No Country For Old Men
I’m the farthest thing from a Cormac McCarthy fan you could ever find, except possibly for my friend Spider Robinson. I hated, hated, hated The Road. I don’t know how I finished it. That hatred was a pale thing compared to my reaction to Blood Meridian. I only managed about 70 pages before throwing it across the room. I would have burned it, but it was a library book. I thought about burning it anyway (and paying for it, of course), just to save some poor soul from picking it up by accident, like syphilis. That the man is so widely honored is a continuing wonder to me. I don’t know another writer whose work makes me want to either slit my wrists in despair, or grab a machine gun and go out and just start shooting it into a crowd because of the sheer vileness of the human race.
However, he did write one good book, and that’s this one. It’s a good story, skillfully told, and has some decent people in it. All is not despair, though, of course, it’s a long way from cheerful. That’s not a problem; I read a lot of books that explore the uglier sides of life. This one does, and there seems little hope, but at least there is the country sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones, totally superb in the role) who, though dumbfounded by the new levels of violence he sees around him, still does his best against the rising tides of anarchy and despair.
There will be some SPOILERS here.
This book might have been written with the Coens in mind. As in so many of their movies, nothing goes as planned, and the plot doesn’t unfold as expected. I’ll quote once more from Detective Loren Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) in Blood Simple:
“Now I don’t care if you’re the pope of Rome, President of the United States or Man of the Year; somethin’ can all go wrong.”
Those were the very first words spoken in the very first Coen Brothers movie, and they could serve as the theme of most of the ones that followed. Here a man (Josh Brolin) comes upon a drug deal gone bad in the West Texas plains. Dead men and dogs and weapons all over the place. A pickup full of heroin. A briefcase full of money. He can’t resist. Takes the money back to his double-wide and his mousy wife (Kelly McDonald, and who would guess she’s really a wee Scottish lassie?). But one man had been still alive, and had pleaded for agua, which Josh didn’t have. He can’t sleep, goes back with a gallon of water … and is ambushed by people looking for the loot. He barely escapes. The irony is that, had it not been for his humanitarian impulse, he probably could have gotten away clean. Still, you never know. Something can all go wrong …
The story is remarkable in that the three main characters—sheriff, thief, and hired killer—hardly ever meet. The killer relentlessly tracks the thief, and they shoot at each other, but that’s as close as they get. And the thief, who we are rooting for, or at least I was, dies … off-screen! This hardly ever happens in a movie. I’d say never, but someone would probably come up with another instance. In a brilliant scene, the sheriff hears a lot of gunfire as he approaches the motel where he expects to find Brolin, sees gunmen fleeing in a truck, and comes upon the aftermath of a big gun battle. A dead woman by the pool, a badly hurt man crawling away, and Brolin, shot to pieces. Like the night-time car crash in Fargo, any other director would have made a big deal of this scene, showing every bullet hit in loving detail. This is so much more effective.
Some have said that Tommy Lee Jones is the center of this movie, but I think it is the killer, Anton Chigurh—called “Sugar” by most of the cast in the fascinating DVD extras—played by Javier Bardem. (He won the Supporting Actor Oscar.) He has been compared to Hannibal Lecter, but I think he’s better. I never believed in a man like Lecter. He’s fun in the movies, but no way, no way. Sugar is real, a psychopath with a twisted set of rules, a man who seems indifferent to pain, and not conversant with anything we would think of as humanity. He is so chilling he could give you nightmares, with his sleepy eyes, his weird haircut, his low, emotionless voice. He smiles once, and it’s a frightening thing to see. It’s a real accomplishment for Bardem. Anybody else and you would expect a sequel, like that awful Hannibal book and movie. After all, he’s still alive at the end.
And we never know what happened. We don’t see Sugar kill Brolin’s wife, though we’re sure he’s done it. The sheriff doesn’t get his man. He retires, fed up with it all. The thief doesn’t get away with it. Woody Harrelson shows up as the cocky bounty hunter only long enough to get blown away. Good does not triumph, but neither does evil. I wasn’t even clear on who got the money, but it wasn’t Chigurh. Little is resolved, there is no neat little package all tied up. It’s sort of like … well, like real life.