After having dabbled with a romantic comedy (“Intolerable Cruelty”) and a troubled remake (“The Ladykillers”), acclaimed directors Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski”) return to a criminal tale reminiscent of those earlier in their career. Renewed with a vengeance, “No Country For Old Men” is some of the best work they’ve done yet.
Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, the story is purposefully paced and unafraid to follow its characters for extended periods of time. At its center is common man Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong while out hunting. Among the carcasses, he discovers a case filled with $2 million in cold cash and decides to take the money and run. Wrong move.
The simple plan quickly backfires as Brolin (“Grindhouse,” “American Gangster”) spends the rest of the film evading the certain death assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) threatens to exact. Brolin, whose performance is driven by his rough demeanor instead of dialogue, is forced to rely on his resourcefulness merely to remain alive. On the other hand, Bardem steals the show with an Oscar worthy performance.
Bardem (“Before Night Falls,” “The Sea Inside”) is chillingly masterful in his role, making for one of the best villains in recent memory. His weapons of choice — a supercharged cattle stun gun and an oxygen tank — are brutal. He flips a coin over the impending fate of some of his victims, rarely breaking from his calm disposition. His character is also shrouded in mystery — we learn little about who he actually is — but a single look into his odious eyes is enough to freeze any man dead in his tracks.
In the meantime, local sheriff Ed Bell — a part tailored for Tommy Lee Jones — tries to put the pieces together and figure out what is causing the wake of corpses. In between dishing out nuggets of wisdom, he personifies the type of honest, old-fashioned lawman that has almost been extinguished. Now embittered by a world of constant violence, he is left questioning if he will ever wake up from this grueling nightmare.
Even though at first glance the story appears to be straightforward, there is much happening beneath the surface. Questions of mortality and the adverse effects of aging are contemplated and discussed. More importantly, it explores a world inundated by violence — not unlike our own — and wonders if there is any hope for change.
The stark nature of the story is made all the more harrowing by the talent behind the camera. Frequent Coen brothers’ cinematographer Roger Deakins encases the film in an arresting array of light, shadows and blood — beautiful and striking in their essence. The film also lacks the arrangement of a traditional musical score, and the first note of music isn’t heard until the end credits. This places the emphasis solely on the Coens’ stellar writing — which remains laced with their dark sense of humor — and the performances from the story’s participants.
While it first might appear fairly routine, “No Country For Old Men” is anything but. The Coens’ sure handed directing, combined with powerhouse turns from much of the cast, elevates it to the same heights their greatest achievements reached. This thrilling game of cat and mouse is not to be missed.