All The Pretty Horses
Cormac McCarthy is an author close to my heart. His prose has the muscular quality of top-form Hemingway, the occasional irreverence of Bukowski, the mythic nature of Faulkner, and a surreal or postmodern underpinning always threatening to emerge and engulf his readers in incredulity at the absurdity of the nihilistic worlds he fashions together in his own symbolic West, which is ultimately a stage for the conflict of intellectual traditions. First of foremost of that conflict between the Western intellectual tradition of rationality and supposed human epistemic omnipotence, and newer forms of uncertainty and mysticism arising constantly as the logical consequences of this former intellectual project.
Those who undertake to create film adaptations of McCarthy’s novels or plays are typically those with an intellectual or artistic bent who do so because they value his work and understand it at a deep level. Some past cases of films like these that I had seen were the masterful Coen Brother’s adaptation of No Country For Old Men in 2007, the classic dystopian metaphysical horror film The Road in 2009, and Ridley Scott’s amoral adaptation of the play The Counselor in 2013. As such, I had high hopes for the first major film adaptation of a McCarthy work in 2000’s All The Pretty Horses, based on his 1992 novel of the same name.
The film was directed by Billy Bob Thornton after the break away success of his Southern Gothic classic Sling Blade in 1996. The original cut of All The Pretty Horses came in at over 3 hours in length, had a slow, methodical, epic pace and was reportedly extremely well suited to the style of McCarthy’s writing. The story, set in 1949, the definitive death of the frontier and a move into Industrial America, Electric Music, and pop culture, was accompanied by a spare guitar score played on era-correct instruments. And the entire affair was set to be a great follow up to Thornton’s previous film, and could have established him as something of a promising visionary director at the time. Instead, the film’s producer Harvey Weinstein (known for raping films well before the current allegations about his sexual misconduct) forced Thornton to cut the film down to less than 2 hours in length, and also replaced the score without the director’s approval with a more conventional piece. The result was a picture maligned by most critics that made back only $18 million USD on its more than $50 million USD budget, and brought Thornton’s directorial career to a halt (he only directed a couple pictures over the next two decades).
Despite the film’s truncated form, the kernel of what Thornton had envisioned for the picture is still there within it. The focus on metaphysically and generally philosophically charged language verbalized in a brute, terse manner is maintained throughout the film, which consequently almost borders on presenting the audience with mere types instead of characters. Some critics find this approach to storytelling abstruse and obscure, but those men and women are also the kinds of readers who would likewise champion the use of types in classic works by Dostoevsky, Kafka, or Nietzsche. In other words, they are typically hypocrites who might find the value of such an approach in the novels of Cormac McCarthy with his Kid and Judge archetypes running throughout All the Pretty Horses, and then somehow fault it when these types are the symbolic trade of the celluloid medium, which is possibly even more suited to their use. After all, cinema is an art form first and foremost that can do anything paintings, photography, music, art installation, or literature can do. And before the advent of sound to the medium, character development was the last thing in artists of the medium’s minds, as it should be today.
And again, despite the critiques of fools and backbiters and those without a real critical bone in their bodies, the film does manage to develop the character of the Kid. John Grady Cole (played by Matt Damon) has dreamt of taking over his grandfather’s ranch for the entirety of his childhood. But times are changing and the old frontier lands will yield significantly higher profits for the family if sold to oil barons instead of toiling away raising cattle on them for the next fifty years. As such, when Cole’s grandfather passes away, his mother quickly decides to sell the land and thereby destroys all of Cole’s hopes for a life on the range. The death of these hopes is visually symbolized by the corpse of the grandfather Cole, who appears visually similar to the great Western character actor Slim Pickens (though Pickens passed away almost 20 years prior, in 1983). The death of the Western genre, the death of the West, and the end of all romanticism for Cole in the hopes of working the land upon which his grandfather, and his grandfather, worked their entire lives.
Cole decides to leave the ranch and head south past the Rio Grande and into Mexico where a real frontier still exists and one can find steady work as a cowboy. He takes along with him his trusty friend Lacey Rawlins as well as two horses they steal from the ranch i the dead of night and on they go. Along the journey, they run into a young boy named Jimmy Blevins who has likewise stolen a horse, as well as his stepfather’s gun and some supplies in the hopes of making it down in Mexico, and escaping constant beatings at the hands of the man. Blevins has obviously had a difficult life, which has turned him into a good shot as well as a youth prone to outbursts of violence. This tendency within the boy will later prove his downfall. Rawlins and Cole will not escape its repercussions unscathed either.
Over the course of the film, Rawlins and Cole make it to their destination and meet a woman along the way who owns a small bar. She is, notably, the same actress as Bennie’s girl in Sam Peckinpah’s magnum opus Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The two men find a ranch and impress the biggest tycoon (Ruben Blades) around by breaking in over a dozen wild horses in a week. Cole falls for the man’s daughter (Penelope Cruz). Loves begin, crimes catch up to their perpetrators, and lovers are forcibly wrenched apart. By the end of the film, Cole has realized that there is no place on Earth coincident with his romanticism, no place that measures up to his ideal type of Paradise. The Kid becomes The Man, develops into a disillusioned soul who is by no means completed by film’s end. One can imagine his past traumas developing into alcoholism or drug use. That he will have his share of women, but will experience a dearth of truly good times for the remainder of his days. And that he accepts this begrudgingly and will remain a haunted man like his father Cole (Robert Patrick) before him: a Tennessee Williams type, divorced, down and out, drunk, and jaded by the hand he’s been dealt in life, and the knowledge that there is no better hand to be had. Except death’s sweet release and the hope that things will be better once he returns to the wellspring of his being, to the womb, the mother, the vacuum of Being, to the void.
[Next up: Child of God]