In a year that has seen a beleaguering amount of mediocre movies and a discouraging drought in quality, a motion picture like "No Country for Old Men" has arrived not a moment too soon. The best film writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen (2004's "The Ladykillers
") have made in over ten yearssince 1996's pitch-perfect "Fargo"this is a masterpiece of a thriller, as merciless as a livestock stun gun to the head, as sharp as a razor blade, and as confidently and sumptuously written as any genre classic one can think of (take your pick). Moving forward with the steady unpredictability of a life gone terribly awry, the Coens' have faithfully adapted Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed novel while making it very specifically their own. The tonal shifts from unspeakable intensity to laugh-out-loud snapshots of truth within human behavior and dialoguefrequently within the same sceneare the work of real artists in full command of their craft.
Set in the Texas milieu of quiet, dusty towns and arid, sunny-drenched open landscapes, "No Country for Old Men" goes to show that evil, as well as greed, desperation and skewed attempts of capturing the American Dream, can exist in any place at any time. In this case, the year is 1980 when hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) makes the discovery and mistake of a lifetime when he happens upon an undiscovered crime scene of massacred bodies, a large stash of heroin and a briefcase containing over two million dollars in cold, hard cash. He promptly grabs the money and runs back to his trailer home and wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), believing that he has gotten away with his actions. Things are never so easy, however, and soon Llewelyn is on the run, becoming the hunted himself by way of ruthless killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in immediate pursuit. With Anton leaving a trail of death in his wake and discontented county sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) eventually getting sucked into the investigation, Llewelyn soon comes to realize there is no escape from the decisions he has made.
"No Country for Old Men" is an exceptional study in substance equal to its high style. With the darkest of dark humor coursing through its veins, the characterizations consistently on-target, and the heightened suspense culminating in eerie, measured silences, the film graduates from being simply a well-made crime thriller into something that feels altogether radically innovative. Tales of stolen money and blood-drenched revenge are nothing new, but just as they did with 1984's "Blood Simple" and the aforementioned "Fargo," Joel and Ethan Coen use an archetypal setup to journey thereafter into territory that is as gloriously unpredictable as it is wince-inducingly bleak and uncompromising.
As violence ensues and Llewelyn's would-be getaway leads him closer to harm's way, the viewer is left to wonder with Llewelyn what the true cost of greed is, and whether or not it is worth placing himself and ultimately wife Carla Jean in front of impending doom. Meanwhile, elder sheriff Ed Tom Bell observes the grisly aftermath of Llewelyn's and Anton's chase, just as he has previously laid witness to similar atrocities over the decades, and senses that nothing is ever going to change in the world. Once he's dead, these things will still happen, and as much as he wants to feel a spiritual connection with a higher power as he gets up in age, all he tragically finds in God's place is an empty void. As the soul-searching Sheriff Bell, Tommy Lee Jones (2007's "In the Valley of Elah
") is powerfully understated in a role that initially seems extraneous to the central storyline, but becomes staggeringly crucial to the film's existential themes by the end.
The other performances are of the highest order. As the sort-of protagonist Llewelyn, Josh Brolin (2007's "American Gangster
") wholeheartedly embraces the juiciest part he's had in years. Though introduced as the hero of the piece, Llewelyn is arguably the most flawed character on hand, a laid-back, blue-collar Vietnam Vet who sees a shot at a better life and jumps at it without considering the potentially fatal consequences. Brolin is riveting, carrying much of the first two acts on his shoulders.
As the maniacal Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem (2004's "Collateral
") essays one of the most chilling screen villains in recent memory, a calm, collected and remorseless psychopath who sees the people he meets as no more than expendable cattle. Whenever he comes in contact with someone, the viewer holds their breath, quite aware of the extent to which he is capable of. Bardem is unforgettable in the role. Also quite memorable are Kelly Macdonald (2006's "Nanny McPhee
"), instantly endearing as Llewelyn's wiser-than-expected wife Carla Jean, and a never-better Woody Harrelson (2006's "A Scanner Darkly
") as sarcastic intermediary Carson Wells, sent out to retrieve the cash. Harrelson's dialogue, exquisitely delivered, is a treat. When he walks into the office of the man hiring him for the job and takes a seat, the bigwig (Stephen Root) asks, "Who told you you could sit down?" Carson's reply: "You struck me as the kind of man who doesn't like to see a chair go to waste."
Technically, "No Country for Old Men" is sublimely shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins (2007's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
"), cut together with a surgeon's precision by editors Joel and Ethan Coen, and soaking up in the knowledge that sometimes the greatest instances of tension go hand-in-hand with silence rather than bombastic musical accompaniment. Case in point: a breathless set-piece in which a frightened Llewelyn's intuition correctly tells him that something bad is on the other side of his hotel room door he is staring at. What follows is as scary, exciting and altogether haunting as any horror movie.
The final act of "No Country for Old Men" goes in directions impossible to foresee, even for the most learned students of the genre mold, and the Coen Brothers make a ballsy decision in leaving most of the major events occur off-screen. In satisfyingly trusting the audience to fill in the gaps themselves, the Coens' never waver from what has all along been a character-centric mood piece. By the ruminative last scene, a subtle and poignantly performed monologue from Tommy Lee Jones, there is no question left as to what the film has been slyly, expertly leading toward. Indeed, "No Country for Old Men" is a brilliant potboiler, but what lingers long after is its searing exploration into the vulnerability of man.