Bad hombres

 

© Pan Macmillan      

 

I greatly admire Cormac McCarthy’s novels Blood Meridian (1985) and The Road (2006).  However, I hadn’t felt any overwhelming urge to read No Country for Old Men (2005) – another of McCarthy’s more famous works – because in 2007 I’d seen its Oscar-winning film adaptation by Joel and Ethan Coen and I’d heard that the film followed the book closely.

 

Thanks to the Coen Brothers, I already knew the characters and plot of No Country for Old Men.  Also, I found the film vaguely dissatisfying.  As I rather pretentiously explained to a friend in 2007, “It’s like a Frankenstein’s monster where Jean-Paul Sartre’s head is stitched onto Clint Eastwood’s body.”  What I meant was that for most of its running time the film is a lean, ruthless and nasty thriller, a gripping piece of modern western noir.  But then near the end, its remorseless storyline just stops.  And after that, there’s a protracted scene where Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Bell character visits an elderly relative and announces his intention to retire because, basically, the world is a terrible place and he can’t handle it any longer.  Thus, the film seems to peter out amid lamentations of angst and existentialism.

 

I’d assumed that, since it was supposedly a faithful adaptation of the book, the book would have a similarly dissatisfying ending.  Which admittedly is a bit unfair towards poor old Cormac McCarthy.

 

A while ago I was back in Scotland and I spotted a second-hand copy of No Country for Old Men, the book, on sale in a local charity shop.  And with that jolt of horror you get occasionally when you’re growing older and you realise how quickly time seems to be passing, it occurred to me that it’d been a whole decade since I’d seen the movie.  I’d also forgotten a lot of what’d happened in it.  This seemed, then, a good opportunity to buy the literary version of No Country for Old Men and acquaint myself with it.

 

Here’s my opinion and, inevitably, there are spoilers ahead both for the book and for the film.

 

My main impression after reading No Country for Old Men was that, yes, for the most part, the Coen Brothers were remarkably faithful to the original when they made their movie.  As the story unfolds – a hunter and Vietnam vet called Llewellyn Moss stumbles across the bloody, corpse-strewn aftermath of a drug-deal-gone-wrong on the remote Texas / Mexico border, lifts a satchel full of money and makes a run for it, only to be pursued by a gang of vengeful drug-dealing gangsters, as well as by a certain Anton Chigurh, a hitman so relentless, merciless and fearsome he makes the Terminator look like Bambi – I found near-identical scenes from the movie returning to my memory after ten years.

 

One difference between the book and the film that I noticed early on was when Moss, having scarpered with the money, nobly but foolishly decides to return to the scene of the massacre because he’d left behind one survivor, a badly-injured gangster who was begging for water.  When he comes back with some water for that survivor, the survivor is surviving no longer; and one of the gangs involved has sent along some new hoodlums to find out what’s happened to their drugs and money.  There follows a nail-biting chase across the desert, climaxing with Moss flinging himself into a river to escape the hoodlums.  In the film, the Coen Brothers ratchet up the suspense yet further by introducing a big attack dog that doesn’t appear in the book.  Even the river doesn’t deter the beast in its pursuit of Moss because it swims as fast as it runs.  Indeed, the dog is a crafty metaphorical foreshadowing of Anton Chigurh, who is soon pursuing Moss too.  If there’s one thing you want following you even less than a big attack dog, it’s him.

 

The book also has more of Sheriff Bell, the ageing lawman trying to find and save Moss whilst also keeping tabs on Carla Jean, Moss’s young wife.  At regular intervals, there are short chapters representing Bell’s stream-of-consciousness while he ruminates on existence and the general state of things.  “My daddy always told me to just do the best you know how and tell the truth…” he says at one point.  “And if you done somethin wrong just stand up and say you done it and say you’re sorry and get on with it.”  This makes him a likeable and sympathetic character, but not too much so.  Later, as we hear more of his musings, we realise some of his views are quite reactionary and probably if he was still around in 2016 – the story is set in the 1980s – he’d have voted for Donald Trump.  These interludes also prepare us for the gloomy philosophical ending, in a way that we weren’t prepared for it whilst watching the film.

