Friday, January 28, 2011

Cormac McCarthy: No Country For Old Men

It is rather dubious to write something about you've read a month ago, right? But I'm still doing it. I read Cormac McCarthy's great novel No Country For Old Men during the Christmas holidays, but the book still lingers in my mind, so I thought I'd try to get away with it. (And I know, I know, this is a very bad and not very intriguing way to start a blog post...)

As everyone reading this blog knows, the Coen brothers' equally great movie was made from McCarthy's novel. I can't think of many other examples where the mastery of cinema is as evident as in this film. Every scene, every cut, every camera move is necessary. Nothing is wasted, nothing is there for vain.

Same goes for McCarthy's narration and prose style. It's very clipped, without the quotation marks and parentheses. It works miraculously well, even though it's very elliptical at times. (There's one scene in which I think I caught McCarthy for using unnecessary words and commenting what the person in the scene was doing as an omniscient narrator.) This is what "hardboiled" was invented to mean.

Yet, McCarthy is one the of the US Nobel prize candidates. He writes dirty, mean and lean books about criminals and what havoc they bring on the world. Why doesn't Elmore Leonard can't be the candidate for the Nobel as well?

I'm not saying that there are no hidden depths in Leonard's books, but in McCarthy there sure are. I remember talking with my dad about the Coens' film and he said he couldn't find anything to say about it, even though he thought the film was very well made. It's very easy to say that the film - and the book - are about the disappearing world in which people still respected each other. This is brought out by the sheriff's monologues throughout the book and the film. It's also easy to believe this is the view McCarthy himself has. But I don't believe this is correct. McCarthy asks us to look into our easy nostalgia and ask ourselves if things really were better in the past. There are not many hints into this theme, but - as a liberal European, of course - one of those things was that the sheriff talks against abortion. He thinks it's degrading, but to my mind it's a sign of useless clinging to the past.

You might want to compare what the sheriff is saying to the charismatic killer's speeches he keeps just before he kills his victims. He's eloquent and says beautiful things about how people waste their life. In fact he's not saying anything. It's just bubbles, something a salesman or a consult might say to a customer he's never met before. He lures us to think he's got something meaningful to say. The killer is just one of those self-help demagogues that fill the bookshops with an endless row of books about - nothing. In this way, he's a prophet of the coming times and as such even scarier than he is as a killer. (Even though Chigurh is one of the scariest motherfuckers in the pages of any book.)

In the end of the book, the sheriff sees a dream about his father, himself also a sheriff. In the dream, the father rides on a horse to shine a light to a distant darkness. It's not easy to see what McCarthy has in mind in this scene, but it probably has to do with this notion: whatever we do, we must not lose hope. Someone has to cast a light in the darkness that's also called life. It's just that we have to put our hope also in the hands of those whose values we don't share. The life is scary and we can't do anything about that.

PS. It's said that the Coens' film is very faithful to the book. Yet I couldn't find the scene from the film in which  Josh Brolin shoots a dog chasing him in the book. Can anyone confirm it's not in the book? 

PPS. I'm posting this on Friday, but this is not a part of the Friday's Forgotten Book series, hosted this week on this blog.


Todd Mason said...

I must admit, I post FFBs on books I've read years ago. I do try to refresh my recollection of them in those cases, though.

Juri said...

Yeah, but I didn't even take a look at the book in this case. Went by memory alone. :)

Anders E said...

Regarding the movie (I have not read the novel) I'm afraid I have to side with your dad here. Don't get me wrong - it's not a bad movie, in fact it's very good, but I just did not find it by far as brilliant as it generally has been made out to be. There is just something amiss, and I can't help thinking the movie is more craft than art.

Juri said...

Yeah, I can see where that's coming from and I actually couldnt' say anything to my dad to prove him wrong. I'd have to see the movie again to be sure if the hidden depths I'm claiming are in the original novel are also in the film.

Juri said...

My dad, though, is one of those men whom you just can't prove wrong. :)

Anders E said...

The point that Chigurh only talks in self-help platitudes really is interesting. It may be related to that notion of the banality of evil. About self-help mumbo-jumbo, you may already be aware of this:

Juri said...

Yup, that was something I was going to comment on, but forgot. It's strangely scary that all the people seem to go for Chigurh's talk, even though he doesn't really say anything. (Could one say the same thing about the sheriff and his ramblings?)

Anders E said...

May I set a new record for late comments? I just saw the movie on (recorded) TV again, and pardon me for saying this but I liked it less than the first time. First of all, it was rather boring. That's just gut reaction, but that was how I felt and it should count for something. Second, Chigurh is really a less than great character. The dorky hair was just a silly distraction - he was a charicature, more like a zombie than anything else. Give me Joe Don Baker in CHARLEY VARRICK or Al Lettieri in THE GETAWAY anyday. Chigurh was more like THE TERMINATOR, and that's not intended as a compliment. Finally, this felt like one of those quasi-profound movies like THE FIGHT CLUB where in reality there is just surface and nothing else. I felt cheated.