Josh Brolin is Llewellyn Moss, a Vietnam Veteran who stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong while out hunting in the sweltering Texan desert. After finding a bag with $2million inside it in the arms of one of the many dead bodies, Llewellyn takes the bag to his trailer park home. He returns to the scene of the crime later that night to bring water to one of the dying men, but while there he is set upon by two unseen people in a truck. He returns home, packs his wife off to her mothers and goes on the run with the money. On his tail is Anton Chigurh, a cold-blooded hitman who is tasked with recovering the money. Chigurh is played by Javier Bardem whose normally handsome features are rendered all but irrelevant thanks to a truly groundbreaking awful haircut. Chigurh kills near enough everyone in his path using a bolt pistol normally used to kill cattle. Picking up the pieces and trying to make sense of the devastation is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a world weary old timer who still possesses a sharp intellect and tries his best to catch up with Moss before Chigurh does.
It marks a noticeable departure for the Coen brothers with what could almost be described as a new found maturity. The over-the-top black humour that they always do so well was here eschewed in favour of cold hard realism. The violence is unflinching and the mournful sorrow expressed in parts by Sherriff Bell gives the film a powerful melancholic edge. There are elements of typically Coen-esque dialogue in there, but funnily enough, a large portion of this is taken verbatim from the McCarthy novel. There’s some brilliant to-and fro’s though, such as when the Sheriff’s deputy survays the crime scene for the first time and says to him “It’s a mess, ain’t it Sheriff?”
To which the old lawman dryly replies, “If it ain't, it'll do till the mess gets here.”
See also when Llewellyn decides to foolishly venture back to the bloodbath against his wife’s protestations. As he leaves he mutters, “If I don't come back, tell mother I love her.” His wife murmurs back “Your mother's dead, Llewelyn.” To which he wearily replies “Well then I'll tell her myself.” Clearly there is a definite element of the standard Cohen humour in there, but it’s laced with an incredible sense of darkness and remorse.
This downbeat tone is no better personified than by Tommy Lee Jones’ phenomenal performance as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. All three leads are exceptional, as are Woody Harrelson and Kelly MacDonald in supporting roles, but its Jones who rises above the rest. It’s his laconic opening narration which introduces us to the tone of the movie, and his lamenting monologue which closes proceedings. Playing a weather-beaten and world-weary Texan may not be a great stretch for Jones, but you cannot ignore how pitch perfect he is throughout. He despairs at the violence of the modern world, and he undoubtedly sees himself as one of the old men referred to in the film’s title.
There’s a great sense of creeping dread throughout the movie, made flesh by Anton Chigurh who haunts the movie’s plot like a spectral angel of death. He is completely without emotion, an unrelenting and remorseless monster who thinks nothing of killing whomever he sees fit. Bardem deserves great credit for delivering a true screen baddie for the ages.
As well as the Coen’s top-draw direction, great praise must also go to DP Roger Deakins who captures the rugged landscape and sun-dried small town steets impeccably. The two directors themselves had arguably their finest hour to date here, combining the neo-noir grubbiness of Blood Simple, with the twisting crime thriller of Fargo. It’s a bleak movie which deals with question of personal choices and the importance of moral character. The whole film is understated with long periods of silence and minimal soundtrack utilised to heighten the sense of tension that pervades throughout.
No Country is a rare perfect storm of directors on top of their game, an engrossing plot, sparkling dialogue and a cast all capturing their roles perfectly. It’s sure to be remembered as a bona fide modern classic for many years to come.