With directors as good as Joel and Ethan Coen, it's easy to be letdown 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 tomake movies that thoroughly OK, but they're no "The Big Lebowski," amovie so utterly stupendous it's inspired people I know who aren't meat all to watch it upwards of 50 times. (The Jesus' partner is namedLiam, by the way. And the $0.69-check the Dude writes at thebeginning of the movie is actually postdated. Or so I'm told.)
The impending release of "No Country for Old Men," then, filled mewith 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 socool it burst through a brick wall and handed everyone refreshingdrinks? Or would it be merely decent, maybe even kind of good, butstill vaguely disappointing in a way that's all the worse because youknow 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.
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In the middle of his good deed, the drug runners return and run himoff. With Brolin's truck left at the scene, glacier-blooded killerJavier Bardem is able to start tracking him down; Bardem's alreadyleft a string of bodies throughout the state, and Tommy Lee Jones,natural police who's starting to get worn down by the harshness of themodern day, begins to pick up his trail.
To say Brolin and Bardem's game of cat and mouse is tense would be tosay that the surface of the sun is warm, or that brushing offpublication deadlines is fun. Bardem's so driven and effective he'smore 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 ofdeduction, but it takes all he's got to stay a single step ahead ofBardem's storm of violence.
No one combines comedy and darkness like the Coens can -- "Fargo" hadsomebody feeding his friend into a woodchopper, for goodness' sake,but I remember my parents and their friends talking to each other inMidwestern accents for weeks after they saw it -- and this might betheir best work yet. Source author Cormac McCarthy is so grim heprobably carries a scythe to his kid's Little League games, yet theCoens and their actors find a way to inject some humor into the tough,wry dialogue, particularly Jones' soft-spoken sheriff. (Not thatanyone in the movie's much of a talker. I've known parrots withbigger vocabularies.)
Many of the laughs are the uncomfortable kind, though, the gut-levelbursts that come when you're seeing an act of violence so brutish youjust can't help it and then hope you don't know anyone else in theaudience because they'd think you were a freak if they weren'tlaughing, 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 suchperfect editing since "The Departed." Trusting us to keep up with thesharp turns of its dense plot, it leaps with such confidence betweenits leads and the super-specific, wordless things they do to keep ontheir 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 indelivering a message, a mood it sustains through its unorthodoxending. That alone would separate it from most westerns and noirs.In some ways, that should make it less powerful, but the Coens' visionis so distinctive and alien "No Country for Old Men's" going to beremembered for a very long time.