Somehow, you get the impression they are doing it on purpose. After a pair of underperforming efforts (the tame Intolerable Cruelty and the way too reverent remake of The Ladykillers) Joel and Ethan Coen are back – and they’re trading on their unmitigated masterpieces from the past to achieve something quite startling. As with any great artist, the threads of their genius are laced throughout all facets of their work. And in the case of the majestic No Country for Old Men, the brothers have fashioned a clever combination of everything they’ve tackled before – the Southwestern dread of Blood Simple, the cruel criminality of Miller’s Crossing, etc. – and wound it up into a tight little ball of cinematic razor wire. And as viewers, we are lucky enough to traipse through the stealthy steel death trappings of what is instantly 2007’s best film.
While on a hunting trip, Llewelyn Moss stumbles across a massacre. Bodies are strewn across the desert, cars and trucks riddled with hundreds of bullet holes. Following a trail of blood to a nearby tree, he discovers another corpse – and a case containing over $2 million. Wise enough to realize someone will come looking for the cash, he sends his wife off to her mother’s and prepares to make off with the loot. Unfortunately, insane hitman Anton Chigurh is instantly on his scent. Armed with a pneumatic bolt gun, the kind used by butchers in the slaughter house, he is making a murderous bee line to Moss and the money. The only thing standing in his way – aside from various criminal types and innocent victims – is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Grizzled and wise, he’s seen it all. But with blood flowing this freely and no end to the carnage in sight, he may have finally met his metaphysical match.
Shockingly effective and incomprehensibly great, No Country for Old Men proves that the Coen Brothers are America’s reigning motion picture Gods. Looking over their creative canon, a body of work that includes Oscar nods, a single win, several career defining films and more than a couple cult classics (“We want the money, Lebowski!”), they argue for their place among the artform’s true greats. Sure, some find them unusually quirky and lost in their own insular world of homages, references, and crudely hidden in-jokes, and in the past, all of those caveats would be concerning. Fact is, they are painted over every frame of their consistently fascinating flights of fancy. But No Country for Old Men is different. Instead of going outside their sphere of influence to the cinematic stalwarts that defined the medium, the Coen’s are riffing on themselves – and by doing so, they forge a near flawless filmic experience.
Acting has never been a problem for the boys. They consistently cast people clued into their eccentric, distinctive style and watch as they deliver performances of stunning depth and clarity. It’s the same here. Josh Brolin moves instantly into the A-list with his turn as Llewelyn, a man just smart enough to stay one step ahead of a psychopath, but too brazen and bullish to see the fatality of such a decision. He’s not really a tragic character in the traditional sense – his smugness is not a flaw so much as the main facet of his personality. But when he finds himself in harm’s way, we do sympathize. That’s because Javier Bardem’s Anton is so horrific. The man is literally evil incarnate. He is instantly one of the top five movie villains of all time.
From the opening sequence where he’s handcuffed and wide-eyed, strangling a police officer with a glee that’s almost erotic, we sense something unhinged about this hired killer. Bardem plays him stealthy and closed-off, trapped in his own realm of murderous intent. When he asks a passing motorist to stand still, bolt gun poised precariously on the forehead of said intended victim, we wince at the proposed slaughter. With his bad Beatle haircut, matinee idol glare, and dogged determination, he electrifies every moment in the movie, even when he’s not onscreen. Like the Terminator (except far more lethal) or a mindless disease, he is terror brought home, an interpersonal plague that has no intention of stopping.
Acting as equalizer between the two is the magnificent Tommy Lee Jones. Completely in his element here and given loads of well written bon mots by the brothers, it’s an Oscar caliber turn by the Academy recognized star. Unlike other small town lawmen that the Coens have focused on (Marge Gunderson in Fargo), Jones is a more seasoned, less naïve peacemaker. He recognizes the inherent wickedness in man, and doesn’t deny it within himself. During No Country for Old Men’s last act, when faced with a particularly difficult decision regarding Llewelyn, the look on his craggy, character-riddled face is almost priceless. It argues for his brilliance as an actor, and the boys’ decision as directors.
Indeed, the Coens typical cinematic fluidity and love of the camera is in full effect here. No Country for Old Men may play out in places that are dry as a dead coyote’s coat and as tumble down as a collection of knotted sagebrush, but these are filmmakers who understand the natural beauty in a desolate landscape, the innate malevolence in a roadside motel. Aside from their typically brilliant compositions and framing, they fill the image with depth and deliver astoundingly pristine tableaus. Forget Grant Wood – this is the real American Gothic. Like the best kind of fright film, No Country for Old Men doesn’t give its characters – or the audience – a break. It’s relentless in its pursuit of pure, unadulterated thrills.
And don’t let others sell this movie short. Some have argued that the ending lacks the vigilante snap we’ve come to expect from our crime genre. Without giving much away, the Coens track the conventional confrontations that should come with this type of material and then throw said motion picture principles right out the door. Things happen to characters that we don’t expect, action plays out in the moments before we, the audience, arrive on the scene. Playing with time and frequently fooling the viewer with the actual continuum of events, such a narrative strategy leaves a lot of air in No Country for Old Men. But when a movie is this tightly wound, when the open prairies of Texas feel as claustrophobic as a locked vehicle on a scorching summer’s day, we’ll gladly take the space.
Lacking anything remotely resembling a weak link and populated by supporting players – Barry Corbin, Woody Harrelson, an almost unrecognizable Kelly Macdonald – that illuminate the screen with their talent, No Country for Old Men feels like the culmination of something significant for the Coens. Maybe it was the need to shake off the criticism of their previous passable misfires and find a way back to their almost universally acclaimed past. It could be a simple case of cause and effect – a great project produced an equally stellar film. Perhaps the boys work best when they’re the underdog, shaking off commercial success and mainstream popularity to worm their way along the fringes once again. Whatever the case, they’ve created one of their finest films ever. No Country for Old Men is indeed masterful. That will teach us to doubt Joel and Ethan Coen ever again.