There is, to me, a handful of truly great Coen Brothers movies, most of them comedies: "Raising Arizona," "Barton Fink," "The Big Lebowski," "Fargo" and their first, "Blood Simple."
With "No Country for Old Men," which is anything but a comedy, I'm going to have to start using another hand to count the greatest Coen Brothers movies. It belongs there, without question.
The boys were in crisis, I think. And their extraordinary adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel means they finally found the right way out of it. The crisis was this: their well of smartass brilliance had run dry, and their films had become sour and misanthropic in an ugly, jokey, trivial way ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?"). They were out of creative gas and, for them, the cost was climbing past $10 a gallon.
They looked for help to old movies ("The Ladykillers") and scripts by others (the intolerable "Intolerable Cruelty"), but nothing really worked. To me, it seems as if they knew they needed someone else's vision added to their own but, for a while, they weren't really sure whose or how to use it.
They found a classic Hollywood solution to their creative decline -- a phenomenally tough and brilliant adaptation of a Western by one of our great living novelists, Cormac McCarthy. The title comes from a line in Yeats' poem "Sailing to Byzantium." Here, it's about a West so tough it defeats even its toughest.
It's about a drug deal gone bad in Southwest Texas -- hell, according to the great bluesmen, as Ishmael Reed never tires of telling us. It's set in 1980 but aside from pickup trucks, paved small-town streets and guys figuring out how to hide $1 million cash in a $24-a-night motel room, it might as well have been set there in 1880.
It seems to be a desert film about desert people in a moral desert. Tommy Lee Jones is the town sheriff who tells us right away "the crime you see now, you hardly know how to take its measure." The line isn't exactly thrown away nor is its significance underlined. Remember it though. It's what this whole dry, thorny cactus of a movie is all about. There is virtually no music for two hours behind the superb photography of Roger Deakins. What you're watching for 122 minutes are people competing in being unfeeling, laconic and homicidal. Who can kill better, flee better, hide money better?
Josh Brolin is Llewelyn, a no-account of ambivalent luck who stumbles, one day, on the corpse-strewn results of the drug deal out in the desert. He's as moved by it all as a pickup truck would be. He's less interested in giving water to a dying survivor than he is in seeing if there's money around.
The killer is played by Javier Bardem, who owns this movie, even while Jones and, especially, Brolin take up screen time impressively. With his big, dark-eyed glower, cobra smile, huge sculpted head and surreal haircut (as if he were auditioning for a British Invasion band circa 1966), Bardem is the most implacable and horrifying killer in recent American movies -- an efficient murderous monster right up there with Robert Mitchum as Max Cady in the original "Cape Fear."
Here is the kind of evil the sheriff is talking about when he says he no longer knows how to take its measure anymore. To quote from Yeats' best-known poem, "the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity."
The film works itself out with dire, absorbing, violent brilliance. And when it ends, it does so in a way that's guaranteed to seem like total anti-climax -- until, though, you remember the very title of the film and, more importantly, the author of the novel it came from and shares a title with.
I think that ending, from McCarthy, is the Coen Brothers' way of letting a great living writer sign their film along with them. And why shouldn't they? In a big way, he gave them their careers back.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
4 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Tess Harper and Woody Harrelson
DIRECTOR: Joel Cohen
RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes
RATING: R for much brutal violence.
THE LOWDOWN: The Coen Brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's best-selling Western about a drug deal gone south and a pitiless killer after the money.