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Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, one of the good guys in Ethan and Joel Coen’s unrelentingly punishing No Country for Old Men, is a third-generation cop in West Texas. He’s been keeping watch over his dusty, amoral, violent beat since he was 25 and is thinking about retiring. But it’s not that Bell is angry, or even apathetic. It’s more a sickness of the soul. Bell is scanning a newspaper, aghast at the homicide reports he’s reading, when he says to his young partner, “My God, Wendell, it’s just all-out war. I can’t think of any other word for it. Can’t make up stuff like that. Couldn’t even try.” He admits to a relative that he’s quitting because he feels “overmatched.” What really sinks your heart to Bell’s level is a conversation that he has with Roscoe, a neighboring and similarly old-school sheriff, about the state of the world when they’re investigating a particularly brutal murder. They talk about the breakdown of society, and Roscoe marvels at the gutsiness of a killer who recently returned to the scene of his crime to kill again. “Who would do such a thing?” he asks. “How do you defend against it?”
At this point in the film, you realize that they can’t, and there but for the grace of God, etc. No Country for Old Men, which the Coens adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, takes place in a 1980 version of the Wild West, and there’s a certain chain of events that sets its villain, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), on a killing spree. But the character’s clear psychosis and often random, don’t-think-twice murders will be just as frightening to modern audiences who, like Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), spend their mornings shaking their head at the daily news. Bardem’s Chigurh isn’t deterred by daylight or authority or how-can-I-help-you-neighbor? folks who make polite small talk with the stranger despite his bizarre non sequiturs and antagonistic demeanor. And before they can notice how dead his eyes are, they’re dead, too, courtesy of an air-propelled captive-bolt pistol. (Normally used to stun cattle for slaughter, it’s handy for blowing out locks and brains.) Going home after this movie, you may find yourself a little more suspicious about those shifty dudes you usually ignore on the Metro.
McCarthy’s plot is simple. (In fact, though it evokes the Coens’ own Fargo, it’s more reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s 1998 Coen-esque film A Simple Plan.) Money sets the chase in motion: One hot afternoon, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is hunting in the desert when he spies a circle of pickups in the distance and bloodied corpses (including one dog) scattered in and among them. One guy’s barely alive and begging for agua. His truck bed is loaded with heroin. Moss immediately starts looking for the person who did this, on his way coming across another body—and a satchel full of $2 million cash. He takes it, and it’s another game now. Moss goes home, ignores his wife’s gentle queries and sarcasm. “I don’t even want to know where you been all day,” Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) says. “That’ll work,” Moss replies, cracking open a beer.
But then he can’t sleep and returns to the scene to give the dying Mexican some water. Bad move: Another pickup, its blaring lights against the dusk making it look like it just escaped from a Truck-o-Saurus rally, bears down on Moss. Shots are fired, and the hunter is now the hunted. Bell knows that Moss is in trouble, and he knows that Chigurh, who killed one of his own men while he was in custody for some infraction or another, is probably after him. But Moss never told Carla Jean where he was headed to or when he’d be back, and Bell’s as perplexed about what to do as he is tired.
No Country for Old Men is the Coens’ masterful return to Miller’s Crossing and Blood Simple territory. The biggest thing you’ll notice is the quiet: Whether it’s the lack of a soundtrack or a lack of dialogue, the silence often makes the tension unbearable in a film that’s almost comprehensively full of scenes in which someone is likely to die. A transponder keeps Chigurh on Moss’ tail, and not a whole lot goes on other than Moss changing motels and the lunatic knocking off people (and even a bird) as he closes in. The script has its share of black humor, but this isn’t Fargo. The only quirks belong to Chigurh, accentuating his psychosis rather than his eccentricity. He challenges his victims to live-or-die coin-tossing games and engages in small talk that doesn’t quite make sense; even the Prince Valiant haircut, goofy and hideous, makes Bardem, a burly man’s man if there ever was one, look dangerous instead of stupid. (Granted, Bardem’s low-key expression of simmering, homicidal anger is the essence of what makes Chigurh so damn unnerving.) And though the aw-shucks locals seem bused in from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, their corn-pone simplicity isn’t meant to make you laugh—it’s to break your heart over the godlessness that they don’t even know surrounds them. They can’t see it burbling in the haze coming off the desert, a wasteland whose empty menace frequent Coens cinematographer Roger Deakins captures well.
Jones and Brolin, who recently worked together in Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah, are both naturals here; even if Jones has played the frustrated, no-nonsense, secret-softie authority figure many times before, Bell’s humanity keeps the performance fresh. Brolin’s Moss is a bit different: You don’t find out much about him, though there’s no doubt that he’s a decent guy, the kind who married and provides for his high-school sweetheart. But he’s just a little too good at strategizing after he finds the cash, a little too quick to know just what to do next when he gets in a bind, and instead of seeming uncharacteristic, it makes you that much more curious about who he is. Guessing is a big part of what makes No Country for Old Men compelling, and while some may be put off by its abrupt, open end, many will be enchanted by its poetry. “You know how this is going to turn out, don’t you?” Chigurh asks Moss during a phone call. They both think they do, but you have no idea.