“I just have this feelin’ we’re looking at something we really ain’t never even seen before.” – Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men
But, in one sense, it was never really about the novel. The germ of the Coen brothers‘ most acclaimed feature, which hit wide release ten years ago, could be could found over two decades before, in the grim chase of Blood Simple — the pair’s 1984 debut that also just-so-happened to center on a dance of death in the Texas badlands.
Most of the movies that the Coens made in between were comedies. Grim and pseudo-serious, for the Eurotrash IndieWire-reading set, but communicating, nonetheless, in the language of dorky accents and contrarian hipness expected of post-borscht belt comedy crowds. Their sudden move, then, to take on Cormac McCarthy’s ninth novel initially raised eyebrows.
It was a move thought strange by fans of their zany! idiosyncratic! wit, but it’s one that feels unremarkable now, after their conservative take on Charles Portis’ True Grit, which followed three years later and their past decade tangling with a middling Michael Chabon novel to no avail.
But if No Country for Old Men is remembered for revitalizing the flagging career of America’s sun-baked King James Bible (McCarthy would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize and an Oprah nod the same year the Coens picked up their Best Picture on No Country for Old Men), it also turned the Coens from comics into serious men, whose work had become suddenly important to study by aspiring serious directors who also wanted their seriousness awarded.
That the Coens suddenly chose to hit up McCarthy’s novel suggested that after a number of widely panned misfires — namely their for-hire work on Intolerable Cruelty and their remake of William Rose’s The Ladykillers — they desperately needed a new angle to channel their comic interest in the contemporary American mise en scène.
And compared to the byzantine Rube Goldberg machines of their ’90s work, No Country for Old Men seemed radically simple: a cat-and-mouse chase written in pristine, precise scenery. The critic James Woods, tackling the source material, called McCarthy’s novel a “stripped-down thriller” where “everything is tight, reduced, simple, and very violent.” A set of events that the Coens keenly boiled down into a sort of itchy formula. Doom predetermined and not at all sudden (as in The Big Lebowski or Fargo) and told on a small scale but filmed epically.
The Coens, who had been most celebrated, at that point, as witty screenwriters, utilized some of the best work of Roger Deakins’ storied career and creating a soundscape that aimed at minimalist sculpture. It was in the shadow of this reverent classicism that No Country was received as a (neo) Western and not a drug or crime caper, about a very real and present world but part of Hollywood’s grandiose history of itself.
Strangely, however, the first production to follow the Coen brothers’ footsteps into the dusty terrain of neo-Western, neo-mythmaking was found on the then-smaller screens of basic cable. Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, which took place one state over and populated its world with a small army of serial killers and their drug deals gone wrong, aired less than a year after No Country and was taken in rapturously by audiences thirsty for more sunbaked morality tales.
“No Country for Old Meth Dealers,” ran an early write up of Gilligan’s series on Slate, comparing a blood-soaked scene from its second episode season to Javier Bardem’s menacing march as Anton Chigurh, a harbinger of the new violence, a foot soldier in a new war between armies hidden underneath the shadows of dry suburban sprawl. Telling, in ultimate terms, the same story (buff hetero-hero stumbles on the drug war and dies bereft on innocence and clutching cash) Gilligan offered the War and Peace version of the No Country for Old Men‘s universe, an epic carved up in small battles.
“What happens to us — as individuals, as readers, as a society — when we come to worship a story?,” wrote Adam Sternbergh in his own retrospective on No Country for Old Men and the same metaphysical ghost chases Gilligan’s hero, the cancer-struck Walter White (Bryan Cranston). Chigurh is a cartoon of fate (“You need to call it. I can’t call it for you. It wouldn’t be fair”) and White is a cartoon of omnipotence (“I’m the one who knocks”) and both are ultimately false prophets, they both die.
What is read by some as morally ambiguous reveals itself to be the stodgy stuff of the crisp Westerns they evoked: there are good guys, and there are bad ones. Sin is story, self-identification as characters in a tale and is implicitly corrupt. For McCarthy and the Coens, this is as simple as seeing a timeless MacGuffin like a suitcase full of cash and taking it (it doesn’t remain spotless like crime movie cash but is dutifully bloodied and occasionally spent, leaking like fuel). Gilligan stretches this out, television after all, and we’re not quite sure when his everyman becomes less every, becomes more a creature of his own mythology, pre-aged old men.
