An ordinary man stumbles across a ring of corpses surrounding a fortune in cash and a mountain of heroin. A bad man follows in search of the money; a good man follows in search of the man. This is the set-up for the newest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men -- an adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, and a brilliant example of how plot devices as simple as murder and money can be used to explore larger sweeping themes of mortality, morality and more -- while still delivering rousing, intelligent pure entertainment.
Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is out hunting when he stumbles across a scene of murder -- broken glass, bullet-ridden cars and bodies. A pick-up truck is full of heroin; he tracks his way to a lone corpse under a tree and an attaché case full of cash. It's two million. It's there for the taking. So he does. Soon, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) comes looking for Moss and the money, leaving a trail of dead men in his wake; local sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to figure out the why and wherefore of the murder scene and tries to track Moss so he can stop Chigurh.
Many will mock or knock No Country for Old Men as Fargo, Texas style -- in truth, No Country for Old Men has much more in common with the lesser-seen Coen films Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing. The money only matters as something for people want; the murder as something that people do. The common perception of the Coens is that they're quirky comedians, but in many ways, they're also methodical moralists -- and No Country for Old Men gives them a canvas to explore in the broad burnished vistas of the West, and in the lives of those who live there.
Llewelyn isn't a bad man, we quickly see -- or, maybe he is; either way, he's the one who found the money, and he's the one who wants to keep it. There's no sense of doubt about the means and motives of Chigurh; he's a flat-faced, slow-paced killer, and from the first time we truly see him -- red-rimmed eyes, grimacing face splashed with another man's blood, thrashing about a tile floor in the business of murder -- we're hooked on following him and his murderous ways. Sheriff Bell comes along to the murders late, but we've heard his dry, thoughtful voice-over from the outset -- he's our link to the story, and we're lucky to have him.
All of the actors are excellent -- Jones captures the confusion and hesitancy of a man who feels the world becoming a darker place around him; Bardem combines the physical and emotional to craft an indelible portrait of an unstoppable killer with an unhesitant hand and a psychopath's philosophy. But it's Brolin who surprises here -- after years of junky performances, he wears Llwellyn like an old shirt -- time and care pressing down on him, but still alive and ruthless in action.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins captures everything from mid-day open-sky vistas to claustrophobic night time urban action; in timing and tension, No Country for Old Men is one of the most suspenseful films the Coens have ever made, which says a lot. Cormac McCarthy's novel has also been impressively well-adapted -- improved and altered, but nonetheless full of McCarthy's clear, concise yet poetic voice. With all of the seemingly standard-issue thriller plot devices in the piece -- money, guns and trouble -- there's a dim chance that some might not catch the smaller, subtler themes of No Country for Old Men, which would be a shame; this is a story about death, not just murder; this is a story about want, not just money; this is a story of principle, not just pursuit.
No Country for Old Men is a morality tale written in blood and muzzle flashes, but all of the shock and power in the close-quarters lunge and rush of it can't hide that it's also a serious, thoughtful work of art that lies uneasy in your mind long after it's stirred your blood. The film may have headlong gun battles down dark alleys and range across borders in as the characters follow each other through the West, but what it really explores is the human soul: How we live, how we die, what we regret, what we fear.