The Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men opens with the weary, matter-of-fact narration of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) that tells the story of a 14-year-old boy who killed a girl his age and was subsequently sent to the electric chair. Everyone thought it was a crime of passion but Bell says that the boy told him that he had planned on it all along, would kill again if he were still free, and that he knew he was going straight to hell in about 15 minutes. He then laments how he cannot deal with the increasing evil throughout his years on duty as a lawman.
This sets the stage for this chilling study of how ordinary people deal with the idea that some people are just innately, implacably evil. If the Coen brothers’ last great film, Fargo, explored how a chirpy, sunny sheriff restored morality and order to a small town disrupted by a series of heartless crimes, this one looks intently at a human being who has so far gone off the radar of morality that no amount of sound reason can be spoken to him. The film’s villain, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is a person like that.
The man that sets him and this intricate story off is Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a southwest Texan cowboy who one day stumbles on a drug deal gone horribly wrong with a lot of dead bodies left behind. He investigates and soon finds a suitcase filled with $2 million in cash. Instead of turning it over to the police, however, he sees opportunity in the money to live a better life than the one he currently lives with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly McDonald) in a trailer park. So he takes the money and runs.
Taking the money is easy enough, but Moss, responding to his own conscience, goes back to give water to a man he saw alive earlier at the scene. That turns out to be a near fatal mistake when his vehicle is discovered by some unseen thugs and he barely escapes. Now there are a number of bad men who want him dead, including, of course, Chigurh, who carries a pneumatic cattle stun-gun and a tank of compressed air to kill people. And there’s Sheriff Bell who follows Chigurh’s murderous trail and wants to help Moss before he becomes too greedy and stubborn to realize what kind of remorseless, psychopathic killer is after him.
That is enough of the plot; the surprises should unfurl on their own. Needless to say, the Coen brothers have found the perfect literary material in author Cormac McCarthy’s bestseller to adapt to their filmmaking style. They are no strangers to examining the best laid criminal plans gone horribly astray and being nearly lockstep faithful to the novel provided no hurdles for them to do some of their best filmmaking (although the novel's flawed ending carries over into the film and is a little more magnified). In being faithful, they have also stripped away much of the quirky humor common to their previous works, creating their most unblinking portrait of the cold savagery of man.
The dialogue filtered through the Coens from the novel is stunningly eloquent. One exchange is particularly striking when Chigurh talks with a convenience store clerk. This scene just builds and builds as the clerk realizes what minuscule misunderstandings can anger this psychopathic killer, ultimately leading the clerk to slowly fear for his own life. Finally, it comes to a moment when he tells the clerk to call the result of a coin toss without telling him what is at stake.
Much praise must also go to Javier Bardem who almost unrecognizably disappears into this most vicious and unsavory character. The classic movie villains have the quality of giving audiences chills at the thought of their lurking presence and Bardem has that, too, with a chipped accent, a glaring stare, and an impassively modulated gait. He is like a human terminator: the kind of killer that cannot be bargained with or reasoned with, only that he is scarier because he is fully flesh and blood.
All of the other actors deliver equally measured performances that expand and enrich the character personae they are best known for. Many will say that Tommy Lee Jones is playing yet another pursuer role but what makes his character fresh here is how the dogged determination of his previous similar roles has been replaced by downtrodden weariness. Also, there are very few actors who can match his delivery of laconic pain (as he showed in his great performance in the earlier In the Valley of Elah). Meanwhile, Josh Brolin, who often plays rugged, cocky characters, does some of his best work by projecting great vulnerability into his obstinate cowboy role to make us root for him despite his flaws and because of the fact that he is unfairly matched with Chigurh.
All the technical credits, from Roger Deakins’ cinematography to the Coens’ editing (under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes), are also masterful but one aspect I want to emphasize is a criminally underrated aspect of filmmaking – sound design. There are brilliant moments in the cat-and-mouse chase between Chigurh and Moss that rely on deep silences punctuated by tiny creaks of a lurking menace or the unscrewing of a grate. And observe the sound of a wrapper uncurling after Chigurh has crumpled it so tightly in his fist. So exquisitely are the sound effects timed and spaced that sound almost becomes like the bomb that Hitchcock said does not go off to build dread and suspense.
It is often said that evil men lack all sense of emotion. No Country for Old Men conversely shows that emotion is the very part of evil that least lends itself to comprehension by an ordinary person. People may figure out a way to face up to it or simply resort to their survivalist natures but they have no idea how the resultant feelings will fundamentally change them, just like Bell doesn’t know.
Bottom line: What are you waiting for? Go see it!