So the surprise of their new film No Country For Old Men is its eerie, tense quiet. The dialogue, much of it verbatim from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, is predictably fantastic, but the preferred form of discourse among the film’s leads is mechanical. Shotguns, pistols, and uzis are deployed throughout, along with the horrifying weapon of choice for bounty hunter/embodiment of evil Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem): an air-powered cattle gun that shoots a steel rod into victims’ heads and retracts immediately. Like Chigurh, the weapon barely makes a sound as it operates. The killer also uses a machine gun at different points in the film, but always with a massive silencer.
The stoic, silent type is also familiar in Coen territory, usually as a foil for the verbose minor players, but here Chigurh’s elusiveness is employed metaphorically. He’s an instrument of unceasing evil, a force as natural as the wind that occasionally moseys through the movie’s yellow plains. Chasing Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) across West Texas in pursuit of $2.4 million and killing anyone who stands in his way, Chigurh is even likened to the bubonic plague. Bardem is brilliant, especially when his character extends his killing scenes much longer than they seem to require; he seems to circle his prey, asking philosophical questions about death and fate that seem wildly out of place in the Podunk settings. He is not a round character in the traditional sense, but something closer to an angel of death.
After a brief voiceover, No Country kickstarts when Bell takes the cash from a botched drug deal he discovers while hunting. Convinced he can get away from his pursuers and find safe haven with his wife elsewhere, he sets off without a proper understanding of who’s hunting him. It’s never made explicit who Chigurh works for or what his stake is in the money’s recovery, nor does it really matter. Also on the trail is the increasingly ineffective Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who parses through the crime scenes with admirable efficiency yet remains one step behind the murderer at every point.
In skeletal form, the plot of this movie bears unavoidable comparison to the Coen masterpiece Fargo, in which another small-town cop attempts to solve a string of ruthless killings amidst a desolate, flat landscape. But the good guys (woman, really) win in that film, and Fargo is ultimately an homage to simple values and their endurance in small communities. No Country For Old Men offers nothing so tidy as closure, and it ends with Sheriff Bell in uneasy retirement and a string of murders largely unsolved. Moss becomes less important as the movie moves along, and the last quarter barely feels like the same Western-noir chase that precedes it.
A person’s enjoyment of this movie will essentially rest on their tolerance for the Coens’ gradual focus on the chase as a metaphor for larger, good v. evil themes. I found this transition to be convincing and important, especially since the first half drags a little. At first, everything seems like business as usual for the filmmakers: grisly violence, a debt to film noir, a middling protagonist in over his head, and a distinct regional location with concurring dialect. The chase sequences are fantastic and the acting is uniformly good, but after the third or fourth motel set piece the story begins to feel repetitive. It is a clever and un-Coen-like twist for the movie’s emphasis to subtly shift towards the end; by the time Bell’s ruminative description of his dreams brings us to the credits, it’s hard to remember a single funny line from the film although there are many along the way. The audience is left feeling less secure than we did as the chase began, in part because familiar storytelling tropes like a hero or criminal motivation have been slowly stripped away. Even music, a Coen staple and useful way of discerning a filmmaker's emotional intent, is absent from the film.
No Country For Old Men feels like a thriller and looks like a Western, but the contemporary setting and elliptical finale prevent it from being a mere genre exercise. In its refusal to give the good guys a victory, the movie is in keeping with the revisionist Westerns of the 1970s, yet the Coens don’t attempt anything so bold as subversion of cultural mythology. Instead, they’ve toned down their quirkier aspects of characterization and created a taut, meditative crime movie. After a full career encountering mankind’s darker side, Sheriff Bell seems less certain than ever about the usefulness of his job or his place in the world. A happy ending – any ending at all, really – would misrepresent his unease. The Coen brothers have served him appropriately, that is, silently.