Texas Sheriff Ed Tom Bell remembers a day when respected lawmen could deal with a problem without having to even draw their firearms. He's tried to follow those old-timers' lessons throughout his career, but things nowadays just don't seem to be that easy.
Case in point: A local man named Llewelyn Moss is out hunting when he stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad. Amidst the bodies of dead men and attack dogs he finds $2 million. And though he's usually a levelheaded guy, he can't help but think of the good life that the cash could bring, so he takes it.
But what the money brings is a psychopathic killer named Anton Chigurh who's sent to retrieve the lost fortune. Llewelyn tries to use his hard-earned skills as a hunter and Vietnam vet to evade the heartless stalker, but Chigurh is relentless, and corpses begin to stack up like cordwood.
Sheriff Bell wants desperately to help Llewelyn and stop the carnage, but he always seems to be one step behind the quick-moving men. On top of that, the wizened officer realizes that he may be outside his depth on this one. Over the years, things have changed in some very bad and evil ways. And he may now be living in a world where a good man with good intentions can't make a difference anymore.
When Llewelyn comes upon the site of the drug deal shootout, he finds one man alive and begging for water. He takes the money and leaves the wounded man, but later he's driven by his conscience to return with water. Llewelyn's wife, Carla Jean, goes along with her husband's plans for absconding with the money, but when he tells her he's going to put her on a plane out of town, she responds, "I ain't gonna leave you in the lurch." She eventually goes to the police out of concern for his safety.
The sheriff believes that revenge and "getting even" are foolish pursuits. He says, "All the time you spend to get back what's been took from you, more's just goin' out the door." It's also pointed out that the gradual eroding of respectful and civil interactions in a society inevitably leads to worse and worse things.
Chigurh, meanwhile, is fond of offering his victims a chance to survive by making them call a coin toss. If they win, they live. If they lose, it's off with their heads. It's an image designed to convey the randomness of life. It's a 50/50 proposition that thrives when one's worldview is fueled by—without putting too fine a point on it—agnosticism and fatalism. His final kill, though, won't let him fool himself into thinking he's not ultimately responsible for his own actions. She refuses to call the coin. And she tells him that he has to make the choice for himself.
Her bravery doesn't change anything. He kills her anyway. But her point is well made. And it may well be the only glimmer of truth and light to be found anywhere near No Country for Old Men. That, and the fact that the sheriff is a decent man who has determined to serve and protect the people of his county without shootin' up the place while he's at it. He tries his best to believe the best of people, and he clings to the hope that there must always be a little bit of light even in the darkest night.
God is either not thought much about or He's not thought much of in No Country for Old Men. "I always figured that when I got older God would come into my life," the beaten down sheriff grumbles. "He didn't."
With a dry sort of affection barely apparent in his voice, Llewelyn tells his wife that if she isn't quiet he'll take her in the back room and "screw" her. Lying, he tells a man that he spent all the money on "whores and whiskey." A woman attempts to seduce Llewelyn by offering him beer.
Intense and bloody violence is the meat and potatoes of this movie. It opens with Llewelyn stumbling upon about a dozen dead men and dogs scattered haphazardly between pockmarked pickup trucks. In a handful of subsequent scenes, we're given more than ample opportunity to view their gore-covered, bullet-ridden and fly-encircled corpses.
And that's about the tamest No Country for Old Men gets.
An up-close strangulation scene is particularly extreme. The slow-talking, dead-eyed lunatic Chigurh wraps the chains of his handcuffs around a deputy's neck and gouges them deeply into the man's throat. As the stoic killer strains and pulls at the cuffs choking the flailing man, his expression gradually and subtly changes. He's actually enthralled by the sickening torture, it appears, almost worshipful of the approaching death and yet detached from any care for the dying man. He then gets up and calmly rinses the blood from his own torn wrists.
Other graphically gratuitous moments include Chigurh politely asking, "Please hold still, sir" as he drives a four-inch steel rod through a man's forehead with a compressed air gun. In a multitude of scenes, we witness the gurgling, gushing results of men being shot in the throat, in the forehead, in the chest, in the stomach, in the back and in the legs.
