Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is not human. That’s not just a metaphor, a way of conveying the emotionless brutality of No Country for Old Men’s relentless killing machine. It might even seem contradictory, given the wince-inducing detail with which Joel and Ethan Coen make it clear that yes, he’s certainly made of flesh, blood and bone. But in a practical sense, the function he serves in the Coens’ combination of seat-clutching thriller and bitter-pill philosophy lesson is to be the embodiment of an idea. Anton Chigurh is Evil itself.
It’s not easy to pull off such a concept; most morality plays collapse under the weight of their abstraction. But in adapting Cormac McCarthy’s laconic, fatalistic novel, the Coens combine their twisted parable with magnificent genre chops. They’ve crafted an intense heist-gone-wrong narrative that also meditates on all the darkness of the world—only not in the way everybody seems to think it does.
The tale begins with a simple man—Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin)—making a simple but stupid decision. While hunting antelope in the West Texas desert, he stumbles upon the scene of a heroin deal-turned-bloodbath—with $2 million in cash still close at hand. Moss grabs the money and runs, and thereby immediately becomes the target of Chigurh, brought in by the dealers to track down the money (though he eventually decides he’d rather be a free agent). Back and forth between Texas and Mexico, Moss tries to stay a step ahead of Chigurh—while local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) manages always to be a step behind Chigurh’s latest victim.
The cat-and-mouse chase between Moss and Chigurh drives much of No Country for Old Men—and if the film had been nothing but the tense set pieces involving Moss’s efforts to stay alive, it still would have been a work of art. Though pigeonholed as wordsmiths for their hyper-realistic dialogue, the Coens have always been able to craft set pieces with the best of them; pure filmmaking doesn’t get much better than the “Danny Boy” sequence from Miller’s Crossing. Here the Coens opt for skin-crawling silences rather than polysyllabic jawing, turning in mesmerizing moments where a few creaky footsteps, a rhythmic beep or the sudden dimming of a light switch become harbingers of doom.
Much of that doom comes courtesy of Chigurh, portrayed by Bardem with such casual mastery that it feels as though he has originated the concept of a sociopathic killer. It’s hard to convey the precision with which he repeats the same question three times during his pursuit of Moss—not with the faintest hint of annoyance, but with a matter-of-fact monotone that suggests refusing to answer can’t possibly change the ultimate outcome. In a film full of exceptional performances—Brolin in particular captures the bravado of a tough guy unable to recognize how deeply screwed he is—Bardem stands out not because his role is flashy, but because he makes it precisely the opposite of flashy. He is the bad thing that happens indiscriminately to the sinner or to the saint, its own logic oblivious to constructed human morality.
And that’s critical, because if No Country for Old Men is about anything, it’s about the mundanity of death. Chigurh’s preferred weapon—a high-pressure air gun—is the same kind used to kill livestock, and it’s no accident that he dispatches people as though they were meat. The final showdown between Moss and Chigurh becomes one of the great anti-climaxes ever, because there’s no better way to convey inevitability.
Plenty of writers have already interpreted No Country for Old Men as an elegy for a simpler, less violent time. But there’s an irony to the backward looking title, one conveyed in a conversation between Sheriff Bell and wheelchair-bound former deputy Ellis (Barry Corbin). It’s a scene destined to be misunderstood and dismissed in much the same way as the conversation between Marge Gunderson and her ex-classmate Mike Yanagita in the Coens’ Fargo—and yet it’s just as pivotal. There were no violence-free good old days, Ellis argues, and the melancholy dream Bell relates at the close of the film suggests the idealized past as a comforting fantasy.
Chigurh himself, however, is no fantasy. He may wear flesh as an inconvenient—and sometimes messy—necessity, but that’s only because evil needs a human form to flourish. No Country for Old Men cloaks its own dark nature in the trappings of a chase narrative, before leaving you with a grim reminder that there are some things you just can’t run from.