On the path to adapting any prose to the screen, two roads inevitably diverge. There is the devout way: adaptations extracted without modification from the pages of an author. Then there’s the reverse approach: making the film so interpretive, the original text is little more than a whiff of perfume in the air on set.
Connecting these two is Joel and Ethan Coen. There is no country for old peopleadapted from Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel of the same name. Rreleased on November 9, 2007, the film won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. This is an almost shot-for-shot recreation of the text, a dark western with typically McCartian themes of violence, aging and fate. But the film fundamentally expands what it looks like “by the book” – and 15 years after its release, it’s still a testament to adaptation as an art form in its own right.
A simple problem
Despite There is no country for old peopleThe indelible success of Coens and McCarthy initially made a marriage unlikely. Known for his stylized genre curiosities like Miller crossing, Raising Arizonaand Fargo, the Coens’ established aesthetic wasn’t exactly moody or brooding. They had also never adapted a book into a film before.
“It was a simple problem from our perspective,” Joel Coen said of the adaptation There is no country for old people for the screen in a conversation with Collider in 2007. “How do you turn that into a film?”
“It” would be the story of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a poor Texan living with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) in a trailer park. One afternoon, Moss comes across a pile of bodies and a crate of $2 million in cash. He takes the money and runs; soon enough, he has a ruthless killer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), hot on his trail.
Upon publication, McCarthy’s novel faced literary criticism critical read like a script. The Coens took advantage of this form, but never rested on their laurels. Instead, they immersed themselves in the similarities of their work to that of McCarthy – a reverence for the setting and hermetic possibilities of the elevated genre. Whether or not There is no country for old people is the best Coen Brothers movie (it might be), or Cormac McCarthy’s best book (it isn’t), it’s the best adaptation of McCarthy’s work.
well traveled country
The Coens had never adapted a screenplay when producer Scott Rudin brought them McCarthy’s book, but they already knew the way to a western. The beginnings of the brothers in 1984, single bloodfollows code similar to There is no country for old people. “What I know is Texas”, single bloodThe opening voiceover says “and here you are all alone.”
The line is a synopsis just to There is no country for old people, if not all of McCarthy’s work. Known for his sparse punctuation and dark lyricism, many of McCarthy’s works have been adapted for the screen with varying effects. There is the good (The road), the bad (The counselor, a screenplay written by McCarthy but not based on a novel), and the ugly (All the pretty horses, cut in pieces by Harvey Weinstein.)
Notoriously absent from the list is blood meridian, a 1985 epic widely considered McCarthy’s masterpiece. As There is no country for old people, blood meridian struggling with mortality and morality in the American West. Countless master directors, including Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese, have tried unsuccessfully to put the story on film.
As The audiovisual club‘s Todd Gilchrist noted in Email magazine in 2019, blood meridian illustrates the difficulty of adapting McCarthy “without neutralizing the author’s work or producing a film defined by relentless misanthropic cruelty, both physical and philosophical”. The same problem encountered There is no country for old people-how could a story devoid of light still shine on the screen?
The key for There is no country for old peopleThe macabre shimmer of is its main cast. Despite the tonal differences, McCarthy’s vernacular fits perfectly with the Coen brothers’ taste for the joke. The similarity eases the transition from text to screen, but without heavy performances, the Coens risked flattening McCarthy’s ambiguously drawn characters.
That never became an issue with Brolin, Bardem, and Tommy Lee Jones portraying the Three Horsemen leading McCarthy’s apocalypse. Ed Tom Bell (Jones), the sheriff assigned to Moss’ case, serves as the narrator and ambivalent voice of reason. In the book, each chapter is preceded by Ed Tom’s reflections on life, death, and upholding the law; the film limits its philosophy to the beginning and the end is unconventional (and faithful to the text). But Jones, grizzled and deadpan as always, brings enough calm undertones to Ed Tom that any further conversation seems out of place.
The same goes for Llewelyn – although an entire reflection sequence alongside a young woman on the run in the book is cut, there doesn’t seem to be anything missing with Brolin at the wheel. On film, Llewelyn’s introspection lives in fixed moments, belly-up on a desert ridge or holding her breath in a dark motel room. (A Heartbeat Barely There, by composer Carter Burwell whispering score only lasts 16 minutes.)
The limited attention McCarthy tends to give to the female characters doesn’t slow the film down, mostly thanks to a subdued but provocative performance from Kelly MacDonald as Carla Jean. In the book, Carla Jean is just a consequence of the men around her – MacDonald reveals a more cerebral side to the character. (A masterfully tense scene between Carla Jean and Chigurh is a highlight of the film.)
But the most unforgettable acting job here is Javier Bardem’s turn as Chigurh. The role won Bardem an Oscar and was also named the most realistic portrayal of a psychopath by the Journal of Forensic Science. Sporting an absolutely infeasible haircut (per Bardem’s own account) and swinging a cattle stun gun, Chigurh is death made manifest: watch, wait, and toss a coin.
Often the biggest loss in adapting a great novel is the flattening of a truly singular character. This is the horror movie paradox: This just isn’t as scary once you’ve seen, well, “that”. The genius of Bardem’s performance lies in his masterful ability to remain completely unreadable. Chigurh is specific but indescribable, carrying ambiguous intentions but a morality with terrifying principles. McCarthy’s villain is memorable, but Bardem makes the Coens’ Chighurh unforgettable.
A testimony of craftsmanship
As different as they are, a penchant for the unknowable unites McCarthy and the Coens. As Tommy Lee Jones said Uncut in 2008, “I believe an assumption of Cormac, Ethan, and Joel, and certainly me, is that the best questions are more important than anyone’s wide variety of answers.”
The Coens are more than adept enough to leave these questions unanswered. As The New York Times‘ AO Scott wrote in his exam, There is no country for old people is a “pure paradise” for formalists who revere the technical art of cinema.
Creating heaven in the hell of West Texas required a small, skilled team with a light touch. Editor Roderick Jaynes is a longtime pseudonym of the Coens, and sound editor Skip Lievsay had worked with the brothers for single blood. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is also at the height of his power here – in his hands, the Southwest is a vast universe as well as a claustrophobic prison. The Coens complete the picture, so at the stage where Bardem once described them as “the same two-headed man.”
Although the Coens went on to successfully adapt other Westerns, notably that of Charles Portis The real courage-There is no country for old people remains their largest craft exhibition. But the film is probably most instructive in the way their style clashes with McCarthy’s prose – its beat-up themes crash into the Coens’ eccentric idiosyncrasies. What remains is a cinematic Grand Canyon, sublimely realized and worth traversing – a pinnacle of modern American cinema forged from the prose of one of America’s greatest living writers. From McCarthy’s skillful and artful thriller, the Coens have created an essential myth.