West Texas is a desolate place that can't support much in the way of trees or people. And those who live there learn to look out for one another — or they did, in an earlier age.
But that is changing. Drug- and immigrant-smuggling have raised the stakes, ratcheting up the violence. Civility and conscience can be fatal weaknesses. By 1980, as author Cormac McCarthy, and now the Coen Brothers, observe, it was No Country for Old Men. A crime drama as pitiless and arid as Fargo was snowy and optimistic, the story is vintage McCarthy in its sense of place and its poetic voice. And it is vintage Coens for some of those same traits, and its cruel, graphic violence.
A down-on-his-luck welder, played by Josh Brolin in a breakthrough performance, takes a shot at an antelope, and misses. That's when he stumbles across a crime scene — a cluster of off-road pickup trucks, dead men, dead pit bulls and one last Mexican gasping "agua."
There are drugs in one of the trucks. And one thing we pick up about our unflappable welder is that he's not a fool. Where is "the ultimo hombre, the last man standing"? Somebody survived this massacre long enough to walk away. And that's where Llewellyn, the welder, finds the money. That briefcase with $2 million in it is the device that leads us through the movie. But the man who will stop at nothing to get it is what drives the film.
Javier Bardem, in a performance of psychotic, measured and "principled" violence, is a mysterious killer who stalks Llewellyn, toting a gun and a compressed-air tank.
Tommy Lee Jones is a grizzled sheriff, the latest in a long line of small-town lawmen in his family. He is experienced, on the case, but plainly feeling overmatched by the relentless killing machine he is tracking.
"I don't want to go out and meet something I don't understand," he drawls to his deputy.
As in Fargo, there are men in offices trying to pull the strings of the men with guns. As in Blood Simple, there is nothing more chilling than the fear of a man with a gun on the other side of a door, nothing more riveting than waiting to see what the anti-heroic "hero" will do to face that menace.
And, as in the best Coen Brothers films, it's what isn't explained that gives the thing texture. No Country is as dry and laconic as Llewellyn is to his nagging wife (Kelly Macdonald, terrific).
"Where'd you get the pistol?"
"At the gittin' place."
What's he going to do with that money? How does he know there's somebody coming after him? Where will he run to, how will he hide?
"Baby, thangs happen. I cain't take 'em back."
McCarthy's dialogue lands with a salty twang and the click of a shotgun hammer.
The Coens have no trouble locating the humor in this, the contrast between the folksy and the homicidal. And they look for that telling detail — the Jackson Pollock blur of boot-heel marks left when a man rolls around on a linoleum floor, strangling another man.
Bardem gives his killer a horrific amorality. He callously sizes up a roadside motorist, the owner of a gas station, anybody who might need to die to keep his identity secret. And he tosses a coin.
They all respond the same way, once they guess what he's about.
"You don't need to do this."
The old men do much of the talking in this movie, explaining the way "things used to be," back when people addressed each other as "Sir" and "Ma'am"; when stopping to give a fellow motorist a jump wouldn't get you killed. Jones and Barry Corbin (Northern Exposure) share another beautifully written old cowpoke moment (they were in Lonesome Dove and In the Valley of Elah together).
And their message? Things get rough from time to time. It's always been a bloody world. But maybe this time nobody gets to vanquish evil and ride off into the sunset. Maybe the old men are the ones who've figured out that dying with your boots on is still just dying.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times