“No Country for Old Men” a hit

David Hohwald

If ever one needed to start a career revival in Hollywood, it would be hard to imagine a better return to greatness than “No Country for Old Men.”

Following the critically acclaimed “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” directors Joel and Ethan Coen took a turn toward the mediocre, churning out the lukewarm comedies “Intolerable Cruelty” and a remake of “The Ladykillers.”

Between these two films it was hard to imagine that the movie-going public would ever see a film on par with “Fargo” again.

Happily, this is not the case. “No Country for Old Men” is the best-crafted thriller and overall best film of the year, combining great storytelling, tense sequences, sharp editing and stellar performances into another masterpiece from the Coen brothers.

Their study of greed, evil and the nature of America is a reminder of everything that’s great in film.

The story of “No Country for Old Men” may seem simple, and in many ways it is. Llewelyn Moss, a welder from central Texas, stumbles upon the scene of a drug deal gone wrong, and in the process finds a briefcase filled with $2 million in cash.

His decision to take the suitcase and run sets off a series of events that leave him being chased by Anton Chigurh, a psychopathic killer.

The local sheriff, Ed Tom Bell, gets caught in the middle of it all, trying to stop the inevitable bloodshed.

What could have been a bare-bones action movie becomes much more, though, through the Coens’ use of recurring themes, turning this excellent thriller into an existential study on the nature of humanity and the United States.

All of this is done subtly, and the directors choose to trust the audience rather than bludgeon the viewer with their ideas over and over.

To go further would give away too much of the plot, but suffice to say the movie is satisfying on many intellectual levels.

The acting is as amazing as the story. First and foremost is Javier Bardem in the role of Anton Chigurh.

The last time there was a psychopath played this well, Anthony Hopkins was sitting in a cell as Hannibal Lecter. Bardem is death incarnate with a bowl haircut.

The last time people saw death personified on screen as effectively, a Swedish knight was playing chess with him in Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.”

From his intonation to his dark look to his ominous presence, it is impossible not to focus on Bardem when he’s on screen.

He makes Chigurh so real and so terrifying that it’s a safe bet Bardem will be receiving an Oscar nomination for his role.

Josh Brolin is good as Moss, making his character gruff and brash, but human enough so as not to be a caricature.

Tommy Lee Jones really shines in this movie as Bell, and by the end of “No Country for Old Men” his anguish is so palpable it is a sight to behold.

Kelly Macdonald is quite solid as Carla Jean Moss, and Garret Dillahunt steals a few scenes as Wendell, Bell’s deputy.

The only clunker in the film is Woody Harrelson as Carson Wells, another hitman sent to retrieve the case.

For a thriller to work, it has to maintain tension throughout the picture, and the Coen brothers edited this film so well that it feels quite lean, even for a two-hour film.

They place many tense moments in the movie, creating a constant sense of foreboding.

Even after the denouement, several directorial decisions keep the pace quick.

Stylistically Joel and Ethan Coen made the risky decision to have no score or soundtrack. There is no music in “No Country for Old Men.”

However, thanks to their sound editing, you can hear everything, from a squeaky boot on a floor to the sound of a bullet hitting metal.

The Coen brothers’ longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins does some of his best work yet in “No Country for Old Men,” too.

He makes the Texas desert so desolate and barren that the landscape becomes a character in and of itself. The scenes also transition well, with only one noticeable fade that does not work.

The movie just flows well, and this is due to the work of Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, and Roger Deakins.

It’s hard to find anything wrong with “No Country for Old Men.”

Aside from Harrelson’s decent performance and a five-minute slow patch near the end, this movie is basically flawless.

It does have some pretty brutal gore that could make some viewers shy away, and with good reason, but if you want to see the best thriller and best movie of the year so far, you owe it to yourself to see “No Country for Old Men.”

It is a return to form in a big way for the Coen brothers and succeeds in every aspect.

“No Country for Old Men” hits theaters tomorrow.