By Craig Graziano
Anton Chigurh (the villain of “No Country for Old Men”) has a Prince Valiant haircut and a pressurized oxygen tank which he uses to blast holes in anything he wants to. What he most frequently uses the tank on are locked doors and peoples’ heads.
What Chigurh (Javier Bardem) lacks in conscience however, he makes up for in fierce determination, and he will not rest until he gets a hold of the $2 million he lost in a heroin deal that went sour.
Though filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are best known for their neo-noir crime films, generously peppered with Western elements and surrealist comedy, this character is more akin to the horror genre, yet it manages to work in the duo’s latest, 2007’s “No Country for Old Men.”
Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across the bloody aftermath of the drug deal, takes the money-filled briefcase and tries to make a better life for himself and his wife by escaping their trailer park and settling anew. This is until he realizes his role in the grimmest game of cat-and-mouse this side of the Rio Grande.
Tommy Lee Jones’ character, a sheriff looking to save Moss, is the true protagonist, though he sees little action.
His conflict is not the fact Chigurh is simply a murderer; he has already dealt with those. It is Chigurh’s very existence as a man who repeatedly kills without any remorse that bothers him. Chigurh treats murder and chaos as a solution to the simplest obstacles in his life.
When Chigurh stops using the oxygen tank to kill, he switches to a shotgun with a silencer, which gives a squeal more terrifying than an ordinary shotgun blast.
To get medical supplies, he blows up a car in front of the pharmacy, walks to the back of the store and has his own personal shopping spree. When he speaks, it is in a mechanical Southern accent, with few words and little emotion.
Audiences should keep track of Bardem in future films, for he has portrayed the most memorable serial killer since Anthony Hopkins in “Silence of the Lambs” (1991).
How fitting it is that the Coen Brothers have come full circle by making a tight and darkly comedic crime epic set in 1980s Texas, just as they did with their stunning debut “Blood Simple” (1985).
The duo has furthered the possibilities of American crime films, though in recent years they had gotten soft.
Recent projects had ranged from the beautifully incomprehensible “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001) to an absolutely unnecessary remake of “The Ladykillers” (2004). With this movie, it appears that audiences have weathered through the worst.
All of their trademarks are intact. When Moss returns to the crime scene to collect the leftover heroin, he is chased by faceless thugs in a pickup truck.
He eludes them by jumping into the river, but their vicious dog leaps right in after him. Sure, the animal is in a frenzy to tear him apart, but there is something bizarrely funny about the dog’s head popping out of the water, calmly following Moss all the way down the river until the chase can resume. It is a strange intermission of unrelenting fear and chaos. The ability to derive laughter from such a frightening situation is a rare gift.
Dialogue is wildly important in all Coen films, as it also generates humor and builds character.
Their best bits are often in an eloquent rural dialect that you can hear in “Raising Arizona” (1987) or “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000).
Tommy Lee Jones and Woody Harrelson both manage to breathe life into those cordial lines, which were adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name.
When Harrelson’s character is asked how dangerous Chigurh is, confusion momentarily sets in before he replies, “Compared to what? The bubonic plague?”
When the chase is on, this film works splendidly. It is the final 20 minutes when Jones grapples with his age and his inability to keep up with Chigurh’s unthinkable acts that the movie takes a turn into existential questions and will probably lose some audience members.
The calculated pacing drops out in the final act and what started as precise scenes of violence and strategy becomes fuzzy moralistic questions with few clear answers.
Then again, real life is pretty fuzzy too.
“No Country for Old Men” may leave some in a lurch, but it is still one of the finest movies of the year and a return to form for the brothers Coen.