 

© Miramax Films / Paramount Vantage

 

For much of the book and film, the plot is an increasingly desperate and vicious cat-and-mouse game between Moss and Chigurh, while various cannon-fodder Mexican gangsters turn up and get blown away.  McCarthy describes it all in his admirably economical and deceptively simple-looking prose, though lovers of punctuation will cringe at his brutal disregard for apostrophes and inverted commas.

 

It helps too that McCarthy seems au fait with the macho, rural and violent world he’s writing about: its gangland machinations, its police procedures, its vehicles, its guns: “The rifle had a Canjar trigger set to nine ounces and he pulled the rifle and the boot towards him with great care and sighted again and jacked the crosshairs slightly up the back of the animal standing most broadly to him…  Even with the heavy barrel and the muzzlebrake the rifle bucked up off the rest.  When he pulled the animals back into the scope he could see them all standing as before.  It took the 150-grain bullet the better part of a second to get there but it took the sound twice that.”  I know little about McCarthy’s background – he’s very reclusive – and I’ve no idea if he’s really the man’s man, the rugged Hemmingway type, that he comes across as here.  But the fact that he does come across like that gives the telling of the story an extra conviction.

 

I felt apprehensive as I approached the novel’s end.  Would the main storyline finish as abruptly and unsatisfyingly as it did in the film – which had Bell arriving at a motel for a rendezvous with Moss, only to discover that Moss has just been killed (offscreen) by some Mexicans?  Leaving only the scene where Bell decides to call it quits, plus one where Chigurh pays a visit to the now-widowed Carla Jean?  (In the film, it’s implied that he executes her.  In the book, it’s spelt out more clearly.)  I assume that by ending it like this the Coen Brothers believed they were making a statement about the fickleness of fate and the randomness of life and death – and by this late moment in the story, Moss had surely used up all of his nine lives.  But having spent the most of two hours rooting for him, I wanted something more than a brief, flippant reference to him dying.  Call me old-fashioned, but I’d have liked a little more closure with the character.

 

In the book, Moss dies with an equal sense of arbitrariness – Bell gets to the motel and finds out that his man has just been assassinated.  However, there’s more.  The Coen Brothers, it transpires, had made a major break with this section of the book because they left out a character, a female teenage runaway.  McCarthy has Moss pick the girl up while she’s hitchhiking and while he’s making the fateful journey to the motel.  To be honest, the girl isn’t much of a character, being a think-she-knows-everything teenage brat.  As someone who was once a thought-I-knew-everything teenage brat myself, I can speak with authority here.  But at least her naivete provides some context for Moss, who by now is feeling as old, jaded and world-weary as Bell.  (Later, at the motel, she offers to sleep with Moss, but wanting to stay faithful to Carla Jean he turns her down.)

 

When Moss finally shows up, yes, the Mexicans have intervened and Moss is dead, as was the case in the film.  However, the book has a deputy tell Bell what happened from the eyewitness reports: “…the Mexican started it.  Says he drug the woman out of her room and the other man (Moss) came out with a gun but when he seen the Mexican had a gun pointed at the woman’s head he laid his own piece down.  And whenever he done that the Mexican shoved the woman away and shot her and then turned and shot him….  Shot em with a goddamned machinegun.  Accordin to this witness the old boy fell down the steps and then he picked up his gun again and shot the Mexican.  Which I dont see how he done it.  He was shot all to pieces.”  So at least Moss dies making an honourable (if futile) self-sacrifice to save the teenager, and he goes down with guns blazing, taking out one last bad guy.  That’s more like the closure I was looking for.

 

I know people who’ve objected to both versions of No Country for Old Men because of another disappearing plotline, the one involving Anton Chigurh – who in the film was memorably played by Javier Bardem.  Both the book and film end with him still on the loose, presumably being unspeakably evil and continuing to kill people.  But I don’t mind that loose thread so much.  I find it appropriate that McCarthy wraps up the story with Bell lamenting about the darkness of the world; while Chigurh still lurks in that darkness as a symbolic bogeyman.

