Joel and Ethan Coen often look like moviemakers in search of a movie; as if their perfect film were waiting for them out there and they had to do something while they were looking for it. What else could have driven them to their 2004 remake of the Ealing comedy The Ladykillers? Even if Tom Hanks is funnier in that film than our idea of Tom Hanks ought to allow, he’s not Alec Guinness. And what about Intolerable Cruelty (2003), with George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, which doesn’t look like a Coen Brothers movie because it doesn’t look as if it was directed by anybody?
Still, they can’t be after a single perfect film, since their best work falls into such distinct modes: quirky film noir (Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn’t There), offbeat comedy (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski), mock epic (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). So maybe they are more like prospectors looking for movie gold: any gold, even if it hasn’t got their name written on it. In No Country for Old Men they have struck their best vein of the stuff since Fargo, and this truly is a strange effect, since the movie manages to be very different from Cormac McCarthy’s novel through an extravagant, literal fidelity to a great deal of it.
The fidelity is both verbal (there are transpositions and compressions of course, but a very large number of the novel’s sentences make it unchanged into the movie) and to the narrative (the plot is full of ellipses and silences, and there always seems to be more of anything, corpses, conspirators, killers, than you can count). The movie even has the same weakness as the novel: a long-winded epilogue where the sheriff goes to see his old uncle and pick up a bit of wisdom about what a mystery the world is. What is not in the movie is the lyrical dying of the book, where a murderer always pauses to look at the fading light of the victim’s mind: ‘the blood bubbled and ran down into his eyes carrying with it his slowly uncoupling world visible to see’; ‘everything that Wells had ever known or thought or loved drained slowly down the wall behind him.’ The movie murderer is not such a connoisseur, and he doesn’t philosophise quite as much as his print counterpart (‘how to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of’). But then he is all the scarier because he says less, and scarier still because he is played by Javier Bardem, in a magnificent performance of weird authority and restraint. His name in the film is Anton Chigurh – no one knows where the name comes from and only one person seems to know how to pronounce it. He does look Hispanic, because he is Bardem, but the novel merely calls him ‘darkly complected’.
The theory of this authority is found in both the novel and the film, but it’s more powerful when it’s seen than when it’s talked about, and the novel has an understandable itch to tell us what can’t be told. The man whose thoughts we have just seen draining down the wall is a hunter and hitman for a high-powered drug outfit, caught by the killer he has been hired to catch. He knows Chigurh from previous encounters and says he’s not an ordinary criminal and not really interested in money or drugs. ‘He’s a peculiar man. You can even say he has principles.’ One sheriff in the film calls Chigurh ‘a goddamned homicidal lunatic’. The other sheriff, who knows better, says: ‘Yeah. I don’t think he’s a lunatic, though.’ His peculiarity can’t be named, but it can be shown. It consists, for example, in threatening to kill a man’s wife if the man doesn’t tell him what he needs to know – and then killing her even after the man is dead because he treats his threat as a kind of promise to himself. The novel, in the form of interspersed chapters written in the voice of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, has two ideas about what such ‘principles’ represent: the world, or the country, going violently to the dogs, or the same place converting itself into complete and intractable mystery. It sounds like a double memory of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in spite of the title’s quotation from Yeats. The horror lies in our new, undeniable brutality or in the sheer panic of not knowing what we are. Either way, it’s no country for old men, and the sheriff, at the end of the book, is hanging up his gun.
He’s hanging up his gun at the end of the movie too, and Tommy Lee Jones, playing Sheriff Bell both on the screen and in the voice-over that takes the place of McCarthy’s interspersed chapters, expresses fragments of the novel’s view, precisely because of the literalism I’ve mentioned. But what he is saying, or what the movie turns his thoughts into, is something different.
The movie even changes the mood of the novel’s considerable laconic wit. ‘It’s a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff?’ a deputy says as he and his boss look at a litter of corpses in a circle of pick-up trucks abandoned in the Texas desert. The sheriff says: ‘If it ain’t it’ll do till a mess gets here.’ A little earlier the same deputy says, looking at a body found at some distance from the others: ‘We got another execution here, Sheriff?’ The sheriff replies: ‘No, I believe this one’s died of natural causes’. The man has blood all over him and has plainly been shot, and the sheriff explains his diagnosis. ‘Natural causes to the line of work he is in.’ The man was shot as he tried to get away with a case full of money, and so in some sort of quarrel, not in an execution of the kind we see Chigurh perform so many times in the movie, sometimes with a shotgun but for preference with a bolt gun of the kind used for killing cattle, powered by a tall air cylinder Chigurh comfortably hauls along with him as if he were a particularly healthy invalid.
These jokes in the novel are part of a whole verbal texture, where a terse, rural idiom, as always in McCarthy, alternates with biblical eloquence. In the movie they belong to Sheriff Bell’s character and his dilemma. He has only his wit to keep him going, and essentially all he can do is follow a trail and arrive too late. We see him in a sequence of rooms where the killer has been, sitting on a sofa, thinking, drinking from a bottle of milk, wondering where he missed the road, the point where his old world, the place where he and his grandfather were sheriffs at the same time (‘him in Plano and me here. I think he was pretty proud of that. I know I was’), turned into hell. Tommy Lee Jones’s face is itself a fabulous picture in these scenes, a scarcely moving mask of bewilderment and sorrow. It says he doesn’t understand what’s happening, of course; but it also says he doesn’t believe he doesn’t understand. When he retires he’ll stop arresting criminals, or even being too late to arrest them; but he’ll never stop trying to understand his altered world, and the movie remains stubborn here where the novel goes elegiac.
The plot is driven by an accident. Llewelyn Moss, played by Josh Brolin, is out hunting antelope in the desert when he finds the abandoned vehicles and the corpses. This is after the shoot-out, but before Chigurh returns to the scene to add execution to slaughter. At this point there is still a load of drugs in one of the trucks. Moss leaves this alone but finds the case full of money and makes off with it, scarcely knowing what he is doing. He knows he’ll be followed, but thinks he can outwit whatever pursuers will come after him. He doesn’t know what he is in for, partly because he doesn’t know what a drug cartel, or perhaps even competing drug cartels, may do, and partly because neither he nor anyone, except perhaps the unfortunate Wells, has any idea of who or what Chigurh is. That Moss gives Chigurh such a good run for his money (or his principles) shows how tough and resourceful he is, and makes for much suspense in the movie. That he is giving Chigurh a run at all shows that he is stupid, or at least fatally innocent.
The plot ends in an accident too. After he has killed Moss’s wife (very well played by Kelly MacDonald), Chigurh’s truck is hit by a car full of joy-riding kids, and he gets his arm broken along with multiple other injuries. He borrows a shirt from two boys gawking at the accident, ties up his arm and limps off, no more to be seen. As you realise he’s not coming back, that there is no further scene in the movie for him, no dénouement, you register just how frightening this disappearance is, since the accident sets us up for a dramatic irony that could seize control of things and make us feel better, at least as spectators of a properly wrapped-up story. The killer who plotted his life so methodically, killed so many people so systematically, without a ruffle in his terrible hairdo, will die or be arrested through an act of pure chance. But no. Off he goes, not untouchable because he is badly hurt – and has been hurt badly earlier in the movie too – but unkillable perhaps. He is not the horror or the mystery evoked in the novel, and not even the spirit of the new terrifying world the movie sometimes asks us to see in him, a rough beast slouching away from his unimaginable Bethlehem. He is whatever is stronger and more inventive than we are, more consistent too; whatever defeats our moderation and our mess and our half-baked greed and insufficient decency.