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Cormac McCarthy

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Takin’ That Ride to Nowhere.

Gray. Ash gray. The sky was ash gray, and the air was heavy. Yes, the air tasted like rust and the tang of remorse. And the ground, it crunched like gravel under a boot, tho’ all the boots were long gone — they had marched on into that last blinding sunset, without remorse and without complaint. Soon it will be black, deepest black, like charcoal or the souls of thieves or the eyes of dead men in their shallow graves, stinking of rot and putrefaction.

And so the Man sighed. For it was Thanksgiving, a good time to repent. To forgive, even, and be forgiven. (But, no, ye will not be forgiven, not in this lifetime, nor the next.) And so the Man sighed again. And with that sigh that carried a whiff of the Old West and better, simpler times when Men were Men and were good with their hands and knew the old tongues, he leaned to his Sister (for it was Thanksgiving) and said, wearily, “Ok, The Fantastic Mr. Fox was pretty solid. Let’s go hit up The Road.” And so they went, into that ash gray, charcoal black in-between, where violent men prowl and shriek and beg for forgiveness (it will not come), and the good dreams cough up their last.

Or something like that. I wouldn’t say Cormac McCarthy is a bad writer, because he quite obviously isn’t. (Tho’ Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek does seem to have his number.) But his voice, and his penchant for wallowing in He-Man pretension, definitely don’t speak to me, and my enjoyment of the Coens’ No Country for Old Men notwithstanding, I tend to find his books significantly overpraised. I’ve heard people call Blood Meridian the best American novel since Moby Dick. But, personally, I found it overwrought and tedious, and I put it down in boredom after 150 pages of meticulously detailed vignettes involving blood spatter, entrails, scalps and the like. (Of course, your mileage may vary.)

That was also my sense going into John Hillcoat’s adaptation of McCarthy’s The Road. As post-apocalyptic sci-fi goes, I thought the book was a solid foray into the genre, and I thought it a well-done, if very depressing, beach read. But I was a bit surprised to find it heralded thereafter as a Big Important Book, when, to my mind, it didn’t seem any more or less deserving of acclaim than, say, On the Beach or Alas, Babylon or The Death of Grass or The Stand or (probably my fave of the bunch) A Canticle for Leibowitz. As I said here, “I thought The Road was post-apocalyptic sci-fi for people who normally condescend to the genre, and thus haven’t read/seen very much of it.

If I’ve gone on at length here about my thoughts about the book rather than John Hillcoat’s movie, it’s because Hillcoat’s film version felt more than most adaptations like its source material, with all of its strengths and weaknesses. The Road is not as moody, evocative, and weirdly twisted as Hillcoat’s The Proposition, a movie I caught on Netflix and for several weeks thereafter felt like I had dreamed. But it does set a strong and consistent tone, even if that tone is one of grim, monochromatic despair. And, while it’s hard not to conjure visions of Aragorn of the Dunedain when a scruffy Viggo Mortensen leads a small child ’round the wilderness, he’s pretty good in the part, and it’s hard to think of very many other actors who could have pulled it off as well. (Although Guy Pearce makes his case as a contender for the role, late in this film.)

If you haven’t read the book, basically it is the near future — let’s say 2013, after John Cusack and co. have dipped out on their arks — the End has come and gone, and the tattered remnants of mankind have been cast back into the primeval wild. Through this bleak and battered valley of the shadow walks a Man (Hobo Viggo) and his Child (Kodi Smit-McPhee, also quite good.) Unlike so many other of the remaining survivors, they forego cannibalism and scrounge to survive, with the Man remembering the good old days and the Boy sweetly, perhaps mercifully, oblivious of life before the Fall. And so, bereft of the Woman (Charlize Theron) in their life — she took the quick ticket out — they traverse south, hoping that a new, better life might await them somewhere along the coast.

