|lewelyn Moss fixes his rifle on a distant deer and pulls the trigger. A hit, but not a fatal one. As the herd stampedes from the sound of the gunshot, Moss stands up and solemnly surveys the plain. The shadow of a large cloud slowly consumes the land. Darkness is coming, but Llewelyn doesn't realise the kind of jackpot he's about to get himself into.
It seems impossible now, but No Country For Old Men arrived at a time when the output of Joel and Ethan Coen was considered questionable. 2003's Clooney/Zeta Jones screwball comedy Intolerable Cruelty fell short of the Grant/Hepburn benchmark, while 2004's The Ladykillers was the Coens' first bona fide flop; even Tom Hanks demanding "waffles forthwith" couldn't distract from its averageness. In adapting Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel No Country For Old Men, the Coens found the hit they needed; prose denser and darker even than their own 2001 screenplay for The Man Who Wasn't There.
A nihilistic and fatalistic cat and mouse tale in which the sin of greed does not go unpunished, No Country For Old Men is just about as pure a thriller as one can imagine. It is so stripped down to its essentials it'd likely feel raw to the touch. Man steals money. Hitman chases man. Cop chases hitman. Neither of the three leads – Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones – plays particularly complex individuals. Each man has one simple goal: to escape, whether it's with their lives, their money or their sanity.
If the plot of the movie is basic, the theme of the movie is universal: you can't stop what's coming. It won't have gone unnoticed but Bardem's character, pallid hitman Anton Chigurh (says Woody Harrelson's bounty hunter: "You wouldn't say he had a sense of humour"), represents the unstoppable evil you find in many a Coen film. He is the Terminator with a shit haircut. He's the Grim Reaper with a Spanish accent. You can imagine Harrelson's character from True Detective reacting to Chigurh as he did Rust Cohle: "I'd protest, but it occurs to me that you're unkillable."
No Country For Old Men hangs heavy with portent, of the nightmares to come. It's a thriller that's at its most effective when lying in wait. On one side of a door, a man with a gun; on the other side, the same. A killer sizing up his prey while chewing on sunflower seeds. I have rarely been so happy to see a man shoot a dog. The quiet moments are the most haunting, when Carter Burwell's score dries up and Roger Deakins throws the scene open to the elements. Never has tumbleweed seemed so threatening. Never has the simple toss of a coin carried so much weight.
When the film subsequently springs into life, it does so in an uncomplicated manner in which urgency is key and violence is assured. Take the hotel room sequence, in which Chigurh tracks down Moss thanks to the transmitter hidden in his satchel of cash. The set-up is impeccable, the whole scene wordless. Hearing footsteps, Moss calls reception and assumes from the ringing that the manager is dead. With the lights turned off and Moss' shotgun cocked, two feet-shaped shadows blocking the light under the door are our only indication of what's about to go down.
Throughout the entire sequence, gunfire is sparse but meaningful. Wounds are sustained; collateral casualties rack up. And despite the fact it's the centrepiece of the movie, both men never appear on screen at the same time. Joel and Ethan Coen know the value of a good cat and mouse pursuit, and the secret is in keeping them just at arm's length. The exchanges Chigurh and Moss share are brief but memorable, underlined by confidence and fear respectively. The fact that the latter meets his end not at the hand of the former but by a third party off-screen is testament to not only McCarthy's ability to throw a sucker punch, but the Coens' ability to disguise one.
If Bardem is the cat and Brolin is the mouse, then Tommy Lee Jones plays No Country For Old Men's housekeeper, swatting at them ineffectively with a broom from the relative safety of his footstool, despairing at the mess he's going to have to clear up. There are few actors capable of elevating material to Oscar-worthy levels, but Jones is one of them: dialogue that comes from his mouth feels dipped in gold; expressions painted on his face like symbols carved in oak. "The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure," he opines; a statement that seems true of almost any time and any place.
With Brolin's chancer very much an anti-hero and Bardem's bowl-cutted bruiser a classic villain, it's Jones' involvement that gives No Country its audience surrogate, and it's this character that makes the movie succeed where something like The Counsellor failed. Though misunderstood by a cold, indifferent audience, Ridley Scott's revisitation to the bleak, apostrophe-free world of Cormac McCarthy lacks anyone deserving of empathy; it's a film full of despicable people doing despicable things and offers nothing for the viewer to cling to. Kelly Macdonald, however, as Moss' wife Carla Jean, is the closest thing No Country For Old Men has to an innocent party. Jones' sheriff, with his craggy demeanour and world weary sighs, anchors McCarthy's world to ours; his black humour a life raft.
Pigeonholed as one of the Coens' 'serious' movies – a distinction made easy by the relative lunacy of their follow-up, 2008 farce Burn After Reading – No Country For Old Men is nonetheless peppered with gallows humour, and not always necessarily where you expect it. Harrelson provides a welcome injection of levity an hour into proceedings (jaw jutting, to Stephen Root's businessman: "You strike me as a man who wouldn't want to waste his chair"), but Bardem is the most unlikely source of LOLs. Even during his most fearsome interludes – the aforementioned life-or-death gas station coin toss – Bardem frequently breaks the tension; "You married into this," he splutters incredulously, learning of the station proprietor's profession. Moments like the scene of Bardem tending to his leg wound and rolling his eyes at his own pained reaction are priceless – oases in an otherwise arid desert of drama.
The mind wanders back to that deer in Llewelyn's sights: clipped but not killed; injured but still a survivor. It's not hard to see deeper meaning in the early encounter; just as Moss fails in hunting his prey, he falls short of taking down Chigurh – creating blood trails that ultimately lead nowhere. Theirs is a fascinatingly primal, animalistic relationship – like two rutting stags or silverback gorillas pounding each other into submission. It gives No Country For Old Men the quality of a particularly grisly wildlife documentary; as if David Attenborough suddenly got his kicks from watching animals stalking one another and tearing themselves apart.
These are not things you find yourself saying about your more straightforward thrillers. No Country For Old Men has an almost otherworldly quality; Bardem's madman as if from Mars; the Coens subtly channelling Nic Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth in Chigurh's introduction. It feels somehow alien, yet remains just disconcerting and familiar enough to inspire nightmares – it'll certainly give you cause to fear doorknobs for a good while.
Taut, uncompromising and unique but still layered with humanity at every level, No Country For Old Men is a generation-defining masterpiece: the Coens' most vital movie since Fargo and possibly their only movie that plays gangbusters to all audiences. It is arguably their finest film, but it is unequivocally the best movie of our lifetime – if it ain't, it'll do 'til the best gets here.