Creep in the heart of Texas

The Coen brothers get an 'A' for 'No Country For Old Men'

THE DOOMED folks in "No Country For Old Men" struggle to find words to explain the relentless embodiment of evil who stalks them across the Texas plains.

But it's not so hard, really - any dude who can reach adulthood with a haircut that bad has to be one mean SOB.

You'll meet him in this riveting new movie from the Coen brothers, brilliantly adapted from the award-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy.

Set in 1980 in South Texas, it opens when a good 'ol boy named Moss (Josh Brolin), hunting antelope, stumbles upon the carnage left by a drug deal gone bad - several Mexicans have fallen dead by the trucks, guns at their sides. There's a pickup full of contraband, tracks leading off into the outback.

Moss follows, figuring there's one thing missing from the scene. He finds it in a satchel, and immediately makes plans to disappear. He tells his wife (Kelly Macdonald) to start packing - "If you lost $2 million," he says, "at what point would you stop looking for it?"

McCarthy is a wizard with poetry and economy of border country lingo, faithfully adapted here by the Coens. Are they masters of stylized, regional dialogue? You betcha.

The Coens turn out to be eerily well-matched to McCarthy's hard-to-film style - they grasp his sense of the macabre, and their skill at scene-setting captures his vivid sense of place.

With "No Country For Old Men,"

they've lucked into his most (only?) cinematic book, one that comes with a camera-ready hook - there's no more basic movie ingredient than the suitcase full of money.

Unless it's the bad man who's looking for it. And unless I miss my guess, the Coen-McCarthy connection has yielded an all-time movie creep in Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem).

The movie dares you to laugh at Chigurh, with his '70s anchorman hair and curious choice of weapon - a pneumatic hole puncher that he drags around with an attached tank of compressed air, like someone in an old folks home.

But there's nothing funny about his methods. Chigurh pursues the money with a clinical ruthlessness, casually killing policemen, a desk clerk, cab drivers, - anyone who impedes his mission.

If he were merely an assassin, this process might sink into dull nihilism. Chigurh, however, sometimes decides to spare a life, or allow a coin flip (in one memorable scene) to determine a man's fate. Every encounter becomes more suspenseful, and Chigurh becomes more of a riddle.

All of it is brilliantly visual - even, or especially, when there is no gore (horror hacks, take note). The killer's most heinous murder is off-screen. All we see is Chirgurh leaving a house, calmly looking at the bottom of his boots, lest he track blood.

If Bardem does not steal the show, it's only because the performances are so uniformly good. Brolin ("American Gangster"), having a breakout year, is quietly terrific as neo-cowboy Moss, resourceful and tough. He probably would stand a good chance against anybody but the angel of death.

Tommy Lee Jones is ideally cast as the decent, laconic Texas sheriff who understands that Chigurh is some new, untreatable mutation of evil and races to find Moss first. Woody Harrelson turns up as a bounty hunter hired by Chigurh's own employers to stop his widening swath of destruction.

What's up with Chigurh? Why does he kill some and spare others? Will he be caught? Who will stop him?

Anyone who's read McCarthy knows not to expect neat answers to these questions, or indeed any answer at all. I suspect many viewers will leave "No Country" exasperated - led to expect a black comedy entertainment, only to find there is no conventional third act.

Instead, what you get is something more like a spiritual inquiry into a time of advancing darkness and diminishing courage, in a gospel as it might have been written by hardscrabble Texans in their own idiom.

As when the sheriff, unnerved by what he expects will be a confrontation with Chigurh, asks a retired colleague for advice.

"You can't stop what's coming," the man says, "And it ain't all waitin' on you. That's vanity."

The Coens could be forgiven for taking vain pride in this movie. This is big moment of growth for the brothers, already accomplished filmmakers. Watching "No Country For Old Men," you can see how the playful ideas of their youth - the grisly noir plotting of "Blood Simple," or "Raising Arizona's" lone biker of the apocalypse - have grown into a visual language capable of sustaining McCarthy's weighty text.

Maybe too weighty, you're thinking. Maybe this isn't maturity, but the natural pessimism of the middle age - another couple of guys who got old and lost their sense of humor.

But their black humor is still there - just seasoned, and sprinkled over challenging material. This is a rare instance of great American filmmakers taking on a great American book, and winning. *

Produced by Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, music by Carter Burwell, distributed by Miramax.