Why is cinema obsessed with Cormac McCarthy?

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The Counsellor is novelist Cormac McCarthy’s first feature script, but his influence on American film has been apparent for some time.

The Counsellor, Ridley Scott’s new thriller, will be out in the US next month, and marks the first time a film written especially for the big screen has been penned by literary giant Cormac McCarthy. For those of you who don’t know, Cormac McCarthy is the guy that wrote No Country For Old Men and The Road; he’s the guy who celebrities such as Tim Roth, James Franco and Tommy Lee Jones rank as their favourite author of all time; he’s the guy who has audiobooks of his work read by Brad Pitt, who has three studios clamouring for the rights to his Western-Gothic magnum opus, Blood Meridian. He’s kind of a big deal.

Cormac McCarthy’s name has become synonymous with stripped down, gritty cinema

The Counsellor, while directed by Ridley Scott and starring Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz, will tell the done-to-death story of a man caught up in crime and who gets in over his head. So in a box office dominated by 120-minute festivals of explosive pomp, such as The Avengers and Pacific Rim, why are Tribeca calling this relatively sedate little crime thriller “glorious”?  Why is The Playlist featuring it as number two in its top 16 most anticipated films of Autumn?

Regardless of whether the film turns out to be good or bad, the fact is that, 13 years on since Billy Bob Thornton’s Matt Damon-starring adaptation of All The Pretty Horses made McCarthy an adaptable literary force, the author’s name has now very much become synonymous with stripped down, gritty cinema.

all the pretty horses

This is largely by dint of the popularity of McCarthy’s work amongst Hollywood’s luminaries and the perceived adaptability of said work. 2000’s All The Pretty Horses was negatively received, but 2007’s No Country For Old Men, the Coen brothers’ return to their thriller roots since their own failed foray into screwball comedy with The Ladykillers, was a celluloid masterpiece, winning four Oscars at the 2008 Academy Awards.

The Coens’ adaptation of No Country For Old Men was a celluloid masterpiece

John Hillcoat’s BAFTA-winning and Golden Lion-nominated 2009 adaptation of McCarthy’s The Road was followed by an HBO film adaptation of McCarthy’s play The Sunset Ltd. It was directed by and starred Tommy Lee Jones, with Samuel L Jackson co-starring. A film adaptation of McCarthy’s third novel, Child of God, directed by James Franco, just hit Venice Film Festival last month.

So you can see why, after over a decade of providing inspiration to some of the most acclaimed names in cinema, McCarthy’s screenwriting debut would be a pretty exciting proposition to studios and film fans alike. But what is it about his work that translates so well into film, that has made his prose style such a staple element of many hitherto unconnected modern films, such as the taut, sparse dialogue and sudden violence of Drive, 29 Palms and There Will Be Blood, all hugely owing to the atmosphere and pacing of McCarthy’s work? What is it about Cormac McCarthy that has suddenly made him so ubiquitous?

no country for old men javier bardem

There is a sort of comforting aspect to Cormac McCarthy’s work that the more visible medium of film can monopolise on more than literature. Yes, his stories are dark and violent and usually set in some time or amidst some culture that is bereft of morality, but there’s always that faint fluttering of redemption found in the breasts of McCarthy’s brutalised protagonists. Though McCarthy has been writing since the 50s, the world now, with rolling news keeping us abreast of all the latest international atrocities, and a recession shining a light on the spectacularly dark dealings and ineptitude of the arbiters of our finances, is beginning to more closely resemble the nightmare societies in which he places his protagonists.

The apocalyptic new world we’ve fashioned for ourselves more closely resemble McCarthy’s nightmare societies

Like the apocalyptic new world we’ve fashioned for ourselves, the worlds that McCarthy creates are ones in which standards have slipped and personal gain is the only thing keeping one from destitution or death. Blood Meridian paints the Western expansion of America as a rising tide of depraved scalphunters washing over a bedrock of psychotically vicious Native American tribes; The Road has a burned-out post-apocalypse populated by cannibals; and No Country For Old Men’s contemporary setting is as dark an indictment of modern excess and greed as any found in film or literature.

the road viggo mortensen

In a world that seems constantly on the brink of some horrible meltdown, McCarthy’s stories of perseverance are more prescient than ever

In these new and brutal environments, Cormac McCarthy’s protagonists must learn to temper their talent for survival with concessions towards the human moral code by which they wish to live by. No Country For Old Men’s Llewelyn Moss is a cynical and self-serving war veteran, but he still risks his life to bring a dying Mexican drug-runner water; Viggo Mortensen’s Man in The Road uses his son’s kindness as his own moral barometer in the face of his own brutal pragmatism; and John Grady Cole from All The Pretty Horses tries his hardest to espouse the violent chivalry of an old-fashioned cowboy in the morally bankrupt, post-war West.

These heroes are an example of how, though altered and compromised, morality and humanism can survive in environments that would normally violently reject it. In a world that seems constantly on the brink of some sort of horrible meltdown, these stories of human perseverance are more prescient now than they have ever been.


Featured image: Scott Free Productions

Inset images: Columbia Pictures; Paramount Vantage; 2929 Productions

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