Crime Masterpiece

The Coens' near-perfect 'No Country for Old Men' will take your breath away

The year 1980 would fall into the category of "recent history," but it might as well have been the Middle Ages. There were no cell phones, no ways to identify someone by DNA and no networks of public surveillance cameras. The Internet didn't really exist, and ATMs were rare and found only in banks.

Which makes No Country for Old Men a very strange crime drama by modern standards. The plot is one of the oldest in the book: A man finds a bag of money, and trouble ensues. But without the modern, high-tech means of tracking people's movements, much more inventiveness and tension is produced in the low-tech story. Everything about the era now seems ancient. Without the possibility of ubiquitous surveillance, it also somehow seems more free and dangerous and unpredictable.

Which works perfectly with this story. Adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy (perhaps America's greatest living novelist, in spite of the fact that he's been endorsed by Oprah), it works because of the author's ear for dialogue, the directors' impeccable sense of pacing and editing, and the cinematographer's relentless pursuit of the minimal means to convey maximal emotion and information.

Strangely, Josh Brolin is excellent as Llewelyn Moss, a trailer-dwelling Vietnam vet who comes upon six dead men and five bloody pickup trucks in a desert in western Texas. He also finds about $2 million in cash, which, according to the rules of the sea, he figures is now his.

Unfortunately, some people who are less well-versed in maritime law think the cash is theirs, and to that end, they send Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to collect it. Chigurh is so evil that his hair once assassinated a vegetarian. He has a strange habit of walking around with a tank of compressed air, which he uses to open locks and murder good samaritans. And he really, really, really wants the $2 million.

All of this is pretty standard stuff, and the basic plot hook could have come from a Brett Ratner bowel movement. But it's what the Coen brothers, who wrote the screenplay and directed the movie, do with this that makes the difference.

First of all, they preserve a lot of McCarthy's dialogue, and with McCarthy being the foremost prose stylist in American English, this turns out to be a good idea. They also mostly adhere to his story, at least as it makes sense in translation to film.

But perhaps even more importantly, they're masters of editing. It's not just that they know when to cut away in order to create, sustain and enhance tension; it's that the cuts look like they were done with a supercomputer-guided laser system. They're dead-on to within (and I measured this on my Donkey Kong Game and Watch) 1/10,000,000th of a second.

Even more stunning is Roger Deakins' cinematographic work. Deakins has been nominated for five Oscars, and to his great credit, he has never won. (You really don't want to share a prize with Halle Berry and Oliver Stone.) But as good as all his previous films have looked (Fargo, Kundun, The Man Who Wasn't There, Jarhead, The Village), this is probably his best work. Gorgeous silhouettes and noir-esque shots of hands, bullet casings, loose screws and stacks of cash do more storytelling in this movie than an hour of expository dialogue could ever accomplish.

And the Coens understand this, as there is virtually no exposition in the entire film. Everything advances thanks to action and image. While there is one final speech, it's delightfully off-topic, adding a horrid, sad shadow to the whole proceeding and evoking the Yeats poem referenced by the title.

That speech is delivered by Tommy Lee Jones, as the sheriff who's trying to save Llewelyn Moss and arrest Anton Chigurh. Normally, I find Jones' acting to be pretty much on par with that of a Looney Tunes character (it's a mix of Road Runner and Foghorn Leghorn), but the Coens have reined in his catch-phrase intonations, and the years have given his face an appropriate look of resigned defeat.

The real star, though, is Bardem, whose hauntingly surreal performance as super-killer Chigurh is a study on how to create a deep character without resorting to naturalism. Everything about Chigurh seems studied, but his reactions still seem genuine, as though he were that rare individual who created himself and then forget that he did so.

In the end, the film splinters into strange fragments. It seems at one point as though it won't provide a satisfactory conclusion, but then recovers itself and exceeds what could have been done by any clean resolution of plot points. It's so perfect that the final cut to black will take your breath away, and you won't quite be able to say why.