First, about the coin toss. Nearly every review of No Country for Old Men has discussed the method of judgement preferred by the fearfully principled killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Barden) as symbolic of some ancient morality, or a comment on the absence of a greater intercessory figure. These things are both true, but the metaphysical reading also sidesteps the coin's literal role as currency - as Chigurh reminds a frightened gas station attendant, it's just another coin. That the moral and philosophical quandaries of Cormac McCarthy's novel hinge on a narrative driven by money makes it a natural fit for the Coens. Their America is one where commerce is the immobile reality behind status, identity, ethics, culture, nearly everything - a country run by powerful men barking orders from behind large desks, where both the decent and the corrupt imagine the American dream as a large sum of found money (or, at least, a rug that really ties the room together). The Coens perpetually return to their pithy, deadpan reminder that crime does not pay while teasing our desire to witness the attendant chaos; No Country for Old Men, their best film in a decade, is their most honest and mature exploration of this endless cycle of man's fall, perdition and rebirth - it's the Coens at their bleakest and most humane.
A western that romanticizes the genre's poetics even as it demolishes them, No Country for Old Men gives us as its progatonists three distinct masculine archetypes. There is Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), the stoic everyman who, stumbling upon a violent crime scene and two million dollars in cash, acts as most of us would. There is Chigurh, Moss' pursuer, a villian of elemental violence who cuts a bloody path towards his prey with a dogged, businesslike precision. And there is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a man of old-fashioned integrity devoted to a moral code and, ultimately, the mourning of that code's percieved passing. All three actors do excellent work here - Brolin is able to convey with a glance or quick aside his character's inner turmoil, Jones finds new insight in what is, for him, familiar territory (my friend Rory pointed out that Jones played basically the same character in Man of the House). But it's Bardem's implacable killer who sticks with you long after the film is over, his pale, crooked visage worthy of Conrad Veidt as he pronounces Moss' (and our) impending doom, sotto voce, at once monstrous and chillingly logical - he's one of the great screen villains.
As Moss barely evades his pursuers, the Coens stage the action with a subtle mastery of filmmaking craft that reminds how comedy and suspense require the same understanding of perfect timing. Small details - the crinkle of a discarded cellophane wrapper, a plume of smoke on the horizon - take on the same power as moments of unflinching violence. The cinematography by Roger Deakins gives the film's western landscapes a stark, mythic grandeur (Deakins also shot the similarly elegaic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). The Coens excel at this sort of thing, which is why, when they suddenly abandon the story's genre's trapping, the effect is unforgivably jarring for many (a large portion of the audience I saw the film with visibly turned on the film in its last third). I think this effect is entirely intentional, both in the McCarthy book and in the film, forced to examine both our own complacent expectations and, by extension, our own assumptions about our relationship to a country that, impossibly, claims protection from entropy.
But while the film is extremely faithful to its source, in its telling there is a slight but important difference in its emotional impact. Upon finishing McCarthy's book, I was drained, depressed, persuaded of the author's message of constant hopelessness. While the film does not compromise on the story's unrelenting darkness, a sort of dialogue between McCarthy and the Coens' unsentimental yet basically amiable outlook emerges, reminding of Sartre's summary of our relationship to God (whether he doesn't exist or is merely hidden, we've got to take care of ourselves). Consider the fate of Moss' wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald, heartbreakingly sweet), whose defeat in the book becomes a uniquely cinematic pardon, an acknowledgment of her refusal to participate in any of the story's masculine games (another recurring message of the Coens: listen to your wife). And Bell's sad resignation, so final and definitive in the book, lingers here like an open question. It's in his admission of defeat against the tides of change that, paradoxically, renders him immortal - an old man sailing towards the artifice of eternity.