Almost as frustrating as it is commanding, McCarthy’s ninth (and first since the completion of his Border Trilogy: Cities of the Plain, 1998, etc.) is a formidable display of stunningly written scenes that don’t quite cohere into a fully satisfying narrative.
It’s a bleak chronicle of murder, revenge and implacable fate pocked with numerous echoes of McCarthy’s great Blood Meridian (1985). Here, the story’s set in 1980 in southern Texas near the Mexican border, where aging Sheriff Bell, a decorated WWII veteran, broods heroically over the territory he’s sworn to protect, while—in a superb, sorrowful monologue—acknowledging the omnipresence of ineradicable evil all around him. Then the focus trains itself on Vietnam vet Llewellyn Moss, a hunter who stumbles upon several dead bodies, a stash of Mexican heroin and more than $2 million in cash that he absconds with. The tale then leaps among the hunted (Moss), an escaped killer (Anton Chigurh), whose crimes include double-crossing the drug cartel from which the money was taken, the Army Special Forces freelancer (Carson Wells) hired by druglords and—in dogged pursuit of all the horrors spawned by their several interactions—the intrepid, however flawed and guilty, stoical Sheriff Bell: perhaps the most fully human and sympathetic character McCarthy has ever created. The justly praised near-biblical style, an artful fusion of brisk declarative sentences and vivid, simple images, confers horrific intensity on the escalating violence and chaos, while precisely dramatizing the sense of nemesis that pursues and punishes McCarthy’s characters (scorpions in a sealed bottle). But this eloquent melodrama is seriously weakened by its insufficiently varied reiterated message: “if you were Satan . . . tryin to bring the human race to its knees, what you would probably come up with is narcotics.”
Magnificent writing, nonetheless, makes the best case yet for putting McCarthy on a pedestal just below the one occupied by William Faulkner.