"You have to be willing to die to do this job," says Ed Tom Bell, the weather-worn Texas sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones in "No Country for Old Men." He's right. There's a lot of dying in this altogether remarkable movie. There's also a lot of struggling to survive.
It's set in the Tex-Mex borderlands, and I suppose you could categorize it as a neo-Western, although, like the Cormac McCarthy novel on which it is based, the film is far too spacious and elemental to be so easily typed. Joel and Ethan Coen, the co-writer-directors, have done an impeachable job of capturing McCarthy's hardbitten, oracular eloquence. At the same time, with its dizzying alternations of comedy and horror, the film is unmistakably a Coen brothers movie – albeit a much better one than they've made in a while.
The story is set in motion in a remote area where a West Texas hunter, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, in a starmaking performance), accidentally stumbles across the bloody, corpse-strewn scene of a drug deal gone bad. He makes off with the 2 million dollars in a briefcase that's lying about but he's enough of a hunter to know he'll be pursued for it. What he doesn't figure on is that his chief pursuer will be a human Terminator named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) whose preferred mode of killing is a cattle stun gun.
In a sense, Bell, Moss, and Chigurh represent the range of human response to death and dying. Bell, who quickly sizes up Moss's involvement, is an old school lawman with an almost philosophic appreciation for the moral weaknesses of fallen men. Chigurh is a relentless killing machine who, in hunting Moss down, blithely eliminates anyone who gets in the way. But even he has his philosophical side: At key moments he offers his victims a coin toss to determine their fate.
Moss, who fought in Vietnam, is a crafty survivor, and we are encouraged to identify with him as he slips in and out of Chigurh's traps. As unthinking as he was about stealing the millions – he wanted to impress his wife (Kelly Macdonald) with a better life – we can't help wanting Moss to triumph, or at the very least, survive.
As actors, the three leads are also a study in contrast. Jones, soulfully taciturn, gives Bell a deep down mellowness and vulnerability. Brolin is a live-wire whose body is attuned to every quiver of alarm in the landscape. Bardem, with his impassive, blocklike face and Prince Valiant haircut, is a totemic bad guy, so humorless he's humorous.
"No Country For Old Men" can be enjoyed purely as a great chase picture but, as it accumulates force, the chase begins to take on the trappings of something larger and more allegorical. When an attack dog is set loose on Moss as they both paddle furiously across a river, the nightmarishness of the moment is almost unbearable. The inexorability of Chigurh's pursuit is total, and it comes to resemble the doom that, in McCarthy's view, awaits us all. His nihilism has a biblical fury.
The West of this movie is not the Old West – there's something more lethal, more unforgiving about it. The only saving grace is Bell's humanism, and we can see that this will soon become a thing of the past. The Coen brothers don't mess around with McCarthy's fatalism or provide a glad fadeout, and this may upset audiences who want to see the world righted by the end. But the movie is true to its own fierce vision and it's the better for it. I haven't seen a stronger or better American movie all year.