Mysterious and elusive, provocative and disturbing, No Country for Old Men is the finest Coen Brothers film to date. It’s got the profane violence of Blood Simple, the wry wit of Raising Arizona, and the tight plotting of Fargo – not to mention outstanding performances by Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, and Tommy Lee Jones. And it culminates in a big finish that’ll either leave you wanting more or simply cold.
The plot is fairly straightforward. A hunter named Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon the scene of a drug deal gone really, really sour. Dead bodies, including a dog. Shot up trucks. A huge stash of drugs. And, at the end of a bloody trail, a dead man and a satchel with $2 million in cash. Now, what would you do in that situation? You’re armed, but who knows who’s out there in the wilderness, looking for their lost loot? If you’re Mr. Moss, you amscray the heck out of there.
Of course, someone’s gonna come looking for that money, and that person is a crazy bastard named Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who has a penchant for killing and absolutely no moral compass to speak of. He wants something, he kills you and takes it. Or takes it and kills you. Either way. Chigurh is single minded, but he’s by no means a simple man; he’s whip smart and blindingly fast with his gun and his feet. There’s something about Chigurh that separates him from every other killer who wants his money back; its intangible, and it’s all because Bardem is so perfect in the role. His sad eyes belie an absolutely terrifying, methodically maniacal criminal.
Completing the trifecta is a beleagured, world-weary sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones). Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is to No Country for Old Men as Marge Gunderson was to Fargo; the no-nonsense, superclever, seasoned Johnny Law who tries desperately to piece together the puzzle before every character has been murdered, a la Shakespeare. This is a role Jones was made to play, and I can safely say he turns in the finest, most nuanced and sincere performance of his long career. Jones has the countenance of a leathery cowpoke as it is, and the unique drawl to accompany it, and the beautiful, poignant script (also by the Coen brothers) allows him to really show his stuff.
Make no mistake, though, in spite of its subtleties, this is a very violent movie; many painful, gut-wrenching deaths occur. Still and all, one thing that makes the movie work is that the violence seems real, not comic-book style; it’s not violence without serious repercussions.
Back to the writing. At times during the film, multiple storylines are in motion, a la Pulp Fiction, and everything moves so seamlessly that it’s only later, in retrospect, that you recall certain aspects that tie in one character’s perspective with that of another. A mediocre screenwriter would have trouble with this, and plot holes the size of the Rio Grande itself would emerge. People would laugh about the plot inaccuracies and overall inadequacies.
And then, finally, there’s that ending. Some people will absolutely love the ending, but others will stare at the screen for a few minutes, wondering if there’s more to the story. Simply put, not everything is explicitly resolved, so if you’re the kind of person who must have everything tied up as if in a 30-minute sitcom, you’re going to have an issue or two with the finale. There was a bit of silence in the theater in which I saw this movie, but I didn’t get the impression it was the angry “THAT’S IT??” kind, just the surprised kind.