The most shocking thing the Coen brothers can do at this point is throw aside their baroque mannerisms and strip a movie down to its bare bones, and that's what they've done with this modern Western. But despite this new austerity, they still have a few tricks up their sleeves, playing with the genre even as they embrace its shoot-'em-up conventions.
Their faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel is bloody, relentless and fatalistic, yet the story's real focus is morality, not mortality. The ruminations of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who watches over the hardscrabble terrain of Terrell County, Texas, in 1980, are at its heart, and he's one disheartened man. The influx of drugs, guns and money is making Bell's brand of community policing quaintly outdated, and he's concerned with the crumbling of polite society represented by a breakdown in manners: "Anytime you quit hearing 'Sir' and 'Ma'am,' the end is pretty much in sight."
What the sheriff fears — a new kind of Wild West mentality — has come to pass, and it's epitomized by the pitched battle between Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), an unemployed welder and Vietnam vet who finds a satchel of money from a drug deal gone bad, and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the relentless enforcer sent to retrieve it. These men aren't simply the hero and villain — they embody the conflicting impulses of their amoral environment.
Taciturn and stubborn, Moss is a sympathetic opportunist whose conversations with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) come off like redneck screwball comedy. Chirugh's Prince Valiant haircut and archaic language — the remarkable Bardem turns "friend-o" into a vicious threat — aren't the only things that make him a throwback: This killer sticks to his moral code as much as Bell does.
Returning to Texas — where they made their first film, Blood Simple (1984) — has certainly re-energized Joel and Ethan Coen. Here, they revel in every burst of violence, but they woefully underuse their immensely talented collaborators. Cinematographer Roger Deakins has shot every Coen brothers film since Barton Fink (1991), and he's given each a distinctive look. Here, he's reined in, taking a skewed Western and fitting it into a John Ford landscape.
The Coens use no music at all during No Country for Old Men, and composer Carter Burwell is sorely missed. The end credits contain a snippet of the kind of simple, elegiac score that made Fargo (1996) so emotionally compelling, but the directors have opted for a stark and unforgiving tone, using silence to draw the audience into a barren world that offers few comforts and even fewer answers.
The No Country creators understand how places can take on a mythical quality that has little to do with what's actually there. The cinematic American West is vast enough for us to fill with our imaginations, taking a simple shadow play and transforming it into an eternal campfire tale. —Serena Donadoni
Showing at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.