Joel and Ethan Coen’s barren, beige, and bleak Texas plains are no country for anyone. In the opening shots there’s not a soul alive, just more wind and dust than a Saharan twister. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) has good reason to split town. An unnervingly calm murderer with a Prince Valiant haircut and a voice like a frog, his favorite tool is an air compressor that blasts holes in his victims’ brains. But Anton’s scruples are as high as his body count and the current target of his indignation is Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a welder and Vietnam Vet. The stubborn and reckless Moss was out hunting deer when he stumbled across a drug deal gone wrong. The trigger-happy dope smugglers slaughtered each other (and their pit bulls), their corpses uselessly guarding a truck trailer of heroin and a suitcase stuffed with $2 million dollars—more than enough cash to let Moss’ wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) quit the Wal-Mart.
What follows is taut, deliberate, and excruciating as Chigurh stalks Moss through one shit town after another, mowing down any civilians that cross his path, unless they guess right on a coin toss for their life. Chigurh’s cruelty and fearlessness are beyond measure—he’s beyond psychopathy to a beast with such savage focus, his closest relative is Jaws IV who chased the Brody family to the Bahamas. Behind Moss and Chigurh are two great Texan actors: Woody Harrelson’s wrong-side-of-the-law money collector and Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, whose lawmen family has been trying to keep Terrell County safe for three generations, for better or (more often) worse.
And this being a Coen brother’s film, each of their characters comically insists on under reacting to every shock in their pitch-perfect rural accents. (Victims aren’t “killed,” they’re “kilt.”) When Moss finds his bloody windfall, he just wrinkles his brow and grunts “Yep.” Deputy Wendall’s (Garret Dillahunt) response to the field of putrefied smack dealers is to gesture at the two in suits and twang, “These boys ‘pear to be managerial.” Yet these men aren’t callous; they’re just trying to act strong while the whole world hurtles towards hell.
The big question in No Country for Old Men is when should the old men and everyone else should take stock of the encroaching darkness and pull up stakes. It’s no land for the decent, and ultimately, not even for heroes. John Ford made the same point in The Searchers, and the Coens not only imitate his sour-eye view of humanity, but also his penchant for natural lighting where their sun streams in from a window, but the people inside are still hidden in shadows. When they die—and plenty of them do—their deaths range from endless, like the strangled deputy whose feet kick fruitlessly against the floor, or offstage torture that’s even worse for being left to the imagination.
Joel Schumacher and the rest of the quick cut commandos could learn a lot about crafting suspense from studying the way the Coens shoot Moss being chased down a river by a pit bull. Instead of smash cuts between fangs and desperate eyes, the camera pulls back to view the whole scene, and the dog-paddling canine’s determination to narrow their ten-foot gap is chilling. The Coens stir up more panic by quietly flicking off a light switch than Michael Bay did with a fleet of Decepticons.
“I think once you quit hearing sir and ma’am, the rest is soon to follow,” sighs Jones’ worn-out sheriff. But what this wonderfully miserable film seems to argue is that crime and cruelty only feel like modern inventions—we’ve been hurting each other since the Paleolithic era. Every generation thinks the next one is worse, and maybe that’s because the only comfort in leaving the world is to convince yourself that it left you first.