The term "return to form" may be overused, but it certainly applies to the Coen Brothers' new adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel "No Country for Old Men" -- in its visual economy, maddeningly beautiful symmetry, and eccentric mundanity the film is a reminder of why the Coens were initially tagged as wunderkinds. It's easy to derive pleasure from the Hitchcockian virtuosity of "No Country"'s mouse-trap set-ups, but the sweet surprise here is that Joel and Ethan Coen, genre vagabonds and occasional wise-asses who had been stuck in a rut as of late, have shot their latest film through with palpable, evocative melancholy and purpose. And have done so without seeming overly calculated: McCarthy's stark prose and workmanlike trajectory have meshed beautifully with the filmmakers' tendencies to reduce characters to singular traits. In this case, principals Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, and Tommy Lee Jones have been boiled down to their very bones; "No Country" feels like a skeleton dance, a final raging at humanity's end.
If that all sounds heady or morose, the Coens have also made this their most fleet, vital film since "The Big Lebowski." While their last successful work, "The Man Who Wasn't There," was imbued with a similar existential calm, that film's aesthetic was too complacent and studied for it to feel like much more than an expertly crafted genre revision. "No Country," on the other hand, though set in 1980 and free of direct references to the current maladies of U.S. domestic and foreign policies, manages to feel like a howl from the depths of the here and now.
Branching off from one of the Coens' pet themes (the lengths people will go to for money), "No Country" employs an invigorating, triangular structure to follow its characters: Texan hunter Llewelyn Moss (Brolin, a sturdy, unmannered revelation), who absconds with two million dollars he finds at the site of a bloody, bungled drug hand-off in the desert; demonic bounty hunter Anton Chigurh (Bardem, in one of the most frightening embodiments of evil in recent cinema), who's always preternaturally on Moss' tail; and local sheriff Bell (Jones), trying to make sense of it all from behind his weathered, crinkly, seen-it-all veneer.
The most rewarding thing about "No Country" is the way in which its narrative is set up as a singularly unstoppable force, a shark constantly moving forward (every scene seems to have a goal, every frame initially gives off the impression of tightly relaying crucial plot information), only to allow itself to purposefully break down, both in terms of resolution and traditional narrative payoffs. What initially seems perfectly calibrated and dazzlingly "efficient" is finally revealed as a false comfort: the film's trio of sad characters will probably never be able to emerge from its shadows. The trail of bloodshed that occurs in the wake of the film's central crime feels increasingly less like whiz-bang noir pastiche and more like the final actions of a nation in irrevocable moral decline.
In a sense, the film deepens the efforts of "Fargo" to give a heartening moral compass to its shockingly violent Americana. Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson was a lovely (and more vividly funny and relatable) center than Jones' Sheriff Bell, but Bell's spiritual plight hits a deeper nerve. His final monologue, which leaves the film on a fittingly abstract note, might sound written, but that's the point: it's the rare moment of verbal poetry in a film greatly composed of silent action, and all he can do is try to articulate his feelings through the relation of a dream. The Coens close the film with what might be the most take-your-breath-away ending since Richard Linklater both refused and granted our wishes with "Before Sunset"'s final fade-out.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor at the Criterion Collection.]