“Well, all the time you spend trying to get back what’s been took from you, more is going out the door. After awhile you just have to try to get a tourniquet on it.” ~~Ellis
There’s this thing that Joel and Ethan Coen, directors of “No Country for Old Men,” understand that so few filmmakers do: It’s the quiet films that pack the biggest punch. Not that “No Country” is a quiet film, exactly. There’s action aplenty, including several tense shootouts and a few point-blank assassinations; blood spillage is at a premium. But it’s the bone-dry dialogue, the sideways glances, the eerie periods of silence that make “No Country” so unsettling, so revealing. For these characters, silence means much more than words ever could and it’s thrilling and brilliant to watch.
And so “No Country for Old Men” begins quietly, with personable but jaded West Texas Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (a first-rate Tommy Lee Jones) explaining how the things he’s seen have changed him, put his “soul at hazard.” Bell is a wise man who has seen everything but used his laconic wit to keep the danger from warping his soul. But he soon meets a bizarre crew of characters who aren’t quite so wise. Enter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a struggling cowboy who, while hunting one afternoon, stumbles onto a drug deal gone awry. Nearly everyone is dead (even the dog) except for a dying man demanding water, and there’s an abandoned truck loaded down with Mexican brown. Moss finds a briefcase full of money under a shade tree and takes off. But his conscience wakes him up later that night, and he returns to the shootout scene with a jug of water.
This, of course, is a colossal mistake, and one that turns “No Country for Old Men” into an unflinching, unforgiving game of hide, seek, kill. Now Moss has placed himself squarely in the sights of Anton Chigurh (a chillingly blank Javier Bardem), a psychopathic killer who wants the drug money back at any cost. This foolish decision sets in motion a chain of events — “you can’t stop what’s coming,” Bell’s father Ellis (Barry Corbin) observes — that winds its way to a finale that offers up not the tiniest bit of closure.
“No Country for Old Men,” adapted by the Coen brothers from an even more bleak Cormac McCarthy novel, is relentless in its pacing. The film never, ever lets up. Every moment is packed with tension, and audience anxiety only grows as it becomes clear that no character, not even Sheriff Bell, can see what’s coming his way. Relentless, too, is the bracing black humor that pervades the Coen brothers’ deadpan script. There’s a scene where a leery Moss, who’s hiding out at a fleabag motel, agrees to have a beer with a woman he meets poolside. She assures him: “The only thing beer leads to is more beer.” What happens next is textbook Coen. Better still is the conversation between Chigurh and a cashier, which draws shudders when it becomes obvious the men are talking about more than a coin toss. Coen regular Roger Deakins amps up this tension with his expansive camera work; he creates a vivid landscape that moves and breathes.
Yet the dialogue would fall flat without the right performances, and every one of them is faultless. Jones hits a career-best as Bell, turning what could have been an “aw shucks” Barney Fife into a sad and vulnerable character. Brolin finds the right mix of bravado and fear in Moss. Kelly Macdonald makes the most of her role as Moss’s dim-witted but loving wife. As for Bardem, well, he’s so good at being scary scarier than “bubonic plague,” as one character observes, that it’s possible to forget his most unfortunate bob haircut. With a compressed-air cattle stun gun in hand, he just might be the nastiest, scariest villain ever to swagger onscreen. He’s a sneaky one.
Such is the way of “No Country for Old Men.” By Coen design the film sneaks up on you, burrows its way, chigger-like, under your skin like a chigger and stays there. You don’t feel the sting until it’s far, far too late to pull back.