Rescripting the Western in ‘No Country for Old Men’

2007-11-09 (Limited release)

Winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay along with other awards, the Academy and the film critics were quick to acknowledge the success of Joel and Ethan Coen’s first adaptation of a literary work — Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men, a crime thriller set along the southwest Texas border with Mexico. However, while admiring the film’s superior acting, editing, cinematography and sound work, many critics ignored or minimized the extent to which the brothers’ script revised the venerated author’s novel. Observing that the book reads like a screenplay (which McCarthy has confirmed that it originally was) the common assumption was that the success of the film’s script rested on the filmmakers’ decision to let McCarthy’s story tell itself, “resisting manfully”, as Sight and Sound editor Nick James puts it, “the temptation to tinker” with the original. This assumption was supported by the good-humored rapport between the filmmakers and the author. On Oscar night, for example, McCarthy relates that Ethan Coen, after accepting the Academy Award for the screenplay, returned to his seat and told McCarthy, “Well, I didn’t do anything, but I’m keeping it.”

More than just humility, Ethan Coen’s self-effacing genuflection reflects deeply held beliefs about the derivative status of the screenwriter’s work when he or she adapts a “serious” work of literature. Elaborating on the process of adapting No Country for Old Men in an interview given at the film’s premier at Cannes, the Coens repeat the expected pieties: they stress their verbatim transcription of the novel’s dialogue, their gratitude to McCarthy for making their work easier, and they refer to the novel as, in the words of the French translator, “un trésor délicat”. However, in response to a question about their ability to remain faithful to the novel while making a film that is so clearly their own, Joel Coen makes a crucial distinction. He talks not about being faithful to McCarthy’s novel, but about being faithful to themselves and their original impulse to adapt the novel. It is the filmmakers’ ability to remain faithful to themselves and that impulse, not to McCarthy’s novel, that accounts for the film’s success. From this perspective, it becomes easier to appreciate how the film critiques the novel, providing an extensive overhaul of its conservative politics as well as its reliance on the conservative gender roles of the conventional Western.

In differing ways, McCarthy’s novel and the Coen brothers’ film respond to a United States that began the 21st century as “Bush country”. McCarthy’s book, although originally written some years earlier as a screenplay that received little interest at the time, was rewritten as a novel and was published in 2005. This was one year before the Congressional midterm elections, wherein tremendous voter dissatisfaction with the Bush administration and the war in Iraq succeeded in giving the Democrats control of Congress, assuring Bush of a lame duck presidency and initiating what many had hoped would be an end to the war. Even more relevant to the novel’s publication date, though, may have been the deteriorating situation in Iraq the year before. By 2004, if not earlier, the news coming out of that country would be enough to suggest to any thinking person, let alone someone of McCarthy’s avid intellect, that the U.S. might have gotten itself into another Vietnam — a war to which No Country for Old Men makes repeated reference.

Many critics assume the novel’s conservative protagonist Sheriff Bell is expressing McCarthy’s own political views. One of the least cautious of these, William Deresiewicz of The Nation, asserts that Bell is “clearly McCarthy’s mouthpiece” and that the story’s “single-minded effort to pile up the body count” results in little more than an excuse for “rubbing our tender little modern liberal noses in death’s horror”. McCarthy scholar David Cremean uses Deresiewicz’s hasty and defensive review to argue against the notion that Bell’s conservative politics could be a reflection of McCarthy’s own. However, in his efforts to distance McCarthy from Bell, Cremean makes the same error as Deresiewicz, only in reverse. He uses the author’s fiction to argue that McCarthy’s personal politics must be something more than “stereotypical conservatism”. Of course, the work of a complex writer should not be reduced to his or her political identification, whether it is, for example, the royalist politics of T.S. Eliot or the socialism of Upton Sinclair. On the other hand, a “judicious use of biocritism”, as Cremean terms his approach, should not ignore or try to explain away what the public record has to offer.

Although lately McCarthy has been more forthcoming — even going on The Oprah Winfrey Show after the talk show host selected his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road for her influential book club — his refusal to give interviews and avoidance of the literary social world are a legendary part of what his earliest interviewer, Robert B. Woodward, terms a “masculine mystique”. Ironically, the author’s decision to let his work do the talking gives an outsized importance to the few allusive comments he makes. Unlike Sheriff Bell, McCarthy does not opine on abortion or other hot button issues of the day. Furthermore, Woodward applies the label of conservative to McCarthy with intriguing qualifiers, describing him as a “radical conservative” or “no typical reactionary”, and in Woodward’s second interview he is referred to as “a quiet 72-year-old-Southern conservative”.

