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No Country for Old Men

A Return to Form for the Coen Brothers

After two disappointing, sub-par efforts in a row (The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty), Joel and Ethan Coen (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Big Lebowski, Fargo) seemed at a creative loss. If the Coen Brothers’ latest, No Country for Old Men, an adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning Cormac McCarthy’s novel, is any indication the three-year hiatus between projects has done the Coen Brothers good. Adapting McCarthy’s spare, taut crime drama into an equally spare, taut film, No Country for Old Men is the perfect antidote for all that ailed the Coen Brothers. However, it is also the most difficult film in the Coen Brothers canon to watch.

Hunting antelope near the Rio Grande (the U.S.-Mexico border), Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a Vietnam veteran just scraping by, runs across a drug deal that’s left all but one man dead. Moss finds a pickup loaded down with bricks of heroin, but decides to search for the drug money, which he finds easily. Stirred, briefly, by his conscience, Moss returns to the scene of the crime, presumably to help the dying man who kept asking for water. Moss runs smack into heavily armed Mexicans. Forced to leave his truck behind, Moss escapes and returns home, sends his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), to stay with her mother, and flees with the money.

The drug cartel has hired a brutal, cold-blooded assassin, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), to track down the money. Alerted to the murder of a deputy in another town and an increasing body count by a mysterious killer, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) begins an investigation that leads to Moss, who also happens to be a personal acquaintance. Concerned about Chigurh’s very visible killing spree, the cartel sends Chigurh’s ex-partner, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), after Chigurh and the money. Chigurh, however, proves to be far more difficult to eliminate or control than Moss, Bell, or Wells expected.

No Country for Old Men is as bleak and as violent as they come and then some. What starts off as a pulpy crime drama involving familiar genre elements turns into an immensely entertaining exercise. With high production values, taut direction, impressive location cinematography by longtime Coen collaborator Roger Deakins, a polished script that retains McCarthy’s ear for laconic dialogue, and riveting performances by a uniformly talented cast, No Country for Old Men, transpires its genre, often brilliantly.

The Coen Brothers, closely following McCarthy’s novel, reject narrative closure for an ambiguous, frustrating ending that offers none of the niceties (e.g., justice, retribution, moral balance or equivalency) almost universally present in Hollywood films. No Country for Old Men is both a morality play about the usual pitfalls associated with crossing over into an underworld of crime and violence and a meditation about the nature and existence of evil in a profane world. In that, the Coen Brothers succeed, perhaps too well, as No Country for Old Men is the type of film difficult to watch more than once and the reason can be summed up in two words: Anton Chigurh.

By the final scene of No Country for Old Men, we learn little about Chigurh that we didn’t already know by the end of the first or second scene: he is a sociopathic assassin with a twisted, coldly rational worldview. He has no history, no family, no friends, nothing to tie him to the world except business relationships. Combined with Bardem’s dark appearance, blank, almost expressionless face, deliberate line deliveries, and physicality, Chigurh is all the more terrifying for appearing to be human.

Chigurh is less a character than an archetype of the Angel of Death or, more accurately, the closest McCarthy comes to a God in a universe devoid of the divine -- an Old Testament God of vengeance, wreaking bloody havoc while simultaneously imposing order on a chaotic universe.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars