I saw the film No Country for Old Men long before I ever read the book, and it is #2 on my list of all-time favorite movies. I’ve read two other books by McCarthy, Blood Meridian (brilliant but a very dense read) and The Road. Now that I’ve read No Country for Old Men, the movie really did the book justice. While I liked the book a lot, it’s one of those rare cases where I think the movie was a little better.
Set in Texas and Mexico, a man named Moss stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad. Among the dead is a case filled with millions of dollars. Moss takes the money, and almost immediately things start to go bad for him. Different people are sent after him, including a relentless, dead-eyed killer-philosopher named Chigurh. Also chasing Moss is the county sheriff, who hopes to get to him before he’s killed.
Chigurh is one of the coldest, most frightening characters I’ve ever read. He cannot be reasoned with or stopped. He is almost supernatural, as if death itself couldn’t stop him. His occasional nihilist philosophical musings, which he forces his victims to engage with, can be read in a couple of ways. On one level, his bleak reflections mirror the savage world the characters inhabit, where violence and death are increasingly meaningless and all moral structures have collapsed. In a long exchange with a fellow killer he is about to shoot, Chigurh says, “If the rule you followed led you to this of what use was the rule?” But there is something about Chigurh’s menacing philosophizing that also struck me as hollow and pretentious. What sounds deep on the surface has nothing underneath it, only Chigurh carries himself as a man with Deep Thoughts, who can strip life down to the bone and make others look at things they don’t want to. He is a biblical figure who speaks of destiny, fate, and chance. The nothingness he’s built on is the hollow dark, but it’s also a puffed up kind. I may be wrong, but I think McCarthy doesn’t want us to see Chigurh as solely inhuman, but that his weaknesses do exist. The self regard Chigurh has for his own portentous musings is there to be judged as much as anything else.
Set against Chigurh is Sheriff Bell, a good man who doesn’t know how to reconcile himself to the savage world he finds himself in, a place of senseless butchery and devastation. He laments the changes he sees in the world, although over time he grows to doubt if anything ever really was “the way it used to be.” Bell is the moral center of the book, and his relationship with his wife is particularly lovely and grounding. But make no mistake, this is a bleak-ass book.
McCarthy writes in a highly stylized way that somehow also reads as natural. At first glance a reader might find the way the characters talk contrived, too artfully corn pone, or maybe just faux deep. And yes, sometimes the dialogue feels forced. But in general the book is full of taciturn men and women, where what they say isn’t all they are saying. The characters are philosophers, of a kind; they may say something deceptively bland, but underneath there’s a river.
If you’ve read McCarthy, you know you’re in for a depressing time. But I love him all the same. This is a compelling book about big themes and no answers. It’s more accessible than some of his novels, so if you liked the movie, you should give the book a try.