So, here it is. The best picture of the year, at least so far, and Thanksgiving hasn't yet arrived. Not only is it the best to date, No Country for Old Men is also the finest combination of filmmaking and literature in years, teaming the Coen Brothers—who do far more than recapture the cred they blew on recent efforts like Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers—with Cormac McCarthy's 2005 neo-Western, post-nihilist novel.
In many ways, Joel and Ethan have surpassed their previous efforts by clinging to the heart and soul of McCarthy's book. But it's strange that the best film of the year won't make most people feel good, because it's precisely the opposite of a feel-good film—it's brutally violent and emotionally unsettling, and it tests the idea of what should happen in a mainstream movie.
There's a moment in the second half of the film (I'm not saying what it is) that audiences will find confusing and upsetting. It comes out of nowhere and broadsides the viewer, who must then redefine the entire nature of the film. It's shocking and ballsy, and it's going to piss off a lot of people, not because it's poorly done or untrue, but because it challenges the very idea of what we expect from our movies. This is a hard movie to watch but an easy movie to appreciate, even if you don't exactly like it. It's just as vital and just as important as Clint Eastwood's The Unforgiven and made with even more craft.
It's 1980, and Llewelen Moss (Josh Brolin) is a good ol' Texan hunting antelope when he discovers a bloodbath—a massive drug deal gone bad, with cars and dogs and men shot to hell in the middle of the desert. Beyond the dead bodies and a truckload of heroin, he finds a briefcase full of money and decides to walk away with it, knowing that his life as he knew it has just taken a sharp turn in an unexpected direction.
That's because, of course, the money's owners, be they rightful or not, want it back. Enter Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a sociopathic killer whose path you don't want to cross. This film will make Josh Brolin's career, but it is Bardem who sets the tone. This is an extraordinary performance, menacing and nasty. But here's the thing—Bardem's Chigurh is most certainly brutal, but he isn't necessarily vicious. It's a fine line, a small distinction, but Bardem makes it real and palpable. Chigurh is calm and collected, and everything he does has a purpose, and every time he kills there's a reason. Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), a bounty hunter hired to go after him, says Chigurh has no sense of humor. That's putting it mildly.
So, Chigurh is after Moss. Other parties with vested interests in the aborted transaction are after both of them. And as the confrontations occur and the bodies pile up, stuck in the middle is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a county lawman trying to make sense of the chaos. Jones has already played this role, both in In the Valley of Elah and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada—the aging, taciturn Southerner watching his own era in the rearview mirror—but here he's just perfect; he brings humanity to the carnage as he watches society spin out of control. He's always a step or two behind the other characters, intelligent enough to see what's happening but unable to stop the rising body count.
You don't need to read McCarthy's novel to realize how top-shelf a movie this is, but it can't hurt, since he's currently the best American novelist. Really. This is actually a quantifiable fact: McCarthy's 2007 novel The Road won the Pulitzer Prize, as high an honor as an American book can earn. And if you do read this book, you'll see how clever the Coens are in adapting it to the screen—they share writing and directing credits on this one. There are pages of dialog that they might as well have just copied and pasted from the novel.
McCarthy's work always feels sandy and sparse, but these directors and actors bring it to life, creating scenes so tense no knife could cut through them. And this time, the Coens play it straight. The high quirk-factor of their films, which often threatens to leapfrog the story, is largely gone, but that isn't to say the movie isn't funny. No one is working for giggles, and there are no surefire laugh lines, but it's funny because people can be funny, in their everyday way, even when the stakes are so high.
You might see other films this year that are more violent, but you probably won't see one where the violence is so affecting. It's been almost 20 years since Hollywood stopped killing innocent bystanders (generally in pursuit of the coveted PG-13 rating), but No Country for Old Men returns to the practice. And this is important, because even though it's hard to watch, it gives the movie teeth. With its nihilist themes, its heartbreaking violence, its unanswered questions and its brutal disregard for storytelling conventions, no one is safe in a film like this. Especially the audience.