Thoughts and memories of film adaptations and the novels that inspired them.
Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones, sits at a table in a diner. He’s just heard reports of a roadside shooting with no evident bullet and offers an idle thought to his partner. He describes the gas-powered studs that are driven into the brains of cattle to provide a quick and clean death. He hasn’t seen the murderer at work — he doesn’t possess this extremely specific bit of physical experience — and the threads remain unconnected. He finishes his coffee and dons his hat. They say retrospect is 20/20.
I would follow Joel and Ethan Coen anywhere. This was an established fact long before I saw No Country For Old Men. In my early 20s, as a snobby, JB Hi-Fi employee and recently-graduated film-student, they introduced me to my favourite actors (John Goodman, Frances McDormand, John Turturro) and established a level of trust through films like Fargo, Millers Crossing and Barton Fink to the extent that even those like Intolerable Cruelty, True Grit and The Ladykillers are forgiven (but not forgotten). The Coen brothers also introduced me to one of my favourite authors, and another artist I would now follow anywhere: Cormac McCarthy.
I was all about those literary investigations of ‘maleness’ and ‘masculinity’ through my early 20s. Tarantino, Easton Ellis, Thompson, Palahniuk. The intersecting lines of violence and drugs, apathy and unguided anger that both constructs a ‘man’ but also undermines him is well-trod territory for me. The Coens fit into this canon, undoubtedly, but with the passage of time and changing contexts, I can see they are different. The Coens have always (and still do — go see Inside Llewyn Davis immediately, please) approached these aspects of masculinity in a more holistic way, and with less preoccupation about appearing masculine themselves. A good example of the contrast between No Country and those other texts I was devouring in the mid-to-late 2000s is the way the ‘woman’ intersects with this violent idea of man.
In Pulp Fiction, Mia Wallace is a badass character, but she functions as an unattainable object of desire. While I can’t even remember the main woman’s name in Less Than Zero, I do remember the way she simply inspired jealousy and anxiety in the male protagonist. These characters show us how ‘the man’ in this context interacts with women, but women aren’t complicit in the action of the story. In No Country Carla Jean Moss doesn’t simply exist like that, as a machine of femininity. She’s not merely a literary device. She and Llewellyn have already built a life together, and we enter the story in the middle of theirs.
From the very beginning of No Country the concept of our choices and where they take us is a central theme. Llewellyn makes one choice to steal the drug money, then later, to go check on the dying man in the truck, which sets him off on his doomed trajectory. Sheriff Bell sums it up from his perspective, the very choice of choosing his own position and reasoning as to his imminent retirement; “A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say ‘OK. I’ll be a part of this world.'” Carla plays a much smaller part in the story, however she is constantly there to question Llewellyn’s decisions and his motives — reminding him, and us, that this isn’t ‘happening to him,’ he’s choosing a path.
One thing Carla has over Sheriff Bell in this story, is that she actually gets to be ‘a part of that world,’ when she comes into contact with Chigurh. As his final victim, she shakes the foundations of his fatalist viewpoint, the fundamental reason we’ve found him so scary. “The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you,’ she tells him. The Coen brothers may discount a woman’s screen time with their focus on ‘the masculine’, but I think No Country is a good example of how they don’t discount any of their characters’ significance.
I threw myself at McCarthy after seeing the film, starting with Blood Meridian.For some reason, I was avoiding the No Country novel, unaware of how simple its transition to screen really was. I’ll admit, when I did finally read, all my private visualizations came from the film, but even reflecting on that now, it makes sense. Everything about the film and source material are so harmonious. Even the Coens’ previous work speaks to No Country. I’ve often found myself drawing lines between Frances McDormand’s Chief Gunderson (Fargo), on the verge of giving birth and Tommy Lee Jones’s edge-of-retirement Sheriff Bell. Still, I didn’t sit down and read the book until four years after seeing the movie. Certain things shift, are minimized or magnified in its transition to screen, but nothing seems truly lost. That’s because McCarthy’s writing, at least in this example, is not just visionary, but phonetic and auditory, and tactile down to the landscapes where the tale takes place.
If I watched the film as a kid who thought he knew everything, I definitely came to the novel as an adult who now understood he knew very little. After an overseas trip, and a number of intentionally tumultuous relationships, I decided to return to university to study my Masters in creative writing. Before I read No Country, I was learning about it in a genre class. It was described as a ‘western-noir,’ so when I picked it up I was surprised at how many threads I was able to connect to that literature I had digested in my formative years, as well as to what I wanted to write. Just like comparing the Coens to that cultural body, McCarthy was ‘the same but different.’ His oeuvre is undoubtedly focused on ‘the male,’ but again, he as an artist seems to remove himself from that. He is a stoic lens looking down upon the carnage.
And perhaps this is still where I am coming from in writing this column. All of that transgressive, male-focused literature is such a cliché to come through your formative years digesting. And that’s fine. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I still like all that stuff, but No Country was definitely instrumental in helping me to look upon it differently. Those things I once followed as readily as I now follow the Coen brothers and McCarthy, I’ve learned to take with a grain of salt. What’s significant, however, is the fact that I have been watching the Coens’ films for nearly ten years. Even now, instead of adjusting how I consume those films (that grain of salt I take with others), I notice new things within them, learn more from them. No Country kind of acts as the milemarker for that, as it’s something I came to in two different forms, and at two very different times in my life. At first its filmic reflection that sent me down a particular path. Then the original incarnation, when I was truly ready to move forward in my own life. Writing this, I can’t stop thinking of Sheriff Bell in the Moss’s trailer, sitting in the same seat as Chigurh, missing each other by a matter of minutes. Drinking from the same milk bottle, staring at his reflection in the same TV.