No Country for Old Men 4 stars
Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Beth Grant and Garret Dillahunt. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Released by Paramount Vantage. Rated R; 2:02.
The newest film by the genius Coen Brothers is easily among their best, certainly in the top three. Not since “Fargo,” and perhaps going farther back to “Miller’s Crossing” or “Blood Simple,” have the Coens married their storytelling to their violent and dark sense of humor with such single-minded precision.
“Single-minded” is the key term. It is uncanny how the brothers complete each other’s cinematic sentences. When Ethan writes a scene, Joel seems to know exactly and instinctively where to place the camera and what color scheme to employ. Or vice versa. Then again, maybe it isn’t so surprising; they are brothers, after all, and they have been in the game for more than 20 years. This is the closest they’ve come to making an “action movie” since “Miller’s Crossing.” It is not special-effects driven. No helicopters explode, but it is quite fast-paced and the tension never ceases building for even a moment.
It must be said, of course, that their cause is largely aided by the high quality of the source material. Cormac McCarthy’s splendid 2005 novel is a funny and brutal meditation on the failed American capitalist experiment and, as such, is a perfect fit with the Coens’ gloomier sensibilities.
Sheriff Ed Tom Bell provides the lens through which we view this tale. Bell, played with relative understatement by a supremely confident Tommy Lee Jones, represents a sort of storm wall against the attritional breakdown of traditional American law and order. He and his wife Loretta (a fine Tess Harper) provide a colorful commentary-cum-Greek-chorus throughout the film. Jones’ grouchy, homespun wisdom is a highlight.
The nominal protagonist is Llewelyn Moss, played to perfection by Josh Brolin. It is Moss who discovers a pile of cash and heroin (shades of “A Simple Plan,” the film by the Coens’ friend Sam Raimi) and sets the bloody plot into motion. Alongside the money and the dope is also a number of dead (or dying) men.
The ensuing events are bloody indeed. Much of the blood comes courtesy of Anton Chigurh, the hitman sent to retrieve the drug money. As played by the great Javier Bardem, this character is as cold-blooded as any the Coens have created. Bardem looks like an aged Bob Denver with his Gilligan haircut — that is, until he starts to ply his trade. Monstrous as well as fatalistic, he prefers the cattle gun to the wood chipper, and he always travels light.
Moss, meanwhile, is troubled by his theft and returns to the scene of the crime where the drug mules remain. His life and the safety of his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) are suddenly in very serious jeopardy.
In this film (and in McCarthy’s novel) there’s a grave and damning indictment of that American type of violence and indeed the American psyche in full. It is a common theme utilized countless times, but nobody sees things quite like the Coens. All you Little Lebowski Achievers should be advised: This one is strictly for adults.