Throughout much of her life, Flannery O’Connor struggled against what she perceived as dangerous and excessive sentimentality among her readers, defending her stories against accusations of violence, brutality, and “gothic grotesqueness.” For her, violence was an essential part of her message, for “to expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.” Responding to her critics, O’Connor made an important point: “Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.”
Nowadays, artists seem to struggle far less with depicting “the nature of the violences” than one might wish; for every modern-day sentimentalist, there is a corresponding misanthrope. But the inability to recognize the essential connection between these moments of grace and the violence that surrounds them is as persistent as ever.
One modern-day artist making that connection may be Cormac McCarthy, the reclusive author who is considered by many to be America’s greatest living writer. A closer examination of the three cinematic adaptations based on his books — All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road — reveals him to be as focused on the questions of nature, violence, and grace as O’Connor was, though he has been much less inclined to self-explanation than was she.
Interestingly, the three films made from his books thus far have been released chronologically. All the Pretty Horses was written in 1992 and released in 2000; No Country for Old Men in 2005 and 2007; and The Road in 2006 and 2009. The chronology is helpful, as McCarthy’s thinking on the problem of violence and grace grows progressively clearer with each work. As a result, All the Pretty Horses, adapted from the first volume of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, is the perfect starting point — both because it is the least likely to be considered a great film, and because it feels like the work of a man as yet unclear about how these moments actually fit together.
John Grady Cole, a young cowboy of the old school who finds himself in a society with diminishing use for his particular skills, is exiled from his grandfather’s Texas ranch by his estranged mother. Fearing that his way of life will soon vanish, he sets out for Mexico in search of fame and fortune. Accompanied by his childhood friend (as well as a mysterious young roughneck they meet along the way), he gradually sees his own failings — and the failings of those around him — dragging his rosy dreams down into a morass of violence, confusion, impossible love, and lost innocence.
At the conclusion of the film, Cole is forced to concede God’s existence — not so much because he clearly sees the ways in which grace follows on the violence he witnesses and experiences, but because he is made so aware of the violent nature of mankind that the presence of any goodness at all is a clear indication of a benevolent God. Cole’s final words — “Lacey once asked me if I thought God looks out for people. I guess He does. I say He’s just about got to. I don’t believe we’d make it a day otherwise” — could not be clearer on the matter, but there is a grudging tone to the work’s finale that makes Cole more of a reluctant optimist than an honest one.
After passing through enough violence and suffering to destroy many a lesser man, Cole is forced to concede that God exists, but the basis for such a concession — that the world would be almost infinitely uglier without Him — doesn’t exactly leave one feeling hopeful.
In No Country for Old Men, McCarthy tells a two-pronged tale of a sheriff growing too old for his job and a Vietnam vet hell-bent on keeping a treasure that is not his to have. In this work, the violences mentioned by O’Connor are made even clearer. Anton Chigurh, the bounty hunter tasked with avoiding the sheriff and punishing the vet, is as relentless and demonic a villain as one could imagine. His ruthless brutality is legendary: He insists that his terrified victims decide their own fate with the flip of a coin, a sign of his soulless reliance on Fate to absolve him from the consequences of his actions.
On the surface, this is as dark and deeply cynical a story as one could imagine, but the graces are there as well. As the film draws to its close, two particularly important moments occur: In the first, Chigurh presents his last victim with his trusty coin, instructing her to determine whether she will die: “Call it, sister.” But she refuses to participate, telling him: “I ain’t gonna call it. The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.” Robbed of his reliance on “Fate,” Chigurh is forced to take responsibility for his actions; free will is thrust upon him, whether he desires it or not. A subsequent car accident sheds an entirely new light on this “chanceless” world: If life is no longer random, Chigurh’s brush with death casts an ominous pall over his eventual survival. Someone is watching, and the man’s transgressions will not go unpunished forever.
But perhaps the most intriguing example of the intrusion of grace is the way in which the film underscores the importance of the title’s most intriguing adjective, “Old.” When Sheriff Ed Tom Bell visits his Uncle Ellis, the old man puts to rest the notion that Chigurh is a sign of a new and insurmountable evil: “What you got ain’t nothin’ new. This country is hard on people. You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.” This, combined with the dream described by Bell at the film’s conclusion, reveal the story to be far more grace-filled than it would seem at first glance. Until late in the film, Deputy Wendell, the sheriff’s assistant, seems to be used for little more than comic relief. Yet it is the deputy (and his generation) who proves most capable of dealing with Chigurh and his ilk. Far from suggesting that mankind is ill-equipped to confront evil and violence, the story shows that Someone (in His Infinite Providence) has carefully ensured that “the right man for the job” appears on the scene at just the right moment.
McCarthy’s approach to grace and violence is still evolving here, and like All the Pretty Horses before it, No Country for Old Men leaves the viewer unsure as to whether the author intends to point toward the Divine in the midst of such darkness. That certitude comes with The Road, the final (and most interesting) of the McCarthy adaptations.
The Road tells the raw, unrelenting story of a man (The Man) and his son (The Boy) as they journey across a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape peopled by little more than cannibals, chaos, and despair. Convinced that the seashore will be their salvation, The Man drives the two of them relentlessly across the devastation of “post-event” America, consumed by the overwhelming need to protect his son in a world without hope. The frustrating (and essential) lack of back story; the stark, cruel imagery; and the seemingly impossible situation in which The Man and The Boy find themselves creates the perfect environment for those “imperceptible intrusions of grace” O’Connor so loved to explore.
While protecting his son from the physical dangers of this new, harsh reality, The Man fails to recognize that The Boy is steadfastly protecting him from the more destructive spiritual threat of despair. Time and again, his son reminds him that they are “still the good guys,” and that “we have to keep carrying the fire” — a fire that sets them apart from nearly every other survivor in this darkening world. Much of the film’s language and symbolism is eerily incarnational in tone: “If I were God, I would have made the world just so and no different. And so I have you . . . I have you.” “He is an angel. To me, he’s a god.” “All I know is that the child is my warrant, and if he is not the Word of God, then God never spoke.” Throughout it all runs the language of fire, light, and goodness — and holding out hope that, in spite of the utter hopelessness of the human condition, there is more to be believed in than just humanity. When The Man’s ceaseless vigilance in protecting his son finally becomes more than he can bear, a solution presents itself in a way so inexplicable and unexpected that there can be no doubt as to its true origin.
When discussing the purpose and meaning of “The Road,” McCarthy himself compared it to another of his works, “Blood Meridian,” saying that, if “Meridian” was about “the limits of our inhumanity,” “The Road” was about “the limits of our humanity.” But as McCarthy’s menacing, wrenching, and achingly beautiful story highlights so well, it is vitally important to remember that our humanity has limits in both directions. In The Road, we must deal with the ugliness of a society without hope and the level of inhumanity to which such a society will sink. But more importantly, the story deals with man’s upper boundary — the boundary that exists between our humanity and the Divine; the home of those very moments of Grace with which McCarthy (and O’Connor before him) deals so insightfully.
It is precisely the presence of these “bridge” moments — moments where God reaches down to remind us of His presence and to raise us up to His level — that makes films such as The Road worthwhile. They’re often brutal, always difficult, and can feel almost relentlessly depressing. But as one catches sight of the Divine even in the midst of this vale of tears, they are gilded with a new and rewarding light.