Photo by RICHARD FOREMAN, courtesy of Miramax Films
Javier Bardem portrays Anton Chigurh in Miramax Films’ “No Country for Old Men.”
Warning: The straightforward storytelling, stark and striking cinematography, inspired acting and virtuoso direction that make Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men” a genuine masterpiece may result in an existential tailspin for some audience members.
It’s that good, and it’s that grim.
Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, the film is essentially a thriller with some very dismal societal observations. Set in 1980, the story follows Llewellyn Moss, a blue-collar welder and Vietnam vet. Hunting in the Texas borderlands, Moss inadvertently discovers the vestiges of a drug deal gone awry, complete with bloated corpses, dusty pickup trucks riddled with bullet holes … even a dead guard dog.
One lone Mexican begs for water – but Moss already has something else in mind: He’s looking for the “ultimo hombre, the last man standing.” He soon tracks him down – or, rather, finds his corpse along with a briefcase full of money.
After stashing the cash, Moss’ conscience reawakens and he returns to the scene of carnage with water for the survivor. His belated compassion only serves to put hired guns on his tail.
Enter bounty hunter Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), possibly the most malevolent character in cinematic history to leave a trail of corpses scattered across the American Southwest. Forget the fact that his weapon of choice is a cattle gun; forget the fact that he regularly relegates human life to the toss of a coin. In an Oscar-worthy performance, Bardem resists the temptation to make Chigurh a two-dimensional inhuman monster.
It is Chigurh’s twisted humanity, his merciless rationalization of murder, that make him such a nightmarish character.
What follows is a cat-and-mouse game with Moss – neither wholly noble nor nefarious – trying to keep the ill-gotten booty, protect his wife (Kelly McDonald) and outwit the relentless Chigurh.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the patron saint of The Old Ways, recognizes the storm clouds on the horizon. Bell’s shoes may seem familiar to Tommy Lee Jones who has made a career of playing pensive, besieged lawmen and gritty patriarchal types. In this performance, though, his pastoral epigrams and rustic optimism is displaced by endemic hopelessness.
Always a few steps behind, Bell is left to muse about the pervasiveness of violence in the world as he examines Chigurh’s bloody leftovers.
The Coens attention to detail intensifies the brutality of violent episodes, from the scuff marks Chigurh’s first on-screen victim leaves on the floor as he’s being strangled to the meticulously executed scene depicting the bounty hunter performing surgery on himself following a run-in with Moss.
Like “Blood Simple” and “Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men” features the Coens’ trademark dark humor. The well-timed quips and clever remarks, though, never detract from the ominous circumstances and frequently – upon reflection – reinforce the film’s stance on the scourge of dehumanization.
“No Country for Old Men” isn’t just entertaining. It has impact and implication. It is an assessment of American apathy that laments society’s deterioration and suggests that the end result is as unavoidable as the unstoppable bounty hunter Chigurh.