As the film No Country For Old Men opens, Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Sheriff Bell, solemnly relates the story of a 14-year-old boy who killed his girlfriend. The local media portrays it is a “crime of passion,” a pseudo-Romeo and Juliet.
However, when questioned, the boy blankly asserts, “I’d been fixin’ to kill someone for as long as I could remember. If [Sheriff Bell] let me out of there, I’ll kill somebody again. I’m goin’ to hell. Reckoned I’d be there in about 15 minutes.”
This is the key to “No Country,” the latest film from the writer/director team of Joel and Ethan Cohen.
The film attempts to take a meditative look at a homicidal sociopath. His name is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a man whose sole purpose in life appears to be deciding who lives or dies through a series of circumstantial tests for his potential victims.
When first introduced, he seems mildly vulnerable. Tall, masculine, with a devilish grin and menacing smile, he carries around a tank filled with compressed air.
The thought that maybe he carries it for medical purposes goes out the window when we see him kill someone with a cattle stun-gun. It shoots a cylinder into the heads of his victims and whips it back into the tank.
The plot involves Chigurh’s cat-and-mouse game with deer hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who, when pursuing a fallen doe stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad. Moss sees a dozen men lying dead from gunshot wounds, a pick-up truck with bags of drugs and a suitcase containing $2 million.
Moss tries to keep the money for himself by vacating the trailer home where he lives with his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald), who is left in the dark about how deep into trouble her husband has gotten.
While Chigurh pursues Moss, both men are followed by an arrogant bounty hunter named Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), who is hired by a businessman (Stephen Root) to track the money he had invested in the drug deal.
How Chigurh is connected to the drug deal and how he is able to follow Moss, I won’t reveal. Nor will I reveal who finds who because part of the greatness of this film is the role chance plays in the life and/or death of each person.
The evilness of Chigurh is predicated on his sense of controlling each of the other characters’ fates and that knowledge gives him a feeling of entitlement that makes his killings all the more shocking.
In the film’s best scene. Chigurh stops in a small backwater gas station and has a brutally frank conversation with the store owner. The store owner knows he is in trouble but answers the madman’s interrogation into how he obtained the business (from his father-in-law) and when the store closes (he says now).
Each man knows what the other man is thinking and the Coen brothers find a nice balance between humor and horror to illustrate Chigurh deciding the man’s fate. Not since Joe Pesci asked “How am I funny?” in Goodfellas has a scene managed to be both so funny and so scary.
No Country For Old Men has a plot that is incredibly labyrinthine yet conveys the feeling that it’s all pre-ordained. Everything that occurs in the film seems to defy logic but makes sense in some grand scheme. Things happen because that’s what is fated to happen to settle the books.
The cast is universally excellent, especially Jones (who wants to help Moss for his own good) and Bardem (who tallies the highest body count in recent film history). The cinematography of Roger Deakins is also excellent.
The film is based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, which fans have argued is not one of his best, but it has been made into perhaps the best film of the year by the Coen brothers.