Vapors of Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, David Cronenberg's A History of Violence and Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction permeate a dusky 1980s-era Texas-Mexico borderland where retiring hardscrabble Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) hunts bizarro serial killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who is busy chasing married Army vet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). The three characters form a cross-generational chain of variously disaffected men spiraling down a whirlpool of blood and cash. Painful laughs accompany gut-twisting suspense as McCarthy's side-winding story swings out of control in increasing arcs of succinct violence.
Chigurh, in an unflattering Dutch Boy haircut, is temporarily arrested before he strangles the officer with his handcuffs and continues on his way, leaving a trail of corpses behind. The archetypal human killing machine embodies a black heart of the borderlands' drug trade that has infected large swaths of Texas and New Mexico.
Bardem thoughtfully creates the most daunting illegal immigrant any U.S. politician ever dreamed about. And the Coen brothers treat the threat with deadpan irony. The closest Chigurh comes to exhibiting humor is when he asks a victim to flip a coin to determine whether they will live or die.
While out hunting, Moss has the apparent good fortune of coming upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong in a remote desert area. Amid bloodied bodies, spent rifles and five shot-up trucks, he finds $2.4 million in cash and a mother lode of heroin. Hiding the suitcase of cash at home momentarily brightens Moss' dream of providing a good life for his loving wife Carla Jean Moss (Kelly Macdonald), but his decision to take water back to a dying man at the scene proves a step too far. Or did Llewelyn return for the heroin?
Josh Brolin's recent career comeback, with solid performances in Grindhouse, In The Valley of Elah and American Gangster, is more than validated here. Of his recent roles, Moss is the leading man part that allows Brolin to trust his instincts in creating a conflicted character living on his wits alone. To say that Brolin's acting comes as a revelation in No Country is an understatement.
There's an impression here that, just as they achieved with Fargo, the Coen brothers have perfected a dry-witted version of their self-blended modern noir cocktail. The Coens' first movie, Blood Simple, was set in Austin, Tex., and their ear for regional dialects and thought patterns plays strongly in the pacing of a West Texas story where silence means as much as the dialogue. Whole stretches of sequences go by with hardly a word spoken or a note of music, and yet the pacing hits at a breakneck speed.
The title No Country for Old Men is an opinion pulled from the philosophical mind of Sheriff Bell, an honest Texan broken-hearted over the drug and border-crossing violence that has consumed his home, an area once treated with a code of honor. Bell dreams of spending his remaining days with his patient wife Loretta (Tess Harper), but too much has changed in the region. The new American West is fueled only by greed and a thirst for retribution, if not preemptive slaughter. It's not a place that Bell can abide.
The Coens are masters at condensing metaphors into visually identifiable tools of practical purpose. Chigurh uses a hydraulic tank to blast holes in heads and to knock out door locks. His undisputed reputation as a fiercely effective killer puts him on the elevated status of a paramilitary agent ranking up points toward a fat retirement. Even though the story is set in 1980, the tonal pitch reverberates between twinges of the Old West and of contemporary America, consumed with illegal immigration, drugs and guns.
The Rio Grande River, which Llewelyn temporarily escapes across, becomes a barbed-wire filter for his cash. McCarthy's source material insinuates symbolic ideas about an American society where Western life has turned far more violent than the blood-soaked days of the Old West. Justice and honor are foreign words unrelated to modern survival and accumulation of wealth. Suspicion is the coin of trade that must necessarily gravitate toward bitter death.
And yet there is a sense of hope in the face of such brutal truths that back-cycles across the movie when its deceptively ethereal ending resolves the motivations of everyone involved. You can't always get what you want, and you can't always keep what you have. The Coen Brothers have gotten their mojo back with the help of Cormac McCarthy. Grade: A