 

© Miramax Films / Paramount Vantage

 

And my overall verdict?  I’d give McCarthy’s novel an impressive 9 out of 10, compared with a less impressive but still decent 7 out of 10 for the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation – a couple of points being deducted on account of its ending.

 

Some random thoughts about Skyfall

Or…  Another 3000 words about 007.

 

 (c) Eon Productions

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m heavily into bondage.  That’s James Bond-age I should add, the practice of obsessing over the licenced-to-kill hero of Ian Fleming’s espionage novels during the 1950s and 1960s and the subsequent 50-year cycle series of movies produced by Albert Salzman and the Broccoli family – and not ‘the practice of being physically restrained, as with cords or handcuffs, as a means of attaining sexual gratification’, as The Free Dictionary online drily defines it.

 

Last weekend I finally – finally! – got around to seeing Skyfall, the 23rd film in the official Bond series and the third to star Daniel Craig in the lead role.  Since its release last October, it has also proven to be the biggest-grossing Bond movie to date and has also been one of the most critically acclaimed.  So what did I think of it?  Here I’ll offer a few random opinions.  It goes without saying that, in delivering these opinions, I’ll serve up all sorts of spoilers.  So if you haven’t yet seen Skyfall and don’t want to have its surprises ruined for you, don’t read any further.

 

One.  There’s still a bit of Ian Fleming in it.

 

The Bond-movie producers have long since run out of Ian Fleming novels to base their films on, and to be honest, even when they hadn’t exhausted the original seam of books, the films often had precious little to do with their source material anyway.  For example, the 1955 novel Moonraker was a post-war austerity-era thriller set entirely in the south of England, centring on a disfigured millionaire industrialist, who is actually a former Nazi, plotting to avenge Germany’s defeat in 1945 by destroying London with an experimental missile.  The 1979 movie Moonraker had none of this.  It did, however, have space shuttles, a space station, a big space laser battle, enough nerve gas to destroy the human race, a cable-car chase, a speedboat chase, an ancient pyramid in the Brazilian jungle that’s actually a disguised shuttle-launching base, a Venetian gondola that converts into a speedboat and then into a hovercraft, and a giant henchman with steel teeth.  You get the idea.

 

One element of Skyfall comes directly from Ian Fleming, though.  The opening section, where MI6 mistakenly believes that Bond has been killed in action and his boss M writes an obituary for him in the Times, is lifted from the closing pages of Fleming’s 1964 novel You Only Live Twice.  (Bond is also declared dead in the 1967 movie version of You Only Live Twice, but in this case his death is faked by MI6, to give him respite from his legions of enemies who want him truly dead.)  M’s obituary reveals that Bond wasn’t the true-blooded Englishman that everyone thought he was, but was in fact the offspring of a Scotsman, Andrew Bond from Glencoe, and a Swiss woman, Monique Delacroix from Canton de Vaud – though Bond was orphaned at the age of 11 when they were killed in a climbing accident.  (According to M / Fleming, he was then sent to live with an aunt in a hamlet in Kent called Pett Bottom, which believe it or not is a real locality: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pett_Bottom.)  In its final section, Skyfall explicitly references the Scottish origins that Fleming devised for Bond, but I’ll talk about that a little later.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

One feature of Skyfall that’s particularly Fleming-esque is the amount of alcohol consumption going on.  Never mind the occasional dry martini and lemonade, shaken but not stirred – the literary Bond was a pisshead, often relying on alcohol to smooth the ugly, jagged edges of his existence as a government-employed killer.  (Admittedly, the novels were written at a time when it hadn’t yet become fashionable to fret about the health and social hazards of alcohol abuse.)  In Skyfall, for instance, we see Daniel Craig knocking back some hard stuff in Turkey, not even bothering to deal with a scorpion that’s attached itself to his sleeve until he’s downed the last drop in his glass.  No wonder he suffers from the shakes when he’s re-assigned to duty.  We see in a couple of scenes that Judi Dench’s M is clearly in love with her Scotch whisky too.  Indeed, Skyfall contains one or two moments where you wonder if it might’ve been more appropriately titled Skinful.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Two.  Didn’t we see a lot of this in The World Is Not Enough?

