After two disastrously-received studio comedies (Intolerable Cruelty and the Ladykillers remake), cult filmmakers Joel & Ethan Coen return to the West Texas badlands that put them on the map over 20 years ago, when they unleashed Blood Simple on an unsuspecting public. Like their auspicious debut, No Country for Old Men opens with a montage of bleak but beautiful Texas landscapes, under a twangy voiceover (Tommy Lee Jones here, M. Emmett Walsh in Blood Simple) that sets the fatalistic mood.
Adapting Cormac McCarthy's novel (apparently faithfully), the Coens find common ground between their first film and their best, Fargo, by placing a thoughtful, world-weary sheriff (Jones) in the middle of a clutch of ne'er-do-wells killing each other over a bag of money. In this case, though, while the usual Coen wiseguy dialogue fills much of the movie, Fargo's jokier tone is abandoned for a lean, mean, and relentlessly suspenseful approach.
The plot is as simple as could be: a young Texas loser (Josh Brolin, very good) comes across a mass murder in the desert and finds a satchel with two million dollars in it. Without a pause, he takes it for himself, and his paranoia sets in quickly.
Naturally, he has a good reason to be concerned: that $2 million was the prize in a major drug battle, and he knows that somebody will soon be looking for that money. (Ironically, it is the one kind thing he does - returning to the scene to give water to a dying outlaw - that sets the bad guys on his trail.) So while Mexican gangsters, Jones's laconic sheriff, and Woody Harrelson in a somewhat undefined role are all after Brolin, the chief villain is one Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a loner who kills without mercy and who leaves a body count so high that you lose track of the number of his victims some twenty minutes into the film.
Bardem has been taking the lion's share of No Country's considerable critical acclaim, and he deserves it. He's wonderfully frightening, even if it's never made clear just who he is and why he's there. But Jones shouldn't be overlooked. His deadpan performance has a real sadness at its core, and he anchors the film as Barden provides its viscera.
However, while I won't argue that for much of its two-hour running time, this is one super tense nail-biter of a thriller, I'm not ready to jump on the bandwagon and hail this as an "instant classic". (Of course it took me two or three viewings of Fargo before I really understood its message, and it's since become one of my all-time favorite movies.) Without giving much away, the tension-filled storyline takes a typical Coenesque left turn in the final act, and No Country ends somewhat abruptly.
There's method to the Coens' madness - you may notice, for instance, that the murders in the film become less explicit as they mount, to the point where you're not even sure if people are dying; you just assume they are. And the key to understanding just what the film is trying to say is hidden, I believe, in two dialogue-heavy scenes: a cryptic exchange between Tommy Lee Jones and Northern Exposure's Barry Corbin (in another undefined role), and the final scene of the film. There is something deep and meaningful in these two scenes, but, anxious as I was to find out what happened, and who was alive and who was dead and what happened to that 2 million dollars, I blinked and missed it. You might too.
Anyway, there's no denying that No Country for Old Men, with the double meaning of its title and the potential relevance of its unusual 1980 setting, is a masterfully-made motion picture. Just don't be surprised if it leaves you a little baffled.