The best thing about “No Country For Old Men” is that nothing stands out. To watch it is to give yourself away to a work of art that is so complete and precise and accomplished that it leaves you breathless. It is a gem of a movie and a real thrill to see.
It is also pitch-black dark, blood-strewn and relentlessly tragic. But don’t let that stop you. The movie, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen and adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, isn’t a downer. It is a brilliantly constructed meditation on the power of brutal evil and our inability to stop it.
The plot is simple. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a former welder, stumbles upon a desert plain full of dead bodies and a satchel with $2 million in it, all products of a botched heroin deal. He snatches the money with no qualms, but he seems to intuitively know that he is plunging himself into severe danger. Moss is right, but he doesn’t know how right he is, because Anton Chigurh wants the money, too.
It is hard to describe how terrifying Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem) is. I can’t remember a more dread-inducing figure, someone whose presence seizes our stomachs and sends us reeling with fear. Chigurh is a demonic phantasm, the kind of single-minded and cunning killer who stalks people in nightmares. In his hunt for Moss, he cuts a trail of destruction through the deserts and motels with a righteous fervor and a half-crazed, vengeful glare, leaving a pile of bodies in his wake. The Coens often film him emerging from the ether like Death himself. Sometimes he’s just eyes, and, in the movie’s most incredible and riveting sequence, he’s just gunshots and shadows, a blurred monstrosity who is everywhere and nowhere.
Chigurh’s weapon of choice is a cattle gun, which uses pressurized air to fire a bolt into the skull. It’s an appropriate tool, as he slaughters his victims without hesitation. He leaves blood everywhere. It seeps into the shag carpets, or dries on rotting flesh, or, in one especially chilling instance, flows towards Chigurh’s feet, dark and thick. He lifts his shoes up and keeps talking on the phone, unfazed.
Chigurh’s got a one-track mind, however, and the bulk of “No Country” sees him hunting Moss down inexorably. Moss and Chigurh think the same way, and we get scene after scene of them mirroring each other in their movements, their plans and their decisions. The movie is built as a series of extended sequences that double as love letters to the elemental power of film. I haven’t seen anything this year that can top them for sheer artistry: The cinematography, the editing, the lighting, even the sound are all superb, audacious without being showy, bleak or beautiful. The Coens display a level of controlled virtuosity that recalls Hitchcock at his best, and they deliver levels of suspense Hitchcock would be proud of (as well as several overt allusions to his work). What shines through most is their supreme confidence in their craft and their unabashed embrace of every trick in the cinematic playbook. We get the slowly turning doorknob, the looming shadow, the approaching footsteps, the suddenly darkened doorsill. The Coens also know just when to show death and just when to look away. They trust their audience in a way that you wish other filmmakers would.
There’s also a fair bit of dark, perverse humor. Chigurh seems ruled by a cockeyed moral vision of the world and speaks in circular, bewildering dialogue that is both hypnotic and funny. When a woman asks him why he’s going to kill her, he responds, “Because I gave my word that I would.” It’s so outlandish that we laugh even as we are terrified.
Bardem crafts such a mesmerizing portrait of pure evil that Chigurh just might enter the ranks of iconic villains, right along the man he reminded me the most of, Robert Mitchum’s preacher in “Night Of The Hunter.” But “No Country For Old Men” would be nothing without its other performances, which are all excellent. Watching Josh Brolin, you get the feeling that he’s making his career out of thin air with one performance. Moss is a man of few words, a complicated and morally ambiguous figure who silently scrambles against impending doom, and Brolin gives him a hushed power and stoicism that easily matches Bardem’s derangement.
As Ed Tom Bell, the sheriff who investigates Chigurh’s many, many murders and tries to protect Moss, Tommy Lee Jones gives the movie its soul. He is a mournful and helpless character, unerringly good but powerless to stop the rising drug wars and the ever-expanding trail of death he encounters. Jones’ quick wit and sad eyes have never made him more likable, or more sorrowful. The movie ends with his worn face, a symbol of decency in a landscape drained of it.
Here’s some words of advice: When “No Country For Old Men” cuts abruptly from Tommy Lee Jones and fades to black, just sit there for a second and let the pleasure of finishing a great movie sink in. For that’s what “No Country For Old Men” ultimately is: a deeply pleasurable intoxication of a movie, a movie that reminds us of how wonderful movies can be. It’s a masterpiece.