New Killer. Old Hairstyle.
Quietude. West Texas veldt. 1980. A lone gunman (Josh Brolin) hunting game comes upon a slaughter scene: a handful of Mexicans dead in their clustered pickup trucks on the barren plain, massive heroin blocks untouched in the bed of one truck. The gunman follows a blood trail to another dead man clutching a leather briefcase stuffed to the seams with cash.
Brolin is Llewelyn Moss, a Nam vet, living a poverty-line existence in a trailer park with his young wife Carla-Jean (Scottish Kelly Macdonald, with a southern-fried Murrican accent that befits her double first name). Does this weathered gunman walk away from the cash? Does he call the police? Are you kidding? In THIS economy?! Moss does the sane thing and takes the bag…
Simultaneously, on a lonely desert road, the most sinister villain since Hannibal Lecter (Spanish star and newcomer to American cinema, Javier Bardem) uses a tank of compressed air and a cattle gun to dispatch a lone driver and steal his car. Soft-spoken. Emotionless. His bad Brady Bunch hairstyle making his murder seem all the more incongruous (the cattle gun a judicious weapon of choice if you regard people as no more than cattle). Earlier, he had strangled the lone police officer that arrested him. Soundlessly. Almost sensually.
Bardem is hitman Anton Chigurh, and it becomes apparent he has been dispatched to hunt down the bag of money for some faceless employers we never meet. The relentless, unforgiving pursuit of Llewelyn Moss has begun…
A small town sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) narrates the first few minutes of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (in that Texas Hick that fits him like a pair of horse-breakin’ denim jeans), describing a teen he put away years ago, who killed his girlfriend (Jones pronounces it “kilt”), who bragged he would kill again if they didn’t give him the chair; a remorseless sociopath that the Sheriff could not begin to fathom, regarding the teen as a herald for a new breed of evil.
Jones is worn out Sheriff Bell, whose tale has nothing to do with the plot, but everything to do with his emotive state. He is on the trail of Chigurh pursuing Moss, not only three steps behind the new breed of nihilism, but unequipped to even comprehend it.
From the novel by Cormac McCarthy, screenplayed and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, in its first ten minutes we see why NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is so lauded – not through any explosions or car chases or over-cooked special effects – but simply through its controlled camera and suspenseful storytelling. Films like this are often called “minimalist,” because we have become so jaded and ocular-insulted with the SPIDER-MANs and TRANSFORMERs – this is classic American film-making in that bold Eastwood-ian vein. (And the movie’s biggest “special effect” – which will go largely unnoticed – is its detail-oriented 1980 wonderland of cars, storefronts and fashion emergencies.)
The chase plot is almost secondary to the exceptional manner in which the story is told through the Coen Brothers’ movie MAKING; framing every detail with utmost thought to light and shade, literally and metaphorically; each tension-soaked moment ratcheted to perfection; each scene a nuanced smorgasbord of directorial and acting skill.
The stark realism of Chigurh hunting Moss creates compelling vignettes, dripping with almost-nauseous intensity: the old man at the store who nearly “buys the store” on a coin toss; the dog relentlessly chasing Moss through a stream; the bruise that Moss sustains from a door-lock exploding into his torso; the gruesome reality of a bullet wound and Chigurh self-medicating and operating on himself; the glass-shard reality of a bone sticking through an arm after a car accident… all these things never needed to be gussied up to hold our interest; there was no tweaking for “Hollywood” impact – and that is the screaming beauty of this movie.
NO COUNTRY defies every movie convention (which is why it leaves fully half its viewers boggled and/or disappointed): Woody Harrelson cameos as a “cleaner” – and is suddenly cleaned himself; Moss vows he will turn the tables on Chigurh, and instead of a retelling of FIRST BLOOD, Moss’s fate is a jarring departure from anything we are used to in modern American cinema; the killer disappears without repercussion, without redemption, and without his goal achieved; even Sheriff Bell doesn’t come close to any closure or capture, never quite picking up the scent of the killer and his quarry.
Though Carter Burwell’s score intermittently peeks through the large silences, the movie ends as it began. In quiet. But not in quietude. Bell laments his directionless life to an old friend, ominously decrying the new breed of killer outpacing the old breed of good men like him.
And this new breed of movie – with its sharp turns and defiant originality – leaves us all feeling like there’s a little bit of Danny Glover in all of us:
We’re gettin’ too old for this shit…