A man quietly describes a world he no longer understands, speaking from a position of age and experience audible in every word. This is how Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film, No Country for Old Men, both begins and ends. The speaker in each instance is the same—Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a Texas lawman who bears witness to a string of events that put paid to his generation’s conceptions of justice and morality.
When the Coen brothers first burst onto the filmmaking scene with 1984’s Blood Simple, they were immediately recognized as a creative force to be reckoned with. Marrying film noir stylings to a variety of genres and tones, their upward trajectory seemed to reach its apex with 1996’s Oscar-winning Fargo. Certainly, none of their films since then has evinced the same mix of technical accomplishment, dramatic heft, and black humor. With the release of No Country, however, Marge Gunderson and the boys may finally have some competition.
While Sheriff Bell acts as a window into the action, the nominal protagonist of No Country is Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a taciturn welder living near the Rio Grande. As Bell’s narration fades over the opening shots of the barren Western landscape, a hunting Moss stumbles across prey far more valuable than the antelope he had been after—a drug deal gone wrong, with two million dollars there for the taking. Moss walks away with the money, but returns that night from pangs of conscience.
It is this mistake that launches the bulk of the narrative, as Moss plays a cat-and-mouse game across a series of motels and storefronts with the psychopathic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a hitman hired to retrieve the cash. Moss and Chigurh leave a trail of destruction and death in their wake, with Bell always one step behind after being clued in to what is happening by Moss’ wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald).
Based on the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country is a subdued meditation on the universal themes of evil and fate. It is presented naturalistically, no quick cuts or blaring guitars to be found. On a technical level, the Coens’ camerawork, ably supervised by cinematographer Roger Deakins, has never been less obtrusive, drifting silently over tableaus of dust and sage grass and into claustrophobic rented rooms with equal dexterity. Carter Burwell’s score stays low and menacing throughout, working in concert with the stark lighting to ratchet the tension to a palpable level.
The acting across the board is revelatory. Brolin takes on an unforgiving role as the misguided, nearly silent Moss, getting the audience on his side with the subtlest shift of his eyes or a single laconic phrase whispered in the night. Despite her limited screen time, Macdonald makes her presence felt as well, particularly in her last scene. Also of note is Woody Harrelson as Carson Wells, a sardonic assassin hired by Chigurh’s employers once it becomes clear that he has gone off the rails.
If anyone can be said to carry the film, however, it is Bardem and Jones. Bardem creates a portrait of unthinking evil that is indelible as Anthony Hopkins’ turn in Silence of the Lambs, transforming Chigurh into an implacable force of nature. In Sheriff Bell, meanwhile, Jones gives us a fundamentally good man who recognizes that he is out of his element—indeed, his element may have vanished with the passage of years—but holds to his course until he truly knows there is nothing more he can do.
The film’s final moments will likely prove wildly divisive with audiences. (Stunned silence was the reaction at the screening I attended.) Despite the nihilistic overtones, the ending stands as the only conclusion that makes sense given the world that the Coens had created in the previous two hours, and their commitment to following that path to its bitter end should be applauded. Their return to form has resulted in one of the best films of the year.