After the disappointments of their last two outings, the uneven screwball romcom Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and the lacklustre Ealing remake The Ladykillers (2004), the Coen Brothers are back with a triumphant return to form. No Country for Old Men, adapted from a novel by Cormac McCarthy, sees Joel and Ethan revisit the dusty Texan dawn of their debut, Blood Simple (1984), for a brutal contemporary Western of true grit and impending doom.
Out hunting near the Rio Grande, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon a Mexican heroin deal gone awry and a briefcase full of cash. He takes the money and runs, but unleashes hell in the form of murderous pageboy Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), an indestructible sociopath who dogs his every step. The law is left in their wake, helplessly following a trail of meaningless slaughter and stolen trucks across the state from one motel to the next. Tired Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) wears a kindly smile that masks growing discomfort as he comes to realise that he no longer understands the border country he has patrolled and marshalled all his adult life.
The Coens have stripped aside almost all of their comic trademarks to make a film more in line with McCarthy's stark apocalyptic vision. None of the actors here have been in a Coen Brothers movie before; this is equally no country for their usual stock players like John Turturro, Frances McDormand and John Goodman. One old man who does remain is their regular cinematographer, Roger Deakins, who beautifully captures a sun-bleached, wind-whipped desert landscape of dark skies and empty rooms, visually alien from all others in the Coens' oeuvre.
In terms of plot, however, one can see what first attracted the siblings to the novel. This is fundamentally a story about a man struggling to cope with the situation he finds himself in, aligning Llewelyn Moss with other Coen protagonists such as Nathan Arizona, Norville Barnes, Jerry Lundegaard and The Dude. Masculinity and its expression through explosions of desperate violence have always been staple themes in their work, and we find such incidents in spades here: Bardem's gas-powered cattle gun is as shockingly innovative a killing machine as the wood-chipper in Fargo (1996).
And yet this is still very much a black comedy. Woody Harrelson's cameo as bounty hunter Carson Wells is a welcome turn and brings the film's funniest line. The scene in which the Bardem interrogates an elderly gas station attendant on the question of fate is also priceless. The Coens abide, and I take comfort in that.
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