Film: McMurtry on Cormac McCarthy

If we allow that Cervantes kicked off the novel with "Don Quixote" in 1605, then prose fiction took the bit in its teeth and rode unchecked for nearly 300 years before some sourpusses began to insist that the novel was dead. Western films had nothing like that long a grace period. Within a year or two after the release of Edwin S. Porter's "The Great Train Robbery" in 1903 (not the first Western, but surely the first milestone in that elastic and irreplaceable genre), critics claimed that the Western was dead, killed while still in the delivery room by bitter Eastern winters and the quickly exhausted scenic possibilities of New Jersey and its environs. Fortunately, D. W. Griffith, Carl Laemmle, William Fox and a roving band of proto-moguls took a liking to a southern California village that had been established as a temperance community. The village was called Hollywood, and temperance was not what it would come to be known for.

At first, Westerns were produced anywhere an actor could mount a horse: many couldn't, but the infant studios made do. Around 1914, William S. Hart teamed up with Thomas Ince to make a swarm of Westerns. The desert town of Victorville, Calif., proved to be a near-ideal location, the anti-New Jersey of cheap moviemaking. For years, Victorville proudly housed the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum. I have seen a few silent Westerns, but the one I'd most like to see is a 1911 release about Billy the Kid. Why? Because for a time after he killed his first man, Billy hung out in Mesilla, N.M., a village on the Rio Grande not far from where the river becomes not merely a life-giving waterway to poor Anglos and Hispanics who live along its banks, but also—on its long sweep southward to the gulf—an international border. And borders, as we are witnessing today, mean trouble.

North of El Paso, to the river's origins in Colorado, the Rio Grande produces plenty of water politics. But south of El Paso, as it flows through one of the emptiest regions of America, the Rio Grande is a war zone, and long has been. Crossing it from the north, smugglers bring bulldozers and other heavy equipment; crossing it from the south are parrots, macaws, other exotic pets—and dope.

To this bleakly beautiful country, also for a long time, have trekked filmmakers. I'd bet that a careful scholar (or a decent computer) could locate a hundred movies that use the Rio Grande or the lands that border it as a location. I'll probably never see the 1911 "Billy the Kid," but I have seen "Viva Villa!" (1934), the border movie that has everything: Wallace Beery, Fay Wray, a Ben Hecht script and the brilliant cinematographer James Wong Howe.

In the course of 30 seconds, one could make a personal-favorites list: "Touch of Evil," "Rio Grande," "Rio Bravo," "The Border," "Bandolero!," "Lone Star," "The Wild Bunch," "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean," "The Professionals." Howard Hawks's Western masterpiece may have been called "Red River," but the cattle John Wayne and Montgomery Clift plan to take to Missouri were gathered near the Rio Grande. I myself, with the help of legions, have created and seen filmed my "Lonesome Dove" tetralogy, the last segment of which, "Comanche Moon," debuts this December on CBS. All four segments use the Great River as background, and took a mere 23 years to film. Who said Westerns can't be made? They can, but patience helps.

The novelist Cormac McCarthy has been, for some time, the literary master of the border country. He took possession of it in 1985 with his somber "Blood Meridian," perhaps as violent a masterpiece as we have. He extended his reach with his "Border Trilogy," the first volume of which—"All the Pretty Horses"—brought him long- deserved acclaim. I don't think McCarthy's prose is overpraised, but I do think it's been weirdly praised: McCarthy is a realist. His prose exalts the particular, precisely and effectively. His larger concerns seem to be ethical, not oracular, and it would not be unfair to call him a soliloquist. His characters are seldom happy, but they survive—if they survive—largely by talking to themselves. What comes to them from the outside is trouble.

There is one major talent, and here are two more: Joel and Ethan Coen, filmmakers with perfect pitch for American accents. They shot their first feature, "Blood Simple," in Texas, and they know that Texas is hard. What they have recently learned is that the border is harder still. Then there's the dark Magus of the Texas Hill Country, land of rock and grit and unforgiveness: the actor Tommy Lee Jones. The Hill Country is hard—look at his face—but again, the border is harder. These four talents, complemented by the plangent, austere cinematography of Roger Deakins, convert McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men" into a darkly beautiful border Western that breaks all the rules of the genre and (though not evident in the early movements of this raw, tragic tone poem) of the European policier cheapies from which it distantly derives.

