NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, is a nail-biting masterpiece of suspense, operating on a philosophical level that is as sophisticated as it is compelling. It takes its tropes and its idioms from classic noirs, but with nary a cliché, and with a soul more hard-boiled than the film codes of a half-century ago would allow. Never mind the studios, which were in the business of producing fine-spun dreams, or the audiences who lapped them up.
Chance is the element at work here, chance and money, a lethal combination. A cross-border drug deal gone wrong, a hunter, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who missed his shot and, later, his chance to walk away from the underground drug wars in which, heretofore, he and his were non-combatants. It’s money, of course, that tempts him, and despite a good instinct or two, his moral lapse has called down on him in retribution the hounds of hell, or in this case, the psychotic and relentless leader of that pack, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). On the trail of both is Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the savvy Texas sheriff, son and grandson of same, and possessor of a moral compass that is nothing less than ruthless yet tempered with a rock-solid humanity that is the reason for that sad-eyed gaze with which he views the world. That world is a place in which life and death turn on the a flip of a coin, metaphorical and literal, with the choice thrust upon the innocent as well as the guilty for the disquieting reason that there is no reason, only the flip of that coin, and the turn of fate that led to that moment.
The Coen Brothers are no stranger to the visceral violence on display here, but they work it with an artistic panache. The elegant spill of blood that creeps towards a pair of boots, a bone sticking out from flesh, the moments that linger like hours as a victim awaits the fatal shot that he knows is coming. There is also a more refined violence working, most tellingly, two good kids with the instincts of Boy Scouts suddenly squabbling heartlessly over a substantial windfall. Anton, unruffled, unhurried, and endlessly resourceful toying with a store owner, exuding an unbearable vitriolic menace in the way he eats a bag of candy that bespeaks a soul capable of doing anything and feeling nothing. Bardem is brilliant, sporting a haircut taken from a vintage photograph of a brothel customer and an unfathomable emptiness in his deep dark eyes that is more terrifying than anger.
The style is terse, laconic, and to the point, like the Texans themselves. Yet, there is also the trademark Coen Brothers humor, sharp and twisted as it embraces the eccentricities of the Texans in their natural habitat, including a zaftig woman of a certain age with a resolve as immovable as her lofty beehive hairstyle, who proves to be the only thing that comes close to being a match for Anton. Colorful characters, Woody Harelson as a tracker for the money men with a talent for remembering dates and an impeccable eye for detail, Stephen Root as that unlikely money man puttering and fretting over his losses, and Texas itself, vast and silent where rolling thunder is a cacophonic lullaby with only the humans with which it is infested blasting away the quiet. A state of affairs summed up by the hurt look a wounded dog gives to one of the protagonists as it stops to look over its shoulder at the mess that is brewing.
In an oblique way, this is the continuation in spirit of FARGO. At the end of that film, the sheriff sums up her view of what has occurred as she talks, partly to the criminal in the back of her car and partly to herself. She ponders the way he’s ruined his life and it’s such a beautiful day, as though she can’t quite reconcile the two as occurring at the same time. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN begins with a similar soliloquy, as the sheriff of the piece confesses that he doesn’t know what to make of the serial killer with whom he contended. How anyone could hazard his soul for the gains to be gotten. And rather than sending the audience out with a glib answer, a comforting sop, it plays into and reflects the zeitgeist and its culture of fear, offering a harsh, Old Testament lesson with the world as a crap shoot, where one step away from the straight and narrow will seal one’s fate, and no one’s safety guaranteed.