This is the latest movie from the Coen brothers and their best received since Fargo. In fact, this movie just won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2007.
If taken at face value, this movie is not very impressive. It is basically a simple crime tale with the classic character archetypes of the cop, the killer, and the man caught in the middle. What makes the movie so powerful is how it presents and explores its themes of aging, modernization, and self-reliance.
At the beginning of the movie Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin) is out hunting game in the middle of nowhere. He stumbles upon a massacre, a drug deal gone terribly wrong. He only finds one man alive, but he is obviously not long for this world either. Moss also finds a bag full of two million dollars. When he decides to take the money, he sets off the events for the rest of the movie.
Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem) is the man that caused all the deaths. He returns to the scene of the crime and finds out the money is gone. Psychopath that he is, he must not only find the money, he must also kill the man who took it. Moss decides to run away with the money; he knows whoever it belongs to will want it back and will kill him if they find him. The chase begins.
Tommy Lee Jones plays the Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. He is investigating the massacre as well as a number of mysterious deaths caused by Chigurh. He quickly figures out that Moss took the money and is on the run from the serial killer. Thus, he joins the chase as well.
Moss manages to evade his pursuer for a while and keep the money hidden. He uses some ingenious lo-fi tricks to do this. His cleverness is what endears him to the audience more than any of his moral choices do. As Anton pursues him and gets closer and closer, the bodies begin to pile up. It gets so bad that the people who hired him hire another hit man (played by Woody Harrelson) to bring him in.
The movie ends not with just one climactic meeting, but rather with a few. Each one builds on the previous, and closes a different character's story.
The plot may sound trite but the movie's explorations of themes lift it out of being a simple genre piece. At the same time it has a narrative thread that is well defined enough that it does not become too abstract. In one of the Coen brothers' previous movies, Barton Fink, they attempted to pull off a similar feat but failed.
Self-reliance is an underlying theme of the movie. All three main characters have help offered to them in one way or another, but all three decide to go it on their own. The movie's title obviously refers to aging, and the inability of the aging to deal with the future. Indeed after Sheriff Bell and Moss retire they seem lost, unsure of what to do with themselves. They seem like they want to go back to work, but feel the work has gotten too complicated for them. Moss's, Bell's, and even Chigurh's greatest failures are not because they are self-reliant or incompetent. It is because they did not see the future coming. Or they thought they were ready for it but were not.
The Coen brothers also explore the future and modernity. While on the run, Moss first stops at a rundown motel, a very old school idea of hiding out. Ironically, the motel's billboard advertises that it carries HBO, which would have been brand new in the movie's timeline. Before his face-off with Chigurh, Moss remarks that he is "just looking for what's coming." Is he ready for it? In addition, Chigurh seems nearly invincible when he kills many men at a time, but ultimately it is not a man that brings him to his lowest point. It is a symbol of technology.
One of the best meshing of the different themes occurs when both Moss and Chigurh are at their lowest points. After being wounded, they each ask for a shirt off a younger man's back. Perhaps as a comment on how generations relate to each other, they both end up buying their shirts for large sums.
While the Coens are known for their quirkiness, this is hardly a flashy movie. The pacing is very deliberate. The movie's visual and overall tone is very consistent. There are shots from perspectives we rarely see, but because of the slow pace they hardly seem flashy. As the movie slowly builds, so does the tension and the audience's sense of dread.
The performances are very low-key and for the most part understated. Javier Bardem won the Oscar for his portrayal of Chigurh. He does not play his character as an escapee from the insane asylum or as a cartoon, but rather as someone who is simply sure of what he wants to do. Because what he wants to do is so foul, his calmness makes him much scarier. Josh Brolin plays the stereotypical "I'm too old for this" everyman. While it is nothing new, he comes off believably. Tommy Lee Jones is the only one with much flashiness to his performance. His sheriff has a quick tongue and a Texas-style story for everything. The verbal gymnastics are an act not just for Tommy Lee Jones, but for the sheriff as well. In his final scene, he discusses a dream he had about his father. In this scene, we see the real Ed Tom Bell, a man scared of death and the future, but who has no idea what to do about it.
This movie is quite a feat of directing. It is a rare movie that can address such serious themes effectively while the plot deals with drug money and a hit man.