Cormac McCarthy is an old crank. He may well be the William Faulkner of the 21st century, but he’s a crank. I read a lot of critics rhapsodise about No Country for Old Men when the hardback hit the stands, but precious few took note the book’s old-man-erisms: the crankiness, the misanthropy, the pessimistic certainty that only comes with old age – or youth. McCarthy’s world view is that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. In the Coen brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men, doom is like a blanky that Javier Bardem’s character trails with him. You can ignore it if you want; talk all you like about the modern Western, but this movie is only, only about death.
At the start, Josh Brolin finds some money among a pile of corpses. Figuring this for a good omen, he takes the money, and runs. The money (as perhaps hinted at by the corpses) ain’t legal-like, it’s drug money. No sooner has Brolin appropriated it than arch-psycho Javier Bardem is dispatched to bring it back. Sherriff Tommy Lee Jones comes across the corpses (minus the money) and quickly deduces that a fool has taken what doesn’t belong to him. The rest is Josh Brolin thinking he can stop what’s coming, and Javier Bardem killing every living thing in his path.
The makers of this – the Coen brothers – have been off their game of late. When fans of Fargo saw Intolerable Cruelty or The Lady Killers, the general consensus was: “Argh!” Known for their perversity, their wit, their brainy brand of heartlessness, the Coens’ seemed to go soft for a year or two. Whatever the cause, their last two movies felt like anyone could have made them, or worse yet: like the Coen brothers made them badly. Thankfully, No Country for Old Men sees the Coens’ acting themselves again. There is heartlessness, there is cruelty, and nowhere is there a God.
As in the book, the man who scares old men is Chigurh. Javier Bardem plays him like the devil. The first time we meet him he strangles a cop. Chigurh is a man who, in every conversation he has, calmly weighs up killing someone. He is arbitrary death made flesh, and carrying a cattle-gun. Motiveless, Chigurh scares people because there is no reasoning with him. There’s a great scene where Woody Harrelson (about to be murdered) says to Chigurh, “You don’t have to do this.” And you watch Javier Bardem smile, as if to say, “Of course I do, of course I do.” And then he does.
Josh Brolin doesn’t have much of a character to play with, but he gives Llewellyn Moss a dignity that comes with toughness. Like most of the men in No Country for Old Men, Moss is a three-word-a-day type a’ guy, not given to soliloquies. What we learn of him we learn from his actions, which are practical. The rest we’re left to infer, but it’s enough to root for him. He has a wife, so he can’t be that bad a guy.
Tommy Lee Jones plays The Law the he always does, economically.
Texas, which should get fourth billing, looks like a place where the buffalo rot.
Kelly Macdonald, as Moss’s wife, is sweet and kind and utterly doomed.
As for Cormac McCarthy, I think he’d like this adaptation. The Coens’ have pruned Chirgurh’s more ludicrous speeches, and taken out the more blatant misanthropy, but it’s still a movie that spits on the modern world. You name me a character you like, and I’ll name you a dead person. There is no Frances McDormand at the close to tell us “there’s more to life than a little money.” McCarthy would never write a character like Fargo’s Marge Gunderson. He’s too much a man’s man for that. McCarthy’s is a world where words are chipped from men’s throats, and people die violently. No Country for Old Men is pure McCarthy – for better or worse.