"No Country For Old Men" is the best thing the Coens have ever done. We would never have guessed that Cormac McCarthy’s laconic fatalism would combine so well with the brothers detached genre sensibilities, but here it is — a dark thriller laced with darker humor that unravels to reveal something greater, wiser and regretful.
Josh Brolin (Josh Brolin!) is Llewellyn Moss, who stumbles on the wreckage of a drug deal gone wrong while hunting out on the plains of West Texas (as more than one later visitor to the site observes, as if to underline the carnage, they even shot the dog). Amongst the bodies he finds a load of Mexican heroin and $2 million in bundles of $100s in a leather briefcase.
Moss is careful — the outstanding first sequence outlines his methodical competence, from his retrieval of his own shotgun shells to his patience in approaching a man who may or may not be dead. Still, in taking the money he acquires an enemy even more efficiently badass: Anton Chigurh, played by Spanish actor Javier Bardem in the kind of role that has "Best Supporting Actor" written all over it, is a terrifyingly flat hired killer with a Prince Valiant-in-hell haircut, an unnaturally deep voice and a cattle gun. In his strangeness, he verges on being an element of the supernatural — one character even calls him "a ghost." Moss and Chigurh engage in an epic duel of sorts spanning dusty hotels and nighttime streets, as Moss tries to break free from the consequences of his ill-fated decision and chase the promise of a fresh start with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) and Chigurh inexorably tracks him down. Also in the mix is Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who starts the story off with a voiceover, returns to end it, and in between pieces the action together in Chigurh’s wake, becoming a wearily Cassandrian figure unable to stop the bloodshed.
This sounds like grim stuff, and in McCarthy’s hands it was overly so — not one of his better works — but under the Coens’ direction it’s intoxicatingly well done, from the vast, spare look of the cinematography to the unexpected humor found in its wry, hyperunderstated exchanges (a character describes Chigurh as being "a psychopathic killer — so what? There’s plenty of those to go around."). There are imaginative action sequences butch enough to recall Albert Finney‘s "Danny Boy" moment in "Miller’s Crossing,"
but "No Country For Old Men" isn’t the pastiche that film was, and when
it reaches for genuine emotion there’s none of that sense of gears
grinding that has plagued the brothers’ past films — they’ve always had trouble with
sincerity. The dialogue is almost entirely McCarthy’s, but the Coens have discarded much of the novel’s heaping dolorousness, saving what’s left for Jones’ coda, an almost mystical monologue that’s both heartsick and heart-stoppingly good.
"No Country For Old Men" will be released by Miramax on November 9th.