In anticipation of the Ridley Scott film, The Counselor (coming out Friday 10/25), which was written by Cormac McCarthy, this article looks back on No Country for Old Men, the most famous and prestigious film adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s work. This article looks at both the book and the film and compares them.
For those readers unfamiliar with No Country for Old Men, the plot follows Llewelyn Moss, a welder in Texas, who stumbles across a shootout from a drug trade gone violently wrong while hunting. He takes from the scene a satchel full of money. He is soon on the run from a Mexican drug gang, the law and, most terrifyingly, Anton Chigurh, a hitman with no shred of humanity. No Country for Old Men was turned into a film in 2007 by Joel and Ethan Coen and won multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh.
Cormac McCarthy’s writing style is deceptively simple. McCarthy avoids some expected writing formalities such as quotation marks, which sometimes makes distinguishing dialogue from exposition a bit of a challenge. What happens in the book is grim and nightmarish. However, the grisly murders and killings are described in the same writing style as the non-violent parts with McCarthy avoiding obvious cues. The effect of this grim continuity is that you often find yourself in the middle of violent scenes without realizing that you were transitioning into them, which is a great credit to McCarthy’s writing abilities. McCarthy also likes to take his time describing very real tactile things like types of guns or describing how Anton Chigurh patches himself up after a shootout with his target. The whole effect is like a western where characters and events take on mythical status, especially Chigurh. Whereas in the film, Chigurh comes off as the incarnation of pure evil, in the book, he comes off as a warrior following his personal code of justice, somewhat like Alain Delon’s Jef Costello in Jean Pierre Melville’s film Le Samourai. Overall, the book is a grim yet compelling narrative with passages of technically interesting and excellent writing.
Possibly the Coens’ masterpiece in a career filled with masterpieces, the film retains much of the dark, bleak atmosphere of McCarthy’s novel, but the Coens manage to inject their signature wry humor. For example, in the famous scene where Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh challenges a shop owner to call a coin toss, Bardem is clearly toying with the shop owner while at the same time being deadly serious. From Bardem’s facial expressions to little touches like the camera lingering on a wrapper unraveling, everything in this scene is geared to make the audience squirm and laugh uncomfortably. Despite the wry humor, the film manages to be epic and cinematic. This is largely thanks to Roger Deakins’ cinematography. Because of Deakins, extremely mundane places like roadside motels and trailer bathrooms look properly cinematic and worthy of the violent and dramatic confrontations that occur there. This film proves that Coens are masters at toeing the line between drama and dark nihilistic comedy while at the same delivering a glorious example of cinema.
So What’s Better?
This goes to the movie. The book is excellent but it isn't as tight as it could have been in terms of narrative. It is for the most part unrelentingly dark too. The Coens’ wry viewpoint and dark humor work quite well here whereas in other movies they can come off as cold and condescending (Burn After Reading). The Coens managed to keep all the good elements of the book while trimming the fat.