Monday, February 11, 2008

No Country For Old Men

Ridley Scott looked as miffed as I was feeling when they announced that Atonement had won the BAFTA for Best Film. How could they...?

Anyway, having now seen No Country for Old Men I can confirm that it is a very good, if not a great adaptation by the Coens. What for me were the two most interesting things about McCarthy's novel have been weakened.

Firstly, and almost unavoidably for a movie, the three separate narrative planes occupied by Moss, Chigurh and the Sheriff have been more or less collapsed into one. This makes the unconventionality of the ending seem that much more awkward here. (There's actually a fourth plane, the one occupied by 'the Mexicans', whose repeated intersection with the others we have to interpret through deductive logic. The Coens have had a go at this, but they have removed at least one critical encounter.)

Secondly, and people who have not read the novel may have trouble believing this, the Coens have toned down the violence and mayhem. There's not much here that moviegoers will find outlandish, and yet that was definitely by experience of the book and I think this is a crucial part of the McCarthy vision.

If great art is as much about what is left out as about what is included, McCarthy's very careful decisions about what to omit have been undermined somewhat by the Coens' screenwriting which inevitably imposes its own set of exclusions.

Javier Bardem is indeed great, and so too are Kelly Macdonald and Josh Brolin, but Woody Harrelson was miscast as Wells, the retired special forces Colonel. I'm not so sure about Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell either. Perhaps I had in mind a figure a bit more like the Sherrif in Misery! And in his mouth McCarthy's one-liners and philosophical musings just seem a little bit stagey.

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