Staying true to Cormac McCarthy's unrelentingly violent novel as source material, the Coens and their longtime, multi-Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Fargo) set their characters in the midst of vast stretches of Texan and New Mexican deserts, then proceed to make them tiny and insignificant, even though all of their lives are being rattled.
As the camera scans the landscape, the drawling voice of Tommy Lee Jones introduces the film, with tales of old-time sheriffs and his own family history. All is peaceful... for a minute or two. At least until the introduction of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) -- pale-faced, sporting a bad haircut and speaking only when he really must. He's a prisoner of an unfortunate young deputy, the first person in the film to feel -- in one intense sequence -- the dispassionate violence of this enigmatic fellow, just before he takes his killing act on the road.
And there's plenty more violence where all that came from. A hunter, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), slowly making his way across the harsh land, finds the remnants of what looks like a drug deal gone bad -- plenty of heroin, a valise filled with money, dead bodies strewn.
What's a guy all alone out in the desert to do? He takes the bag, goes home to his wife, and what follows is a fine example of the film's avoidance of dialogue: She asks, "What's in the satchel?" He replies, "It's filled with money." Then he walks away.
That's really all you need to get into the film's setup. In short order, it's clear that Llewellyn doesn't think things through. (Does he actually have a plan about what to do with the money?) It's also clear that Jones' Sheriff Bell -- who finally appears onscreen about a half-hour in -- is very good at what he does, and that the truly frightening Chigurh, armed with a self-fashioned air compressor "gun," is one dangerous man.
And watch out for the swimming pit bull.
As if No Country isn't dark enough in subject matter, most of it is shot at night or in deep shadows. There are two main motifs: people running away from danger and being chased down, over and over; and men of very few words -- except for the often loquacious sheriff. (Jones does a superb job of quietly delivering McCarthy's metaphorical dialogue, much of it lifted intact from the book.)
The gist of the story is that Llewellyn goes on a kind of odyssey -- hanging on to his newfound wealth, eventually aware that he's being tracked, knowing full well that it's trouble on his trail and doing his best to stay ahead of it all.
Complications set in, at least for the viewer, when the story starts coming from different vantage points: from the hunters and from the hunted. The only weak spot here is that the film soon becomes a little too populated. It would have made some sense to eliminate one character -- the persistent and, of course, dangerous, bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson). He provides some menace, but in the long run his presence really isn't necessary to get the story where it's going.
One thing that stays way up front in No Country for Old Men is the film's violence quotient: Sometimes we see the bloody results, and sometimes the camera cuts away. Think back to Dan Hedaya and M. Emmet Walsh "getting theirs" in Blood Simple, or the infamous wood chipper sequence in Fargo, or the tommy-gun business in the Coens' Miller's Crossing, and you'll know where some of this film's tougher scenes are headed.
Yet, because Joel and Ethan Coen so enjoy playing with their viewers' heads, there are times here when, even if it's embarrassing when seated amid a crowded, shell-shocked audience, you might uncontrollably break out into laughter. It happened to me when Bardem's character had to patch himself up in a scene that plays as an homage to Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2. It happened again when, in a direct nod to Blood Simple, a telephone rings. As if I wasn't jumpy enough already, it's the most jarring, loudest, scariest sound in the world.