The only good man to be found in Joel
and Ethan Coen
's No Country for Old Men is a sheriff by the name of Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones
). Every morning he has bacon and black coffee with his eggs and he'll take any chance he can to ride horses with his wife in the canyons of Texas. In a jarring opening monologue, Bell says that to know the kind of evil going on these days would require a man to put "his soul at hazard" and to say "OK, I'll be part of this world." He doesn't find appeal in conceding to either.
Bell's troubles kick off when a deputy makes the fatal mistake of arresting a pale man with a terrible bowl cut, properly named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem
). Chigurh strangles the deputy while his flailing boots leave a trail of scuff marks on the jail floor. As he makes his way back to his meeting spot, Llewelyn Moss (a near-stoic Josh Brolin
) has come upon a massacre of drug runners in the California canyons and prairies. He leaves the drugs but takes a bag full of money for his own. Within hours, he is sending his wife to live with her mother and plotting the best way to shake the trail of dead that is left in his wake. A cocky fixer (Woody Harrelson
) makes nothing but a blip on Chigurh's radar as he rifles through hotels and hospitals to find his money and the man who has "inconvenienced" him. Article continues below
Adapted with a vice-grip from Cormac McCarthy's ferocious novel, No Country is the neo-western byproduct of a deranged and adrift zeitgeist. Bell constitutes a prolonged case of deja vu from when the West was a place where the law was respected though hardly ever obeyed. While Moss might dress and talk like a cowboy, he acts and thinks like a thief on the run: after the money is stolen, he is intermittently wounded or bleeding in some way for the rest of the film. Chigurh must have been spawned from an uncharted ring of hell to do half the things he does: using a cattle gun to dispatch human cattle and pop a few pesky locks, flipping a coin as a victim's last vestige of hope. One character, when questioned, diagnoses Chigurh's disposition as "not having a sense of humor."
The Coens have matured into deft directors of small action in haunted set pieces: a self-administered surgery in a hotel room, the securing and retrieval of the bag of money in a vent, a last-minute inspection of a crime scene. These are all moments of laconic tension that play out and blend into the blood-soaked décor of the film with rustled elegance. Even more, their touch with actors has become a refined skill. Jones has become a monument to "the old ways" in his own right but unlike his character in Paul Haggis' exceptional In the Valley of Elah, his dread and terror over the current state have become terminal here; his bracing yet defeated tone hangs over the film like a cracked bull skull. Bardem miraculously plays Chigurh without deluding his malevolence or turning him into a character. The scariest part of Bardem's groundbreaking performance is that he acts just a notch left of human.
Chigurh's rampage through California, shot like a suburb of purgatory by the extraordinary Roger Deakins, and Moss' inability to shake that bag of money become the death knell for the old ways, not to mention Bell's belief that he can do some good. The sheriff wrestles with his sense of discouragement and the feeling of being "outmatched" while sitting over a bad cup of coffee with his Uncle Ellis in one of the film's final scene. What becomes apparent in the Coens' film is echoed at the end of Ellis' hair-raising eulogy for the American conscience: "You can't stop what's coming."