Last year, reclusive author Cormac McCarthy, whose seminal novels seemed decades behind him, released The Road, which was hailed as an instant classic and was definitely the gloomiest apocalypse novel ever picked for Oprah's Book Club. But just a year prior to the publication of The Road, McCarthy's No Country for Old Men was largely ignored by readers and dismissed by critics. Although maybe not as "important" as some of McCarthy's other novels, No Country was a throbbing, violent thriller that begged for the big screen in ways that few books do. Joel and Ethan Coen evidently thought so, too, and have adapted it into an unforgettably stylish paean to risk, violence, and resourcefulness.
No Country's conflict is as lean and primal as they come: one badass chasing another through the desert. Shotguns, pit bulls, tracking devices, switched hotel rooms, torched cars, and a pneumatic pump used to punch holes through skulls all come into play, but at its rawest, this story is man vs. man against the unforgiving landscape of Southwest Texas.
Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is the hunted: At the beginning of the movie, he wanders onto the fresh aftermath of a massacre, and relieves the bloody scene of a suitcase containing $2 million, fully aware that someone will soon come looking for the cash. That man is the chillingly fierce Anton Chigurh (played with terrifying calm by Javier Bardem), a methodical assassin who rarely raises his voice above a whisper. Llewelyn leaves town at daybreak with the money, with Chigurh in hot pursuit. Joining the chase in a distant third place is the hard-scrabbled, weary, and wary sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones).
Since neither Llewelyn nor Chigurh are the chatty type—they spend most of the film either silently stalking or hiding—the Coens are forced to rely on nonverbal modes of cinematic storytelling. Few contemporary directors are as well suited to the task: Through meticulous editing, sound design, and cinematography, they pace and manipulate the narrative tension to masterly effect. When that tension's relieved, it's through the two channels that the Coens know best: violence and humor. They've teased out the wry, deadpan pathos from McCarthy's novel, and use it mostly to decompress the audience only so they can begin the process again.
There are a few quibbles, though: The film's minor characters—receptionists, shopkeepers, Llewelyn's mother-in-law—are cartoonish caricatures of oddball hicks who feel out of place. But the worse news is the film's final 15 minutes, which remain faithful to the book, but meander on screen and will undoubtedly piss off many moviegoers.
But it must be forgiven, as the film is otherwise perfect. (And I predict that the already-controversial finale will not only be accepted in the future, but watered down and imitated.) Despite a few recent missteps, the Coen brothers rank among the truly great American directors—innovating stylistic trends, building upon cinematic history, and entertaining and thrilling audiences with an ultra-cool bombast built on tremendous craftsmanship. Not only is No Country for Old Men easily one of the best films of the year, but it's also one of the best of the Coens' rich career.