the wife refuses to play the game. She calls Chigurh out, making him accept personal responsibility for his own murderous acts. In my opinion this was one of the few missteps the Coens made in the movie.


    Comment by john doyle — 21 January 2010 @ 5:09 am

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