It's easy for filmmakers to cultivate a reputation, good or bad, through repetition. For Joel and Ethan Coen, that reputation was for crafting a series of quirky films filled with odd-ball characters. The approach has served the brothers well over the past two decades--garnering them legions of fans, critical acclaim and a combined five Academy Award nominations. The brothers' latest, an adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel No Country for Old Men, continues the pedigree.
Set in 1980, No Country for Old Men follows three characters--aging lawman Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), semi-retired hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and killing machine Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem)--as their paths cross throughout southern Texas. Moss stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad in the desert, stopping long enough to grab hold of $2 million in a satchel and leaving a man to bleed to death. Eventually a crisis of conscience prompts Moss to return to the scene, where he's quickly discovered by men who want the money back and send Chigurh to retrieve it. From there, Moss has to struggle to survive Chigurh's pursuit while Bell tries to ensure nobody else dies in his county.
Despite being an adaptation of another's work, No Country for Old Men has all the standard Coen quirks: entertaining dialogue, interesting settings, dark humour, quirky characters and a unique code of honour adhered to by many of the characters. A large portion of the plot, in fact, springs from the sociopathic Chigurh giving his word to Moss to do something and not being dissuaded from his path. The bulk of the screentime is devoted to Chigurh's pursuit of Moss and their conflicts are as violent, brutal and realistic as anything in a previous Coen film.
The downside to the Coens adaptating another person's work is that the ending leaves something to be desired. Several elements are left ambiguous in the main storyline and the resolution, if it can be called that, occurs off-screen. After spending two hours with the characters, it would've been nice to get some closure. Regardless, the aftermath of these events is at least entertaining, so it's hard to be too tough on it.
As is usual with Coen films, the acting is tremendous. Tommy Lee Jones has mastered the art of being Tommy Lee Jones. Javier Bardem follows award-winning performances in Before Night Falls and The Sea Inside with a captivating performance as Chigurh, creating one of the most compelling screen villains of this decade. Josh Brolin continues the best year of his career ever, following up his performance in American Gangster with a great portrayal of Llewelyn Moss as the Roadrunner to Chigurh's Wile E. Coyote. On the supporting front, Stephen Root, Woody Harrelson and Kelly Macdonald are excellent in limited doses. Of the trio, Macdonald is given the most to do and excels in her portrayal of Moss' wife.
Anchored by Roger Deakins' sure-to-be-award-winning cinematography, No Country for Old Men is a modern film with a western sensibility, featuring two diametrically-opposed characters going nose-to-nose. The audience is given reasons to care about both of them, which provides the rest of the film with enough emotional levity to make the two hour duration breeze by. Despite any qualms audiences may have with the open ending, No Country for Old Men remains yet another triumph for the Coen brothers, who continue to prove that Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers were rare mis-steps in otherwise flawless careers.