Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem and Kelly Mcdonald.
No Country for Old Men, the newest offering from the prolific Coen Brothers, has already collected a slew of awards from various film critics' societies as well as a handful of Golden Globe nominations. It's also at the top of my own list of best films I've seen this year. Not everyone may agree: as I left the theater I heard more than one of my fellow moviegoers grumbling, "That was the ending??" True, viewers expecting a standard Hollywood thriller with clear-cut good guys and bad guys, a conventional plot and an unambiguous ending may be disappointed, but it's just as likely that those expectations will have been left in the dust (of which there is plenty) of the film's haunting landscapes, finely drawn characters and masterful storytelling.
The story concerns a small-town West Texas man, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who stumbles across a drug deal gone wrong in the summer of 1980. It's a stark and brutal scene: a circle of seemingly abandoned trucks and several dead bodies strewn on the ground. Even the dog's been shot. Llewelyn discovers a stash of neatly stacked drugs in one of the trucks, and a dying Mexican man who pitifully asks for water. "I ain't got no agua," Llewelyn tells him, and sets off to find the "last man standing" and the one thing missing from the scene: the money. He finds it soon enough-two million dollars in a suitcase next to yet another dead body. No, I'm not going to recount the movie scene by scene, but these events set up both the movie's plot and its themes: keeping the money becomes Llewelyn's primary goal, and an act of conscience-Llewelyn goes back to the scene of the crime to bring water to the dying man-puts into motion the cat-and-mouse game that pits Llewelyn against Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). We've already seen Chigurh, escaping police custody by killing a deputy, and heard the slow, calm voice of Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) over shots of the West Texas countryside he calls home, describing his first encounter with evil (a teenage boy he helped put on death row). When Chigurh kills a hapless motorist who has stopped to help him (using an air-propelled cattle gun, no less) and drives off in the man's truck, we know that Sheriff Bell is in for another encounter.
Although the suspenseful and complex plot kept my eyes riveted to the screen, it is the characters-and the quiet moments that reveal them-that really shine in this movie. I take it back: there are a few clear-cut good guys and bad guys. Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh is pure conscienceless evil, an evil so frightening even his haircut inspires fear. (Aside for locals: during a press conference, Bardem and Brolin mentioned going to the Cowgirl Café during the film's production. Bardem was depressed because women kept their distance until the two men "realized" it was a lesbian bar. Um, sorry, Javier: it was the haircut.) Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is a good man who does his best to rescue Llewelyn from his folly but finds himself out of his depth in the new landscape of drug traffic that is overtaking his quiet town. Innocence is personified by Llewelyn's wife Carla Jean (Kelly Mcdonald) and by a young boy who gives his shirt to an injured stranger. The character of Llewelyn Moss, though, is not quite so clear cut. This is a basically good man who loves his wife and whose conscience won't let him refuse a dying man's request. Yet when he comes across the drug deal, he doesn't call the police or help the dying man. He goes after the money.
Every actor here gives a flawless performance. That more of them weren't nominated for Golden Globes is a mystery. The cast also includes Woody Harrelson as a bounty hunter hired by the mysterious Stephen Root to recover the money, Tess Harper as Sheriff Bell's wife, and Beth Grant giving a poignantly comic turn as Carla Jean's mother.
Although set in West Texas, much of the film was shot in New Mexico. Locals will recognize the landscape around La Bajada, and the downtown area and Plaza Hotel of Las Vegas, which stands in for the border town of Del Rio.
To say that this is the Coen's best film to date is saying a lot. Certainly it's their most mature offering. Despite plot similarities that compare to Fargo and violence as graphic as anything in Blood Simple, No Country For Old Men has an entirely different feel. Their usual just-over-the-top style in which the filmmakers seem to be having fun with their characters (which works so well in films like Fargo and O Brother Where Art Thou?) is absent here. This film takes its characters and story absolutely straight. Even still, it manages to find a few moments of humor-in one scene, an injured Llewelyn is awakened by a mariachi band-but these moments only add to the feelings of randomness and inevitability that pervade the film. Fans of Cormac McCarthy's novel, on which the film is based, will definitely not be among the disappointed. I haven't yet read the book (though I definitely will now), but I've heard and read that the screenplay is entirely faithful to McCarthy's story, right down to some of the dialogue and that controversial ending. Actually, I'm guessing that a few of those who left the theater grumbling are still thinking about Sheriff Bell's bewildered disillusionment, Llewelyn's disastrous choices, and Carla Jean's last scene. I'll bet some of them have even changed their minds about the ending.
Although Michael Clayton is contender, I'm betting on this film for Best Picture.