Carter Burwell, composer with the Coen Brothers since their first feature, Blood Simple, gets the same credit again on No Country for Old Men. But for most of this black sagebrush yarn about the grim reaper, you'd be hard-pressed to hear anything on the soundtrack but the whoosh of a ghostly wind - and the hard crack of gunfire.
An eerily quiet, bracingly bloody, and expertly laid-out adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men takes place in 1980 Texas. Its opening scene - a guy named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) scoping out a deer on the chaparral - turns into a grisly tableau of violence gone bad. (Does violence ever go good? That's one of the film's big questions.)
There in a ravine are a couple of pickups and a bunch of dead bodies, ringed by guns and spent ammo, and the corpse of a pit bull, flies descending. So Llewelyn, a Vietnam vet and a taciturn fellow who lives in a trailer park with his funny, pretty wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), cautiously approaches the carnage. Holding the barrel of his rifle low and ahead, he pokes around, finds a driver still alive, finds a cargo bed full of heroin, and a suitcase full of hundred-dollar bills. Enough of them to add up to $2 million.
He takes the money.
On another side of the same West Texas borderlands, a psycho with a Prince Valiant haircut and a sense of brutal irony is busy strangling a deputy sheriff, stealing his car, pulling over a driver, and blowing a hole in his head with a cattle gun. It's just the beginning of a devastating wave of bloodshed and death from the hand of this Anton Chigurh (the great Spanish actor Javier Bardem).
And so a third-generation lawman, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), has to get up from reading the paper and sipping his coffee to hunt down Moss with his money, and Chigurh with his cattle gun.
The roads, and the characters, converge. Brilliantly.
The Coens have embraced crime dramas from the outset: 1984's Blood Simple was a tasty, tricky noir; 1990's Miller's Crossing was a poetic ode to old-time gangsterdom, the rat-a-tat-tat of tommy guns, and tough guys talkin', and 1996's Fargo, with Frances McDormand as a smalltown police chief, had moments of unstinting savageness, and winking satire, too.
But No Country for Old Men, which owes as much to westerns as it does to noir, represents a new highwater mark for the writing/directing pair. There's none of the "Look Ma, no hands!" cleverness that has given even the most serious-themed of the Coens' previous work a jokey, self-referential edge. That's not to say No Country doesn't have its humor - Llewelyn and Carla Jean's domestic exchanges, Sheriff Bell's laconic musings about the state of society; even the lethal nutball Chigurh can get off a gag, like calling a total stranger "friend-o."
One of the best-shot movies in a year of remarkable cinematographic achievements (see Into the Wild, Control, and The Assassination of Jesse James - the latter also by No Country's Roger Deakins), the Coens' terrific take on McCarthy's book offers a haunting view of life. That is, a life, or lives, turning this way and that, made up of the good and the bad, but always ending, naturally or unnaturally, with the silence of a beat-less heart.
No Country for Old Men ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. With Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones and Kelly Macdonald. Distributed by Miramax Films.
Running time: 2 hours, 2 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz East and Showcase at the Ritz Center/NJ
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.
com. Read his blog, "On Movies On- line," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.