West Texas, 1980. Out hunting deer in the desert down by the Mexican border, Vietnam veteran Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) happens on a heap of carnage: torn-apart trucks, corpses of men and dogs, the bloody bodies of others who’d be better off dead, and a case packed with cash: about $2 million. With no witnesses, and confident he can handle himself, Moss opts to keep what’s clearly payment in a drugs-handover gone wrong, and treat himself and wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) to a life considerably better than their trailer-park existence. Trouble is, psychopathic hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) also wants the loot, and begins carefully hunting the hunter, in turn pursued by veteran sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who can’t help feeling the world’s turning more crazily violent.
The Coens’ first outright adaptation is of a Cormac McCarthy novel so attuned to them that the film feels – at least until the final few scenes – as if it’s based on one of their own original screenplays: ‘Blood Simple’ meets ‘Fargo’, almost. For all its fidelity to its source, however, it’d be wrong to think it merely an illustration. The Coens meticulously select the most filmic moments of McCarthy’s terse, gripping book; they trim the sheriff’s nostalgic reveries and philosophising, embellish and enhance the action, and succeed overall in transforming the novel’s economic descriptions into a full-blown world populated by vivid, plausible characters.
Most impressive, they find a cinematic equivalent to McCarthy’s language: his narrative ellipses, play with point of view, and structural concerns such as the exploration of the similarities and differences between Moss, Chigurh and Bell. Certain virtuoso sequences feel near-abstract in their focus on objects, sounds, light, colour or camera angle rather than on human presence. As in ‘Barton Fink’ or ‘Fargo’, the Coens prove that properly innovative artistry and engrossing entertainment can co-exist to utterly compelling effect.Notwithstanding much marvellous deadpan humour, this is one of their darkest efforts: Chigurh, especially, is a nightmarish creation, polite manners and pageboy bob perversely accentuating the volatility in his strangely logical head. Roger Deakins’ superb camerawork, top-grade performances all round, and understated, assured direction ensure the film exerts a grip from start to end. A masterly tale of the good, the deranged and the doomed that inflects the raw violence of the west with a wry acknowledgement of the demise of codes of honour, this is frighteningly intelligent and imaginative.