By Mark Greenbaum | Press Play April 25, 2012 at 8:55AM
That No Country For Old Men (2007) constitutes one of Cormac McCarthy’s “lesser” works probably says more about McCarthy’s genius than it does about the book’s individual strengths or weaknesses. Nearly five years after its release, it stands beside great modern adaptations like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Silence of the Lambs. But the understated greatness of the movie, stemming as it does from the book, must be attributed to the Coen brothers as well, who were able to capture the heart of the book even after shedding some of its most key sections.
Cuts or no cuts, the Coens showed intense loyalty to McCarthy’s work in many ways. With the exception of about ten scenes, they retained every bit of the book in one form or another, with one broad exception: the larger story of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones). The way they altered Sheriff Bell’s dialogue and development is a sterling example of their skillful adaptation of the book, their tightening of McCarthy’s story for the screen.
McCarthy structures the book so that Bell provides its backbone and, in fact, its title. While the movie was marketed around the charismatic characters, the resourceful Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and the chilling Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), Sheriff Bell remains not just the main character, but the very moral compass of the narrative. McCarthy shows Sheriff Bell’s disillusionment with the world around him through a series of thirteen internal monologues by Bell which open each chapter of the book. In these monologues, Bell details his unease with life and the pervasive criminal brutality he sees, as well as his back story of painful service in World War II and the dead daughter who haunts him. Bell’s ruminations are long-winded, heavily descriptive, and often dryly monotonous and repetitious; it would probably be fair to say that they make up the weakest collective part of the book, though they remain crucial to McCarthy’s story. Leaving Bell’s monologues out of the movie was likely one of the Coens’ easier decisions.
The Coens instead synthesized these segments, along with several of Bell’s other scenes, and any mention of his personal story, into three scenes which help the film retain the book’s core: Tommy Lee Jones’s outstanding scenes to open and close the film, and probably the movie’s most mysterious part, near the end, where Sheriff Bell “confronts” the killer Chigurh.
The Coens solved the problem of how to implement these sections by whittling them down to their bare essence in the opening. There, Sheriff Bell delivers a short monologue as he discusses his family’s law enforcement lineage, his distress with the crime by a boy he sent to the electric chair, and the larger growing violence of the age. Constructed with parts of the book’s first, third and fourth chapters and delivered in Tommy Lee Jones’s gravelly, craggy voice as the film pans over the colorful, empty expanse of West Texas, the two minute opening is exquisite, to be watched over and over, and may be the film’s finest sequence.
We hear Sheriff Bell’s winsome, homey, nostalgia become an anxious description of the criminal violence he’s seen, melting into an open, dark despair of the coming storm – embodied seconds later when we see Chigurh viciously strangle a sheriff’s deputy and then shoot down a motorist like cattle. The film’s ability to effect that difficult transition from McCarthy’s complex prose to the screen while fully retaining the book’s moral direction is a crucial reason for the film’s massive success.
One generally overlooked change the Coens made elsewhere, near the end of the film, further helped streamline the story. The scene is also fairly mysterious and has vexed many audiences precisely because of how the Coens used it to unpack McCarthy’s text. More than just about any other scene from the book they retained, the Coens altered this scene significantly, and they did this for a central purpose. They created a more dramatic sequence, yes, but used the scene and Sheriff Bell’s’s imagination to further distill the direction of the cut monologues and show Bell’s breakdown from stalwart veteran sheriff into a conflicted lawman.
The book and the film depict the same basic event in two very different ways, ultimately making the events themselves different. McCarthy’s telling of the scene provides guidance here. After Moss is killed, Sheriff Bell goes back to investigate Moss’s deserted motel room late at night. In the book, Bell approaches and enters the motel room as Chigurh watches him from his truck, driving off before the sheriff can find him. The Coens implemented another sequence.
In the film, Sheriff Bell sits in his cruiser, staring at the police tape and breathing uneasily, before getting out. The camera follows him on each heavy step to the turquoise door. When Bell creeps up and sees the lock popped out—Chigurh’s calling card of entrance to a closed space via his ever-present cattle gun—he hesitates several times before holstering his gun.
A moment before he does enter, we see Chigurh with his frightening silenced shotgun held tight against his chest, the golden light of the disemboweled lock shaft shining just to his left, the clear intimation being that he is hiding in Moss’s room. A moment after this cutaway, Sheriff Bell pushes open the door, his dark shadow and lowered gun in silhouette against the ugly room. As the audience gasps for his safety, he moves around the room, then, finding no one, he settles on the bed and relaxes before seeing the cover of the vent on the floor, next to several screws and a discarded dime—a tell-tale sign that Chigurh took the case of money out of Moss’s standard hiding place after the police left the crime scene.
This scene begs, where was Chigurh and why didn’t he kill Bell? The answer holds significant implications for the Coens’ adaption. Based on how we see Chigurh, he appears to be standing, and with light clearly on him, but when Bell enters, Chigurh is neither by the window nor possibly in the open, narrow vent. That leaves one possible hiding space: the door. Here the Coens tease the audience. When Bell pushes open the door, we can’t see completely behind it, making it just possible that something—or someone—could be there.
Chigurh may be there behind the door, waiting with his beer can-sized silencer, as the Coens’ clever hint never provides confirmation, but really they don’t have to. From a purely technical standpoint, it’s unlikely that the large killer, holding both his shotgun and the bulky briefcase full of two million dollars could ever fit. Some watchers have stretched to postulate that Chigurh is in the adjacent room. These views miss the point, based on what the Coens are trying to do with this scene, behind their sleight of hand.
In the book, Bell approaches and enters the room as Chigurh watches him from his truck, driving off before the sheriff can find him. While we are led to believe that Chigurh is there, he is also used here as a product of Bell’s imagination, a creature growing out of his fears and revealing of his broader dread, established by the intro and negatively developed. Throughout the course of the movie, Bell has seen Chigurh’s heinous violence as he has murdered people in the coldest blood imaginable. Bell even refers to Chigurh as a ghost right before he goes back to the motel. But while Bell says "it's not that I'm afraid of" the crimes he sees in the opening, he clearly is afraid by the end. This change, developed by McCarthy through his thirteen monologues, is reduced by the Coens to their opening and this scene, where we see Bell relieved that Chigurh isn’t in the room, simultaneously realizing he can no longer serve. The scene leads into Sheriff Bell’s visit to his disabled Uncle Ellis (Barry Corbin), where we learn Bell’s plans to retire.
The final scene, in which Bell reveals two disturbing dreams about his father—and his failure to live up to his legacy—and expresses fear about what is to come, is developed from McCarthy’s thirteenth and final monologue and is as poignant as the first scene is captivating. Interestingly, in an early version of the screenplay, the Coens intended the end of this scene to be given as a voiceover delivered around images of a snowy mountain pass, in much the same way as the beginning was done. Thankfully, they changed their minds, ultimately keeping the camera directly on Bell. For it is better to see the despair on his haggard face than just to hear it. As he speaks, he is clearly affected and upset by his dreams, and at no point in the film has he looked weaker or more vulnerable than when he finishes and looks to his speechless wife for validation.
Adapting any book, particularly a rich, nuanced one, to screen is an immensely difficult balancing act; the director and screenwriter must create a watchable two-hour product but also can’t cut too much, so as not to risk sacrificing the book’s moral spirit. The Coens perform that balancing act brilliantly, for at that final frame, Tommy Lee Jones captures the soul of McCarthy’s foreboding book and wraps up the Coens’ perfect adaptation.
Mark Greenbaum's work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, The LA Times, The New Republic, and other publications.