Joel and Ethan Coen have spent their career crafting stylish, visceral tales of crime, fixated on the aftermath of bad decisions. "No Country for Old Men" is a near-perfect summation of that pursuit; a whip-smart, fingernail-chewing creation that crackles with tension and is pocked with thrilling incarnations of evil. It makes the standard-issue nightmare seem like a tropical vacation.
Out hunting in Texas, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon a drug deal gone south, leaving behind a truckload of heroin and two million dollars in a black case. Taking the money, Moss hits the road, soon realizing a dangerous sociopathic hit man named Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is on his trail, mercilessly slaughtering anything that stands between him and retrieving the money. One step carefully behind is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a wizened law enforcement officer hoping to protect Moss, yet weary of the changing face of crime, fearing his place in the order of good vs. evil has drawn to a close.
Adapting Cormac McCarthy's best-seller to the screen, the Coens have miraculously retained the novel's dense plotting, yet still managed to mold a volatile thriller out of the material. They've created a wonderfully severe, breathless journey, tracking Moss as he tries to locate a safe haven and enjoy his acquired loot, at the same time, completely unable to shake the unstoppable Chigurh and his peculiar instruments of death.
"Country" is a film of vast detail, using the Coens' gift for visual mastery to bring the audience in closer to the hunt. It starts with the sparse Texas flatlands; an expansive wasteland where crime is only a blip on the horizon. Gorgeously shot by Roger Deakins, the arid topography serves as a dominant backdrop of indifference, shrouding the characters in sun-drenched, sweaty misery.
That misery is a potent mixture served up by the Coens, staging a relentless chase movie that's nearly silent in execution, perhaps better scored with the viewer's anxious fluttering heartbeat than any stringed accompaniment. Observing three interwoven stories, the film never lags in tension, tending to Moss's panic, Chigurh's fixations, and Bell's investigation with enthralling spirit, leading to exceptional scenes of conflict and violence as these men desperately fight to achieve their goals. It's a chase movie of monumental intellect as well, with specific attention paid to the psychological reach of the danger, and how the survival instinct of the characters kicks in and pushes them to keep running no matter how ominous the consequences appear.
The Coens also play with tart Texan dialogue, retaining McCarthy's literary design, while shaping it to fit a more staccato big screen beat. It's a marvelous display of screenwriting; the Coens boiling slowly to a rhythm, while the actors relish every last chance to deliver the golden dialogue.
With such a marvelous cast, it's impossible to single out any particular piece of acting that rises above the others. However, Bardem's work is worth noting if only because it's such a nutso interpretation of malevolence: a singular force of pain who has little patience for small town social rituals and delights in the potential games of chance offered. Armed with a "cattlegun" compressed air cannon, Chigurh is nothing short of the Angel of Death, causally tracking Moss's movements while removing any potential witness with steel-faced menace, glaring out from under a strange pageboy haircut. Brolin finds a sublime survival pulse while Jones gets to play amazement, but Bardem...it's a special strand of madness he's tuned into, molding a screen villain of authentic worry and conviction.
The lone stumbling block is presented in the final 15 minutes, which serve a wonderful purpose, but derail the tension. Switching from Moss's story to a graceful elegy on men who have outlived their purpose, the Coens slash the ankles of their creation, dropping in last-minute mediations and psychological settling that stops their red-hot thriller cold. The conclusion serves a greater purpose for sure, finding closure and lament for certain characters, but the swerve in tone is disorientating; too great for the movie to support, softening the death blow the story doesn't require, but this film deserved.
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