How It Rates: ***
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly MacDonald
Red Flags: Graphic Bloody Violence, Language
I didn't figure out No Country For Old Men was set in the late 1970's or early 80's until about one-third of the way through the film, where we see a shot of a Bell System telephone bill in glorious computer type. A drive from McAllen, Texas to Tucson in 1999 revealed parts of dusty West Texas fail to age at the same rate as everything else. Even the law doesn't keep up with the changing times, as revealed in the Coen brothers' latest suspense thriller that intertwines drug running, serial killing, greed and lone-wolf survivalism.
Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, a hunter who stumbles across the bloody aftermath of a Mexican drug buy gone bad near the Rio Grande. Decaying, bullet-pierced bodies lay around him, along with a load of heroin and a satchel with more than $2 million in cash. He takes the money, a silver pistol, and a semi-automatic rifle and leaves, only to be gnawed by a guilty conscience for one of the banditos barely alive. When he returns with water, he finds more smugglers coming to check out the scene, and the chase is on. Moss is in a messa' trouble, as they say in Texas.
His trouble is an assassin named Anton Chigurh (Bardem), a creepy angel of death with a pale complexion who could scare Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with just his philosophical tongue alone. One of the film's most riveting scenes features Chigurh discussing a coin toss with a gas station owner, where it's clear more is on the line than heads or tails:
Anton Chigurh: What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss?Chigurh's weapons of choice are a silenced shotgun and an air gun used to slaughter cattle -- which is also handy for busting open locks. Most of the film is a fox-and-hound hunt between Moss and Chigurh, with Moss figuring out how to stay a step ahead of his potential killer while protecting his wife Carla Jean (MacDonald).
Gas Station Proprietor: Sir?
Anton Chigurh: The most. You ever lost. On a coin toss.
Gas Station Proprietor: I don't know. I couldn't say.
[Chigurh flips a quarter from the change on the counter and covers it with his hand]
Anton Chigurh: Call it.
Gas Station Proprietor: Call it?
Anton Chigurh: Yes.
Gas Station Proprietor: For what?
Anton Chigurh: Just call it.
Gas Station Proprietor: Well, we need to know what we're calling it for here.
Anton Chigurh: You need to call it. I can't call it for you. It wouldn't be fair.
Gas Station Proprietor: I didn't put nothin' up.
Anton Chigurh: Yes, you did. You've been putting it up your whole life you just didn't know it.
Quotes courtesy imdb.com
That would be enough to fill the movie, but Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones) is also looking for Moss, a man he's familiar with in the small-town Texas kind of way. Bell knows the ways of border bandits, and he knows Moss is in grave danger, but Carla Jean is the only link to him, and Moss isn't the kind of person to ask for help. Bell can do little but investigate and worry while mentoring a greenhorn deputy Wendell (Dillahunt). Yet he knows how it's all going to end from the moment he learns of Moss' involvement. Sheriff Bell has a reluctance to delve deeper into the case, especially with retirement nearing, as he realizes drug violence is infiltrating what used to be just quiet Lone Star country.
No Country For Old Men is based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, but it reminds me of the Coens' first picture, Blood Simple. It also weaved a dark and intricate tale of murder with white-knuckle tension. But while that one built to a huge finish, the Coens decided to let this one coast down the hill. Maybe you will find it Hitchcockian and understandable, or maybe you'll echo what a woman behind me said as she was leaving the theater: "That was a stupid ending!" Ethan and Joel are clearly capable of better.