Could the same story happen in the Florida Keys, or maybe on the docks of Marseilles, with the pockmarked French legend Eddie Constantine (a native Angeleno) playing someone like Tommy Lee Jones's Sheriff Ed Tom Bell of Terrell County, Texas—itself a hole at the bottom of America that contains only two towns, with civilization represented by Interstate 10, 65 miles to the north? The answer is "No way." Man's fate attends us all, but we grapple with our own in particular places, and where people talk and behave in particular ways.

"No Country" (which opens on Nov. 9) happens in bleak, low-rent places, near a border on which extreme violence is the rule, not the exception. It's a border that divides two cultures, each with histories written in blood. I can see why filmmakers are attracted to its visuals—they are powerfully seductive—but I prefer to see them on the movie screen because I know, like Sheriff Ed Tom, that there are people on both sides of the river who, if they happen to like your socks, will kill you for them. It's not only no country for old men; it's no country for young or middle-aged men, either. It's also hard on dogs, and hardest of all on women. Some women turn mean, and still others settle into a long resignation before they're even out of their teens. Horses do a little better. Surviving, as opposed to prospering, is often just a matter of luck.

Llewelyn Moss, a young redneck, played with laconic inscrutability by Josh Brolin, is on an antelope hunt when he comes upon a drug deal gone bad. At the scene are many dead, and there's a satchel of money, which Llewelyn takes. Two tours in 'Nam convinces him he's as tough as anybody. He hurries home with the loot and is immediately rude to his young wife, Carla Jean. (This Western, very definitely, is about Bang Bang, not Kiss Kiss.) But Llewelyn knows that bad people will be coming, and at least takes the precaution of sending Carla Jean away, first to Odessa, and as the noose tightens, to El Paso.

Various bad men come, and there is lots of Bang Bang, but the only bad man who matters is a killer named Anton Chigurh. Audiences are accustomed to bad guys of the glamorized evil-genius stamp: Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter, or Patricia Cornwell's Jean-Baptiste Chandonne. Chigurh is not a genius, just a merciless killer, played with chilling restraint by the fine actor Javier Bardem. Chigurh kills methodically, whenever it serves him: twice he toys a little, offering his potential victim a coin toss. The confused owner of a convenience store, not realizing that he's betting his life, calls the flip correctly, and Chigurh walks away.

After about a dozen killings in or near Terrell County, one of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell's young deputies suggests that they're chasing a lunatic. Sheriff Ed Tom says no. He doubts the man's a lunatic, and it's here, as the audience is expecting the final Bang Bang, that McCarthy veers straight into ethics and the degradation of manners that occurs when a culture loses all moral poise. Sheriff Ed Tom on the low standards of behavior in the county he's spent his life defending: "It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Anytime you quit hearing 'Sir' and 'Ma'am,' the end is pretty much in sight."

It would be difficult to say it better, and the Coen brothers, at the top of their game, use it. If there's one word for what Sheriff Ed Tom Bell's face reflects during this movie, the word would be Disappointment. He had thought it would be better; he had thought he would be better: "It's a life's work to see yourself for what you are, and even then you might be wrong." Sheriff Ed Tom knows that Chigurh, "a true and living prophet of destruction," as he calls him, is out there still. The sheriff doesn't want to confront him, either. Would it be worth it for a county where people no longer say "Sir" and "Ma'am"?

As for Chigurh, he kills for convenience—it's the best way to get the job done. Unlike Hannibal Lecter, he doesn't kill for ego. He has no reason to brace Sheriff Ed Tom, though he has no fear of him, either. The film, not so much a thriller as a morality play, ends with a sort of equilibrium—as if the Lawman and the Killer both subscribe to that old cowboy maxim: "There ain't a horse that can't be rode, there ain't a man that can't be throw'd."