 

Pierce Brosnan’s third outing as James Bond, 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, has a section set in Istanbul, as does Skyfall.  It has another section set in the Scottish Highlands, specifically at Eilean Donan Castle on the Ross and Cromarty coast, which is about 80 miles’ drive north from Glencoe, a location appearing in Skyfall.  Also, in both films, there is a villain (or villainess) whose relationship with M is more complex than one of simple professional enmity; an introduction of a new Q; and a deadly explosion that rocks MI6’s London headquarters beside Vauxhall Bridge and overlooking the Thames.

 

The ingredients may be similar, but there is one major difference between Skyfall and The World Is Not EnoughSkyfall mixes those ingredients together a lot more successfully.  That said, I don’t think The World Is Not Enough is a particularly bad film and it didn’t deserve the critical slagging-off it got on its release.  Sophie Marceau and Robert Carlisle are particularly good in it as the villainous duo planning to destroy Istanbul by blowing up a Russian nuclear submarine in the Bosphorus.

 

But it suffers from an unevenness of tone, the quality stuff cancelled out by some truly duff elements.  Particularly cringe-inducing is John Cleese’s debut appearance as R, the replacement for Q, in which he clowns in the MI6 lab to no comic effect whatsoever with a special coat that inflates into a giant safety capsule.  Compare that with the first encounter between Daniel Craig and Ben Wishaw’s Q in Skyfall, in front of William Turner’s painting The Fighting Temeraire in the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, which manages both to be very amusing and to have a gravity worthy of Stanley and Livingstone’s meeting in Tanzania in 1871.

 

And let’s not even talk about Denise Richards’ performance as ultra-forgettable ‘Bond girl’ Christmas Jones in The World Is Not Enough.  Her sole function in the film seemed to be to enable Pierce Brosnan to make a quip about Christmas coming more than once a year.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Three.  There’s also a bit of Roger Moore in this.

 

James Bond was rogered in the 1970s in more ways than one.  This, of course, was when Sean Connery retired from the role and it was passed on to suave, safari-suited plank of wood Roger Moore, who then starred in a series of lazy extravaganzas where the only things more airheaded than the leading ladies (Jane Seymour’s Solitaire, Britt Ekland’s Mary Goodnight, Barbara Bach’s Anya Amasova) were the scripts.  1979’s Moonraker, described at the beginning of this entry, is the worst offender.  However, on the greyhound-track of 007-awfulness, there are several other Roger Moore dogs barking closely at Moonraker’s tail.

 

Now that Daniel Craig has played Bond in three films as a rugged and fairly humourless bruiser – even his prominent ears give the impression that his head’s been punched more times than is good for it – the very last things you’d expect to find in the Bond franchise are echoes of the bad old days with Roger Moore.  But I did find a few of those echoes in Skyfall, amazingly enough.  Namely:

 

A. Reptile-treading.  The scene in the Macao casino where Craig escapes from a pit of komodo dragons by hopping onto one of the beasts’ backs, and from there hopping up to the pit’s edge, is reminiscent of the scene in 1974’s Live and Let Die, where Moore runs across a pool in a crocodile farm using the crocodiles as stepping stones.

 

B. Dropping villains from great heights.  Once in a blue moon in the 1970s and early 1980s, Roger Moore’s Bond would be allowed, briefly, to show his dark side – presumably these hard-boiled bits were shot furtively whilst Cubby Broccoli was taking a nap at the corner of the set – and it invariably involved him chucking a bad guy off something tall.  In 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, he tips henchman Sandor (Milton Reid) over the edge of a Cairo rooftop.  In 1982’s For Your Eyes Only, he pushes a precariously-balanced car, containing cold-blooded assassin Locque (Michael Gothard), over an Albanian cliff-edge.  For this reason, I was reminded of Moore when in Skyfall Craig drops international hit-man Patrice (Ola Rapace) from the top floor of a Shanghai skyscraper.

