Hunting antelope somewhere on the desolate plains of Texas, Josh Brolin happens on the remains of a drug deal gone bad. Bodies of Texans and Mexicans (and one unfortunate dog) lie riddled with bullets in a circle of pickup trucks. One truck contains a load of heroin. Another holds the sole survivor, a dying man asking for "agua." Brolin then follows a trail to another body, lying near a case containing $2 million, which Brolin nabs. The grim scene, and the fact that death follows the cash around, don't seem to bother Brolin. But later that night, his conscience and the memory of that thirsty man do. He returns to the scene with a jug of water.
That's a mistake, but not his first. Adapted from a novel by Cormac McCarthy (author of All The Pretty Horses and last year's Pulitzer-and-Oprah-approved The Road), No Country For Old Men takes place in the same harsh world as McCarthy's novels. Life can end quickly, senselessly, and grotesquely, leaving survivors shocked but wiser. But it's a world with a moral force, however mysterious and unsparing of innocence.
Brolin has found blood money, and blood attracts blood. Soon, he's hunted by hired killer Javier Bardem, whose delicate Prince Valiant bob is more than counterbalanced by his handiness with a pneumatic slaughterhouse tool. Their chase invites the attention of one character after another (including Tommy Lee Jones' laconic, soon-to-retire small-town sheriff) as it moves them from one awkward situation to the next.
No Country For Old Men bears McCarthy's unmistakable stamp, and the equally unmistakable mark of filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, making a strong return after a few years off. Their latest works as a continuation of their modern noirs Blood Simple and Fargo, but also as a shaggy-dog tale in the mold of The Big Lebowski.
Only this time, there's a trail of blood that grows darker and wider as the film winds toward a revelation about the overwhelming realness of evil, and its persistence in the modern world: Its essence changes, but not its form. As Jones prepares for retirement, he slips into talk about the way the world used to be, as opposed to the harder shape it's begun to take. (Both film and book are set, not accidentally, as the '70s give way to the '80s, and the drugs-and-money cycle of violence began to escalate.) But the ultimate vision here is of a hard world in which civilization is the aberration, and the things we fear are always waiting for an excuse to make life normal again.