No Country for Old Men is Cormac McCarthy’s ninth novel released in 2005. It centers around the points of view of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, Llewelyn Moss, and Anton Chigurh. The novel starts off with the thoughts of Sheriff Bell, which reads as a diary entry and is the only place in the novel that is narrated in the first person. The prose throughout the novel (barring Bell’s commentary) is mostly terse and free of excessive or flowery descriptions. A lot of punctuation is noticeably absent and he tends to tells readers the thoughts, actions, and environments of his characters rather than leave room for guess work. James Wood in an article for The New Yorker describes McCarthy’s prose as fitting with the theme of the novel,
“Curiously, McCarthy’s new novel has almost none of the battered ormolu that makes his earlier prose so distinctive. There is one hokey moment when a violent assassin named Anton Chigurh stands over a Mexican drug dealer and shoots him, ‘watching his own image degrade in that squandered world,’ and the reader anticipates a rising paragraph of ornate plaint. But McCarthy is continent here, which is in keeping with the spirit of the novel. Everything is tight, reduced, simple, and very violent.”
Each chapter is prefaced with Bell’s ruminations, where he discusses and philosophizes on a number of things including his past, his failures, human apathy, and the future of America. Bell sets a nostalgic and even mournful tone for the old days of his youth when America and the town he has served since 25 years of age were a different place. He compares and contrasts growth of human apathy, violence, and “innovation” that he believes are going to send America to hell in a hand basket. Bell is at the end of his career and seems to be wrestling and reconciling with the transformation of the American landscape.
It’s clear that Bell is one of the “Old Men” referred to in the title. Through his entries we see how he feels displaced in modern American society. He prefers old weapons, cars, and ways of getting things done. He values respect, courtesy, and justice while everyone else seems to hold more value in material things like money and drugs. This is seen through Llewelyn, who puts his wife and his life in danger for the $2.3 million dollar he finds at a drug exchange gone wrong. Carson Wells also kills people solely for profit and isn’t above working for drug lords. Chigurh is the wild card in this whole novel as his motivations aren’t entirely clear until the end of the novel where he reveals that he believes that fate brings people to him in order for him to kill them. As Carson Wells describes Chigurh,
“He’s a peculiar man. You could even say that he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that.” (McCarthy 153)
McCarthy also seems to touch on the effect of war on a society. All of the men in this novel are war veterans: Sheriff Bell for World War II and Llewelyn, Carson Wells, and quite possibly Chigurh for the Vietnam war. These men’s worth and the respect they earn is often determined throughout the novel by their veteran status. Moss passes through the border because he tells the border agent that he served two tours in Vietnam. At the hospital in Piedras Negras Wells is interested if Llewelyn fought in Vietnam. And even Wells himself is questioned during his interview if he was a Vietnam vet. Along with this, Vietnam is brought up several instance throughout the book even in description of the gruesome scene of the drug deal. War seems to set the stage for how these men live their lives by providing them a set of violent skills they bring over the United States that affects a new generation. Joan Mellen agrees with this viewpoint in her article for Film Quarterly where she compare No Country for Old Men with another movie that deals with the same themes,
“The men, having returned from Vietnam and Iraq, have grown, in varying degrees…addicted to killing…they have brought their atrocities home. Both films depict a precipitous decline in the moral fiber of American society where the safety of its citizens have become, as never before, a virtual anachronism.”
The first time Moss is introduced he is hunting antelope in the Texas desert as he was a sniper for the Army and a theme of hunting is clear and present with all the characters as they chase each other. It is a taste they acquired at war and seem to enjoy. Wells was Special Forces with the Army and uses his skill to become a hitman for hire. Bell on the other hand is haunted by his past in the military, where a squad of men died under his command, something he tries to correct by becoming sheriff and protecting people. This further demonstrates his departure from even a new generation of war veterans.
