As stomach-churning a suspense exercise as the cinema has seen since the salad days of Hitchcock, Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men is also a profoundly spooky evocation of apocalypse, American style. Going from strength to strength whether they're depicting grisly violence, mordant irony, or tragic poignancy, the picture represents a high-water mark for the Coens. It's their best picture, and could well turn out to be the best picture of the year. Whatever tops it — and as of this writing there aren't too many likely contenders to do so out there — is going to have to be very, very good indeed.
Adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, the West Texas–set picture kicks off with grim, sere landscapes, setting the tableaus for the gruesome introduction of its villain, a mysterious psychopath name Anton Chigurh with a novel method of blowing door locks off and human brains out. Bardem's magnificently creepy Chigurh breaks out of police custody in a scene that will have most viewers gouging the stuffing out of their armrests; whatever this guy is after, we know right away that he's not going to let anything impede his getting it. After this, affable would-be deer gunner Llewellyn Moss (Brolin), out on an unsuccessful hunt, happens on the human-and-animal-corpse-strewn aftermath of a drug deal gone very bad. Sure enough — Brolin drawls a perfect "Yeah" as he makes the discovery — there's a satchel full of loot on the dusty scene, and Moss makes off with it to his trailer park. Chigurh, whose hobby of deciding whether or not to kill someone based on a coin flip is one of his lesser eccentricities (and whose look recalls that of Lon Chaney in London After Midnight — no, really), is of course the man with a claim on the money. The often brutal cat-and-mouse game that ensues between the two characters affords the Coens the opportunity to create some of the most imaginative and excruciating suspense set pieces of their, or anybody else's, career. Tommy Lee Jones, whose character sets the film's tone with an elegiac voice-over at the beginning, is frequently hilarious as laconic (what else?) sheriff Ed Tom Bell, but it's his character who carries the moral weight of the story, and the decisions he makes as he comes to the end of the line, and a potential confrontation with pure evil, is what finally gives the film an enigmatic, haunting quality. Mulling over the story's climactic tragedy, Bell and another law officer discuss how the world's going to hell in a hand basket ever since kids started dying their hair green and stopped saying "sir" and "ma'am"; but a little later, visiting an old man who's both kin and a mentor to him, Bell is told "What you're seeing…is nothing new…. You can't stop what's coming." No you can't, and this movie aims to make you feel the truth of that statement in your bones.
Woody Harrelson as an investigator who fancies himself something of an expert on Chigurh, and Kelly MacDonald as Brolin's sweet, trusting wife, add fantastic texture and depth to this twisted, can't-look-away tale. (As do Garret Dillahunt as Bell's slightly dim deputy, and Tess Harper as Bell's wife.) Some rumblings are going on in both mainstream and internet movie-musing circles about the ending of the picture, which turns ruminant, elides what some might consider major high points of the story, and goes for something deeper and more thoroughly unsettling than the filmmakers have ever attempted before. (And also, I ought to say, hews very closely to McCarthy's own ending.) On first viewing I wasn't so sure about it myself. Second time around, I think it's perfect. And I think No Country is a picture to which I can apply that very vexed word "masterpiece" with no hesitation or compunction.