After a series of ingenious, quirky and, most recently, inconsequential (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers) comedies, the more sanguinary sect of the Coen Brothers' faithful have anxiously waited to slake their bloodlust, praying for another Fargo or Blood Simple.
Their prayers have not been in vain.
No Country For Old Men, the highly-anticipated adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, represents a masterful return of the Coen Brothers' to their roots, enabling the fraternal directors to exploit and expand upon the same searing style of filmmaking that established them as two of America's most expert auteurs. But while elements of Fargo, Blood Simple and Millers Crossing are present in No Country for Old Men, the film succeeds in remaining both exhilarating and melancholy without coming across as overly affected.
Though their 21st century work certainly includes a few disappointments, the Coen Brothers' body of work is among the most diverse, creative and distinct of any filmmaker working within or outside the Hollywood system. To label any single Coen Brothers film a masterpiece would be an affront to their sprawling body of work.
That being said, No Country For Old Men is brilliant from start to finish; it's arguably the finest and, due to its finely tuned existential statement on violence, should be considered the current front-runner for Best Picture.
No Country displays the characteristics found in virtually every thriller-the money is stolen, the guns go bang and the bodies mount exponentially. Under the able guise of the Coen Brothers, however, the result is anything but typical. No Country for Old Men is more of an exploration of morality and the human condition than it is a shameless exhibition of violence, though there is plenty of that, too.
Set in a sparse Texan landscape circa 1980, No Country opens with the unexplained and temporary arrest of "ultimate badass" Anton Chigurh (played with devilish flair by Javier Bardem), a relentlessly vengeful professional killer who murders like most people shake hands (his weapon of choice being an air gun designed to kill cattle) and who literally reduces the fate of his victim's lives to a coin toss.
Meanwhile, everyman Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across a satchel containing $2 million, a souvenir left over from a drug deal gone fatally wrong. Smart enough to know that kind of money typically attracts attention, Moss hits the road. As it happens, Chigurh is the hand hired to retrieve the bounty. What results is a gruesome cat-and-mouse game between the men. Also involved in the case is the brooding and philosophical local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who consistently longs for the day when law enforcement didn't have to rely on guns.
While No Country's framework is not overly elaborate, the unpredictability of the action mixed with the Coen Brother's candid presentation, unique blend of pitch black humor and palpably tense atmosphere produces the most suspenseful and indelible scenes in recent memory.
The confrontation between Chigurh and a helpless gas station employee is particularly unforgettable, as is the motel showdown; the Coen Brothers are smart enough to realize that a lack of sound is as layered in silence, between Chigurh and Moss. Though deliberately paced, practically every frame absorbs the viewer completely.
Beautifully shot in gritty tones by Coen Brothers stalwart Roger Deakins, who breathtakingly captures the expansive isolation of the Texas countryside, No Country For Old Men is technically perfect-as is the acting.
Bardem owns the screen as the diabolical Chigurh, a pitch-perfect embodiment of unblemished evil. It will be difficult, even for those who are left unimpressed by the film, to dismiss his mesmerizing performance.
Brolin is equally adept in his turn as Moss, incorporating subtle flashes of humanity in a role that demanded little more than a somber attitude and taut expressions. And, in the role he was born to play-and has played repeatedly throughout his career-Tommy Lee Jones' turn as the oft-philosophizing and dryly witty Texas sheriff is effortless. The supporting cast shines as well--namely Kelly McDonald, who is surprisingly genuine as Moss' cloistered wife.
In an attempt not to sound too fulsome, the profuse Texan lamenting does not always resonate as profoundly as the Coen Brothers would like it to. Nonetheless, No Country For Old Men is the watermark of the Coen Brothers' career, and at the risk of contradicting what was previously written, a masterwork.