But cat-and-mouse chases with fate were not limited to dreams of the sprawl. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive transplanted the bloodletting of faraway gang wars even further west and into the actual backlots of B-movie paradises. Refn, a Dane, was less compelled to fashion his hero innocent: his nameless busybody (Ryan Gosling) is already entrenched in low-level criminal activity by the time he finds his doomed suitcase.
“You’re not very good at this, are you?” taunts one of Refn’s crimelords (Ron Perlman), as Gosling’s driver niftily attempts to evade the plot slowly descending around him. American heroics, the defense of the family, preferably with children, become camp. Moss gets killed in the same tide that swallows him, White’s “for the family” deference is swiftly rejected. Gosling’s ‘family’ is seemingly chosen at random, a woman played by Carey Mulligan found at the grocery store with a child. These amplified false notes, accenting a general contempt for genre conventions, aim to bombard with garishness but manage to win over by sheer sincere conviction.
Drive had lifted its tagline straight from No Country for Old Men’s movie poster but Refn was able to evoke an even stranger world than the Coens could have imagined. Out of its McCarthy/Coen-esque terrain of bad decisions and bloodshed is a movie about human bodies that flex only to reveal their small vulnerabilities, about the power of machines to destroy them (Chigurh’s notorious cattle stun gun is actually only used once in No Country for Old Men while everyone in Drive seems to meet their end through some likewise twitchy device).
McCarthy, himself, would eventually enter the shadow of No Country for Old Men when he tried his own hand at screenwriting, in The Counselor, directed by a pre-comeback Ridley Scott. A curious work—deemed a “fascinating disaster” by Sternbergh and given the RT pan but also defensively beloved by, oh, Bret Easton Ellis—McCarthy cannily splits the difference between No Country for Old Men and its imitations, its essence basically ripped from Breaking Bad but with Javier Bardem in a very ridiculous outfit and haircut.
But in McCarthy’s hands, his script paints a far more barren picture, absconding narrative flourish in pursuit of a purer version of what exactly a morality tale is supposed to do. Where No Country for Old Men was able to retain the Coens’ sense of comic dialogue through Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones’ muted pauses, Scott’s crisp direction searches for blood unflinchingly. Everything is very serious, even sex, even an absurdly Kafkaesque strangulation machine called a “bolito.”
The obsession with cartels and their very strange methods of execution continued in Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, a film that begins with suffocated bodies packed in the drywall of a drug den, marrying the kind of alienated mass violence of the 20th century with the ultra macabre that the No Country for Old Men hinted at.
While its plot, in which an FBI bust slowly is revealed as a yet another cartel war battle, felt more in touch with older variants of crime cinema, Sicario was shot in the pure melisma of No Country for Old Men’s foreboding shadows and notably featured a return of Deakin’s camera work to the American southwest. The old man that hangs over Villeneuve’s drug drama is played by Benicio Del Toro with similarly mysterious menace. But the role of innocent brawn is performed by Emily Blunt inhabiting her position as a knowing cynic but is humanly crushed by this loss, signing an NDA in a scene shot like an assassination.
But the latest entry in the decade-long No Country for Old Men narrative points not at its geographic or narrative intractability but suggests, instead, its strange durability. Jamie M. Dagg’s Sweet Virginia, which opens this week, has been likened to now-decade-old Coen brothers classic by no fewer than two people who write for this site despite, notably, taking place in Alaska and featuring no narcotics moving back and forth spurious borders.
Instead, it’s an effort of narrative reduction: a noirish tale of a murder set between people who barely seem to know each other, who amble aimlessly out place and time. Its old man figure comes in the form of a young and maladjusted Elwood (Christopher Abbott, an alienated bad boy that feels dropped from his brief stint as the same in an episode from the last season of Girls), a performance that feels unsure of the length of its own tether. He kills not with Chigurh’s aggressive foreknowledge but with the untethered spitfire of someone who really wishes he was Chigurh. But wouldn’t you?
The day is saved in a parking lot, another nod to No Country for Old men, but comes not from any overly folksy straight man hero but from a former rodeo clown, played by Jon Bernthal, who runs across Elwood and is armed with nothing more imposing than his father’s ornamental World War II rife. Not quite a stun gun but, somehow, it fires all the same.