It’s a rare occurrence indeed when a film adaptation lives up to its source material, but with No Country for Old Men, Ethan and Joel Coen have done right by Cormac McCarthy.
In McCarthy’s novel, he is terse and economic with details. The book moves at an incredibly frantic pace and he shows no mercy to any of his characters. Often violence is implied and sometimes even painfully described. The Coens made sure not to deviate from this established tone.
Because they work in a visual medium, the Coens not only had to capture the essence of No Country for Old Men, but they also had to literally show us what these characters looked like, all the way from their faces to their boots. McCarthy allowed the reader to fill in quite a few visual and auditory gaps, but the Coens had no such luxury.
And so, in my mind, we were awfully lucky the Coens found the perfect Moss and Chigurh in Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem. Brolin oozed the silent, capable resourcefulness of Moss while Bardem took a character who had thus been sparsely described and created cinematic gold.
Chigurh is unsettling in the novel, but in the movie the Coens and Bardem make him a terrifying study of subtle villainy. I don’t think Bardem raised his voice even once in the movie, but his empty facial expressions and slight voice inflections were more nerve-wracking than any chest-thumping or profanity-laced tirades. Too often villains simply become the reverse of the protagonist. Not in No Country for Old Men. Not by a long shot. Each character is his own man, far and away.
From a cinematic point of view, the Coens were marvelous with their choice of shots, locations, costumes, props, and acting directions. There’s a particular scene near the beginning of the movie where a man is strangled while laying on his back upon the floor. Graphic, yes, but what impressed me to no end is the fact that the Coens made sure the man’s boot heels left hundreds of scuff marks on the tiled floor. That sort of attention to detail is much appreciated.
Some may feel the Coens offered too violent of a film. I think it’s important to note that they embellished nothing from the novel. The movie is one of the purest adaptations I’ve ever seen, and McCarthy wrote one very violent, unapologetic, merciless novel.
I personally am grateful to the Coens for taking a masterfully written novel and treating its subject matter just as the author intended. It would seem that because they converted literary art to true cinematic art, they were amply rewarded.