“No Country For Old Men,” the latest tour de force from Joel and Ethan Coen, which Roger Ebert proclaimed “perfect,” is, well, pretty damn masterful. It’s as if the brothers, in eschewing original material for adapting Cormac McCarthy’s book for the screen, found themselves free to do what they do best – concentrate on the visual interpretation above the foundation itself. You can almost hear the boys’ collective sigh of relief in every frame. “Now we can really go out and play!”
And this sense of revelry translates into dynamite performances from Josh Brolin as the Vietnam vet who stumbles upon a couple million in cash in a drug deal gone wrong, Javier Bardem as his psychopathic hunter and Tommy Lee Jones as (what else?) the sheriff in hot pursuit, each rediscovering his character from moment to moment. Which works well inside the world of western Texas the Coens create, a place in which everything from the prairie landscape to the air vent of some dusty motel takes on a life of its own. Shot for shot, the Hitchcockian attention to detail is superb. Their four-eyed camera conjures up a character study in inanimate objects as much as in the flesh-and-blood subjects. And boy is there blood, though not as much as you’d think considering the triangle of leads all come equipped with weapons of massive physical and psychological destruction.
Indeed, the fact that the most horrific scenes take place off-screen is the Coens' greatest achievement. The directors establish the gruesome violence early on then gradually tone it down, letting our imaginations run wild in the silence. We almost pray for more gore, a quick shot to the head being better than endless dread. With sheer brilliance the Coens exploit our fear of the unknown as the ultimate thrill, hold us responsible for our nightmares. Our greatest terrors are contained in the screaming gaps left on the metaphorical cutting-room floor (leaving open the possibility that they could jump out at any moment like Bardem’s existential bogeyman). The scene that will linger in your head is the film’s most tranquil, like the waters before Jaws appears. It’s a prelude to the death of one of the protagonists, its incongruity disturbingly apparent yet the puzzle piece only snaps into place after he’s whacked. You want to hit the rewind button except there is no rewind – only a no-man’s land where twists of fate roll like tumbleweeds.