No Country For Old Men – Book and Film review/comparison

Cormac McCarthy’s bleak modern western shines as a mediation on the modern world in print and serves as a well-built thriller on-screen.

Note: Though there is a comparative element to this article I understand that the novel and the film are different works trying to say different things and that direct comparison with a negative outcome is rarely a meaningful way of critically looking at books or movies, so I hope this doesn’t just say ‘Well the book is obviously better than the film”.

Over the last week or so I have re-read Cormac McCarthy’s excellently bleak 2005 novel, No Country For Old Men, and, having completed it, I decided to re-watch the movie too and see how the two set with each other.

The first time I encountered the story was, like many did I’m sure, via the 2007 film made by the Cohen Brothers and following enjoying that very much I picked up the book and enjoyed that too – however at this point I would have to say I was more of a fan of the movie.

Four or so years later it struck me to re-read the book and that led to re-watching the movie and I have to say this time round the book stands head and shoulders above the movie, so I guess this is the starting point for this review/comparison of the two.

Having encountered a little more of McCarthy’s work since my first reading (specifically, The Road, which I would rate as the best book I’ve ever read), I think my understanding of where McCarthy is coming from is better now than it maybe once was.

And, what I’ve come to understand is that McCarthy takes a pretty darned bleak outlook on things.

What stood out to me in the book was how everything was held together by the protagonist, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, and his outlook on the world and the case at hand through the almost diary like entries which started each section of the book.

I think it is having him as the central linchpin that really makes the story work as though Moss and Chigurgh provide the action element of the story, it is Bell’s laconic take on events that really gives it the soul and makes sense of the title.

That said Moss and Chigurgh are both compelling characters in their right, with the “ghost”-like killer Chigurgh cutting a smooth swathe through the tale with his cattle-gun or silenced shotgun and Moss constantly on the run and making bad decision after bad decision.

This is another thing that stands out about the book, aside from the Sheriff there aren’t really any good guys in the book – ok so Moss isn’t a ‘bad guy’ as such, but he is on the run from both the law and a hitman because he steals a case full of cash (that old Maguffin) and Chigurgh is certainly the ‘bad guy’, but none of the other characters, even Carla-Jean, felt that sympathetic to me.

This lack of characters to sympathise with I think is part of the point that McCarthy is making as the only character we sympathise with is Bell and his struggle through this shit-storm that’s been kicked up in his county thanks to the modern world issues of drug dealing.

The film on the other hand takes a slightly different approach, and I think this is where it falls down for me now (although I still regard it as a well told noir-ish thriller, and certainly a good movie).

From the start the film focuses on making Josh Brolin’s Moss protagonist and dispenses with much of the Sheriff’s overview element.

It goes on to pit Moss against Javier Bardem’s brilliantly creepy and unhinged Chigurgh (an outstandingly blank and dark performance) in a relatively straight forward chase with Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) relegated to the sidelines a step or two behind and never seeming to be that enthralled, like he is in the book.

As the Cohen Brothers tale continues this does begin to change and Bell becomes more central, but never to the extent he is in the book, and with the pace having to be kept up in a very different way on film to in print there are elements that really add to the story in the book which simply are left out of the film.

While this is understandable and a straight comparison of book and film rarely proves anything it does seem to lose something of the heart of what McCarthy was writing and leave for an ultimately much less satisfying narrative and meaning to the film.

That said I would strongly recommend both the book and film to anyone, but it should be appreciated that both sit in a slightly different place in terms of how they use the central narrative and what they attempt to do with it.

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