Rescripting the Western in 'No Country for Old Men'

by Sergio Rizzo

13 January 2011

Cormac and the Coens 

The Coens add scenes and rewrite characters...

Besides selectively omitting material, the other line of revision the brothers take involves adding scenes and rewriting characters. The reader’s response to the novel’s main female characters, the older Loretta and the younger Carla Jean, is shaped by the implicit comparison of the two as the wives of the two male protagonists, Bell and Moss. In the novel’s comparison of the two, Carla Jean’s character is far beneath Loretta’s, or at least Sheriff Bell’s sentimental idealization of his wife’s character. The Coens, in contrast, do away with this comparative structure by greatly reducing, in one sense, Loretta’s role and simultaneously removing her from her husband’s pedestal. In the film, Loretta (Tess Harper) appears briefly, and she comes across not as a saint but as an independent and supportive spouse. One scene illustrating Loretta’s supportive independence occurs when Bell takes her horse to investigate the crime scene. The exchange between Harper and Jones is played with such tender humor they perfectly capture the way older couples transform the routines of married life into something intimate and meaningful. After telling her husband to be careful Loretta adds, “Don’t hurt no one,” to which Bell laughs and says with mild sarcasm, “If you say so.”  Keeping in mind Carla Jean’s departure from Moss discussed earlier, one can appreciate the full extent of the Coens’ revision. Freeing Carla Jean’s character from voicing the ethical anxieties of the Western’s marginalized women, and thus helping to humanize her character, they deflate and transform those ethical anxieties by inserting them into the Bells’ domestic routine of concern and affection.

Loretta’s character also has a small but crucial moment at the end of the film. Here again the Bells’ domestic life recontextualizes the gendered anxieties of the novel. The novel’s final chapter is Bell’s last italicized monologue, and it is entirely concerned with fathers and sons. In the land’s long history of violent and abusive men, Bell discovers the “promise” contained in a stone trough carved hundreds of years ago by some unknown person—the unquestioned assumption is that the work has been done by a man. From there he goes on to consider his own father and recognizes that as a son he owes his father “more than [he] would of thought”. The third and final image is of two dreams about him and his father, the last one of which extends the promise of the paternal past into the future: “And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up”. Bell’s two dreams are all that remains in the film’s final scene. More significantly, the film’s ending embeds these dreams within a dialogue with his wife that is preoccupied with the domestic comedy of the husband’s retirement. Sitting at the kitchen table, Bell looks to Loretta to give him something to do, a role she repeatedly rejects. Taking mercy on him, she asks, “How’d ya sleep?” After some coyness that is rebuked by Loretta, Bell begins to tell her his dreams about his father. The shot-reverse-shot series between the two of them continues as Loretta silently listens. After Bell’s final words, “And then I woke up,” there is one more cut to Loretta’s face, a cut back to Bell, and finally an abrupt cut to a black screen with a ticking clock on the soundtrack. Whereas the end of the novel asks the reader to identify with its male speaker, in italicized isolation from the other characters, the end of the film encourages the viewer to identify, right up until the black screen, with its female listener. However, as the exchange between Bell and Loretta makes clear, this position of feminine listening is far from passive. While silent, she manages to be both supportive and critical.
With Loretta’s character no longer idealized and given a lesser role, in terms of total screen time, Carla Jean Moss (Kelly McDonald) becomes the most prominent female character in the story. For viewers who have not the read the novel, the film’s Carla Jean may not look like much, but compared to her character in the novel she is a vast improvement.  While the general tenor of her relationship with her husband stays the same, there are some noteworthy changes. In the movie version of the couple’s departure on the bus, Llewelyn tells Carla Jean not to worry about what her mother says because she ought to be used to her mother cursing him. To which she replies, “I’m used to a lot of things. I work at WalMart,” displaying a degree of wit and understanding about her situation absent from the novel. Furthermore, in the movie version, her parting words to her husband are not a warning about hurting anyone. Instead, she asks Llewelyn if he really intends on coming back, a much more likely concern for a young married woman in her situation.

The biggest changes the Coens make to elevate her character are in the way they rewrite her and her husband’s deaths. In the novel, Moss is redeemed by his heroic efforts while Carla Jean dies with little or no redemption. In the Coens’ revision, Moss’s death does little to redeem him. If anything, it does just the opposite. Prior to his death at the Desert Sands Motor Hotel, the Coens add a scene where he flirts with a woman sunbathing by the pool. Unlike the novel’s long digression with Moss and the hitchhiker, in Moss’s flirtation with the woman by the pool the viewer isn’t sure where it will lead. The next scenes are shot from Sheriff Bell’s perspective as he drives up to the motel moments after Moss has been killed. The viewer does not see Moss’s death, but the body of the woman floating in the pool, a wounded gunman crawling in the parking lot, and the sound of someone wailing as Bell looks at Moss gunned down in the doorway of his motel room leave the viewer with the sense that nothing even remotely heroic has occurred.

In the Coens’ revision of Carla Jean’s death, however, her character does seem heroic. Some of this has to do with what the Coens leave out. In the novel, for example, when learning that Chigurh gave her husband his word that he would kill her, she says, “You dont owe nothing to dead people”. The statement represents a larger generational or national myopia that McCarthy is critiquing, but it also makes Carla Jean look surprisingly indifferent to her recently deceased husband. Or, when the novel’s Chigurh tells her, “There’s a reason for everything,” she replies, “How many times I’ve said them very words. I won’t again,” making her look trite and foolish. In addition, she grasps ineffectually at religion, calling Chigurh a “blasphemer”, and when he offers her a chance to save her life with a coin toss, she hesitates saying, “God would not want me to do that”. Nevertheless, she calls the coin after Chigurh tells her, “You should try to save yourself”, emphasizing her hypocrisy and self-centered sense of salvation.

In contrast, in the movie version when Chigurh tells Carla Jean that her husband had the opportunity to save her, but instead chose to save himself, she rejects his characterization with, “It’s not like that. It’s not like you say.” When he offers her the coin toss, she says, “I know’d you was crazy when I saw you sitting there,” echoing a point that Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) made as he accepts the fact that Chigurh is going to kill him. She adds, “I know’d exactly what was in store for me.”  Unlike her character in the novel, the film’s Carla Jean accepts the consequences of her and her husband’s actions even if they are unfair or “crazy”. Consequently, she refuses to call the coin toss. When Chigurh insists, she replies, “The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.”  This assertion is not enough to save her life, but it does force the viewer to question Chigurh’s act as an agent of destiny. And, as Stacey Peebles maintains in her essay, “‘Hold Still’: Models of Masculinity in the Coens’ No Country for Old Men,” Carla Jean’s defiance may make her “the best ‘man’ of the movie”.

Calling No Country for Old Men a “mature film”, Nick James no longer sees the brothers as “smirking nerds” and claims that they can now be put “beside the likes of John Ford and Clint Eastwood”. While not entirely accurate, James’s referencing of revisionist Westerns uncovers an important aspect of the film’s politics. However, the film is a revisionist Western not in the way of filmmakers like Ford and Eastwood, but in the way that earlier films (including some by the Coens) have used contemporary or near-contemporary western locations to explore the “vanishing West” from a number of distinct perspectives, such as John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), Jonathan Wacks’ Powwow Highway (1989), John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996), and Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) to name a few. Like these other films, the Coens suggest in No Country for Old Men that the real problem with the vanishing West is that, in terms of its ideology, it is not vanishing fast enough.

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