On the Hunt 

The Coen Brothers reinvent themselves with a tense, lean thriller.

Early in No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen's acclaimed adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) puts his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) on a bus to send her away from potential violence. Moss has recently made off with a satchel of cash left over from a drug deal gone bad, and he warns his wife that she isn't used to the kind of trouble they may be facing. Carla Jean's response: "I'm used to lots of things — I worked at Wal-Mart."

In print, this exchange is typical Coens — a telegraphed laugh-line delivered for the audience at the expense of the character. But, on film, it doesn't play that way. Macdonald withholds the effect. She says the line but in a flat murmur, like she's hoping no one will notice. She seems to be protecting her character from a mistake in the script. She also saves the Coens from perhaps the only potentially bad moment in what is otherwise their best film.

The Coens are working with an entirely new group of actors here after utilizing an extended company of familiar faces for most of their career. The result is that no one acts like they're in a Coen Brothers movie. Each actor stays true to character rather than pandering to the perceived superiority of the audience, and the Coens themselves follow suit (or perhaps lead the way), overcoming the smug, cold snarkiness that animates most of their work (or ruins it, depending on your perspective). The result is the duo's most measured film ever, a tense, virtuoso thriller where violence is undercut by legitimate sadness.

Intricately designed and richly photographed by Roger Deakins, the film is basically a three-way chase film. It's set in 1980, in a West in which the wide-open landscapes are more likely to be a home to drug trafficking than cattle drives. The plot is set in motion when Moss, while hunting in the West Texas prairies, comes upon the aftermath of a massacre, a botched exchange with heroin and cash left behind amid unspeakable carnage — even a dog has been shot.

Moss leaves the dope but takes the cash and is soon being hunted by Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a psychopathic hitman trailing the money. Following behind them both is Sheriff Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a third-generation lawman troubled by the shifting nature of the crime he's forced to confront.

All three leads are terrific in roles that are relatively solitary and less talky than the Coen norm. Brolin is vivid as a man on the run, about to find out if he's as capable as he thinks he is. Bardem makes for one of the most compelling and frightening screen villains ever, a calm, implacable killer whose glazed hint of a grin and Prince Valiant hairdo make him an unsettling presence even before he acts. And Jones plays effectively to type as a tart, unsentimental observer of a world gone mad.

No Country for Old Men is a strikingly violent film: Chigurh is introduced in the process of being apprehended, soon strangling the arresting officer with his handcuffs, turning a small-town police-station floor into a Jackson Pollock of blood and scuff marks. Soon after, the Coens film a gripping scene where a pit bull charges across a shallow river after Moss, only to meet her doom. The novel yet realistic staging of these moments of violence is enhanced by terrific thriller mechanics involving the hunt for Moss and his hiding of the purloined loot. But most impressive is the discipline that the Coens show in eliding Chigurh's killings as the film develops.

Like any other Coen movie, No Country for Old Men is more about their cultural source material (McCarthy's novel, film thrillers from '40s noir to Sam Peckinpah) than about real life. But here, unlike most of their work, they treat their influences right. It's Blood Simple sans bullshit. As a lean, self-contained thriller about a human monster, it lies somewhere between the pure poetry of The Night of the Hunter and the grim waking nightmare of (the original) Cape Fear. And it's more worthy of those comparisons than any modern movie I can think of.

No Country for Old Men

Opens Wednesday, November 21st

Studio on the Square



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