The line opens Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium," a poem which ends reflecting on "what is past, or passing, or to come."
In 2005, Cormac McCarthy published a novel by this title, a reflective, violent book about greed, evil, justice, and a man realizing time has taken the world he thought he knew. In 2007, the Coen Brothers released a remarkably faithful adaptation of that novel.
Bell didn't answer. He rose and stood looking out over the country.
It's a mess, aint it Sheriff?
If it aint it'll do until a mess gets here (77).
McCarthy writes with sparse prose but creates full characters. Moss fought in 'Nam. He lives in a trailer with his wife. While hunting, he stumbles across a massacre and steals a fortune in drug money. An odd decision brings him back to the site. Had he stayed away, he may not have been tracked. At the very least, he might have had more of a head start.
People want that money. They are not good people. Most dangerous is Anton Chigurh, a relentless psychopathic killer. Moss must flee this man.
Ed Tom Bell serves as sheriff of the stretch of Texas where the massacre occurred. He has held the position for decades. He's a conservative man, well-intentioned and thoughtful. If his morality can be overly simple and problematically informed, it is preferable to whatever world-view justifies the carnage that has been visited upon his town. I don't know he'd be a better man if he understood why people sell dangerous narcotics to school children and (he laments), the school children buy them.
Bell, then, is a good man. Chigurh is irredeemably evil. Moss wants to be good. He has brought consequences on himself, however, that leave him few good choices.
As Bell pursues Moss, Chigurh, and others connected to the case, he begins to feel the change of the world. He no longer understands it. Yet he also recalls that an earlier lawman died in the same territory in 1909, killed by men who watched and likely enjoyed his passing. Perhaps the world has grown darker; perhaps Bell sees it darker. He says:
I always thought I could at least someway put things right and I guess I just dont feel that way no more.... I'm bein asked to stand for somethin that I dont have the same belief in it I once did. Now I've seen it held to the light. Seen any number of believers fall away. I've been forced to look at it again and I've been forced to look at myself. For better or for worse I do not know. I dont know that I would even advise you to throw in with me, and I never had them sorts of doubts before (296).
I found the novel powerful and engaging. I liked the style, the stripped-down evocation of places and times and people. It drags a little in the final third. McCarthy also drops all quotation marks and most apostrophes. This doesn't serve much of a purpose, far as I can see. It looks more pretentious than plain. However, I do not consider these major complaints. I recommend this book, a violent, thoughtful look at the human condition.
The movie opens on a Texas desert, shot with stunning focus. Sheriff Bell muses. Chigurh escapes police custody over his captor's dead body. Moss finds the massacre.
The film follows the novel-- the first half quite faithfully. The Coens add interpretation of characters and language. They mine McCarthy's dialogue for dark humor, and the actors deliver. The film revels in sinister absurdity. Bardem's Chigurh sounds like a mildly autistic child, obsessed with pointless rules. In his case, however, the rules govern the commission of hideous crimes. Tommy Lee Jones plays Bell with a world-weariness that elicits chuckles even when he comments on mass murder.
The movie provides a fascinating view of Tex-Mex desert country.1 The landscape looks alien at times, the towns unsettled colonies on some new frontier. Death awaits at nearly every turn, and the movie draws out the suspense from each potential ending. We're seeing a country that devours everyone, especially old men.
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, from the novel by Cormac McCarthy
Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell
Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh
Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss
Woody Harrelson as Carson Wells
Kelly McDonald as Carla Jean Moss
Garret Dillahunt as Wendell
Tess Harper as Loretta Bell
In both book and film, Moss dies before the story finishes. He has a few more adventures in novel than in the movie, and events surrounding his death unfold differently. We're left with a villain and the sheriff who abandons his pursuit. Age has made the world a stranger to Bell. He retires. Others must seek justice. The country goes on, for better or for worse, but it will go on without the previous generation.
Chigurh may or may not have a similar realization. The novel shows him making plans to continue his violent career. In both book and film, however, an accident nearly takes him down. We're left not knowing his fate. He may continue. He may be unable to continue. Time in time will take him down, too, but we're left uncertain as to whether he'll ever face justice. It's a grim ending that works better in the novel than on film. Many audience members will feel cheated, as though the filmmakers lost the final reel.
And something is missing. However, McCarthy and the Coens suggest that perhaps what we're missing the universe simply doesn't have to give.
1. No Country for Old Men was, in reality, largely filmed in Nevada and New Mexico, though the Coens also took footage in the actual settings of Texas and Mexico.