The Coen Brothers adapted McCarthy’s novel in 2007 and managed to stay very close to the source material in terms of plot and dialogue. As A.O. Scott of the The New York Times writes,
“The script follows Mr. McCarthy’s novel almost scene for scene, and what the camera discloses is pretty much what the book describes: a parched, empty landscape; pickup trucks and taciturn men; and lots of killing. But the pacing, the mood and the attention to detail are breathtaking, sometimes literally.”
The plot, scenes and dialogue is for the most part identical to that found in the novel but the Coen brother’s did remove some elements like certain subplots and Bell’s personal insights were dramatically shortened. They also seem to have elected to get rid of any excessive background music to set the mood of the scenes, allowing viewers to experience the scene for all it’s other elements. What results is a raw truth of the scene that reflects the silence that McCarthy brings up several times in his novel to describe the environments his characters find themselves in: “Deep shadows. Silence. Nothing.” (85) “Dead quiet.” (107) “Silence. Nothing.” (117) Its a recurring description that the Coen brothers no doubt picked up on and represented in the film excellently. The shuffle of feet, or heavy breathing of a character anticipating in fear helps build suspense or set up the emotional tones of scenes just as well as a musical score would have.
In their adaptation, the Coen brothers cut out two main elements of McCarthy’s novel that I believe would have added greatly to the story, Bell’s narrative voice and Llewelyn’s time with the hitchhiker girl and his subsequent death.
The Coen brothers chose to reduce Bell’s narrative in the movie to a short voice over at the beginning and a one shot framing of him at the end of the movie seemingly talking to the audience about his dream from the night before. This changes the tone somewhat of the film in that audiences don’t get to see Bell as the philosophical driver of the movie as he is in the book. He takes a subsidiary role to Llewelyn and Chigurh’s cat and mouse chase around Texas. Through these entries, readers get great insight into Bell’s actions throughout the rest of the story. One such revelation is that Bell came back from World War II a decorated soldier that was charged with leading a group of men in battle. He was the sole survivor of that group and he reflects on the unfairness of him getting rewarded even though he failed to keep his fellow soldiers alive. We see how this steers his motivation to not let anybody down again, people such as his wife and Llewelyn Moss, who he desperately tries to save from the people after him. As Chigurh is constantly one step ahead of Bell, he starts to feel that same failure and uselessness he felt at the end of the war even though he still manages to be the one to live through it all. Leaving this out is to leave out a big chunk of who Sheriff Bell is. His narrative was the most intimate story telling in the book that provides the deepest insights into why America is no longer a country for old men such as Bell.
The exclusion of Llewelyn’s hitchhiker subplot takes away some of the sympathy for Llewelyn, who shines through as a good man who just made a bad choice. He does not try to take advantage of the runaway girl, stays faithful to his wife, helps the girl out by giving her $1000 and advice, and even comes to refer to her as “little sister.” By leaving out the scene of his murder as described in the book, viewers did not get a good sense of what type of man he is. In the novel, a Mexican drug dealer figures out where Llewelyn is hiding and attacks the hotel room for the money. The Mexican takes the girl as a human shield and puts a gun to her head and Llewelyn immediately puts down the weapon he has in order to spare her life. The man ends ups murdering the girl and Llewelyn anyway but this scene would have been key to showing viewers that maybe the world isn’t going to hell in a hand basket as Bell suggests. Llewelyn acted altruistically by putting down his weapon, ready to sacrifice his life for that of the girl he barely knew; it is an altruism that Bell seems to think is all but gone in the world and a sacrifice Llewelyn wasn’t willing to make for Carla Jean when Chigurh proposed to spare her life for his. Llewelyn is somewhat redeemed here (at least in my mind) as he tries to set one last thing right and viewers aren’t able to get the full range of his character.
McCarthy, Cormac. No Country for Old Men. New York: Knopf, 2005. Print.
Spiraling Downward: America in Days of Heaven, In the Valley of Elah, and No Country for Old Men.
He Found a Bundle of Money and Now There’s Hell to Pay
A. O. Scott
New York Times
9 November 2007
Red Planet: The Sanguinary Sublime of Cormac McCarthy
The New Yorker
25 July 2005