No Country for Old Men
By Cormac McCarthy
Published July 2005
Date reviewed: September 22, 2005
Originally appeared in: The Daily Cardinal
At first glance, there are a lot of reasons why the directing team of Joel and Ethan Coen have decided to direct an adaptation of “No Country for Old Men”, the first novel in seven years from author Cormac McCarthy. It has a distinctive cast of Vietnam veteran, Mexican hitman and straightforward sheriff; dialogue that’s instantly quotable and a setting that begs for expansive camera angles.
More than that, “No Country for Old Men” follows one key theme the Coens touched on in “Fargo”: a lot can happen in the middle of nowhere. In McCarthy’s case, nowhere is his stomping ground of southern Texas and what happens is a drug deal gone bad with $2.4 million recovered among the corpses by Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss.
After seven years McCarthy’s returned to the landscape he visited in “All the Pretty Horses”, but this time his tight and natural prose is aimed at achieving pure suspense. McCarthy doesn’t waste time with rambling speeches and run-on sentences, putting the whole story in a present tense where there’s no time to think before the next thing happens. The only extra details are what a person would see at first glance before they move on to something else.
The vividness of McCarthy’s style contributes a lot to his three main characters, who in the hands of a lesser writer could be reduced to stereotypes of running man and psychopath. Moss moves across the state like a drifter, noticing nothing beyond what he needs to survive, while pursuing hitman Chigurh can spend pages examining details such as the smell of milk and dust near the airvent.
Although Sheriff Bell comes in as after Moss and Chigurh and spends the whole book trying to catch up with their body count, his presence somehow bears more weight than either one. Every section of the book is opened with his reflections on topics such as World War II, law enforcement technology and death row, evoking the image of an old man with his pipe on the front porch explaining a long-lost tale to his grandchildren.
While he goes off on a tangent at the beginning of sections Bell wastes no time getting information out of his officers, a drive McCarthy applies to every conversation in the book. Dialogue can go on for pages and pages with barely any details of the outside world, and while readers may have to count lines to figure out who said what it feels so much like movie dialogue the Coens may not even need a rewrite.
Unfortunately, by the end of the book it’s clear that the speed of bloodshed and heartache has drained Bell of his spirit, and once again McCarthy seems to share his protagonist’s viewpoint. There’s no great shoot-out confrontation between main characters described in action and a lot of questions are left unresolved at the very end. McCarthy may be saving up for a sequel, but his sudden tired attitude throws a wrench in the book’s close.
The weak ending can’t offset the sense of satisfaction this book provides, however, as McCarthy has brought life and death into focus better than most writers in years. He’s written a story readers can’t help but finish – and with a sharp cast and natural language, a story the Coens can’t help but have a field day with on film.
(Editor’s note: I was beyond pleased to see that my precognition was successful for this one – I caught the fact that the Coens had optioned the film early on and used it as the hook for my ‘Big Lebowski’ and ‘Fargo’-viewing audience of college students, convinced it was going to be an excellent film. Of course I didn’t see the Oscar coming, but everything I said here – two and a half years later – was dead-on in my humble estimation.)