“In Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else,” explains M. Emmet Walsh in the voiceover that opened the Coen brothers’ first film, Blood Simple. “That’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, and down here you’re on your own.” Made for less than two million dollars in 1984, the fierce, meticulous thriller launched not only the Coens’ career, but, to a significant degree, the neo-noir revival and the modern indie movement. Yet it has taken a dozen films and nearly two dozen years for the Coens to return their attention to the lawless byways of the Lone Star state. We may be forgiven for wondering what’s taken them so long.
In Blood Simple and their second film, the geographically eponymous Raising Arizona, the Coens demonstrated a deep affinity for the parched land and distant horizons of the American Southwest, for trailer parks and shabby motels and highways that go on forever. The wide open spaces suit their cinematic vision, with its emphasis on stark, simple compositions. They experimented with an arctic variation on this setting in Fargo, but otherwise have confined themselves to the urban Northeast (Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy), Deep South (O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Ladykillers), and California (Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty), visually busy locales that have served as backdrops for ever busier movies, stuffed with chatter and steeped in irony.
In No Country for Old Men, the Coens are at last reunited with the Texas mesa, and one can almost hear a long-held breath being slowly exhaled. This is an austere and purposeful film, as laconic as the brothers’ recent comedies were verbose, with only a few twinges of music here and there to distract from the sound of a dry wind blowing or boots scraping across crusted earth. At last, the Coens are taking their time.
Their reward is what is likely the best film of their career and certainly their best in many years. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men is a crime film, but also a meditation on chance and destiny, on growing old and on dying young. Like Blood Simple, it is a film in which wrongs are done and there is precious little anyone can do to make them right again. And like Blood Simple, it begins with an older man’s voiceover, though in this case one more rueful than ruthless. “I was sheriff of this county when I was 25 years old,” begins Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), reminiscing about friendlier days, when some lawmen didn’t even carry guns. “The crime we see now, it’s hard even to take its measure,” he continues. “I don’t want to push my chips in and go out and meet something I don’t understand.”
We meet just such a something moments later, when Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a dead-eyed drifter with a Beatles mop-top, is arrested and taken to a police station by a young, unlucky patrolman. When Chigurh subsequently strangles him, the scuff marks from his frantic, dying kicks radiate out across the floor like an exploding sun. Chigurh helps himself to a police cruiser and, pulling over a motorist, asks, “Will you please hold still, sir.” He then calmly uses a cattle gun to punch a hole through the man’s forehead as neat and round as a half-dollar. This is clearly not someone with whom you want to push your chips in.
We next encounter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), drawing a rifle bead on a herd of antelope in the Texas scrub. “You hold still,” he echoes Chigurh, another hunter addressing his prey. Moss misses his antelope but finds something else: A collection of bullet-ridden trucks and bodies, evidence of a drug deal gone very badly wrong. A short hike from the carnage, Moss finds something more interesting still: another dead man and, at his feet, a briefcase containing two million dollars. Moss decides to take it, and his die is cast. As he later explains to his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), “Baby, things happen. I can’t take 'em back.”
From here, the film unfolds as a chase, though one conducted at a measured pace. Moss hits the road with his case full of cash, and Chigurh is hired to find him, as are sundry Mexican enforcers and a slightly dandyish cowboy named Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson). Jones’s avuncular Sheriff Bell hopes to track Moss down, too, if only to rescue him from the fate that will certainly befall him if Chigurh catches him first.
Bardem is a marvel as the implacable Chigurh, a killer at once casual and calculated. I would be tempted to describe him as the most indelible monster to stalk the big screen since Hannibal Lecter, but it seems unfair to compare his performance to Anthony Hopkins’s thick slice of ham. Bardem’s villain is more original and more understated: Though there is clearly a diabolical intelligence behind his murderousness, he feels little need to share it. Amusing himself is enough; why bother amusing anyone else when they will soon be dead anyway? Even the few words he speaks seem to be swallowed when they are halfway out of his mouth. Chigurh is simultaneously less than human and more, a blunt instrument and a philosophical ideal.
Jones picks up where he left off in In the Valley of Elah. Like Hank Deerfield in that film, his Sheriff Bell is a man of formidable capacity who nonetheless knows that his best days are behind him. The difference is that Bell begins with the knowledge that Deerfield attains only at the end of his journey: that there are evils in the world too unrelenting to be pushed from their courses, unhappy fates than cannot be denied. Jones’s lined face conveys pride and acumen, as always. But there’s a weary patience as well, as if each crease and fold his features have accumulated contains a lesson he might rather not have learned.
As Moss, Brolin delivers easily the best performance of his breakout year. After two decades of consistent but largely under-the-radar work, Brolin is suddenly everywhere: Grindhouse, In the Valley of Elah, American Gangster, and now the lead role here. (I’m not sure how it is that he abruptly became so indispensable, though I imagine it has something to do with the moustache. Perhaps his Dad, James, advised him on the professional compensations of facial hair?) The role of Moss is a challenging one: Brolin has long stretches without dialogue, and when he does speak, it’s often to himself, the half-grunted conclusion--“Yeah,” “There just ain’t no way”--of an internal conversation to which we have not been privy. Yet Brolin manages to embody Moss despite the lack of exposition, to convey the ego of a man who’s been underestimated by others for so long that he’s come to overestimate himself.
As for the Coens, No Country for Old Men carries echoes of many of their past successes: Blood Simple, surely, and Fargo, another somber noir featuring a cop who functions less as enforcer than as moral compass, an observer of the hurts men inflict on one another for “a little money.” But there are less obvious cousins, too, such as Raising Arizona, whose “lone biker of the apocalypse,” Leonard Smalls, is the comic twin of Chigurh. (As Nicholas Cage described the former, “I didn’t know where he came from or why. I don’t know if he was dream or vision. But I feared that I myself had unleashed him.”) There are even hints in Sheriff Bell of Sam Elliot’s cowboy-narrator in The Big Lebowski.
But even as No Country for Old Men recalls past Coen brothers films, it represents something new. Though they have mined literary sources in the past (Hammett for Miller’s Crossing, Homer for O Brother), this is the Coens’ first true adaptation. And while their trademark flourishes still appear--the meticulous compositions (a pickup on a hill silhouetted against the night sky), the ominously amplified sounds (a candy wrapper uncrinkling, a light bulb being unscrewed), the snatches of absurdist dialogue (“You get a lot of people who come in here with no clothes on?” “No, it’s unusual”)--they are anchored to something weightier. McCarthy’s ferocious tale gives the Coens room to unleash their cinematic gifts, but keeps them from wandering too far afield and losing themselves in the marshes of technical prowess or easy irony.
The result is a masterpiece, a film by turns harrowing and contemplative. There are moments when it is difficult to stay in one’s seat--a scene in which Moss is chased down a river by a dog-paddling pit bull; a hotel encounter with Chigurh that is as extraordinary an exercise in sustained suspense as I can recall--and moments when it feels hard to get up out of it. Like the novel, the film ends on one of these latter moments, with the recounting of a dream. It is a dream about death, but a death more welcoming than feared. “You can’t stop what’s coming,” a character advises late in the film, and indeed there’s only one thing that comes for all of us. For some people it will be sudden and unexpected, perhaps the violent outcome of an unlucky coin toss. For others, it will accumulate over time, enough time for them to recognize what’s been lost, to fall out of step with the world. The very title of No Country for Old Men suggests which people might be the luckier.
CHRISTOPHER ORR is a senior editor at The New Republic.