And that’s about it, really. Our father and son run into various HBO all-stars along the way (Garrett Dillahunt of Deadwood is still a skeez, and, even amid the ruins of human civilization, Omar comin‘! (Michael Williams)). And they encounter Robert Duvall, who damn near walks away with the film in a jaw-droppingly good cameo. For my part, the movie conjured up a few new questions for me (why isn’t anybody using bicycles?) to go along with the ones I still carried from the book (why would you ever leave that bomb shelter?) But, it’s basically The Road, filmed. For better or worse, it has that’s book’s melancholy soul, its occasional moments of horror, and its grim sense of inevitability and cynicism about the last days of Man.

Now, I personally happen to think there’d be a bit more banding together and ad-hoc families created a la Zombieland and, I hate to say it, 2012, than the blistering, relentless pessimism in evidence here. But I suppose McCarthy would just argue I’m flinching in the face of God’s indifference to our plight. Eh, we’ll manage. You may think Man has no sense of decency, sir, but don’t worry — It’s alright, baby, it’s alright.

Road to Whatever.

Well, we know where we’re going, but we don’t know where we’ve been: In the trailer bin this week, Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee scrounge for food, shelter, and solace amid the post-apocalyptic ruins — while fending off the highly dangerous HBO all-stars (Garret Dillahunt, Michael K. Williams) — in the trailer for John Hillcoat’s long-awaited adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, also with Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall. Having seen Hillcoat’s poetic, weirdly dreamlike The Proposition, I have to think the actual movie is better than this godawful trailer would suggest. (That Survivor-ish “outwit outlast” word game is particularly dumb, and seems grifted from the much more elegant trailer for I am Legend a few years ago.)

Also new this week: The mind-meld of Larry David and Woody Allen is at last complete with the trailer for Allen’s Whatever Works, also starring Evan Rachel Wood, Rebecca Clarkson, Ed Begley, Jr., Michael McKean, and Conleth Hill. Try to curb your enthusiasm.

Road to Nowhere.

“‘It’s tangible, the misery and hopelessness and the bleakness,’ Mortensen says. ‘It gives you much more to work with if you’re filming in that world instead of a green screen.‘ Well, they know where they’re going, but they don’t know where they’ve beenUSA Today scores the first official still from John Hillcoat’s take on The Road, with Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Michael K. Williams, and Garret Dillahunt. I found McCarthy’s book decent enough but considerably overpraised — As with mainstream critics’ overheated embrace of Pan’s Labyrinth, I thought The Road was post-apocalyptic sci-fi for people who normally condescend to the genre, and thus haven’t read/seen very much of it. And, more than most McCarthy, I found the style seriously grating after while: “The Man, ashen-faced, sifted through the ash-gray ash. The Child whimpered. His mouth tasted like ash.

All that being said, I really like the cast they’ve put together here, and, given The Proposition, John Hillcoat sounds like an intriguing choice for this. So, count me in.

On the Road.

“What’s moving and shocking about McCarthy’s book is that it’s so believable.’ Mr. Hillcoat said. ‘So what we wanted is a kind of heightened realism, as opposed to the “Mad Max” thing, which is all about high concept and spectacle. We’re trying to avoid the clichés of apocalypse and make this more like a natural disaster.’” Also in movie news, the NYT checks in with the filming of John Hillcoat’s The Road, based on the book by Cormac McCarthy and starring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as father and son respectively, along with Guy Pearce, Robert Duvall, and Michael Kenneth (“Omar”) Williams. I mean, it kinda figures that Omar would’ve survived the Apocalypse.

In the Country of Last Things.

“Seen the arrow on the doorpost, saying, ‘This land is condemned’…” Well, Bob, East Texas may seem rough, but trust me, West Texas is even worse. I’m always going to have a soft spot for Miller’s Crossing, and The Big Lebowski is its own strange and beautiful beast, but the Coen Brothers’ tense, brooding No Country for Old Men, which I caught this morning, is right up among their best work, and that is no small thing. Admittedly, in some ways the Coens don’t seem quite right for a Cormac McCarthy adaptation: They usually thrive on witty, motormouth dialogue, but McCarthy’s men (Woody Harrelson’s character notwithstanding) are invariably strong, silent types. And you can feel the brothers trying to restrain their usual mordant sense of humor through much of the otherwise bleak No Country. (It still leaks out here and there: the mariachi band, “I pre-visioned it,” “these look to be managerial types,” the constant noting of the dead dog, and so on.) Nonetheless, for all intent and purposes, they nailed it. No Country is easily one of the better films out this year, and, if you harbored any doubts about the Coens after their botched remake of The Ladykillers, fret not. The brothers are back in form.

