No Country For Old Men
Running Time 122 minutes
Written By Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem
Losing their customary cool, some critics are labeling No Country for Old Men, a modern western with pokey pacing and blood-curdling violence, a masterpiece. Until the five-minute finale that threatens to destroy the whole thing, I found myself dazed, dazzled and overwhelmed. The ending is so lame it made me feverish. Then I remembered the perfection that came before it, and concluded that this is, without question, the best movie ever made by the eccentric Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan. Better even than Fargo. It’s so good that I am powerless to hold a grudge. Yes, I guess I have to admit it’s a masterpiece.
Based on a popular novel by Cormac McCarthy, it’s about the fickle yet inescapable finger of fate and how it points to the taut, ruthless participants in a Texas crime gone terribly wrong. Tommy Lee Jones gives yet another gritty, ravaged performance as a Terrell County sheriff raised on the folklore of the Old West, now faced with the grim reality of how the world has changed. The year is 1980. No saddlebags or loyal horses for easy getaways. No Wells Fargo stagecoach depositing new victims and tearing off with painted harlots from the local saloon and schoolmarms in distress. The criminals in faded plaid shirts, patched denims and worn-out boots ride what’s left of the range in bullet-blasted pickup trucks. Over the top of a butte that looks like a backdrop in a John Ford western, a battered cowboy (Josh Brolin) comes across a gang of corpses left behind in a botched drug deal and makes off with the spoils—a suitcase stuffed with cash. Thus begins a dizzying, horror-filled roller-coaster ride fueled by greed, revenge and violence that blends lyricism with gore. The rest is about the consequences, with one mistake leading to another as a sadistic wacko named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) tracks down the thief, and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones) stalks them both. It’s as intoxicating as backyard rotgut whiskey, and twice as lethal.
Chigurh is the modern equivalent of a werewolf—a beast with a lust for blood who sends a shadow across the moon while exploring amusing ways to torture and kill his prey and leaving no human trace. In a terrifying performance of hypnotic power, Bardem totes around an air gun for slaughtering cattle, which he uses with ingenuous lust; it’s a strange apparatus that looks like an oxygen tank, with a device on the head of the hose that glows key holes out of door locks and foreheads. Across the Texas Panhandle they go—the calloused sheriff who misses the good old days, the brash thief who knows the only way to stay alive is to summon every reserve of guile and imagination at his disposal, the demon predator, and a stupid bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson) who makes the mistake of crossing their paths at the wrong time. In the ensuing cat-and-mouse game played to the death, varying species of cats show up, but no mice. The surprise, horror-flick suspense and cockeyed humor born of human nature are Coen brother trademarks used with maximum skill to turn theater seats into electric chairs.
The Coens thrive on screwing around with their audience’s minds, and the movie ends up baffling and empty, shooting a round of blanks. The final minutes pose more questions than they answer, the roles are not clearly defined, even the innocent are vulnerable, and we never do find out what happens to the fang-bearing Chigurh. He just disappears. (The book ends the same way.) Who cares? As long as he’s played by Bardem, we don’t have to see him to fear him. He remains the bogeyman we hope never to meet in a dark alley after midnight. Sporting Buster Brown bangs and showing no remorse, conscience or a shred of emotion, Bardem is the noxious centerpiece of this movie. It’s a juggernaut of a performance with Oscar written all over it.
Without a lot of tertiary dialogue or wasted footage, No Country for Old Men has the lonely, muted beauty of the Texas desert at dawn and the haunting dread of dangerous rattlesnakes coiled behind every mesquite brush as it tackles several themes—the unpredictability of fate, the relentless pursuit of evil, the unwise bravado of youth, the safety of wisdom that comes with old age—simultaneously. But it’s the rapacious, carnivorous greed and bloodletting vengeance of Javier Bardem that provides the high-octane jolt you won’t forget.