December 2007

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

No Country for Old Men

I first heard of Cormac McCarthy as a victim of adaptation. Not that I knew many people in 2000 who had read All the Pretty Horses, but the critical consensus was that McCarthy's work had been done a disservice, so I didn't see the movie. And I never quite got around to reading the book, because it was the year 2000, and I was pretty busy. After all, my favorite filmmakers were still pounding out the hits, and damn right I had to see each and every one of them. I was young enough to think that because I loved someone's early work, their later work wouldn't disappoint.

In the past seven years, I've been well disabused of that naiveté, and the Coen brothers were no small part of that. Sure, their great successes of the 1990s -- Fargo and Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski -- were the perfect refuge for the amateur adolescent cineaste, combining technical mastery with an off-beat sense of humor and a distinctive point of view. Their movies were fun, is the thing -- they liked movies. And in the 1990s, that was all I really required of my friends, real or imaginary.

It's been a hard few years for Joel and Ethan, though -- watching from the cheap seats, all I've seen is a series of failed attempts to go mainstream, make big comedies with big movie stars. Okay, we're only really talking about two bad movies here -- but did you see Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers? It's not that they're bad, it's that they're so much less than what they should be, disappointing everyone in the process. To be honest, I'd found The Man Who Wasn't There to be a serious struggle, but I'd plowed through in the name of what I thought was art. And then the Coens stopped making art, and my heart broke, just a little.

What's really frustrating about these movies is that after fifteen years of idiosyncratic storytelling, the Coens seem to lose their voice entirely, working with previously existing scripts or remaking older films. Burn out? Selling out? I wish I understood what happened. Whatever it was, it made me more than a bit reluctant to see No Country for Old Men.

But I have to admit I was surprised. No Country is full of old-school Coen signatures -- the movie delights in accents and oddball characters, but confronts the all-too-real tragedy beneath the surface. I was more than pleased. It was a nice long visit from a friend I'd forgotten I missed.

And bizarrely, the Coens's first great movie in seven years is completely indebted to their source material. No Country is their first book-to-film adaptation, and it's one of the cleanest and most faithful adaptations I've come across in a long time.

I came to McCarthy's novel after seeing the movie (which, it's true, derives 90% of its dialogue directly from the book). It's the first of his I've read, and it was an experience as striking as the first time I saw Fargo. The language is as matter of fact as its characters, and just when you think that Messieurs Coen might have added something on their own accord, there comes the bold and plain description of Chigurh at the drugstore: "He was little more than half way down the aisle toward the pharmacy when the car outside exploded into flame taking out most of the glass in the front of the store." Even the more controversial structure choices -- every unexpected fade to black and point of view shift -- are derived directly from the book. It's really quite a thing.

The changes I discovered all work towards the movie's benefit. The film's take on Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald), the one innocent in the whole mess, was beautifully done, and giving her more interaction with Ed Tom (Tommy Lee Jones) just enhanced that. Certain elements of Llewelyn's return to Carla Jean are different, but these changes feel like lateral moves -- never really changing the outcome.

Really, the biggest difference is that in the book, the psychopathic Chigurh (lurking like Jaws in the corner of every frame) talks a lot more. In print, unburdened by the deliberate pacing of Javier Bardem's delivery, he goes on for sentences -- paragraphs, even. He explains himself, his actions and reactions, just a little bit more. But what feels necessary in book form is completely irrelevant in the film. One close-up on Bardem's dead eyes is all that's needed.

In the book, Chigurh gets himself a bit more of an ending than the film manages. Not dramatically more final, just a note more concrete. It doesn't really matter in the end, though. Which is, I suppose, the Coens's point.

For such a violent book, No Country chooses the oddest moments to linger on the reality of death, to really focus in on an extinguished life. It's a mature, sad piece of writing, deliberate and simple, every story beat leading to the one real inevitable conclusion. In his moments of tragedy and whimsy, McCarthy really captures something truly human...

Just like the best films of the Coens.

Funny thing, how they needed someone else's voice to reconnect with their own. But deep down, I'm still that adolescent amateur cineaste. And I'm not complaining.