The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure.No Country opens on the arid, forbidding landscape of west Texas, as we hear local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, doing a lot of soul-searching this autumn between here and Elah), in voiceover, lament what the world has come to. As if to prove his point, we are then introduced to one Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, unforgettable), a chilling, wide-eyed psychopath with a lousy haircut, an air-powered cattle gun, and a penchant for making coin tosses with weighty implications. While Chigurh calmly breaks out of police custody (by strangling a deputy to death and murdering an unlucky motorist), a down-on-his-luck local named Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) happens upon the scene of a horrific shootout in the middle of the desert, one which has all the markings of a drug-deal-gone-bad…including $2 million in a black briefcase. Thinking his ship has come in, Moss decides to takes the money and run. But, he’s savvy enough to expect some blowback, and thus sends his wife (Kelley MacDonald, of Trainspotting) off to her mother’s place in Odessa and vacates his old trailer park before hitting the road, traveling from motel to motel across west Texas. But right behind him, ruthless, inexorable, is Chigurh, armed with a transponder that follows the money. And, if Moss can’t stay one step ahead of the madman, or if Sheriff Bell doesn’t find a way to reach him before Chigurh does, there’ll be hell to pay like West Texas hasn’t seen since…well, probably since this morning.

Having read the novel a few summers ago, I knew what I was getting into here, and thus (as with Chris Nolan’s The Prestige) I was prepared for a third-act jag that’s irritated a few moviegoers out there who expected a more conventional resolution. But, frankly, that’s the book. Near the end of No Country, one of the men we’ve been following tells us about two dreams he’s had recently: While it may seem in the early going that this movie is about the first, it’s actually more about the second. (Put another way, I’m guessing people who saw Lord of the Rings and thought the story was about the ring found all the endings to Return of the King more unnecessary and unsatisfying than those who thought the story was about Frodo and the fellowship.)

Yes, No Country is a crime yarn a la Fargo and Blood Simple, but it also has bigger game in its sights. One of the scariest aspects of Anton Chigurh is that he seems to believe himself an Agent of something else, something completely and utterly out of his control, and perhaps the scariest notion of all is that he might be right. “If the rule you followed brought you to this,” Chigurh tells one victim, “what was the use of it?” And would following any other rule have made any difference? Sheriff Bell is heartsick over the madness and grotesque violence that seeps out of the corners of society, and another aging lawman tries to lay the blame for “the dismal tide” on “kids with green hair and bones in their noses.” But, as another character reminds us, the West, and the world, has always been like this. You can’t stop what’s coming. At best, all you can do is light a fire in the dark.

Old Man, Look at Your Life.

Sorry, Harvey: Javier Bardem’s sinister Anton Chigurh has stolen your signature move… Two new trailers for the Coens’ much-anticipated No Country for Old Men, based on the (solid) Cormac McCarthy novel and starring Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Kelly MacDonald, Garret Dillahunt, and Stephen Root, are now online at the official site.


As seen on Aint-It-Cool, and by way of Variety, the trailer for the Coen’s much-anticipated take on Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, starring Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Kelly MacDonald, Woody Harrelson, and Stephen Root, is now online. Looks like the Coens are back in form (and looks like they captured the tone of the book perfectly.)

Roads, Towers, Beats, and Beechers.

The 2007 Pulitzers are announced: Cormac McCarthy wins the fiction prize for The Road; Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 takes non-fiction; Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff win the history prize for The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, and Debby Applegate’s biography The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher wins in that category. Congrats to all.

Welcome to Coen Country.

Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones look set to enter No Country for Old Men for the Coen Brothers, from a book by Cormac McCarthy. “Set in West Texas in 1980, the story is about a young Vietnam vet who stumbles over the remnants of a drug deal gone bad. He’s hunted by two extremely vicious assassins who want the money back.” My, that’s a Coenesque plot line. (Hail Caesar!, their other current project, is apparently expected to start shooting soon.)

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