Only the Coen brothers could make a film so impressively brutal and yet so understated as this. It helps that the set-up is so fiendishly simple. Blood simple, you might say.
Man out huntin’ near the Tex-Mex border comes across the aftermath of a ferocious shoot-out. Finds a truckload of dope and a briefcase full of dough. Returns to the scene like a damn fool. Gets hisself a deadly assassin on his tail.
Josh Brolin – who looks like his dad James but is a dead-ringer for the young Nick Nolte - plays Llewelyn Moss, the guy whose decision to go back and save the gunfight’s only survivor turns out to be mighty unwise.
Because it’s one thing being shot at by your average Mexican and being chased down a river by his mutt (dog lovers be warned: an equally valid title would be No Country For Bull Terriers)... But it’s quite another to have Death’s best friend breathing down your neck.
He may look like the missing member of The Monkees, but Anton Chigurh (Bardem) don’t monkey around. He has no sense of humour and no conscience.
What he does have is a compressed-air device, designed for killing cattle. But that’s not what he uses it for.
So chillingly does Bardem embody Chigurh that you fear for the well-being of anyone who so much as gives him the time of day. And though he leaves a terrible mess, the Coens enhance his menace by leaving much of his handiwork to the imagination.
Moss has no idea who he’s dealing with. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones), on the other hand, is getting a good idea. But with all those corpses on his patch and from what he reads in the papers, it's clear the world's going to hell... and it's only 1980.
Ed Tom’s coffee gets to taste more bitter every day.
While most of the attention is on Chigurh’s relentless hunt for Moss, Ed Tom puts everything in perspective.
Sure it’s morose. It’s frequently very quiet too, the Coens creating palpable tension simply by focussing on the silence behind closed doors... And then shattering it with moments of jarring, sawn-off carnage.
But the Southern-fried exchanges, when they come, are fantastically droll: “Where’d you get that gun?”… “From the gettin’ place.” / “If I don’t come back, tell Ma I love her.”… “Ma’s dead”… “Guess I’ll tell her myself then.”
The Coens’ ear for dialogue is matched by a wonderful eye. There isn’t an ounce of pretension in the casual brilliance with which they - and British cinematographer Roger Deakins - frame and assemble each scene.
They also find exactly the right faces – familiar or not - to fill even the smallest roles.
Woody Harrelson is enjoyably cocky as a bounty hunter whose mouth is as big as his Stetson. Garret Dillahunt (of the Brad Pitt Jesse James movie) makes hay as Ed Tom’s dopey deputy. And Kelly MacDonald flawlessly swaps her natural Scottish brogue for the Southern drawl of Moss’s wife, Carla Jean.
No Country is a clever meditation on mortality. It’s also a violently ominous and unpredictable cat-and-mouse thriller. And the performances are terrific.
A bloody masterpiece - in every sense.