No Country for Old Men 

Four stars (R)

No Country for Old Men is wide and dusty and terribly bleak. It’s beautifully photographed and assembled, with great performances from its lead players and a number of welcome appearances by actors we haven’t seen enough of lately. The film is suspenseful as all get out, though you just know that no matter what, things are going to keep getting worse. And the ending is weird, which will give you something to talk about on the way home.

Grim. Violent. Relentless. Mean. Melancholy. All in all, the perfect movie to help you mentally prepare for next week’s Thanksgiving get-togethers.

The latest from Joel and Ethan Coen (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou?) is an adaptation of the novel by Cormac McCarthy, who apparently is pleased with how the Coens handled his story.

Set in 1980 Texas, the story opens with prisoner Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) strangling a guard with his handcuffs, then stealing a car after killing the driver with a cattle stun gun. Cut to Llewlyn Moss (Josh Brolin — when did he get so good?), who stumbles onto a crime scene while out hunting in the desert. The botched drug deal leaves several vehicles, a number of bodies, a large amount of drugs and a briefcase with a couple million dollars in it. Moss takes the money.

It doesn’t take long before he is pursued. Chigurh is after him, with the cattle gun at hand. So is local Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). Later, self-satisfied tracker-for-hire Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) gets involved as well. Meanwhile, Moss’ wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) is left at home while her hubby tries to save the money, his life and her.

If the description makes it sound like the story comes together neatly, let me assure you that nothing in this movie occurs in a tidy fashion. Things happen in fits and starts, and the relentless pursuit is deliberately paced — part of the reason the tension builds so effectively is that it isn’t rushed. The big scenes pay off, but the small ones are equally satisfying, because the dialog is as strong as the acting. Black humor abounds, but — thank goodness — it feels like an organic part of the proceedings, and not like Coen brothers cheekiness.

Tommy Lee Jones, playing a law-enforcement officer for the umpteen time, manages to make this particular lawman distinct. Ed Tom Bell’s smart, seasoned, flinty demeanor is nicely tempered by his vulnerability — looking ahead at life, he sees harder foes to face than some psycho-killer. Speaking of psycho-killers, how about that Javier Bardem? Decked out in a Beatles haircut that is almost as disturbing as what he does with the cattle gun, Bardem is masterful as a man who oozes evil. He plays Anton Chigurh to the hilt, but never becomes cartoonish.

Chigurh isn’t quite as unstoppable as he thinks he is, incidentally. Stopped in a car while driving, he spies a bird perched just a few feet away and tries to blast it, but misses the easy shot, turning a moment of would-be creepy style into a show of fallibility. Nice.

Wish I could talk about the ending of the film, but no. Suffice to say, No Country for Old Men is a powerful thriller, a strong character study and one of best Coen brothers films in years. And, at the very least, the ending serves as a good cinematic conversation piece.

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