Much of the movie's running time is devoted to a cat-and-mouse hunt and fight between Chigurh and Llewelyn. From rundown motel to rundown motel, the two fill the air with not just tension, but a visceral sense of impending death and doom. Both are shot, and both attend to their own grievous injuries at one point. Chigurh's physical ordeal is especially painful to watch as blood pours out of his boot when he gingerly removes it and his pants from a gaping leg wound. Later, as if impervious to pain, he contrives a sling for his broken arm—so broken that the bone is sticking out of his skin.
Blood fills a swimming pool after a woman is machine-gunned. Llewelyn shoots an attack dog point-blank. Chigurh kills his own associates in cold blood.
Bell tells a story of a man getting shot while trying to butcher a steer. Chigurh rigs a car to explode as a diversion. Onscreen timing and camera work give full shock value to a horrific car wreck.
Crude or Profane Language
Two f-words and one s-word are spit out. Other obscenities include a handful each of the crudities "a--," "h---," "b--ch" and "d--n." God's name is profaned three times in combination with "d--n." And a crude reference to male anatomy is made.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Llewelyn finds a truck full of packaged drugs. Chigurh cleans a wound with some kind of alcohol mixture and injects himself with prescription drugs. (The camera zooms in.) The woman who propositions Llewelyn appears to be drunk, or very nearly so. And Llewelyn buys a beer from a guy who appears to be a partying college student so he can fake being drunk to throw off Mexican-American border guards.
Other Negative Elements
Chigurh steals medication and bandages from a drug store. And when he nurses his serious wounds in a bathtub, we see him sitting naked and cross-legged. (The camera avoids explicit views.)
No Country for Old Men was adapted from the 2005 novel by Western gothic author Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses). It's a relatively simple story about a guy who finds a bag of money and giddyups out of town with Mexican drug-runners, a hit man and a small county sheriff hot on his heels. Of course, the tale is gussied up with all the boot polish and top-shelf production flourish that one might expect from a Coen brothers flick, including crisp editing, earthy settings, nimble camera work, quirky rural characters and dialogue that reeks with realism. Even so, when you add in the fact that it's filled to the brim with reel after reel of visceral flesh-rending, the gritty West Texas story feels like one we've seen ride into the sunset too many times before.
What's grabbing viewers and critics attention this time, however, is the philosophical patter that floats to the surface in between chilling grotesqueries and cold-blooded killings. It's a fancy shootin' act designed to present the Coens' recent offering as a meditation on American violence and the nature of evil rather than simply just one more violent flick that merely showcases that evil.
But seeing a difference between the two is difficult, even for the movie's star, Javier Bardem. In an Interview article, the Spanish actor admitted, "I had a problem with the violence. In Europe we don't have a problem about sex. We show our a--; we make love—that's fine. People on the set are relaxed. But when you're doing a movie and they give you a gun, people in Europe still say, 'Is this really necessary? Is it going to help to tell the story for us to kill somebody or to take out a gun?' In America it is the opposite. So I talked to the Coen brothers about my concerns, and they explained to me why it was important for the story to be told exactly in the terms that I was trying to criticize—the violence, itself. My character, Chigurh, embodies violence. He comes out of nowhere, and he is going nowhere. He only creates misery and pain. The statement behind the movie is about that—the lack of meaning in violence."
There are definitely more than enough opportunities in No Country for Old Men to ponder that point, since scene after scene of heartless inhumanity does indeed motivate viewers—along with the story's world-weary sheriff—to wonder about the fragile hope for human redemption in a world falling down before advancing darkness. But no answers are offered to us or the sheriff, nor is there even a hopeful signpost along this corpse-littered trail. In fact, if the trail leads anywhere, it's to an empty malaise.
This feels like a film trying to have its dark cake and eat it, too. Or worse, it's offering audiences shovelfuls of gory grit while pretending that that's not really what it wants them to bite down on. Any way you slice it or shoot at it—and despite a quick look at the power individual choices have—all you're left with is a nihilistic annihilation that exhibits one primary talent: turning your stomach.