The Coen Brothers have spent most of their careers as critical darlings, the favorites of people like me who love the offbeat sensibility they bring to their films. Their classic work, which includes O Brother Where Art Thou, Barton Fink and of course, the Oscar winning Fargo dates back to the early eighties with their breathtaking debut Blood Simple.
The new millennium, however, hasn’t been kind to the brothers or their fans. An attempt at romantic comedy, Intolerable Cruelty, lacked both romance and comedy and The Ladykillers was an ill advised remake of an Ealing Studios classic. Happily, they found their footing with their new film, an adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel No Country for Old Men, featuring a serial killer with a Beatles haircut, a title borrowed from the first line of W. B. Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium and some of their best work in years.
The story begins when down-on-his-luck Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), hunting near the Rio Grande, stumbles across the site of a drug deal gone wrong. Bullet-ridden dead men litter the landscape, and a several kilos of heroin and a suitcase stuffed with two million dollars in cash have been abandoned. When Moss makes off with the money his life and the lives of those around him are changed forever.
In hot pursuit of the runaway and the cash are disillusioned Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who vainly tries to contain the situation, a cocky bounty hunter played by Woody Harrelson and an enigmatic killer named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem).
Bardem’s performance as Chigurh (ironically pronounced “Sugar”) is the film’s secret weapon. The movie is top heavy with good performances—Jones is at his world-weary best while Brolin continues his comeback winning streak with another strong outing—but it is the quiet menace that Spanish actor Bardem brings to the film that gives it is oomph. His diabolical killer cavalierly flips coins for people’s lives, speaks in a monotone when he does speak, but usually he just lets his weapons—like a pressurized air gun usually used to stun and kill cattle—do the talking for him. His near catatonic countenance, Prince Valiant haircut and seeming indestructibility make him the best and strangest on-screen villain of the year.
The Coens have faithfully adapted McCarthy’s novel, keeping the dark humor, unbearable suspense and high body count—the ultra-violence would make David Cronenberg proud—while at the same time tightening up their notoriously loose narrative style. This is muscular filmmaking, highly structured but not predictable; it’s well paced and suspenseful. Couple the terrific story with great performances and beautiful New Mexico photography and the result is not only their best film since 1996’s Fargo, but also one of the best of the year.