Friday, November 30, 2007


I got a feelin I ought to be afraid of you but I aint.
Well. I cant advise you on that neither. Most people'll run from their own mother to get to hug death by the neck. They cant wait to see him.

--Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men (2005)

Warning: contains material that will spoil your first viewing of the film and/or first reading of the novel.

After seeing the Coen Brothers' film of McCarthy's novel over break, I resolved to read the novel forthwith. Judging by a short piece a friend sent me today, I'm not alone in wondering why the film's ending seems so unsatisfactory. My immediate reaction was that the Coens had deliberately played the audience for suckers, which is to say: setting up expectations for a film they then refused to provide. And in part I'm still convinced that that's the problem. It's a way of saying that the film plays into certain kinds of assumptions, by virtue of certain "markings" that occur with films, that don't occur in novels. In general, it's coaxing us into expecting a more generic modern Western, then pulling the plug on it. Things like: having Tommy Lee Jones play Sheriff Bell (i.e., strong assumption he'll "get his man"); pacing the movie and its scenes so that one naturally assumes a shoot 'em-up ending, a last man standing sort of thing (i.e., action films tend to up the action as they go); showing "our hero" (Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss) go through two (more like three) narrow escapes, thus creating the expectation that, even if his luck runs out, we'll see it happen, maybe even see it coming.

To frustrate all three of those expectations is more than risky, more than playful, but being risky and playful is the Coens' territory when they're at their best. But I felt that something went wrong -- and even after I was told that the novel doesn't depict a final showdown, I remained convinced that the Coens dropped the ball. Now that I've read the novel, it's clearer to me why the Coens couldn't deliver McCarthy's vision. Not really. I give them great credit for bringing to the screen Javier Bardem as Chigurh, the steely killer, and for giving Jones a role that he was clearly born to play, and for adding their "touches" to the story: the early chase of Moss into a river by a fierce attack dog is all theirs, as is the amazingly tense scene of Moss waiting to be invaded in a motelroom. The novel delivers that scene differently and it's right there that one begins to see that McCarthy is telling a different story, a story that, it seems to me, the Coens don't quite get or at least don't tell.

In part it has to do with the moral center of McCarthy's tale. It's Sheriff Bell all the way: his story continues after the main deaths in a manner that is intrinsic to the character sorting out what his life means, and what part Chigurh's killing spree plays in that life. That's what the novel is all about. The fact of Moss as one of Chigurh's antagonists is necessary because that's what gets Bell involved. But the film puts its focus on the tussle over the money, like many another heist film, as though -- as with the Coens' groundbreakingly brutal, ugly AND funny Blood Simple (1984) -- the point is, again, what money makes people do. McCarthy doesn't really care about that. He's concerned with a kind of fatalism that the Coens can't begin to get across. I won't say that film in general couldn't (though I have my doubts), but certainly not one that is so busy playing out the tensions of the last-man-standing scenario.

And certainly not if you veer too far from McCarthy's lockstep. The Coens make several changes: 1) in McCarthy, Chigurh enters the hotel room, with Moss beneath the bed and ready: in other words, Moss has the drop on him and doesn't kill him (because Moss is not a killer); so when Moss runs and gets shot at, the sense of getting away without killing is at least momentarily acceptable; in the film it's simply unthinkable that Moss wouldn't shoot Chigurh if he could, so already we're dealing with a different situation because (another change) Moss is privy to Chigurh's brutal killing of the other posse out to get the money (not so in the novel). The Coens deliberately ratchet up the rooting interest in Moss as, perhaps, the only one who might kill Chigurh. So they never bring the two together. McCarthy gets away with it because, in the novel, our sense of Moss as any kind of deliverer is mostly nil. At most we hope he'll "get away" somehow (maybe with Bell's help). The movie gives us much more of "a Clint and Lee Van eventually crossing paths in some blaze of glory" expectation. Intentionally.

2) How is Moss killed? In McCarthy: the people who sent the other posse send more -- what's more, they're listening-in on Bell's calls; so when Moss' wife, Carla Jean, finally decides to cooperate, her call to Bell to say where Moss is brings down his death. This is intrinsic, in my view, not only to the plot (how will Moss be betrayed?), but also to what the entire novel is trying to say about one irrevocable step determining what must follow. In the movie: the garrulous old mother of Moss' wife gives away their destination (they're going to meet Moss) to an extremely well-dressed and polite Mexican who is clearly not to be trusted (because we know he must be one of those who are seeking Moss). Next thing we know, Moss, who we saw arrive at a motel, is dead -- the Coens tease us further by withholding any spoken or visual account of how he got killed (McCarthy gives us an eyewitness account, told to a cop, and a perpetrator -- who is not Chigurh), thus the ambiguity the Coens' bring to bear on Moss's death is their own "touch," a way of creating ambiguity for its own sake (and possibly for the sake of their own odd humor), but steering well clear of the degree to which, in McCarthy, both Bell and Carla Jean help each other to undermine the efforts of the man they're trying to save. The grim humor of that -- if you like -- is perhaps present in the Coens' Carla Jean's insistence on bringing her complaining mother who babbles to the wrong person, but it's a different register: irritating stupidity vs. ruinous innocence.

3) Further proof the Coens' either missed the point or didn't want to accept McCarthy's point? They have Carla Jean refuse to call heads or tails. One might say they want her to stand for something (especially since it wasn't her call to Bell that gave the game away, in the film), that her refusal is a matter of principle, that we need something to set against Chigurh's baleful sense of fate. But it's yet another ellipsis and so we're beginning to feel man-handled by the filmmakers, made to accept the version they want us to have: a version that spares us having to accept -- maybe like Carla Jean, through tears -- what Chigurh says and what he means.

4) A final variation: what becomes of the money? The Coens don't show us (as though it's not really about that -- even though their screenplay has frontloaded that aspect of the "showdown" -- so they can kick it aside like a Hitchcockian MacGuffin): they give us an almost incoherent scene in which Bell returns to the room where Moss was staying when he was killed. We see, but he doesn't, that Chigurh is hiding there somewhere; we see, with him, that the cover is off the airduct (so we know Chigurh has the money). In the novel, Chigurh is shown retrieving the money, and then sits outside in his truck while the Sheriff, who suddenly arrives, goes into the room. In the novel, Bell strongly suspects Chigurh is out there, but his effort to nab him (via re-enforcements) comes too late. In other words, like Moss, Bell might've called Chigurh out, but manages to get away instead. Which brings us to McCarthy's use of a story from Bell's war years, which has a lot to do with what is actually preying upon Bell. As with the long conversation between Moss and a teen-age hitchhiker (conversations which go a long way toward showing us Moss' fatalism), most of McCarthy's efforts to deepen the characters -- to make them more than action figures of the Good (Bell), the Bad (Chigurh), and the Ugly (Moss) -- fall by the wayside in the film.

So that, in the end, while the movie ostensibly "says" the same thing as the novel, it doesn't do it in the same way. The difference may not be that great, but it's much like the difference between hearing a story you believe vs. one you don't, between hearing a sermon that convinces you vs. one that doesn't, between dimly grasping a grim truth vs. uncertainly accepting a vexing entertainment.

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