In “No Country for Old Men,” the chilly new Coen brothers film, the Spanish actor Javier Bardem is nightmarishly frightening as Anton Chigurh, a stone-faced hit man on the trail of $2 million that went missing after a drug deal collapsed in bullets and blood out on the West Texas plains. With his dead eyes and oddly unnerving ’70s haircut (David Soul with a dye job), Chigurh carries a tank of compressed air to power his slaughterhouse bolt gun and decides the fate of his more innocent victims with the toss of a coin. He could be death itself — silent, unfeeling, out there waiting to happen when you least expect him.
Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is the man who made off with the money. Moss was hunting antelope on the sun-baked flats when he came across the smugglers’ shot-up trucks parked amid their scattered corpses. He’s a decent guy, but he and his young wife live in a ratty trailer park, and he wishes they didn’t. So when he came across the bag of cash, he took it. This was a bigger mistake than he could ever have imagined.
Chigurh is being dutifully tracked by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a mournful lawman old enough to remember real cowboys (the story is set in 1980); he no longer understands a world in which inexplicable creatures such as Chigurh exist. Meanwhile, both Chigurh and Moss are being stalked by Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), a former Federal agent turned bounty hunter, now employed by some very bad men.
“No Country for Old Men” has the narrative machinery of a chase movie — there’s plenty of gunplay, and considerable blood. But as the picture proceeds, we see that most of its characters are really being pursued, not simply by cops or gunmen, but by something larger and more implacable.
Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen have been meticulously faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, a book whose contemplation of inescapable fate is carried along on a mesmerizing tide of relentless declarative sentences. The Coen brothers capture that meditative tone completely; and, collaborating once again with the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, they shape the parched, timeless Tex-Mex borderland into a character itself, a place where good and evil alike swelter under the sun, and the prairie wind whistles by uncaring.
It’s no surprise that Jones is perfectly cast as the superannuated Sheriff Bell — who better than this vividly wrinkled Texan to play the part? Brolin brings tight-lipped tension to the role of Moss, a limited man in way over his head; and Harrelson gives one of his most engaging performances as Wells, a smiling pro delivering justice for hire, but unable to comprehend the primordial justice that’s bearing down on him. And the Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald builds a gathering strength into the part of Moss’ sweet, supportive wife, Carla Jean, a woman too proud to plead, even for her life.
But it’s Anton Chigurh — unsmiling, unstoppable — who dominates the movie with the dark force of Bardem’s characterization. “You should admit your situation,” he balefully suggests, preparing to snuff out a life. “There will be more dignity in it.” Announcing his presence to another victim, he says, “You know how this is gonna turn out, don’t you?” Sheriff Bell believes that Chigurh is more than a simple lunatic — a plausible thought when we hear the killer tell yet another doomed soul, “If the road you followed brought you to this, what was the use of it?” The man metes out not just death, but despair. Wells says he thinks Chigurh has principles nobody else understands. We probably never will.
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