The movie opens with the lazy voice of Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) telling us a story of a teenage killer he once arrested, who admitted he had been planning to kill someone, anyone, for a long time. While telling us he remembers a time when lawmen didn’t carry guns, Jones growls a story that has nothing to do with what is about to happen, but nevertheless establishes the entire film – an awed examination of relentless evil and blind injustice.
That force, made flesh, is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a blank-faced hitman sent by gangsters to recover a suitcase full of money from the man who found it, deep in the desert. He is Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a redneck welder out hunting one morning, who comes across the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad. Finding the case in the back of a truck, he takes it home to the trailer he shares with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly McDonald). Then, he makes a mistake, one that sets in train a series of events beyond his control that make him a target. He flees, but it is hopeless. Chigurh, with his ‘oxygen tank’, his lank fringe and his dead eyes, will not be frustrated in his mission.
This is a deep, thoughtful film that gradually darkens into abject nihilism. There are no winners in this story and, as events continue, it becomes more difficult to judge who the Coens are most interested in; the fleeing cowboy, the chasing psychopath or the lawman following both trails. The bag of money is almost forgotten, with the film instead focusing on the motivations of the parties concerned; uncommon, unclassifiable forces that compel each line of the triangle together. There is terror here, but not the fundamentalist chaos of the evening news, rather a mood of all-pervading, unstoppable threat that once settled, is impossible to shake.
Together with cinematographer Roger Deakins, the Coen’s reach a new level of cinematic artistry. Boundaries slash the screen, borders, fences and doors that once crossed, cannot be uncrossed. The flat desert landscape becomes a character in itself, bleached white at noon or backlit in craggy mesas by a descending sun. From an early moment, when Chigurgh strangles a policeman, boots take on symbolic meaning, scene after scene starting or ending at ground level, signifying the relentless nature of the pursuer and the exhaustion of his quarry. From the various points of introduction, the narrative concentrates into a singularity of constant, terrible motion. Any escape, or even any traditional cinematic resolution, becomes impossible. There are no moral lessons, no pay-offs, no nothing.
Instead, we get glories; wonderments to be revisited for as long as there are movies. Moss chased by a fearsome dog, Woody Harrelson cracking wise across a hospital bed, Jones and his tremulous assistant Wendell (Garret Dillahunt) crouching to consider the vista in a scene worthy of Fargo. These characters, when they talk at all, speak in old wisdoms; meditations on loss and remembrance, stories and dreams, the natural laws of man.