No Country for Old Men: the film of the book

I read Cormac McCarthy’s book of the same name, a month or two back, saw the Coen Brothers film yesterday and watched the Newsnight critics half-dismiss it the same evening. There was some praise but, in the main, they felt it was over-hyped. One found the psychopath, Chigurh, robotic, a mechanical killer and the whole enterprise little more than a series of murders, strung together without any deeper meaning. One felt it represented a dark shadow passing over the US in 1980. The third yearned for some humour. They did agree that the dialogue was brilliantly terse.

How curious it all seemed: the literary village people and their tone-for-television views. Feeling somewhat resident of another planet, I was mesmerised by the film. It was essentially faithful to a book which is so spare it feels moulded out of the desert sand, desiccated by its sun and scarified by its wind. It is a relentless battle to oblivion between a fast disappearing morality and a modern world which has little imperative to show any compassion and where the basest human drives inhabit imaginations, leading to mayhem and death. The sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) and the psychopath (Javier Bardem) crisscross the savage landscape, playing a game of chess for the life of a local man (Josh Brolin), whose almost involuntary, mad act is stealing two million dollars from the death tableau of a shootout which has left nearly all the drug runners dead. The sheriff says tiredly that he has been ‘overmatched’ by the killer who employs an icy desire to live up to his promises of retribution towards anyone who blocks his path. Sometimes he spins a coin for their lives, sometimes he doesn’t. He is random and utterly out of a Jungian universal nightmare. He symbolises the crazed world of the gun lobby, Columbine, the deference to and celebration of killing that characterises so much US foreign policy (Vietnam, in the film, acts as a social conditioner, a raison d’etre for characters’ actions). He is a creature too insatiably insane to be called wicked.

All the while, the old ways with horses and neighbourliness is giving way to anonymity and machines, thoughtless, brutal acts and the lure of money and drugs. The resolution is merely a lull in the driving storm of destruction. We do not leave the cinema sated by justice, or think that things might turn out for the better.

It IS exceptionally funny in certain moments. It is full of menace. The dialogue is pure gristle.

Go and see it!

And then see the extraordinary Tommy Lee Jones again in The Valley of Elah. So much in store!

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