One of the few scenes in the Coen brothers' haunting new film, No Country for Old Men , that doesn't feature brutal, arbitrary violence features Tommy Lee Jones' Sheriff Bell reading a newspaper story about brutal, arbitrary violence. It's an account of a California couple who tortured and killed, well, old men, until "neighbors were alerted when a man ran from the premises wearing only a dog collar." Upon hearing Sheriff Bell recite this grotesque tale, his deputy can't quite stifle an aghast guffaw. "That's all right," the sheriff assures him. "I laughed myself when I read it. There ain't a whole lot else you can do."
This observation, like nearly every line in Joel and Ethan Coen's film, is taken directly from Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel of the same title. Reading through that book now, it seems inevitable not only that it would be made into a movie, but that it would be made into a Coen brothers movie. The prose and story are such a natural fit they feel expressly tailored to the Coens: The metaphysical foreboding, the grotesque violence bordering on comedy, and the laconic Southwestern dialogue are all right in the Coens' wheelhouse. There's just one problem: No Country for Old Men isn't a very good book. It's got a crackerjack plot, but it's weighed down by a lot of ponderous philosophy and a pessimism that strains belief. So one of the delightful mysteries of 2007 moviegoing is why the cinematic adaptation is both rigorously faithful to its source and just about perfect.
Both works cover the same territory, which is the desert just north of the Rio Grande and, more specifically, a desolate valley in which the combatants in a heroin deal gone wrong lay rotting. A marksman named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles onto the aftermath and, like a fly drawn to the carcasses, reaches for a bag filled with $2 million cash. It's an invitation to get swatted, and soon he's racing across Texas from motel to motel, pursued by a Mexican cartel, Sheriff Moss, and an implacable killer called Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Who is this Chigurh? "He's a psychopathic killer, but so what?" explains a bounty hunter played by Woody Harrelson, slurring the phrase with hilarious insouciance. Of course, the bounty hunter soon learns exactly what.
The superiority of this movie—what elevates it above McCarthy's book, and what makes it a return to Fargo -level form for the Coens—is inextricably linked to its approach to Chigurh. His name sounds like a beast from folklore (something that sucks the blood from chickens, maybe), and he's played by Bardem with the merciless logic of a classic movie monster—he even decides the fates of bystanders by flipping a coin. With all the critical attention that's been paid to Bardem's droopy haircut in Country , I'm surprised more reviewers haven't picked up on the fact that Chigurh looks just like a vampire, worthy to be mentioned alongside Dracula and Orlock. He's first seen strangling a police officer so violently the man's carotid artery bursts, and his favorite method of killing involves a cattle-slaughterhouse air gun that pierces flesh with a single, fatal puncture. When he smiles (a rare occurrence), it looks like he's baring fangs.
The Coens have crossbred the Western with the vampire movie, and this sleight of hand transforms the carnage that follows into a bleak cosmic joke—we've all knocked on the wrong castle door—which for my money beats McCarthy's treatment of the events as the end of the literally goddamned world. Which doesn't mean there isn't any seriousness in the Coens' Country (like all their work, it's explicitly moralistic), but what lingers is the sensation of having been used as a plaything by amused deities. This coin-flipping business isn't just a gimmick for the Coens: It's the gimmick. Death always gets the last laugh—and what makes the Coens so remarkable is how they dare to cackle at the punch lines.
is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.