 

C. Bad dental work.  At one point in Skyfall, Javier Bardem’s villain Silva removes some false teeth and shows M the disfiguring effects of a cyanide capsule that he broke in his mouth in a failed effort to kill himself.  Seeing the mangled, corroded state of Bardem’s teeth, I found myself thinking of Jaws, Moore’s nemesis in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, who was played by Richard Kiel and who had surely the worst dentist on the planet.

 

Four.  Bond travels back to his Scottish roots in more ways than one.

 

The final section of Skyfall has Bond and M take flight from Silva and his mercenaries.  They finally hole up in the crumbling mansion on the remote Scottish Highland estate where, it transpires, the young Bond lived with his parents.  We even get a glimpse of his parents’ headstone in the estate cemetery.  Obviously, this plot development comes from the backstory that Fleming created for Bond late in the original cycle of novels.  But it’s significant on a couple of other levels too.

 

For one thing, Bond and M make the journey to Scotland in the Aston Martin DB5 that Sean Connery drove in Goldfinger back in 1964.  Connery, first and greatest of the cinematic Bonds, is of course a Scotsman and so this pilgrimage north of the border can be seen as a tribute to the films’ roots as well.  (The story goes that by the time Fleming wrote You Only Live Twice in 1964, he’d seen Connery’s film debut as his superspy hero and he was impressed enough by the performance to, belatedly, give Bond a Scottish background.  Indeed, he even linked Bond to Edinburgh, Connery’s home city, though their social situations there were rather different.  The young James Bond attended Edinburgh’s poshest school, Fettes Academy, which was later the alma mater of a certain Anthony Charles Lynton Blair; whereas the young Sean Connery worked on a milk-round with Alec Kitson, who later became chairman and treasurer of the Scottish Trades Union Congress.)

 

 (c) Eon Productions

 

I was a little disappointed that Kincade, the elderly estate gamekeeper who turns up near the end to help Bond and M out when Silva and his goons lay siege to the mansion, doesn’t have a Scottish accent.  Although it’s great to see Albert Finney in the role (and he has a pleasing chemistry with Judi Dench), his gruff Lancashire tones are scarcely what you’d expect to hear emanating from a bearded ghillie who’s spent a lifetime tramping around the heathery northern Highlands.  I also couldn’t help thinking what a headf**k it would’ve been if the producers had managed to lure Sean Connery out of retirement and got him to play Kincade instead (though knowing Connery, he’d probably have demanded ten zillion pounds for the job).  In fact, since seeing the film, I’ve read that Skyfall director Sam Mendes did briefly consider offering the role to Connery, but decided not to, since it’d constitute a pretty blatant case of stunt casting.  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/04/sam-mendes-skyfall_n_2074239.html)

 

One other thing that makes the Scottish-set ending feel appropriate is a sense that the film is paying tribute to Bond’s literary roots too.  In creating Bond, Fleming – like many thriller writers of his day – was influenced by the five Richard Hannay novels written by Scottish author John Buchan between 1915 and 1936.  The first and most famous of these books, The 39 Steps, sees Hannay framed for a murder and then pursued across Britain by the police and by enemy agents.  Just as Bond and M do in Skyfall, he ends up trying to elude his pursuers in Scotland – not in the Highlands, but in the equally scenic and desolate (if somewhat less spectacular) landscapes of Galloway in the southwest.  Hannay is considerably more clean-cut than Bond – as Buchan was himself, he’s a good Presbyterian.  But the character’s influence on the 007 novels can’t be underestimated.

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

Five.  God knows what James Bond universe this film is set in.

