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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Stream these five Cormac McCarthy film adaptations

“All the Pretty Horses”

By Chris Vognar

By turns terse, poetic and baroque, able to find the essence of human nature in the bleakest of circumstances, Cormac McCarthy, who died Tuesday, was widely considered to be one of the greatest novelists of his generation. His writing, with its Western landscapes, noir-inflected dialogue and biblical inclinations, proved to be catnip to filmmakers, including the Coen brothers, Ridley Scott and Billy Bob Thornton. Here is a look at how this most distinctive of writers left his mark on the big screen.

‘All the Pretty Horses’ (2000)

Rent or buy it on most major platforms.

Probably the gentlest of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy novels, this film adaptation tells the story of John Grady Cole, a young man who high-tails it across the border to Mexico, where he falls in love with a wealthy rancher’s daughter (Penélope Cruz), runs afoul of her family and the law, and navigates the horrors of prison life. Yes, this is gentle by McCarthy standards. Matt Damon, riding the success of “Good Will Hunting” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” plays Cole as a sensitive lad dumbstruck by love. Cruz, a native of Spain, does her best as a south-of-the-border lass. Thornton directs with lyrical respect for the source material, if not a whole lot of grit or imagination.

‘No Country for Old Men’ (2007)

Rent or buy it on most major platforms.

The Coen brothers return to the Texas noir roots of their first feature, “Blood Simple,” for the most successful McCarthy adaptation to date. It won Oscars for best picture, directing and screenwriting, as well as Javier Bardem’s supporting turn as one of McCarthy’s nihilistic villains, an implacable killing machine who speaks in riddles and engages his prey in fatal rhetorical jousts. But the heart of the movie, about a briefcase full of money and the in-over-his-head opportunist (Josh Brolin) who pilfers it, is Tommy Lee Jones as a small-town sheriff who wants out of the game, which seems to get more sinister and incomprehensible by the minute. He is the old man of the title and the author’s surrogate, a poetic soul just trying to wait it out until it’s all over.

‘The Road’ (2009)

Stream it on Tubi, Vudu and Freevee.

The novel that brought McCarthy’s world to a wide audience (and won a 2007 Pulitzer Prize), “The Road” redeems a postapocalyptic hellscape with the pure love of a father (played by Viggo Mortensen with heartbreaking intensity) for his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee, already a young actor of uncommon instincts). It’s a gray land of digitally enhanced wreckage, peopled by cannibals and other desperate survivors played by the likes of Robert Duvall, Michael K. Williams and, in a brief but indelible and terrifying performance, Garret Dillahunt. John Hillcoat directs like he means it. “The Road” is up there with “No Country” as one of the purest visual distillations of McCarthy’s prose.

‘The Sunset Limited’ (2011)

Stream it on Max.

Sometimes McCarthy likes to take a couple of characters, wind them up and just let them riff on what it all means. His 2022 novel, “Stella Maris,” fits this bill, as does this HBO film version of McCarthy’s play “The Sunset Limited,” about a God-fearing ex-con called Black (Samuel L. Jackson) and the secular humanities professor, called White (Tommy Lee Jones), whom Black saves from jumping in front of a subway train. Confined to Black’s apartment, they thrust and parry, Black offering a brand of streetwise divinity, White stewing in his own suicidal juices. Both actors clearly relish the opportunity to speak McCarthy’s dialogue, and who could blame them? This is some of Jackson’s best work, allowing him to return to his theater roots with a high-wire act of philosophy and feeling. Jones’ direction is workmanlike, but that’s all this material really needs.

‘The Counselor’ (2013)

Rent or buy it on most major platforms.

Ridley Scott directs the only original screenplay on McCarthy’s résumé, an unfairly maligned and misunderstood blast of criminal nihilism that carries the noir direction of “No Country” to its apotheosis. Michael Fassbender plays a glib lawyer whose taste for the finer things gets him in deep with a Mexican cartel. Other players come and go, including Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Bruno Ganz and Cameron Diaz, who has an amorous encounter with a luxury car that you will never unsee. This is McCarthy and Scott having infectious fun with humanity’s dark side, including two bravura murder scenes notable for their cruelty and creativity.

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