The good, the bad and the evil
Coen brothers do their finest work with a story that keeps you guessing
This much-anticipated movie might be even better than its critical kudos and advance hype would seem to indicate. Even with the great expectations attached to a Coen brothers film adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel and featuring remarkable performances by Javier Bardem and Tommie Lee Jones, the onscreen results are extraordinary and surprisingly effective.
Given the assembled talent, the good news is not entirely surprising. But a key aspect of the film’s effectiveness comes from an edgy unpredictability that is central to the novel and that the Coens have converted into brilliantly effective film form.
The basic story has a pulpy familiarity to it—a west Texas roughneck (Josh Brolin) finds a satchel full of money at the scene of a drug deal gone lethally wrong out in the desert; a demonically efficient professional killer (Bardem) begins tracking him down; a grizzled old warrior of a rural sheriff (Jones) follows the trail of both, hoping to protect the one and somehow limit the increasingly appalling damage wreaked by the other.
But, in film and novel alike, the action unfolds in obliquely fragmented fashion, and the built-in suspense of the crime plot morphs into a pervasive sort of existential dread. All of the characters are variously enmeshed in a web of convolutedly tangled events. It’s a crime story, part road movie, part chase film, part gunfighter epic in a disturbingly contemporary setting, and a modern border saga in the parched landscape of the legendary Old West.
The situations seem familiar and perhaps even predictable, but the dramatic results are not—there are small stinging surprises with a dozen or so secondary characters, and the outcomes of even the major plot points are never as tidy or comforting or facile as genre expectations would seem to dictate. Here the generic battle of good and evil slides into hauntingly elegiac meditations on lost ideals, false hopes and serendipitous doom.
Bardem’s profoundly scary villain is both haunted and haunting; Brolin’s rifle-toting opportunist is both hapless victim and gruffly stoic survival artist; Jones’ battle-weathered lawman is an aging hero figure more and more aware of the limits and contradictions in even his best efforts and intentions. All three are war vets and hunters pursuing variously flawed adventures in an unraveling social setting.
Roger Deakins’ superb cinematography adds pathos and grit to all of the film’s settings, epic and otherwise. And the Coens’ reliance on an ambient, music-free soundtrack enhances the story’s sense of first-hand experience in relentlessly unsettled motion.