 

The first Bond movie with Daniel Craig on board, 2006’s Casino Royale, was intended to be a reboot of the series.  It opens with a scene where Bond kills somebody for the first time and wins his double-0 status from M.  Thus, it starts the story again from scratch, in the process seemingly discounting all the previous movies with Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan.  Even so, it isn’t particularly convincing as a reboot because Craig is still taking orders from M as played by Judi Dench, who of course had been in charge of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond during four previous films.

 

In Skyfall, however, we get several suggestions that Craig’s Bond is the same secret agent who had all those earlier adventures from the 1960s to the early 2000s.  His first exchange with Q – Bond expressing incredulity at Q’s youthfulness and Q making dismissive comments about “exploding pens” – suggests that Craig had worked with the old Q, who’d been armourer to Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan and who’d been played by the much-loved and much-missed Desmond Llewellyn.  And then we get the scene where Craig collects the Aston Martin DB5, out of Goldfinger, from a London garage.  Of course, it could be any old Aston Martin DB5, not the Aston Martin DB5.  However, any old Aston Martin DB5 wouldn’t have machine guns concealed under its headlights, would it?

 

However, just as we’re getting used to the idea that this film is set in the James Bond universe of old, a character whom Bond has only recently met reveals her full name.  She’s Moneypenny, Miss Moneypenny, and she’s taking on the job of secretary to M.  Of course, Miss Moneypenny was a fixture of the films from 1962 to 2002, played by actresses Lois Maxwell, Caroline Bliss and the aptly-named Samantha Bond.  So how can Daniel Craig’s Bond be the old Bond if he’s meeting Moneypenny for the first time only now?!

 

Then again, this is a film series that managed to go from gritty Cold War thriller From Russia With Love to ludicrous sci-fi comedy Moonraker in little more than 15 years.  So these continuity issues probably aren’t worth worrying about.

 

And what did I think of Skyfall overall?  Well, it’s not perfect – the climax is a little too protracted for my liking, and for Javier Bardem’s convoluted computer-hacking plot to work, it needs a prescience of what his adversaries are going to do that’s practically superhuman.  But the film is nonetheless very good.  All credit to Sam Mendes who – in a franchise that isn’t known for allowing its directors to express much individuality – manages to put his own stamp on the proceedings without diluting them and making them anything less than 100%-proof Bondian.  He makes good action-movie use of the Turkish and Scottish settings without resorting to the frantic quick-fire editing that made 2008’s Quantum of Solace migraine-inducing at times.  And with the scenes set in Shanghai – where some violent action takes place against a hallucinogenic backdrop of Blade Runner-style neon – he achieves something extra-special.

 

This Bond movie seems to be imbued with a comfortably patriotic glow.  It projects an image of modern-day Britain that would surely be endorsed by Her Majesty’s Government, by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and by the British Council – an image of a sometimes battered and harassed little country but one that’s nonetheless very plucky, if not indomitable.  It’s choc-a-bloc with tradition, history and ageless landscapes – great for tourists to visit, incidentally – but is also cosmopolitan, inclusive (as indicated by the ethnicity of the new Miss Moneypenny) and geekily hi-tech and up-to-date.  In a big, bad world, it’s still well-able to punch above its weight.  Small wonder that Daniel Craig / Bond was drafted in for the opening ceremony of last summer’s London Olympics, though one wonders why Danny Boyle got the Queen to parachute out of a helicopter with him.  Who needs the Queen when you hang out with someone as awesomely regal as Judi Dench?

 

This comfortable sense of Britishness may not last, however – not least because of the referendum about Scottish independence planned for 2014.  If a majority of Scots voted ‘yes’ in the referendum, it’d leave the United Kingdom with a diminished presence on the world stage and give James Bond a rather smaller homeland to defend.  Just now, with opinion polls suggesting that only a third of the Scottish population will vote ‘yes’ and nearly a half will vote ‘no’, Scotland’s secession from the UK looks unlikely.  However, Daniel Craig’s most illustrious predecessor may soon be embarking on a mission to change that state of affairs.

 

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