Joel and Ethan Coen have never claimed to be no-frills filmmakers. But in the decades since they lassoed the genre conventions of gory Western violence for their own amusement, and ours, in Blood Simple, the Coens have gotten bloody fancy. And that hyper-controlling interest in clever cinematic style attentiveness that turned The Lady Killers, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and The Man Who Wasn't There into finicky pieces that might as well be viewed under glass has nearly stamped out any hope of feeling any actual feeling.
No Country for Old Men reverses that slide into arch pastiche, brilliantly. It's the Coens' first movie in ages that doesn't rely on snark as a backup source of energy, the first Coen script that respects its own characters wholeheartedly, without a wink. And it's no accident that this measured yet excitingly tense, violent yet maturely sorrowful thriller marks the first time the filmmakers have faithfully adapted somebody else's work to their own specifications and considerable strengths. Cormac McCarthy's marvelous, throat-gripping, best-selling 2005 novel of the same name describes a contemporary American West (the action is set in 1980) where drug trafficking dirties the parched, wide-open landscape that was once home to cattle rustling.
Here, where the value of honor has steadily declined, an average chump named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is out doing a bit of unsuccessful hunting when he happens upon a huge cash haul at the scrubby site of a drug deal gone bad. And it's here that Moss makes his first wrong wager: He thinks he can take the money and run. But a simple plan is never simple. Two others are tracking the whereabouts of the windfall, one the meditative lawman Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), worn out by what he has seen of the evil that men do, and the other a singularly psychopathic hitman named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), assigned to retrieve the loot. Chigurh's sense of honor is as twisted as his preferred method of murder a cattle stun gun to the head, whooomp, dead. (His decision to kill or spare is sometimes decided by a coin toss.)
In Country, the hunters and the hunted are all haunted by an American malaise of emptiness that echoes through the novelist's tersely powerful prose like the constant rush of wind on the prairie. And the movie's biggest surprise may be the discipline with which the Coens convey that rattling, menacing despair. For all the compact intensity of Brolin's vivid turn as a common scrambling man who's not as smart as he thinks, for all Jones' pouchy authority when it comes to embodying Texas vernacular, and especially for all Bardem's thrilling ability to truly terrify (not just with his stun gun but with his glazed stare and baroque pageboy hairstyle), the leading character in this reverberating movie is silence, save for the sights and sounds of air and breath.
Silence deepens the horror of the drug-deal massacre that the lone hunter Moss first glimpses through his binoculars he spies scuttled pickup trucks, sprawled bodies, even a slain and rotting dog. (More so than that of any of his none-too-blabby costars, most of Brolin's work is wordless.) Silence heightens the exquisite tension as Chigurh tracks Moss, on the run, from motel to motel. (Silence is broken by the beep on Chigurh's radar of a certain tracking transponder that chirps a warning of impending mayhem.) Silence accompanies the mournful sheriff as he drives his Texas highways, and silence is what hangs in the air after Chigurh raises his grotesque, sound-muffling weapon to snuff out one life and then another, cold as hell.
Poet-cinematographer Roger Deakins, who's the Coen Bros.' preferred DP, provides the visual music, the almost painfully gorgeous images of turf, sky, and blood. Sound editor Skip Lievsay and composer Carter Burwell fill the ear with suitable hush. McCarthy's own language, the strong speech rhythms that blow his pages forward so decisively, drives the pace of the adaptation, too, so that a familiar reader need not fear ornery big-screen ruination (despite the elimination of one memorable, secondary character a hitchhiking girl), while the unfamiliar might well be spurred to pick up the book.
The breath of cinematic life, though, the sensibility, the energy, belong to Joel and Ethan Coen, and this is their stirring success. Such a dark epic is no country to be charted with old Coen tricks, and, rising to the material, they prove talented, wise enough men to know it. A–