On the journey to adapt any prose to screen, two roads inevitably diverge. There’s the devout route: Adaptations ripped unedited from an author’s pages. Then, there’s the opposite approach: Making the film so interpretive, the original text is little more than a perfume scent in the air on set.
At the nexus between these two sits Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country For Old Men, adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel of the same name. Released on November 9, 2007, the film won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It’s a near shot-for-shot recreation of the text, a bleak Western with characteristically McCarthian themes of violence, aging, and destiny. But the film fundamentally expands what it looks like to go “by the book”—and 15 years after its release, it still stands as a testament to adaptation as an art form all its own.
Despite No Country For Old Men’s indelible success the Coens and McCarthy initially made for an unlikely marriage. Known for stylized genre curios like Miller’s Crossing, Raising Arizona, and Fargo, the Coens’ established aesthetic wasn’t exactly morose or meditative. They had also never adapted a book into a movie before.
“It was a straightforward problem from our point of view,” Joel Coen said about adapting No Country For Old Men for the screen in a conversation with Collider in 2007. “How do you turn that into a movie?”
“That” would be the story of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a poor Texan living with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) in a trailer park. One afternoon Moss stumbles upon a pile of bodies and a case of $2 million cash. He takes the money and runs; soon enough, he has a ruthless killer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), on his trail.
When it was published, McCarthy’s novel faced literary criticism for reading like a screenplay. The Coens took advantage of this form, but never rested their laurels on it. Instead, they dove into their work’s similarities to McCarthy’s—a reverence for setting and the hermetic possibilities of high genre. Whether or not No Country For Old Men is the Coen brothers’ best film (it might be), or Cormac McCarthy’s best book (it isn’t), it’s the best adaptation of McCarthy’s work.
The Coens had never before adapted a screenplay when producer Scott Rudin brought McCarthy’s book to them, but they already knew their way around a Western. The brothers’ 1984 debut, Blood Simple, follows a similar code to No Country For Old Men. “What I know about is Texas,” Blood Simple’s opening voiceover goes, “and down here you’re on your own.”
The line is a fair synopsis for No Country For Old Men, if not McCarthy’s entire oeuvre. Known for sparse punctuation and grim lyricism, several of McCarthy’s works have been adapted onscreen to varied effect. There’s the good (The Road), the bad (The Counselor, a screenplay written by McCarthy but not based on a novel), and the ugly (All The Pretty Horses, cut to bits by Harvey Weinstein.)
Notoriously absent from the list is Blood Meridian, a 1985 epic widely considered McCarthy’s masterpiece. Like No Country For Old Men, Blood Meridian grapples with mortality and morality in the American West. Countless master directors—Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese among them—have tried and failed to put the story on film.
As The A.V Club’s Todd Gilchrist noted in Mel magazine in 2019, Blood Meridian exemplifies the difficulty of adapting McCarthy “without either neutering the author’s work or producing a film defined by unrelenting, misanthropic cruelty, both physical and philosophical.” The same problem faced No Country For Old Men—how could a story devoid of light still shine onscreen?
The key to No Country For Old Men’s gruesome shimmer is its principal cast. Despite tonal differences, McCarthy’s vernacular seamlessly matches the Coen brothers’ taste for banter. The similarity makes the text-to-screen transition easier, but without heavyweight performances the Coens risked flattening McCarthy’s ambiguously drawn characters.
That never became a problem with Brolin, Bardem, and Tommy Lee Jones portraying the three horsemen leading McCarthy’s apocalypse. Ed Tom Bell (Jones), the sheriff assigned to Moss’ case, serves as a narrator and ambivalent voice of reason. In the book, each chapter is prefaced with Ed Tom’s thoughts on living, dying, and law abiding; the movie limits his philosophizing to the beginning and unconventional (and true to text) end. But Jones, grizzled and deadpan as ever, brings enough quiet nuance to Ed Tom that any more talk would feel out of character.
The same is true of Llewelyn—although an entire sequence of musing alongside a young female runaway in the book is cut, it doesn’t feel like anything is missing with Brolin at the wheel. On film, Llewelyn’s introspection lives in still moments, belly down on a desert ridge or holding his breath in a dark motel room. (A barely there heartbeat, composer Carter Burwell’s murmuring score is just 16 minutes long.)
The limited attention McCarthy tends to give female characters doesn’t slow the movie, mostly thanks to a subdued but defiant performance from Kelly MacDonald as Carla Jean. In the book, Carla Jean is but a consequence of the men around her’s actions—MacDonald reveals a more cerebral side to the character. (A masterfully tense scene between Carla Jean and Chigurh is a film highlight.)
But the most unforgettable acting work here is Javier Bardem’s turn as Chigurh. The role won Bardem an Oscar, and was also named the most realistic portrayal of a psychopath by the Journal of Forensic Sciences. Sporting an absolutely unfuckable haircut (by Bardem’s own account) and swinging a cattle stun gun, Chigurh is death made manifest: watching, waiting, and flipping a coin.
Often, the greatest loss in a great novel’s adaptation is the flattening of a truly singular character. It’s the horror film paradox: It just isn’t quite as scary once you’ve seen, well, “it.” The genius of Bardem’s performance lies in his masterful ability to remain completely unreadable. Chigurh is specific but nondescript, a wielder of ambiguous intentions but terrifyingly principled morals. McCarthy’s villain is memorable, but Bardem makes the Coens’ Chighurh unforgettable.
As different as they may be, a penchant for the unknowable unites McCarthy and the Coens. As Tommy Lee Jones told Uncut in 2008, “I believe that an assumption by Cormac, by Ethan and Joel, and certainly by me, is that the very best questions are more important than anyone’s wide variety of answers.”
The Coens are more than skillful enough to leave these questions unanswered. As The New York Times’ A.O. Scott wrote in his review, No Country For Old Men is “pure heaven” for formalists who revere the technical art of filmmaking.
Creating heaven in West Texas hell required a small, adept team with a light touch. Editor Roderick Jaynes is a long-time pseudonym of the Coens, and sound editor Skip Lievsay had been working with the brothers since Blood Simple. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is also at peak power here—in his hands, the Southwest is a sweeping universe as well as a claustrophobic prison. Completing the picture are the Coens, so in step that Bardem once described them as “the same man with two heads.”
Although the Coens would go on to successfully adapt other Westerns—most notably Charles Portis’ True Grit—No Country For Old Men remains their greatest display of craft. But the film is likely most instructive in how their style collides with McCarthy’s prose—his battered themes bring the Coens’ eccentric idiosyncrasies crashing to earth. What’s left is a cinematic Grand Canyon, sublimely made and worth traversing—a pinnacle of modern American filmmaking wrought from the prose of one of America’s greatest living writers. From McCarthy’s skillful and slick thriller, the Coens crafted an essential myth.