Despite these difficulties in piecing together a sense of McCarthy’s politics, in his interviews one can easily find evidence of the “stereotypical conservatism” that Cremean denies. One example comes at the end of McCarthy’s second interview with Woodward when he laments the “easygoing New Age enclave” that Santa Fe, New Mexico has become. In particular, he is bothered by “the people who have gathered [there] from the coasts” and because of whom he contemplates returning to Texas. “If you don’t agree with them politically,” McCarthy complains, “you can’t just agree to disagree — they think you’re crazy.” For a writer who has made a career explaining that life entails bloodshed, this is a rather anemic approach to politics and political dialogue — although it may accurately reflect the polarizing effect of the country’s present red-state/blue-state divide. If someone has an opinion different than your own, just agree to disagree, and if that doesn’t work, move to a state where others with a different opinion can’t bother you.

Another problematic aspect to McCarthy’s personal politics appears in a Rolling Stone profile of the writer and his association with the Santa Fe Institute. In describing McCarthy’s rigorous abstinence from the trappings of literary success, the profile reveals he “has never voted” and then gives in parentheses, as if in explanation, McCarthy’s comment that “poets shouldn’t vote”. Cremean at least acknowledges this comment, but only in a footnote where he dismisses it as “a humorous allusion” to Plato’s The Republic. Others might find McCarthy’s arty aversion to voting less than humorous, even harmful. One does not need to be a recipient, as McCarthy was, of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant” to figure out how not voting amounts to voting for the status quo. Rather than succumb to the self-deluding idealism of participatory democracy — while enjoying many of its benefits — McCarthy seems to prefer the cold comfort of science that the Sante Fe Institute provides, where he can ruminate upon apocalyptic scenarios caused by things like the Yellowstone Caldera erupting or massive asteroids striking the Earth. However, for some, contemplating human life from the other side of extinction would make the exercise of voting even more necessary, not less.

Although Cremean cites the Rolling Stone profile, he overlooks parts of it that are pertinent to his discussion of McCarthy’s conservatism and No Country for Old Men. For example, David Kushner directly connects the fictional Sheriff Bell’s conservative anxiety over “bad manners” with McCarthy’s personal “code of civility”. Nor does Cremean mention the comment Kushner uses to illustrate McCarthy’s resignation to “the fact that bad manners and violence are here to stay”:

‘There are a lot of people out there — a lot who grew up in the Sixties and are still flower children — who imagine you can just get people to stop being violent… They pretend that the world they live in is that world, but it’s not. The world’s not like the world they want to live in, and probably never will be.’

From my (admittedly liberal) perspective, it is hard to understand how anyone could single out the “flower children” as the main obstacle to dealing with the realities of a violent world. A far greater threat is those well-groomed “realists” from the ’60s — such as Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld — who gave us the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A debatable point, perhaps, but what seems less debatable is that McCarthy sounds here very much like Sheriff Bell in his role as a “provincial conservative”. Given the public record, I agree with Walter Kirn of The New York Times who says that while Bell’s “red-state sentiments… may or may not represent the author’s feelings” one gets the impression that they “probably don’t violate them terribly.”

The novel’s commentary upon conservatism…

One place to begin a more comprehensive reading of the novel’s commentary upon conservatism would be to consider the setting not only in terms of its Southwestern region but also its temporal location. In an unforgettable scene between the novel’s villain, Anton Chigurh, and a hapless storeowner in a life-or-death coin toss, the year is revealed to be 1980, thereby situating the story at the beginning of a decade that is defined by the Reagan presidency (1981-1989) with its nostalgic evocation of the Old West. In No Country for Old Men, however, the reality of the West at the beginning of the Reagan era has nothing nostalgic about it. People speed through the inhospitable landscape on desolate highways that connect a network of indistinguishable mobile home parks, shabby motels, gas stations, and diners. According to Bell’s italicized monologue, the land and its people are drowning in a sea of drugs, crime, and consumerism. Within an island of domestic space represented by Bell’s home (and to a lesser extent Moss’s) there is a brief respite from the ceaseless commerce that reduces community life to a perfunctory and fleeting exchange. The promise of the Old West built upon the dream of unfettered movement (“don’t fence me in”) and fantastic wealth (“hitting the jackpot”) has already gone bust at the dawn of Reagan-era America.

