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No Country for Old Men (R) ****

By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald

With No Country for Old Men, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing) remind you why they deserve to be ranked among the forefront of American filmmakers. If they also happen to be among the most inconsistent, so be it. This tense, haunting, terrifying picture, which is based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy (and is about as skillful as any book-to-movie adaptation I have ever seen), is a model of pitch and modulation and craft. For two hours, the Coens hold you in their grip so tightly that for long stretches it feels a little hard to breathe.

The Coens have always had a knack for thrillers. Their first movie, Blood Simple, simultaneously mocked and amplified film noir conventions to delirious heights, but they have never had as much seriousness of purpose as they do this time. No Country for Old Men is never heavy or portentous — the movie is essentially one long, nerve-racking chase with an alarming body count — but the film, like McCarthy’s novel, treats death with uncommon seriousness. You can feel traces of the Coens’ sly, smirking humor hovering at the edges of some scenes, but for most of its duration, this is a profoundly sad and melancholy movie. As one character puts it: “The crime you see now, it’s hard to take its measure.” 

Set in 1980 West Texas, the story is pulp-fiction simple, hinging on three characters: Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a working-class Vietnam veteran who lives in a trailer park and makes the fateful decision to keep the $2 million he finds at the scene of a drug deal gone bad; Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the near-supernatural killer on his trail, who will do anything to recover the stolen loot; and the world-weary Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who is trying to find Moss before Chigurh does, because he knows that encounter can only lead to one possible outcome.

The three roles, and the way the actors play them, could not be more different. Bardem, sporting a haircut that would be ridiculous if the man wearing it wasn’t so terrifying, turns Chigurh into a veritable angel of death, with a smile that gives the term ”humorless” new dimensions and a habit of flipping a coin to decide whether to kill people he happens to meet. 

Brolin makes the increasingly desperate Moss resourceful and human. He’s the closest thing the story has to a hero, and even if the character doesn’t always make the wisest choices, you care deeply for his safety.

 Jones has the trickiest part of all, since the sheriff’s main role is to serve as Greek chorus (complete with voiceover narration) to the tragedy spiraling out of control before us. The Coens have left huge chunks of McCarthy’s prose intact in the film, and it’s hard to think of an actor other than Jones who could not only do it justice but also make it resonate on screen as deeply as it did on the page. 

And resonate it does. No Country for Old Men has several sequences that permanently sear themselves into our collective movie memories, such as Llewelyn’s river encounter with a mean dog chasing him with the relentlessness of fate, or a long sequence in which Llewelyn is holed up inside a motel room, aware that Chigurh is lurking outside the door, preparing to barge in (but how will he do it?)

What makes the movie a masterpiece, however, is not the Coens’ supreme command of their craft in these scenes, but their willingness to embrace the resigned (some will say nihilistic) worldview of McCarthy’s novel, right down to its anti-climactic ending, which doesn’t provide the catharsis the audience craves, but instead makes them reflect on what they’ve seen. ”Can’t stop what’s coming,” another character says. But the movie makes you feel like that all-pervading, merciless darkness has already arrived.