On No Country for Old Men, A Film by Joel and Ethan Coen

Wed Feb 20, 2008

Moss, Wells, and Chigurh* are all products of Vietnam in the novel. Their experience is contrasted with the Sheriff’s in the Second World War, and McCarthy’s not foolish enough to portray the former as a loss of innocence. In the film, Ed Tom does not confess his lack of heroism, nor does he mention being in the war at all, as far as I can remember. Wells has appeared to adapt to the prevailing norms, with his talk of being a day trader and his apparent pragmatism; but, in the novel, it is Chigurh who has become the model corporate citizen–efficient, principled, and dedicated.

The film elides this by cutting the scene where Chigurh returns the money and makes a business proposition of undeniable soundness to the investment concern. (I watched a matinee, and a plain-spoken gentleman behind me, whom I later heard extol the virtues of The Bucket List, disapproved of not knowing what became of the money.) That Carla Jean rejected the aleatory metaphysics of the coin flip in the film is an act of rebellion against the agent of fate not seen in the novel. (Nodding to David Hackett Fischer, they cast a Scottish actress to play Carla Jean. She reminded me somewhat of Annette O’Toole.)

This association of the apocalyptic harbingers not with noseboned greenhaired punks but with Chirugh’s diagnosis of

“the prospect of outsized profits leads people to exaggerate their capabilities. In their minds. They pretend to themselves that they are in control of events where perhaps they are not. And it is always one’s stance upon uncertain ground that invites the attentions of one’s enemies. Or discourages it.” (253)

Is what makes No Country for Old Men, as a novel, more than the ham-fisted (think of Bloom entering Nighttown**) tent-revival it may seem at first to be. The film, in reducing the folksiness and increasing the canniness of our intermediary sheriff, eliminates both the evangelicalism and redeeming irony. Who does Chigurh most remind you of? G. Gordon Liddy and Ollie North. Or rather, he is an ideal type to which they aspired. Chigurh is in cuffs at the beginning because he wanted to extricate himself from them by pure will. (He had just killed a man in the parking lot of a bar [perhaps and grill] who had called him something insulting. This omitted scene may be where they got the idea for his haircut.)

I should also note that Garret Dillahunt’s revival of Jack McCall from Deadwood for Wendell (also the name of a homely town outside of Raleigh that’ll probably be where’d you stop for a damn sandwich if you were hungry on the drive back to Greenville from RDU) was just expressivist enough.

Also, Michael Wood suggests that Moss goes back to “add execution to the slaughter.” Does he think that Moss intends to drown the wolf-haunted survivor?

*I’ve just scanned back through the book, and I didn’t see a specific reference to this, but I think that Wells’s knowledge of him; and Chigurh’s improvisatory skills and training fits the general thriller mold of an ex-irregular working as a mercenary, hit man, etc.

**Went over this in seminar last night, with an eye toward its apocalyptic elements. I’m a bit skeptical of Gifford’s claim that Stephen was thinking of Hans Baldung’s drawings of Phyllis and Aristotle specifically at the beginning, however apt it may seem.