However, McCarthy’s critique of Reagan’s Old West founders due to the author’s inability to reconcile two distinct genres—the crime thriller and the Western. One would think the melding of these two genres should be an easy process since, as Robert Warshow in his classic essay on Western film “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner” points out, “the two most successful creations of American movies are the gangster and the Westerner: men with guns”. In No Country for Old Men, McCarthy tries to take advantage of this similarity. Warshow further explains, however, that the two genres offer two contrasting ways of valuing the violence that is central to both. While the gangster’s law of survival is to do it first and do it often, for the Westerner, Warshow says, “it is a crucial point of honor not to ‘do it first’; his gun remains in his holster until the moment of combat”.

Llewelyn Moss — the protagonist who discovers a briefcase with two million dollars of drug money and is being tracked by both Chigurh and Bell — observes this rule twice: first when he gets the drop on Chigurh in his hotel room but decides not shoot him and receives a near fatal wound while running away; later one of the drug runners tracking him puts a gun to the head of a hitchhiker Moss has befriended and threatens to shoot her if he doesn’t lay down his gun. When Moss puts down his gun, the drug runner shoots and kills both the girl and Moss. The Western hero’s chivalric code gets Moss killed; however, it also redeems him. As in Greek tragedy, the reader learns of Moss’s death indirectly through a witness who tells a sheriff who in turn tells Bell what happened. The whole episode with the hitchhiker and Moss’s chaste brotherly concern for her — supposedly all the more admirable because she is “Kind of skankylookin” as the sheriff describes her — is a transparent device for recuperating whatever his character lost in unilaterally taking the money and putting the lives of his wife and others at risk. Similarly, when the sheriff relates how Moss died, the reader is reassured he died heroically. The sheriff tells Bell: “Accordin to this witness the old boy [Moss] fell down the steps and then picked up his gun again and shot the Mexican. Which I dont see how he done it. He was shot all to pieces”. Moss’s offstage Western heroism as he dies is meant to redeem his character flaws necessitated by the plot of the crime thriller.

Another formal problem with McCarthy’s attempt to combine the Western with a crime thriller has to do with their contrasting attitudes towards women. While not a feature of the crime thriller in general, the most distinctive woman of the genre is the noir’s femme fatale. In contrast to the femme fatale, the women in No Country for Old Men play the conventionally sentimental feminine roles of the Western. Carla Jean and Loretta, the respective wives of Moss and Bell, are an extension of the novel’s dual protagonist feature that McCarthy uses to critique masculinity in general and the masculine codes of the crime thriller in particular. However, whatever implicit or explicit criticisms the women make about their husbands or other “men with guns” they are made from the marginalized position of women within the conventional Western. “But the West,” as Warshow notes, “lacking the graces of civilization is the place ‘where men are men’; in Western movies, men have the deeper wisdom and the women are children”.

The childlike passivity of Moss’s wife is obvious. Her concerns and feeble complaints about what her husband does are part of the woman’s conventional role in the Western to voice the ethical questions and emotional anxieties that are raised by the hero’s actions but must be repressed by him if he is to succeed in a place “where men are men”. The last time Moss and Carla Jean see each other, they play out their respective Western gender roles. In parting, Carla Jean says, “Don’t hurt nobody. You hear?” To which Moss replies, “I aint making no promises… That’s how you get hurt.” Of course, despite his attempt to protect himself by “making no promises,” Moss winds up dead, thus undermining this masculine logic. Likewise, Carla Jean’s death at the hands of Chigurh breaks with the conventional Western’s happy ending vouchsafed for the woman who, despite her concerns, stands by her man. While the unfair death of Carla Jean raises some doubts about Moss’s masculine heroics, its main effect is to illustrate Chigurh’s “principled” ruthlessness. Moreover, Carla Jean’s interview and execution by Chigurh allows her no heroic stature — if any thing, as she sobs and cries for her mother, she looks even smaller and more pathetic — unlike what happens to her husband when he dies. While one could argue McCarthy revises the Western to the extent that the male hero has no “deeper wisdom” than his female counterpart, in the character of Carla Jean he nonetheless maintains her childlike status.

