Misguided souls will tell you that No Country for Old Men is out for blood, focused on vengeance and unconcerned with the larger world outside a standard-issue suspense plot. Those people, of course, are deaf, dumb and blind to anything that isn’t spelled out between commercials on dying TV networks. Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel is an indisputably great movie, at this point the year’s very best. Set in 1980 in West Texas, where the chase is on for stolen drug money, the film — a new career peak for the Coen brothers, who share writing and directing credits — is a literate meditation (scary words for the Transformers crowd) on America’s bloodlust for the easy fix. It’s also as entertaining as hell, which tends to rile up elitists. What do the criminal acts of losers in a flyover state have to do with the life of the mind?
Plenty, as it turns out. McCarthy reveals a soulless America that is no country for anyone, never mind old men. The so-called codger representing besieged law and order is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones with the kind of wit and assurance that reveals a master actor at the top of his game. On the page, the sheriff is a tad too folksy, dishing out cracker-barrel wisdom to his good wife, Loretta (Tess Harper), with a twinkle written into his homespun truths. As you already know by now (and In the Valley of Elah categorically proves it), Mr. Jones does not do twinkle. He’s a hard-ass. And when he chews into a good line, you can see the bite marks. Here’s the sheriff on how crime has gotten so out of hand: “It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Anytime you quit hearin’ ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am,’ the end is pretty much in sight.”
That unpretty end takes the form of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), an assassin who rivals Hannibal Lecter for dispatching his victims without breaking a sweat. Bardem, with pale skin and the world’s worst haircut, is stupendous in the role, a monster for the ages. Beneath his dark eyes lies something darker, evil topped with the cherry of perverse humor. Chigurh carries around a bulky cattle gun. He’ll politely ask a mark to get out of a car before he caps him in the head; that way the car won’t get messy with gristle and brain matter. And he has this little game he plays. Staring at the human species like a visitor from another planet, Chigurh flips a coin. Your choice of heads or tails might just save your life. Only don’t piss him off.
It’s Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who comes down hard on Chigurh’s bad side. Moss is a cowboy in a world with no more room for cowboys. He enjoys teasing his wife, Carla Jean (the excellent Kelly Macdonald), but you can feel his discontent. Then one day, when he’s out hunting antelope, he gets his shot at the big score. Right out there in the desert are a half-dozen dead bodies drawing flies. One man, barely alive, sits in a truck and begs for water. It’s a massacre. There’s also a stash of heroin and $2 million in cash. Moss takes the cash and runs. Wouldn’t you? That question sets up the film’s moral dilemma and puts us in Moss’ boots. This is Brolin’s breakthrough — he rips into the role like a man possessed, giving Moss the human touch the part needs. Moss even returns to the scene that night with water for the dying man. Huge mistake. Shots ring out, and Moss, after packing his wife off to her folks, goes on the run with Chigurh on his tail and the sheriff tracking both of them.
That’s all you’ll hear from me about plot. The kick comes in watching all the gears mesh with thrilling exactitude. I’ve heard some carping about the ending, which stays tone-faithful to McCarthy instead of going for Hollywood pow. Hmm. I thought that’d be worth a cheer. No Country for Old Men offers an embarrassment of riches. Jones, Bardem and Brolin all give award-caliber performances. Roger Deakins again proves himself a poet of light and shadow as director of photography. Carter Burwell’s insinuating score finds a way to nail every nuance without underlining a single one of them. Props are also due editor Roderick Jaynes, who no one’s ever seen, since he’s a pseudonym both Coen brothers hide behind.
OK, then. How does No Country for Old Men stack up against the best work of these artfully merry pranksters? Near the top, I’d say. There are echoes of Fargo when a deputy declares, “It’s a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff?” and the sheriff answers, “If it ain’t, it’ll do till the mess gets here.” And admirers of Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink and even The Big Lebowski will find tasty bits of bright and bleak to noodle on. But this landmark of a movie is fresh territory for the Coens, accused, often unfairly, of glib facility and lack of passionate purpose. Screw that. Not since Robert Altman merged with the short stories of Raymond Carver in Short Cuts have filmmakers and author fused with such devastating impact as the Coens and McCarthy. Good and evil are tackled with a rigorous fix on the complexity involved. Recent movies about Iraq have pushed hard to show the growing dehumanization infecting our world. No Country doesn’t have to preach or wave a flag — it carries in its bones the virus of what we’ve become. The Coens squeeze us without mercy in a vise of tension and suspense, but only to force us to look into an abyss of our own making.