Even before it was released in theaters, when critics filled previews at festivals in Toronto and New York, No Country for Old Men was hailed as a masterpiece. The latest film from the Coen brothers, meticulously adapted from a novel by Cormac McCarthy, is, without dispute, a strong showing from the renowned siblings. It's at once a taut crime thriller as well as a meditation on the dynamics and traditions of the American Southwest. It is also superbly crafted; sound design and tight editing make this a standout in a season of politically charged if not technically sound films.
However, No Country is often so subdued and ponderous in presentation, even when the tension is at a boiling point, that there is always a palpable barrier between the film and the viewer. Not necessarily a drawback, this gauzy aspect doesn't detract from the masterful work that has been wrought here; No Country simply doesn't have the cinematic bravura befitting a modern American masterpiece.
No Country begins with a soft-spoken and vaguely broken-down unemployed welder named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finding a satchel full of money. A pragmatic Midwesterner, Moss understands that such a stash doesn't come without its strings. The film follows his evasions of the money's prior owners, including Mexican drug runners, a man named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), an unflinching force of destruction who claims the money to be his as well, and a bounty hunter hoping to tie it all up neatly (Woody Harrelson). All the while, a fading sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) follows the ensuing carnage, alternating Midwestern quips with eloquent monologues of a bygone era of civility.
For most of its run time, the film gazes unflinchingly at Moss as he stoically tries to hold onto his treasure, running into his assailants continuously and usually not escaping wholly unscathed. As Moss, Brolin's performance is sharply muted; his astoundingly effective hollowed-out gaze and minimal speech creates a plight is truly desperate and saddening. His main pursuant, the relentlessly deadly Chigurh, is the opposite of Moss: while Moss represents a shred of humanity clinging to opportunity, Chigurh is a towering creature, a force of nature, that forces humanity itself to follow its own moral codes.
No Country is a subdued and sparse film which does away with stylistic flourishes and embraces precise camera work and sound editing. The Coens wrangle each shot into perfect alignment with what is happening at any given moment; No Country, if nothing else, is an extremely taut and masterfully directed thriller.
It's also, however, a bleak and subdued look at how the world is slowly slipping into a state of unbalance, where the police can no longer stop the criminals, and those unstoppable creatures are either ruthless drug-runners drenched in their own greed and violence or specters of unrelenting death. The viewer is to assume that the former is what permeates our culture today; gun-toting thugs that are faster and more ruthless than seasoned sheriffs or army veterans. The phantasmagorical golem, however, is a distinctly fictional embodiment, something which the Coens seem to want to have transcended reason while at the same time holding us accountable to our need for rules.
The Coens' latest film wraps these contemplations around a refreshingly sharp and sparse thriller. It does not, however, shake its ponderous undertones, and in the end finishes with softly spoken eloquence where perhaps most would have wanted cathartic violence.
No Country is a distinctly independent vision from some thoroughly talented filmmakers, and despite its tonal shortcomings, it delivers some refreshingly detailed and taut storytelling.