To compare a movie
based on a novel to its source is unfair. The novel, by its very
length, will ever prove more complex and profound. That is why no
great novel ever made a great movie, and all great movies either
derive from original screenplays or are based on second rate or
inferior literary sources. Modestly, I call this phenomenon Park’s
Law. Whether Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men
will ever take its place alongside The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick,
and Huckleberry Finn
remains to be seen. But McCarthy is a very
good writer, one who can turn conversations in Southwest Texas
dialect, which the movie copies verbatim, into poetry. Whatever its
future standing, the novel is good enough to ensure that any film
based on it will inevitably fall short of the mark.

Its title comes from
the first line of William Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to
Byzantium,” “That is no country for old men,”
referring not to Byzantium but to our world where “An aged man
is but a paltry thing, /A tattered coat upon a stick unless”
one sails “into the artifice of eternity.” Taking this
lead McCarthy has created a novel whose central character is an
ageing Southwest Texas sheriff named Ed Tom Bell, played in the film
by the ostensible star Tommy Lee Jones. Each of the thirteen
sections of the book begins with a soliloquy by Bell on his life and
its meaning. These provide a counterpoint to the plot, which
consists of a drug deal gone bad and the resulting homicidal carnage.
Bell cannot save the young man who, first through greed and then
through mercy, gets caught in the mess, and he never apprehends the
psychopathic serial killer who terrorizes the entire region. Thus at
the end, he retires, feeling defeated, but along the way we
appreciate both his struggle and his reflections on old age,
mortality, life in Texas, the destructive influence of narcotics on
a newer generation, and — especially — the moral consequences of our
actions. Like the poem from which it takes its name, the novel is an
old man’s work of art, somewhat as if Nestor, the oldest of the
Greek warriors, who thinks the Trojan War not nearly as difficult as
the Siege of Thebes where he fought as a young man, were the chief
narrator of the Iliad.

Inevitably a movie,
limited by convention to two hours, and depending more upon plot than
reflection, is going to have trouble conveying the character and
thoughts of Ed Tom Bell. So this film written and directed by the
successful and highly respected Coen Brothers, Ethan and Joel, shifts
the center of the film from the moral struggles of Bell to the
pursuit of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), the everyman who discovers
and takes the drug money, by the psychotic killer Anton Chirugh
(Javier Bardem). Both of them in turn are hunted by the Anglo mob, in
the person of Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), and an unnamed Mexican
mob. All this makes for a very exciting cat and mouse movie. But it
also results in a despairing and negative view of life, governed as
it not just by chance but by an evil and cruel fate.

One might forgive
the Coen Brothers on the grounds that there was no other way to film
the novel, and that their cinematic skills and the superb acting by
the entire cast justify the shifts in emphasis. Josh Brolin plays
Moss as brilliantly as he did the crooked cop in American
Gangster,
an entirely different role. As Hollywood honored
Anthony Hopkins for his portray of Hannibal Lector, we must expect at
least an Oscar nomination for Bardem whose chilling portrayal of
Chirugh is genuinely scary. Artists who haven’t gone over to
the dark side must be cautious in their betrayals of the Devil or one
of his minions, for he fascinates and easily becomes the most
interesting character. In Paradise Lost Milton’s
success in portraying Satan has led many to mistakenly interpret him
as the real hero of the poem.

But the Coens have
not stumbled into an aesthetic and moral dilemma; they have
deliberately darkened the somber novel. For instance, in the novel
Bell goes to visit his Uncle Ellis, another ex-lawman, crippled and
half blinded in the line of duty. While there he confesses that he
received a medal he didn’t want for his heroism in World War
II, when in fact, though he was heroic, he also abandoned his wounded
buddies to the Germans. He has suffered lifelong guilt for this
decision, one that he is convinced his granddad, also a sheriff,
would never have made. Understandably perhaps, the Coens have cut
this dimension of Bell from the film. In consoling him Uncle Ellis
remarks about himself: “I
always thought that when I got older that God would sort of come into
my life in some way. He didn’t. I dont blame him. If I was
him I’d have the same opinion about me that he does.”

