By Steven Snyder
It opens to the sound of wind whipping across the vast, arid desert, and ends with the detached tick-tock of a wall clock marking the seconds both not-so-subtle testaments to the relentlessness of fate. One can’t change the weather, just as one can’t stop the hands of time. And the characters in “No Country For Old Men” slowly come to learn that there’s no stopping what’s coming to them either.
In the brilliant new thriller directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, of “Blood Simple” and “Fargo” fame, fate takes the face of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, in a performance that will almost surely secure him an Oscar nod), a wide-eyed, flat-voiced, eerily cool-headed killer who seems to roam the landscape as if an omniscient god of death.
Already in the title, pulled from the Cormac McCarthy novel on which the Coen Brothers base their script, an epic testing of the wills is alluded to: This is no place for men unprepared for the changing ways of the world. As the body count rises, we realize that Chigurh is that change, and on the other side of the equation are three generations of men, and one particularly fearless woman, who may or may not be ready for the test to come.
The oldest of the men is Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the local sheriff who narrates the movie’s opening sequence. He talks about catching a murderer who was convicted and sentenced to death, who all too easily embraced the fact that he would soon be killed and find himself on the way to hell. It’s a memory that Bell hasn’t quite found a way to forget, a vision of pure, unapologetic evil he hasn’t quite found a way to reckon with.
It isn’t until much later that he comes to realize the new horror that has descended on his rural New Mexico desert community, when he stumbles upon the truck of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a local boy who is poised precariously between good and evil, decency and depravity. Out in the desert one day, Moss all but stumbles upon a fresh graveyard of jeeps and corpses a drug deal gone horribly wrong. Surveying the scene, he finds one lone survivor in need of water (“I ain’t got no water,” he tells the man), and off in the distance he finds another rotting body, positioned about a foot away from a black case holding $2 million.
This is the money that Moss steals, that Chigurh wants back, that Bell suspects is the root of the evil game of cat-and-mouse unleashed in this corner of nowhere. Moss’ wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald, in a powerful, sure-to-be-overlooked performance), is the only one who seems to realize the score, asking Llewelyn if he knows what he’s doing. But by this point, it’s too late; he knows, and she knows, the line he’s crossed, and that there’s no going back to the way things were before.
Operating almost entirely without a musical soundtrack, and capturing the vast desolation of the desert with a silent, absolute intensity, the Coen Brothers seem determined to strip “No Country For Old Men” of all unneeded noise or action. The sparse, almost non-existent dialogue renders each word, each syllable, that much more crucial, overflowing with meaning and, in many cases, double meaning. The fiercely intelligent, realistic characters often stay one step ahead of the audience, making every decision, every heart pounding confrontation, seem utterly authentic. And rather than relying on splashy sound design, sneaky camera angles or subtle editing tricks, almost all the terror in the film is generated by the swift, certain and emotionless violence unleashed by Chigurh, each firing of his weapon a cattle gun exploding onto the screen like a lightning bolt.
Yet churning underneath this money-oriented thriller is a more profound head-to-head contest between the forces of fate and free will. One by one, these characters are tested. What matters more to Llewelyn: His money or his wife? How willing is the sheriff to go head-to-head with the monster? Will Carla Jean have the grit to cope with the fact that she’s been dragged into this war, whether she likes it or not? Near the end of it all, we’re even drawn into a debate about Chigurh: Is he an infallible agent of evil, or is there even some slim slice of decency lurking within him, that will be snuffed out by yet some larger force roaming the horizon?
Sporting all the fatalism found in the best westerns, all the unpredictability that fuels the best thrillers, and all the deeper philosophical overtones that underscore the best horror films, “No Country For Old Men” closes with a terrifying, eerily simple epilogue. Introducing us to yet a third generation of men, two young boys on bikes, we see in their innocent eyes an utter lack of recognition as to what waits for them out there.