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On a sunny, hot afternoon in West Texas, a hunter named Llewelyn Moss tracks a deer across a remote stretch of prairie, stumbling upon the remnants of a bloody gun battle between warring drug cartels. There in the middle of nowhere he finds bodies, guns, heroin, and a bag of money which he keeps. Llewelyn, like all the best characters in a Coen brothers movie, is no fool. He knows that dangerous people are bound to come looking for their cash, but fears no one. He’s confident he can handle anything any man can throw at him, and begins taking steps to go into seclusion until the drug runners’ bloodhounds lose the scent he left at the scene.
Moss is smart, resourceful, and he probably really can take on just about any man and win. But what’s hunting him is no man. On his trail is a brutal and brilliant killer named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). More force of nature than man, Anton is the perfect assassin, free of all the things that hold normal men like Llewelyn back. Unhampered by even the most basic emotions fear, compassion, and indecision are foreign concepts to Anton. He sets out to kill Llewelyn knowing that success is inevitable.
Sheriff Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is no fool either, and it’s not long before he uncovers the crime scene where Llewelyn first discovered his bag full of bills. Faced with a field full of corpses Bell’s deputy observes, “Well, this is just a deal gone wrong, isn’t it?” To which Bell replies, “Appears to have been a glitch in it.” Bell talks in sarcastic, laid-back, folksy witticisms but there’s nothing slow about what’s going on inside his head. Bell’s eyes are active and alive, the wheels are always turning, even when his body seems to be at rest. As Llewelyn and his pursuer leave a trailer of blood smeared across his county, Sheriff Bell is hot on the trail, feeling every day of his advanced age as he begins to fear that smart and efficient though he may be, this criminal may be smarter.
No Country For Old Men is a return to glory for the Coen Brothers, a revisiting of the formula that worked so well for them in Fargo, but with a darker, more cynical twist. Both movies are about smart people on both sides of the law making desperate decisions, but where Fargo was about the triumph of justice No Country seems to be about the impotence of it. Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Bell is sketched as if Sheriff Marge from Fargo moved to Texas, aged 50 years and we’re catching up with her on her last case ever... the case that pushes her into retirement. The times may simply have passed Sheriff Bell by and no matter how smart or how fast he is, keeping up with the crooks is suddenly almost impossible. We follow along as Bell is faced with a modern criminal world which he, despite all his ability, may no longer have the skills to combat.
But it’s really Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss who runs away with the film as a brooding, improvisational hero. Confident and clad in button up shirt and cowboy boots, Moss comes off not as another wannabe redneck, but more as a sly, southern MacGuyver. His fast thinking and careful planning keeps him one step ahead of certain doom, at least for awhile. Watching him try to outrun the evil Anton carries with him is utterly fascinating, and the early part of the film is driven almost entirely by his race to get away with it all. Later it’s Jones’ calm, tired Sheriff character who carries the movie, while throughout Bardem looms as Anton, like the dark shadow of death incarnate always one move ahead of everyone else. Anton is a wickedly intelligent monster given man form and by pitting him against two equally smart, moral men in Moss and Bell, the Coens’ script does a fair amount of philosophizing about the nature of true evil, and the way in which good is rendered helpless simply by wrote of being good.
Everyone in No Country for Old Men is well spoken and composed, the dialogue is fast paced and full of life while still sounding like real life. So often crime movies depend on someone making a stupid mistake, or reacting in a way that no real person ever would. That never happens here. The film is set in the 70s, but only because let’s face it, crime movies were a lot more interesting before the internet and cell phones. The way No Country for Old Men’s characters talk and move seems real to the core, and transcends whatever decade it’s set in. As they did with the snowy north in Fargo, the Coen’s seem to get what Texas is all about, and their dark journey through the heart of the Lone Star State is as gritty and real as it gets.