This provokes Bell to
say, “You don’t know what he thinks,” and a few
lines later he asks Uncle Ellis, “You aint turned infidel have
you Uncle Ellis?” But in the film the Coen brothers have given
the despairing “infidel” lines to Bell, who in the novel,
despite his mistakes and defeats, never doubts God and the free will
that turns life into a meaningful moral struggle. Not only is he
very devoted to his wife, he is also pro-life, as when he reflects
upon a pro-choice lady he once met: “She
kept on, kept on. Finally told me, said I don’t like the way
this country is headed. I want my granddaughter to be able to have an
abortion. And I said well mam I don’t think you got any
worries about the way the country is headed. The way I see it goin I
don’t have much doubt that what she’ll be able to have an
abortion. I’m goin to say that not only will she be able to
have an abortion, she’ll be able to have you put to sleep.
Which pretty much ended the conversation.”

This lifting of a good
part of Bell’s character from the film shifts the weight of
meaning to Chirugh, an unfeeling fatalist, in fact a truly satanic
character, who employs a method of killing that equates human beings
with cattle. Like the Devil in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh
Seal
, he allows his intended victims to play games of
chance with him, knowing that as Death, he will prevail. Indeed,
instead of acting as a counterweight to the immoral mayhem of the
action, Bell’s comments in the film, some newly added, others
jumbled up, all of them truncated or misassigned, actually detract
from the film and give it an abrupt and very unsatisfying conclusion.

Still another change
illustrates the Coens’ darkening of the novel. In the book,
Llewelyn Moss while escaping from San Antonio towards El Paso, picks
up a runaway teenage girl. They too engage in a conversation about
morals, fate, and chance. They stop in Van Horn to spend the night
in a motel. To her surprise, Moss rents two rooms and declines her
amorous advances. We learn later that when the Mexican mob hunts him
down at the motel, he dies defending the girl, who is also killed.
But in the film this episode is omitted. Instead we see Moss
arriving alone at the motel and being propositioned by a poolside
hooker. He appears to succumb to her appeal. Then later, we learn
that he died at the motel, and we see the hooker’s body in the
pool. So rather than being a loyal husband who is heroic, like Ed Tom
Bell wants to be, he suffers an ironic and meaningless death, all the
result of his decision to have a little fling on the side.

The film contains no
sexual scenes, but it more than earns its R rating with graphic
violence. The novel also has such scenes, but the film amplifies
then to an extraordinary degree. So we witness prolonged strangling,
pools of blood, numerous blood spattering executions, and
do-it-yourself treatments of deep and gory bullet wounds. The Coens
have a middle brow following among Baby Boomers, but in this film
they pander to depraved and ghoulish tastes.

No Country for
Old Men
belongs to a category of film known as “neo-noir.”
Such films descend from the film noirs of the 40s and 50s, black and
white crime films characterized by murders, fallible protagonists,
flawed lawmen or ordinary people who make bad decisions, and
consequent investigations. The original noirs are set in corrupt
cities at night, but neo-noirs, like this one, being shot in color,
prefer the desert as their image of the wasteland. But the greatest
difference between these two versions of the noir genre is that the
originals, bound as they were by the Production Code, always had a
moral framework. If the DA or the mayor is a crook, the governor
stands for law and order. Such a moral framework was not merely
imposed but more often than not supported the story’s structure
and meaning. Not so with neo-noir. Starting with Chinatown (1974)
the crooks get away with it. Crime pays. Public morality doesn’t
exist and private virtues, though not always, lead to ruin or
despair.

It is only natural
that artists who ignore Providence construct ironic plots about
characters in an all too human world from which there is no way out.
The naturalists, Zola, Dreiser, Wright, and others favored
protagonists doomed through circumstance, chance, and oppressive and
deterministic social conditions. Hemingway and existentialist writers
created heroes who attained a kind of dignity through their codes of
honor, investing with meaning what the authors saw as an abysmal
world. But the Coen Brothers have in this film chosen a deeper level
of despair. Here Fate does not appear as indifferent, but
consciously evil, embodied in a satanic character who walks away
triumphant from his own encounter with chance. I suppose in
Hollywood such stuff passes for “seriousness.” But it
annoys me that two well educated gifted guys, living in sunny
California, one of them married to a talented and beautiful actress,
both of them raking in the dough, have the nerve to tell us, not
just that because we die life sucks, but that it’s dominated by
agents of evil.

William Park is
a veteran film reviewer and the author of “Hollywood: An Epic
Production”, a highly praised verse history of American cinema.
He lives in California.