*No Country for Old Men (R)
Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) isn't human. That's not just a metaphor, a way of conveying the emotionless brutality of No Country for Old Men's relentless killing machine. Sure, directors Joel and Ethan Coen make it clear that, yes, he's made of flesh, blood and bone, but in a practical sense the function he serves in this seat-clutching thriller and bitter-pill philosophy lesson is to be the embodiment of an idea.
Anton Chigurh is Evil itself.
It's not easy to pull off such a concept; most morality plays collapse under the weight of their abstraction. But in adapting Cormac McCarthy's laconic, fatalistic novel, the Coens combine their twisted parable with magnificent genre chops.
The tale begins with a simple man, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), making a simple but stupid decision. Hunting antelope in the West Texas desert, he stumbles upon the scene of a heroin deal-turned-bloodbath with $2 million in cash still close at hand. Moss grabs the money and runs, and thereby immediately becomes the target of Chigurh, brought in by the dealers to track down the money. Back and forth between Texas and Mexico, Moss tries to stay a step ahead of Chigurh while local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) manages always to be a step behind Chigurh's latest victim.
The cat-and-mouse chase between Moss and Chigurh drives much of No Country for Old Men and if the film had been nothing but, it still would have been a work of art. The Coens have always been able to craft set pieces with the best of them, and here they opt for skin-crawling silences, turning in mesmerizing moments where a few creaky footsteps, a rhythmic beep or the sudden dimming of a light switch become harbingers of doom.
Much of that doom comes courtesy of Chigurh, portrayed by Bardem with such casual mastery that it feels he has originated the concept of a sociopathic killer. In a film full of exceptional performances Brolin in particular captures the bravado of a tough guy unable to recognize how deeply screwed he is Bardem stands out not because his role is flashy, but because he makes it precisely the opposite of flashy.
That's critical, because if No Country for Old Men is about anything, it's about the mundanity of death. Chigurh's preferred weapon a high-pressure air gun is the same kind used to kill livestock, and it's no accident that he dispatches people as though they were meat.
Many have already interpreted No Country for Old Men as an elegy for a simpler, less violent time. But there's an irony to the backward-looking title, conveyed in a conversation between Sheriff Bell and wheelchair-bound former deputy Ellis (Barry Corbin). There were no violence-free good old days, Ellis argues, and the dream Bell relates at the close of the film suggests the idealized past as a comforting fantasy.
Chigurh, however, is no fantasy. Sure, he wears flesh, but that's because evil needs a human form to flourish. Likewise, No Country for Old Men cloaks its own dark nature within a chase narrative before leaving you with a grim reminder: Some things, you just can't run from.