There are so many things in No Country for Old Men that could go horribly wrong. That they do not is testament to the deft touch of Ethan and Joel Cohen, who have made too many good movies to expect anything less.
There is a plot, but like the Big Lebowski, that is not what the movie is about. Itâ€™s about the characters, the vast skies of Texas, and inevitability. It opens with Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) delivering the best monologue of the year. In the weary voice of a man who knows his fate but isnâ€™t racing toward it, he speaks of old time lawmen who â€œdidnâ€™t even wear a gunâ€ and wonders aloud what they would make of the world today. So do we.
The crime he speaks of involves a drug deal gone bad. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a welder and Vietnam vet who stumbles upon a curious scene hunting in the Texas desert: a few trucks and several dead bodies. He finds a truck full of heroin and finds one man still alive. In a mistake that will seal his fate, Moss leaves the man to the wolves and goes off in search of the money he knows must be around. He finds a satchel containing over two million dollars and takes it home to his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald), who asks a lot of questions. That night, stricken with guilt, he returns with water for the dying man. The man has been shot through the head and Moss is soon under fire.
He runs for it, and one of the oddest (yet exceedingly tense) chase scenes ever committed to celluloid swims down a river followed by an unnervingly persistent attack dog. He will spend the rest of his life paranoid and on the lam. And Moss doesnâ€™t know it, but the man heâ€™s running from is the most quietly terrifying villain since a certain Dr. Lecter spoke of fava beans and Chianti.
His name is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), and from minute one we know this is a psychopath. With his ridiculous haircut and deliberate mannerisms the character could become a caricature yet Bardemâ€™s performance oozes malevolence and hatred. The only time he displays any expression other than blankness or a sinister grin is when a rictus of madness takes over while strangling a police officer. This is quiet evil unlike anything weâ€™ve seen.
He calmly uses a captive bolt pistol to execute a man who never stops asking â€œwhat is that?â€ and later, during a conversation with a gas attendant who makes the mistake of attempting small talk, Chigurh flips a coin. â€œWhatâ€™s the most youâ€™ve ever lost on a coin toss?â€ he asks. As the man attempts to glan the stakes, it slowly dawns on him that there is a fifty percent chance he will soon be dead. When he goes to put the coin in the pocket he is admonished to put it â€œanywhere but your pocket. Where itâ€™ll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. Which it is.â€ Here is a man who doesnâ€™t enjoy killing so much as find it easier than having to deal with people.
It is not long before he catches up with Moss, and while the crafty veteran has a few tricks up his sleeve he is outmatched. No matter how clever his schemes are to keep hiding with the money, his pursuer gets closer each time. In a tense phone call Chigurh tells Moss that he can save his wife, but â€œThatâ€™s the best deal youâ€™re gonna get. I wonâ€™t tell you you can save yourself, because you canâ€™t.â€
In the meantime, Sheriff Bell has done some figuring of his own and is out looking for Moss. Not to convict him, mind you, but to save him. The jaded lawman has been around for a long while and has some of the best lines. As his deputy surveys the carnage and remarks on the mess, he laconically replies â€œItâ€™ll do until the mess gets here.â€ He has the experience to know what is going to happen, but the wisdom not to let Carla Jean know.
With The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and In the Valley of Elah, his portrayal of Bell cements Tommy Lee Jones as one of our best living actors. Josh Brolin is also strong, but the standout is the epochal performance of Javier Bardem, who has garnered his second Oscar nomination for his insane turn as Chigurh.
A less imaginative movie would build to a confluence of all these major players. There would be shaky cameras, jarring edits, and buckets of blood. The brothers Cohen (and perhaps Cormack McCarthy, the author of the novel from which the film was adapted) are too clever for that. Instead, No Country for Old Men ends suddenly, quietly, and perfectly.