A scorching blast of tense genre filmmaking shot through with rich veins of melancholy, down-home philosophy and dark, dark humor, “No Country for Old Men” reps a superior match of source material and filmmaking talent. Cormac McCarthy’s bracing and brilliant novel is gold for the Coen brothers, who have handled it respectfully but not slavishly, using its built-in cinematic values while cutting for brevity and infusing it with their own touch. Result is one of the their very best films, a bloody classic of its type destined for acclaim and potentially robust B.O. returns upon release later in the year.
Reduced to its barest bones, the story, set in 1980, is a familiar one of a busted drug deal and the violent wages of one man’s misguided attempt to make off with ill-gotten gains. But writing in marvelous Texas vernacular that injected surpassing terseness with gasping velocity, McCarthy created an indelible portrait of a quickly changing American West whose new surge of violence makes the land’s 19th century legacy pale in comparison.
For their part, Joel and Ethan Coen, with both credited equally for writing and directing, are back on top of their game after some less than stellar outings. While brandishing the brothers’ customary wit and impeccable craftsmanship, pic possess the vitality and invention of top-drawer 1970s American filmmaking, quite an accomplishment these days. It’s also got one of cinema’s most original and memorable villains in recent memory, never a bad thing in attracting an audience, especially as so audaciously played by Javier Bardem.
Set in rugged, parched West Texas (but filmed in New Mexico) and brilliantly shot by Roger Deakins in tones that resemble shafts of wheat examined in myriad different lights, yarn commences with several startling sequences: A crime suspect (Bardem) turns the tables on his arresting officer, strangles him with his handcuffs, then kills a driver for his car using a cattle stun gun ; in the middle of nowhere, a hunter, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), stumbles across five trucks, several bullet-ridden corpses, a huge stash of drugs and $2 million in a briefcase, which he impulsively takes. When he returns to the scene of the crime that night, he’s shot at by unknown men and chased into a nearby river by a fierce dog before getting away.
Central figures in this tale of pursuit are rounded out by Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the local county sheriff, who tours the truck crime scene on horseback and in short order gets Moss in his sights, although not as quickly as does Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, who is able to tune in to a transponder in the moneybag the unsuspecting Moss has stashed in a heating duct in a local motel.
Death walks hand in hand with Chigurh wherever he goes, unless he decides otherwise. Clearly a killer by profession, the lucid, direct-talking man considers anyone else who crosses his path fair game; if everything you’ve done in your life has led you to him, he may explain to his about-to-be victims, your time might just have come. “You don’t have to do this,” the innocent invariably insist to a man whose murderous code dictates otherwise. Occasionally, however, he will allow someone to decide his own fate by coin toss, notably in a tense early scene in an old filling station marbled with nervous humor.
In addition to the pared down dialogue, pic is marked by silences, wind-inflected ones to be found naturally in the empty expanses of the West, as well as breathlessly suspenseful interior interludes, notably an ultra-Hitchcockian sequence in which Moss, aware that Chigurh has tracked him to an old hotel, listens and waits in his room as his hunter comes quietly to his door.
It’s amazing how much carnage ensues given that the action essentially focuses upon three men playing cat-and-mouse across a beautiful and brutal landscape. Three guys in the wrong motel room at the wrong time get the treatment from Chigurh, and a cocky intermediary (Woody Harrelson) for the missing money’s apparent rightful owner makes the mistake of getting in between the trigger-happy assassin and Moss. And they’re far from the only victims in a story that disturbingly portrays the nature of the new violence stemming, in the view advanced here, from the combination of the drug trade and the disintegration of societal mores.
The manner in which the narrative advances is shocking and nearly impossible to predict; viewers who haven’t read the best-seller will be gripped by the situations put onscreen and sometimes afraid to see what they fear will happen next. Those familiar with the story will be gratified to behold a terrific novel make the shift in medium managed, for once, with such smarts.
The Coens build a sense of foreboding from the outset without being heavy or pretentious about it. They have consistently worked in the crime genre, of course, beginning with their first film, “Blood Simple,” whose seriousness perhaps mostly approximates the tone of this one, although there are overlaps as well with “Miller’s Crossing” and “Fargo.” But while they have eliminated one especially poignant character from the book in the interests of time, slashed Bell’s distinctive philosophical ruminations and perhaps unduly hastened the ending, the brothers have honored McCarthy’s serious themes, the integrity of his characters and his essential intentions.
They have also beefed up the laughs, the majority of which stem from the unlikely source of the cold-blooded Chigurh. From the outset, the powerful and commanding Bardem leaves no doubt that Chigurh would just as soon kill you as ask you the time of day. His conversation brooks no nonsense or evasion. But it is the character’s utter lack of humor that Bardem and the Coens cleverly offer as the source of the character’s humorousness, and the actor makes the most of this approach in a diabolically effective performance.
Jones would practically seem to have been born to play Cormac McCarthy roles, and he proves it here in a quintessential turn as a proud longtime sheriff dismayed by what he sees things coming to. Holding his own in distinguished company after long dwelling in TV and schlock, Brolin gives off young Nick Nolte vibes as an ordinary man who tries to outsmart some big boys in order to get away with the score of his life.
Scottish thesp Kelly Macdonald registers potently as Moss’ country wife, while tasty supporting turns are delivered by Harrelson, Stephen Root as the latter character’s employer, Rodger Boyce as a sheriff who commiserates with Bell, Barry Corbin as Bell’s crusty old uncle, Ana Reeder as a swimming pool floozy who offers Moss some company and Gene Jones as the old fellow Chigurh makes call his own fate.
Deakins’ stunning location work and precision framing is joined by Jess Gonchor’s production design, the Coens’ cutting under their usual pseudonym of Roderick Jaynes, Carter Burwell’s discreet score and expert sound work to make “No Country for Old Men” a total visual and aural pleasure.