After a shonky patch of kook-com and overcooked filler (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers), the Coens’ Oscar-magnet Cormac McCarthy adaptation is an exulted homecoming to their heartland/badland of Texas. No Country For Old Men roams the same pitiless, prehistoric scrubscape where, with 1984’s Blood Simple, the brothers first conjured their chemistry of febrile thriller and inky comedy. What’s often overlooked in the grouching about the Coens being smart on style but sparse on soul is their piercing sense of right and wrong. Here, they chime out a booming riff on their favourite theme: a hapless everyman who, via greed and stupidity, steadily engineers his own destruction (see Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo…).
Out deer-hunting on the dusty range, Llewelyn Moss ( Josh Brolin) stumbles across bigger game: the booty from an aborted drug deal. While nasty cartel bosses set their maddest dog Chigurh ( Javier Bardem) on his trail, soon-to-be-retired sheriff Ed (Tommy Lee Jones) picks over the gory splashback. Jones plays ethical narrator here (another Coens trick) – he’s a one-man chorus on McCarthy’s zeitgeist-twanging anxieties: mortal dread, Godless destiny, rapacious modernity, a new breed of brutality slowly stealing over a cowardly world slouching towards chaos (“The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure…”).
The extras are the usual group-gush for the directors’ calm and quiet working methods, but they carry the key to the film’s lean, serene majesty: there’s no fuss or fluster, not a morsel of flab. Nothing is over-frothed or overplayed. Every performance is rich with restraint, every syllable of dialogue sculpted, every shot loaded with pith and portent (the panting pitbull glaring over his shoulder hinting at Ed’s existential despair).
Fans of McCarthy’s novel will clock Bardem’s mop-top assassin as a scathing sketch of the dual forces that mould all our lives: the relentlessness of time (Chigurh himself) and recklessness of fate (his coin-toss). And the ending? Like life, it’s anticlimactic and anti-cinematic: no one wins, no one gets their man, no one cashes in, lucks out, swoons into love or soars with redemption…
But that doesn’t mean No Country is cruel or nihilistic. Like its Oscar rival There Will Be Blood, it’s a beacon of dark morality – a warning against the perils of progress: greed, opportunism, material gain over emotional growth… Bloody, yes. But far from simple.