Much like in 2006 when the best film of that year (Babel) was released on Boxing Day, so it is with No Country for Old Men which scrapes in at the last minute and heads straight to the top of the films of the year.
While hunting in the Texan prairie Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) sees an injured dog in the distance, and investigating where it came from leads him to find the remains of a drug deal gone bad. Dead bodies lie everywhere, there’s a bag filled with two million dollars and a car boot full of drugs. Taking the money he unwittingly becomes the prey of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a psychopath who will do whatever it takes to retrieve the lost millions. Local Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is in turn hunting Chigurh, fearful of what will happen to Moss if Chigurh finds him and determined to catch the man responsible for so many deaths.
What follows shares the trademark bleakness of the Coen Brothers’ greatest previous film, Fargo, while also being a thriller and a western. There are shades of Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson in Sheriff Bell, as the Coens explore the effect that being a part of such violence has on the relatively innocent. As the voiceover at the beginning of the film suggests, Bell’s morals are those of another time, and he grows ever wearier of the drug culture that is just starting to become a problem in 1980s Texas. He is skillful but fatigued, nearing retirement, and struggling with his place in the world. Tommy Lee Jones is excellent, demonstrating much of this conflict with posture and tone, especially in the scenes shared with Moss’s wife, and also with his out of town colleague.
The standout performance, however, belongs to Javier Bardem as Chigurh. His assassin is ruthless and calculating, completely competent and absolutely horrifiying. Bardem is magnetic, drawing the viewer in with the power of his portrayal. Chigurh’s introductory scenes show him to possess a code of sorts, unfamiliar to any rational audience member, that allows him to kill without remorse and even occasionally to let luck decide who lives or dies. He is chilling and evil, and entirely believable thanks to the wonderful turn of Bardem, who is likely to win several major awards to add to the Best Supporting Actor awards already bestowed upon him by the New York Film Critics Circle and Boston Society of Film Critics.
The Coens’ use of the Texan landscape adds to the sense of bleakness that pervades the film, with windswept flatlands stripped of vegetation and quiet, beaten down small towns where poverty is the norm. Their eye for settings is matched by their ability to construct slow-building thrillers, and their skill at making surprising choices allows this film to feel fresh and inspired. Their only miscalculation is in the final scenes with Sheriff Bell, as a discussion featuring overt metaphoric references is handled in a somewhat clunky fashion.
No Country for Old Men is yet another reminder of the skill of truly great filmmakers to entertain. The Coen brothers’ film is sure to become a long-time favourite of many who see it, and is highly recommended.Rating: