There's less to the Coen brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 somber thriller than meets the eye, but it's a hugely entertaining slice of sunbaked Gothic.
1980, West Texas: Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is the definition of ordinary: a Vietnam veteran living in a Desert Aire trailer park with his younger wife, Carla Jean (Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald), scraping out a living, driving a battered pickup truck, and partial to solitary hunting trips. It's on one such trip that Moss stumbles across the aftermath of a massacre: five trucks, half a dozen bodies (including a dog) and twice as many serious firearms, a dying man moaning for agua, a truckload of drugs, and a case crammed with $2 million. Moss knows better than to steal dirty money but does it anyway, and then lets his better nature ensure that he doesn't get away clean. Haunted by the dying man's plea, he returns to the scene with a jug of water and runs smack into a shadowy pack of thugs. He escapes — barely, and battered — but knows his abandoned truck will lead them to his door. So Moss sends Carla Jean to her mother in Odessa and hits the road with the money, figuring he'll lay low and come up with some kind of plan to keep the money and disappear. But there are two men on his trail, utterly different but united in their dogged determination: laconic Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), whose rueful ruminations (many aimed at designated deputy dumbass Garret Dillahunt) give the film its wryly comic edge, and stone psycho Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the supposedly humorless murder machine who whimsically favors a pneumatic humane killer for the disposing of rivals, witnesses and anyone who has the misfortune to get in his way.
There's a bit of Roadrunner vs. Wile E. Coyote to Chigurh's pursuit of Moss, but NO COUNTRY isn't a goof: The Coens let Brolin, Bardem and late arrival Woody Harrelson play their ubernoir roles dead straight. And despite the story's superficial echoes of FARGO (1996) — flyover state backdrop, horrific crime spree, local law officer whose quaint regional locutions belie a sharp mind — Jones' Bell is no Sheriff Marge Gunderson (the role that earned Frances McDormand an Oscar). Marge is inadvertently funny, a decent oasis in a world of roiling chaos. Bell knows he's funny, and his gallows humor is no joke: It's a shield against his knowledge of the world's random, ineluctable cruelty. Without it, Bell would be Jim Thompson's sadistic Sheriff Lou Ford. But engaging though the film is, it aspires to a profundity it doesn't achieve: It is unpredictable, gorgeously photographed by longtime Coen associate Roger Deakins, and genuinely smart, but its insights boil down to "Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you," and DETOUR (1945) got there first.
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