Near the Rio Grande in 1980 a young Texas hunter (Josh Brolin) makes off with $2 million he finds amid corpses after what looks like a botched drug deal. On his trail is a hulking psychopath (Javier Bardem) armed with a steer-slaughter gun. In the middle is a wearied and grizzled sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) who thinks he’s seen it all but hasn’t.
That this is fertile Coen Brothers territory goes without saying. But it is their intimate transmission of Cormac McCarthy’s fable of moral uselessness and the corruption of nostalgia that unfolds with frightening majesty. The acting is superlative and the whole thrillingly hazardous, even primordial. Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, the movie’s ineffable grim reaper, is a near-mystic merger of Paul Bunyan and Frankenstein, a walking plague on all houses. His existence justifies Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s sense of resignation (“It’s the dismal tide,” Bell says at one point).
To the extent the otherworldly Bardem exudes venom, Jones centers Bell’s world-weariness. Brolin is Llewelyn Moss, the hunter and welder whose greed jumpstarts the macabre chess game and who tries jousting with fate, failing. And that’s the claustrophobic point. “The crime you see now,” says Bell, “it’s hard to even take its measure.” Morality is as overmatched as the fading sheriff. Life and death are casual to Chigurh, a jaded Satan whose dignity is informed by chance. He brings word from a future bereft of compassion.
This is a lovingly constructed, often terrifying masterpiece, and Joel and Ethan Coen’s best film, which is high praise indeed.