There are those who swear by Cormac McCarthy and those who swear at him, but no one can deny the sense of place he creates in his novels, or the moral charge he endows those places with. No Country for Old Men, which has now been turned into a movie by the Coen brothers, reads a little bit like pulp fiction - a neo-Western by Elmore Leonard, say. But only McCarthy himself, in his celebrated Border Trilogy, has done a better job of evoking the wide-open spaces of West Texas, where the wind drifts aimlessly across the plains. And if you read between the lines of this sawed-off shotgun of a novel, you'll notice how empty it all is - morally empty. A man might kill another man just to see what it looks like when a man dies.
Or he might kill a man for money - $2 million, to be exact. No Country for Old Men wastes no time getting around to the killing, and the first one's a doozy. A sheriff's deputy who's brought a man into the station in handcuffs makes the mistake of turning his back on the guy. Pretty soon, the handcuffs are hacking away at his carotid artery and his boots are leaving scuff marks all over the linoleum floor. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Anton Chigurh, the most dazzling serial killer since Hannibal Lecter. With Chigurh, McCarthy unleashed a pit bull that thought it was an Angel of Death, capable of offing someone as one would snuff out a cigarette but also capable of dwelling on the philosophical aspects of taking someone else's life into one's own hands.
Chigurh was creepy enough on the page, but Javier Bardem is the word made flesh, and people are going to be talking about this performance for a while. What struck me about it was Chigurh's politeness, his tendency to say please and thank you - that, and the way his heart doesn't skip a beat when he's murdering someone. The philosophical bent comes out right before that, when Chigurh teases out the role of fate in life and death. On occasion, he goes so far as to flip a coin and have the potential victim declare heads or tails. A sadist would go ahead and kill the sap anyway, but Chigurh believes that everything happens for a reason, that it's all predetermined, that our fates are sealed. In his own twisted way, he's a man of principle.
And then there's Lewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), the guy who sets the plot in motion when he discovers the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad while out hunting antelope one day. A welder by trade, Moss knows exactly what he's getting into, but he gets into it anyway, running off with a briefcase containing stacks of hundred-dollar bills. Unbeknownst to Moss, it also contains a transponder that sends out a signal as to its whereabouts, and it isn't long before Chigurh - a hit man as well as a serial killer - is on his trail. Moss is clearly outmatched. Or is he? Brolin seems to grow into the role as he goes along, and part of the pleasure of watching the movie is seeing how resourceful Moss can be. He's no amateur.
Nevertheless, he's the antelope in this relationship, and we trail along behind the two of them as Chigurh tracks Moss all over the map. Joining us is Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a guy who grew up around these parts but barely recognizes the place anymore. Too much drug money. Too many guns. Not enough common courtesy. Jones, who also narrates, slides into his role as if into an old pair of boots. And he gives the movie a moral center, but he has almost no contact with Moss or Chigurh. They're out running loose while he's back with us, sifting clues, trying to keep the trail from going cold. That the three of them don't wind up at the O.K. Corral could be considered a flaw, but life doesn't always end that way. Sometimes, it ends with a whimper.
Overall, the Coens, Ethan and Joel, who share the writing and directing credits (and edited the movie together under the pseudonym Roderick James), seem to have bent over backwards to please McCarthy. Tone-wise, it's probably the straightest thing they've ever done. There's little of their trademark irony, the sense that you got, from Blood Simple on, that everything was in quote marks. Even Chigurh's eccentricities the cattle stun-gun he uses to open locked doors as well as foreheads, for instance seem organic to the movie's atmosphere of amoral violence, not just postmod tics. And the result is a nifty little thriller that seems as dry and unforgiving as the landscape it's set in. You could flip a coin all day long in this godforsaken place and it never would come up the way you wanted it to.