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A Coen classic

No Country for Old Men comes close to perfection

By Philip Martin

This article was published November 23, 2007 at 2:34 a.m.

— The American West is less a geographic location than a psychic space, a big nothing that's blank as a fresh sheet of paper. It is vast and lonely, littered here and there with bleached bones; relics of nameless animals whose tracks have been erased by winds scented with death and cordite.

Heralded at this year's Cannes and Toronto film festivals, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, the much-anticipated No Country for Old Men is a Western set in the empty lands of 1980 Texas. It's a sad and violent movie that catches the resigned, weary tone of its source material, a Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name. While it can be accepted as a dark story of crime and punishment, it is also an elegy for the America that exists only in the misty-eyed nostalgia of the old men of the title; specifically a west Texas sheriff named Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones).

Bell knows the good old days weren't all ice cream socials and neighbors watching out for one another's kids. He has spent decades looking after his people, he has seen some of them go bad and some go crazy bad. He remembers a time when some of the sheriffs didn't carry a gun, but he carries one. There has always been danger in his world. People have borne hard things and some have to be willing to die to do their jobs. Lately it seems worse to Ed Tom; civilization has worn thin and shiny in spots. Maybe it's the zombifying drugs, but he can't find a way to meet the eyes of some of these new criminals. They don't seem human.

He can't condone the actions, but he understands why a busted luck welder like Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) might do what he did. Moss is a Vietnam veteran and no longer young. He's got a childlike wife (Kelly Macdonald) in a trailer park and a beat-up truck. Given the circumstances, Ed Tom couldn't blame him for taking the satchel full of money. It made sense at the time. Moss'd already violated the killing grounds - the aftermath of a heroin deal gone very wrong - and he'd likely already seen more than he could stand. The only sane thing to do was to take the money and to try to hold onto it even though he knows how unlikely happy endings are.

Moss had called down the evil by no real fault of his own, and it is the way of evil to be implacable, to adhere to its own bitter logic. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) might be the devil's own Javert, but without the conscience.

There is an early scene - as suspenseful and harrowing as I've ever seen on film - in which Chigurh toys with an old man (beautifully played by Gene Jones) working behind the counter in a country gas station. You can hear a mounting trepidation and confusion in the old guy's voice as Chigurh - who we can tell is trying to decide whether to kill him - asks simple questions and parses the clerk's answers. Finally, without explaining why, Chigurh flips a coin and asks the man to call it.

"I didn't put nothing up," the man protests.

"Yes, you did. You've been putting it up your whole life; you just didn't know it," Chigurh says.

Bardem plays the character with an off-kilter, almost bemused air that suggests deep damage and supreme competence. Sometimes he does his work efficiently, with a pneumatic stun gun used to kill livestock, but the look on his face while he's slowly strangling a deputy to death suggests he enjoys the close-up intimacy of feeling a victim's ultimate breath on his skin.

There are others, less expert but no less deadly, chasing Moss, too. And Ed Tom would like to save him, if he can.

But the movie doesn't play out as a race against time, with the sheriff matching wits against the bad guys. Moss is smart, resourceful, and completely aware that he's overmatched. Ed Tom wouldn't give much for his chances. Money and greed command legions. No matter how honorable you are, in the end the sand scours your bones.

No Country for Old Men is a nearly perfect movie, impeccably cast, acted, set-designed and realized. It is shot with a cold and canny eye by Roger Deakins.

It is the Coen Brothers' best movie, and given their body of work it seems ironic that it is also their most humane. Unlike some of their other films, there's no sense that they feel superior to their characters; while the film includes some black humor, it is free of condescension and caricature.

It is a thoughtful, mature and earnestly meant work about the essential problem of being human - the suspicion that this is all there is, and that all our noble ideas about honor and decency, about right and wrong, matter not at all to darkening sky and leering moon.

MovieStyle, Pages 38, 40 on 11/23/2007

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