With directors as good as Joel and Ethan Coen, it's easy to be let down when they don't just knock it out of the park.
And it's been a while for them. "Intolerable Cruelty," "The Ladykillers" -- just about anyone else on the planet would be proud to make movies that thoroughly OK, but they're no "The Big Lebowski," a movie so utterly stupendous it's inspired people I know who aren't me at all to watch it upwards of 50 times. (The Jesus' partner is named Liam, by the way. And the $0.69-check the Dude writes at the beginning of the movie is actually postdated. Or so I'm told.)
The impending release of "No Country for Old Men," then, filled me with a special kind of anxiety. On the scale of 1 to Peter Fonda in "Easy Rider," just how cool would it be? Incredibly? Would it be so cool it burst through a brick wall and handed everyone refreshing drinks? Or would it be merely decent, maybe even kind of good, but still vaguely disappointing in a way that's all the worse because you know they're capable of so much more?
Out hunting in the Texas scrublands, Josh Brolin discovers a massacre: a pile of dead men, drugs, and money. He takes the money -- $2 million -- and heads home, where his conscience catches up to him that night, and he returns to the crime to bring the lone gutshot survivor some water.
In the middle of his good deed, the drug runners return and run him off. With Brolin's truck left at the scene, glacier-blooded killer Javier Bardem is able to start tracking him down; Bardem's already left a string of bodies throughout the state, and Tommy Lee Jones, natural police who's starting to get worn down by the harshness of the modern day, begins to pick up his trail.
To say Brolin and Bardem's game of cat and mouse is tense would be to say that the surface of the sun is warm, or that brushing off publication deadlines is fun. Bardem's so driven and effective he's more a force of nature than a human being. Brolin's hardly a slouch, he's a two-tour Vietnam vet with nigh-on preternatural powers of deduction, but it takes all he's got to stay a single step ahead of Bardem's storm of violence.
No one combines comedy and darkness like the Coens can -- "Fargo" had somebody feeding his friend into a woodchopper, for goodness' sake, but I remember my parents and their friends talking to each other in Midwestern accents for weeks after they saw it -- and this might be their best work yet. Source author Cormac McCarthy is so grim he probably carries a scythe to his kid's Little League games, yet the Coens and their actors find a way to inject some humor into the tough, wry dialogue, particularly Jones' soft-spoken sheriff. (Not that anyone in the movie's much of a talker. I've known parrots with bigger vocabularies.)
Many of the laughs are the uncomfortable kind, though, the gut-level bursts that come when you're seeing an act of violence so brutish you just can't help it and then hope you don't know anyone else in the audience because they'd think you were a freak if they weren't laughing, too.
Much like its supremely efficient characters, "No Country for Old Men" doesn't waste a moment of its time. I haven't seen a movie with such perfect editing since "The Departed." Trusting us to keep up with the sharp turns of its dense plot, it leaps with such confidence between its leads and the super-specific, wordless things they do to keep on their feet that their cold, strange world becomes completely real.
I'm not entirely sure what that world means: like McCarthy's books, the movie is more about establishing a mood of total bleakness than in delivering a message, a mood it sustains through its unorthodox ending. That alone would separate it from most westerns and noirs. In some ways, that should make it less powerful, but the Coens' vision is so distinctive and alien "No Country for Old Men's" going to be remembered for a very long time.