Baby, things happen. I can’t take them back.
— Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin)
“Can’t help but compare yourself against the old times.” Pondering the changes between his father’s generation and his own, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) sounds weary. But even if today’s outlaws are more extremely vicious and absurdly cunning, he reasons, at some point, “You have to say, ‘Okay, I’ll be part of this world.'”
The consequences of this choice make up one part of No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers film that marks a return to Texas (the location of their first film, Blood Simple, and to the complex comedy, stark landscapes, and witty rhythms of their most compelling work (say, Fargo). The lawman in a West Texas bordertown around 1980, Ed Tom pursues two men. The first is a local cowboy and Vietnam veteran, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). Hunting along the Rio Grande River, he stumbles on close to $2 million in drug money, along with a truckload of heroin bricks and half a dozen dead bodies — shot-up Mexicans who never made the exchange they were apparently set to make. After a few seconds’ thought, Llewelyn takes the money, ensuring not only that Ed Tom will be tracking him, but also that the drug dealers’ hitman will be as well.
Ed Tom hopes to bring in Llewelyn before the killer finds him. Unlike Llewelyn, Ed Tom knows a little something about Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who leaves in his wake a trail of bodies. Anton means to get the money back for his employers, as well as some psychopathic satisfaction for himself.
Anton’s pathologies are both masked and marked by his incongruity, his pageboy haircut and vague demeanor. Stopping by a Texaco gas station, Anton challenges the aging proprietor (Gene Jones) to a seeming game, a tangle of words and ideas that speaks perversely to the film’s thematic concerns. When the old man asks where he’s from, Anton takes offense, such that the man apologizes: “I didn’t mean nothing, just passing the time.” Anton begins to ponder the concept of time, asking what time the station closes. “Now,” says the man, reasonably nervous. Anton presses the point: “Now is not a time,” he says.
Anton is right in more ways than he knows. If he’s seeking a conventional measure of time by hours and minutes, he also embodies the cultural shift Ed Tom laments. A function of events (the Vietnam war, Watergate, the oil crisis and Iran hostage crisis), the shift is manifested in a capacity for unspeakable violence and alarming disconnectedness. Ed Tom worries about what he sees, for instance, a “kid” he sent to the electric chair who had “kilt a 14-year-old girl,” and then “said if they turned him out he’d do it again, said he’s going to hell.” He also worries about what he hasn’t seen yet: how is it that Anton leaves victims with holes in their heads and no bullets? (You, on the other hand, do see Anton shoot victims with an oxygen tank, a means designed to baffle cops who rely on evidence.)
Anton lives out of everyone else’s time; his favorite game is to offer victims a seeming choice, flipping a coin over whether he will kill them or not, a game that reduces a life to a split second’s worth of decision. Ed Tom lives in his moment, taking each clue as it comes, following each investigative path until he finds its end. Llewelyn is most clearly determined by his time, his wartime experience producing his distrust of authority as well as a genius for killing and avoiding death. He remembers and he improvises, but he can’t anticipate his opponent’s unfathomable viciousness.
This viciousness is a matter of Anton’s serial dislocations. He lives along the borders the other men cross, tilting between stakes and identities that are ethical and criminal, professional and personal, American and Mexican. As all three men hunt and elude one another, they remain in motion, their occasional intersections leading to bloodshed and revelation. Their desolate landscape and moral layout evoke old Westerns, but the film, based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel, also reconsiders the genre’s conventions, comparing now and “the old times.”
Pursuing these comparisons at the same time he tracks Llewelyn and Anton, Ed Tom collects evidence and questions witnesses, including Llewelyn’s wise, forgiving young wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald). But he’s always a slight step behind his prey, recognizing even before Llewelyn does Anton’s extreme iniquity and saddened by it. The war vet and the killer do match wits for some time, in some deliciously tense, beautifully shot set-pieces, including a scene where Llewelyn runs up a shallow river from a ferocious hunting dog (the two forms bobbing as they try to muster speed against the current brilliantly intimates time at a standstill), and another where he waits in a dark hotel room, shotgun on his lap, waiting for Anton’s arrival.
Such images are Coen brothers’ trademarks (the light through the bullet holes in Blood Simple, the endless woods in Miller’s Crossing). They also frame Anton and Llewelyn’s primal contest and the sheriff’s efforts make sense of their joint pathology (“It’s just all-out war. I can’t think of another word for it. Who are these people?”). Visiting with his aging Uncle Ellis (Barry Corbin), Ed Tom worries about lost civility and empathy. Ellis takes another view. “What you’ve got ain’t nothing new,” he observes, his wheelchair pushed to the back of the room. “This country’s hard on people. Can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t waitin’ on you, that’s vanity.” Still, Ed Tom finds it hard to chalk up what he’s seeing to only his own perspective, can’t help but understand his heartache in broad dimensions.
Ed Tom’s view is both confirmed and countered in Anton’s legendary strangeness. When bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) takes up the hunt for the money, he tells Llewelyn, “Anton is peculiar man,” possessed of “principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like ’em. He ain’t like you.” Depraved where Llewelyn is decent, Anton orders his universe according to these unknowable his principles. But if he can engage the men he encounters on his own terms, it’s telling that the one person who won’t participate is Carla Jean. When he offers her the coin flip, she refuses. “The coin don’t have no say,” she says, eyeing him darkly, “It’s just you.”
It is and isn’t just Anton. His bizarre, amoral meanness is emblematic of the changes Ed Tom perceives. But the film leaves you to figure whether such perception is real, Anton is random, or Carla Jean sees something about the “country” the men cannot.