In “The Making of No Country for Old Men” which accompanies the DVD release of the movie, the Coen brothers and members of the cast refer to numerous genres to describe the movie: action, horror, comedy, crime story, Western, noir, etc. However, at one point, Joel Coen tries to nail the film down by saying, “It is a dark story and the book is quite dark and that’s the defining characteristic of it [the film].” While his comment acknowledges the novel as the source of the film’s noir feel, the film’s combination of the noir with other genres, in particular the Western, is much more successful than the novel’s. The film’s success depends on the brothers’ ability to rewrite the novel’s reliance on the gender roles of the conventional Western.

Writing for Film Quarterly, Joan Mellen aligns No Country for Old Men with two other films set in the “iconic Southwest”, Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah (2007). As different as these three films are, she rightly sees them as “significant contributions to the political discourse of these times”. However, in pointing out that both the novel and the film version of No Country for Old Men rely on references to Vietnam in order to comment on the present, she misses the extent and substance of the Coens’ revision. She argues that the Coens, “constrained by the exigencies of commercial cinema,” are forced to mention Vietnam “only twice,” whereas “McCarthy’s uncompromising novel references Vietnam a number of times”. While McCarthy’s novel does allude to Vietnam more frequently, Mellen does not stop to consider how or why. One of the novel’s references she cites and that the Coens omit is spoken by Deputy Wendell (“It must of sounded like Vietnam out here”) as he and Sheriff Bell survey the carnage of the drug dealers’ shootout in the arid back country. However, watching the movie, the viewer sees no apparent reason why the Coens couldn’t have left the deputy’s comment in the scene. Instead, Deputy Wendell’s (Garret Dillahunt) dialogue references the Old West twice. First when he and Bell are viewing the shootout from afar: “OK Corral’s just yonder”; and again in their reconstruction of what transpired: “I think we’re looking at more than one fracas. Execution here. Wild West over there”. The Coens’ decision to replace the novel’s reference to Vietnam in this scene with two references to the Old West must be based on something other than “the exigencies of commercial cinema”. Upon rereading the book with the movie in mind, the reader begins to sense how forced the reference to Vietnam in this scene is, as are some of the other references to it in the novel. Indeed, much like Bell’s insistent veneration of his wife, the novel’s repeated references to Vietnam seem to be part of some larger message or urge that that the novel itself cannot explain or resolve.

The culmination of the novel’s analogy between Vietnam and the drug wars ravaging the towns along the U.S./Mexico border occurs when Bell visits Moss’s father to tell him that his son has died. Moss’s father, like Bell, is a veteran of World War II, and the father’s somewhat unlikely response to the news of his son’s death is to reflect on the differences between World War II and Vietnam:

… But aside from that they’d all done things over there [Vietnam] that they’d just as soon left over there. We didn’t have nothin like that in the war [WWII]. Or very little of it. He [Moss] smacked the tar out of one or two of them hippies. Spittin on him. Callin him a babykiller. A lot of them boys that come back, they’re still havin problems. I thought it was because they didnt have the country behind em. But I think it might be worse than that even. The country they did have was in pieces. It still is. It wasn’t the hippies fault. It wasnt the fault of them boys that got sent over there neither.

Thankfully, the Coens left this scene out of the film. Framing the Vietnam war in terms of paternal absolution — a move that is preceded by Sheriff Bell’s confession about his role in World War II to Uncle Ellis — conservative and liberal readers alike are encouraged to “just agree to disagree” about the tragedy of the Vietnam war. Behind the novel’s explicit and implicit analogies between various wars (the Indian wars, World War II, Vietnam, the drug wars, and implicitly the Iraq war) lurks the grand theme of McCarthy’s fiction: “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed.” At his best, in work such as Blood Meridian, McCarthy uses this theme to stunning effect, ripping away the myths that hide the full extent of our national wounds. In No Country for Old Men, however, his use of this theme is less successful, resulting in a reductive and “deterministic mythmaking”, as the critic James Wood calls it in his review of the novel.

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.