[Screen It]

(2007) (Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin) (R)

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Drama/Suspense: After finding several million dollars at a crime scene, a hunter goes on the run with it, trying to avoid a ruthless and deadly hitman who's after him, all as a world-weary sheriff tries to intervene before anything else bad happens.
It's 1980 and Llewelyn Moss (JOSH BROLIN) is a West Texas cowboy and Vietnam vet who, while out hunting, comes across a massacre at the scene of a drug deal gone bad. Various Mexicans are dead, there are drugs in the back of a truck, and the lone but wounded survivor asks for water. More notable, however, is a briefcase containing $2 million, a sum Llewelyn figures will get him and his wife, Carla Jean (KELLY MacDONALD), out of their humble trailer and into a better life.

He makes a mistake, however, by going back to help the wounded man, only to find him dead. Others there are not, and give chase. Llewelyn manages to escape, but his previous act now has morose hitman Anton Chigurh (JAVIER BARDEM) after him. When that leaves a trail of violence, veteran lawman Ed Tom Bell (TOMMY LEE JONES) would rather not get involved, being the world-weary sheriff who realizes the times and criminals have changed since he first got into that line of work.

Nevertheless, he realizes he must try to prevent any further violence from occurring, a distinct possibility considering that bounty hunter Carson Wells (WOODY HARRELSON) is now also searching for Llewelyn and the missing money. Using every resource at his disposal, the cowboy tries to outwit the men after him, all as the sheriff continues his own pursuit.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
In no way is the following meant to imply any sort of support for criminal activity, but a general rule of thumb for all law-breakers would seem to be never return to the scene of the crime. I know, that's how some of them get caught (particularly the mentally troubled ones who fixate on such locales for their glory and/or notoriety), but you'd think that common sense would prevail for the rest.

For mediocre hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), I'm betting he wishes he had followed that advice. While not the initial instrument of crime, he comes across a massacre in the desert. Dead bodies are strewn about, there are drugs in the back of a truck, the lone survivor there, a severely wounded man, asks for water in his native tongue, and there's a bag holding cash north of the seven figure mark found nearby.

The hunter takes the money, and while he doesn't exactly run, he exits the scene, figuring his future with pretty wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) is set. Yet, some sort of moral decency overcomes him, as he returns to the scene to give that dying man some H2O. Alas, he's dead, but the same can't be said for others who arrive and immediately give chase, deadly intent on leaving no witnesses.

Llewelyn manages to escape, but his return to the scene sets into motion a series of events he couldn't have imagined when he set out that morning. For not only are the bad guys after him -- in the form of two separate but highly proficient hitmen (Javier Bardem and Woody Harrelson) -- but so is a veteran and world-weary sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones).

So the chase begins in "No Country For Old Men," the latest pic from Joel and Ethan Coen that -- at least so far -- is arguably one of the best films of the year. Working from Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed novel of the same name, the filmmakers have found incredibly rich and detailed source material that suits their storytelling senses and style near perfectly.

Much like their deservedly highly praised "Fargo," the film combines engaging and interesting characters, a twisty plot, brutal violence, and dark humor into a cinematic mix that's not only pitch-perfect, but also turns out to be an offering that works on several levels.

The most obvious involves the chase that's less cat and mouse than something akin to cougar and bobcat. You realize the bigger feline is probably going to win, but figure the little guy is going to put up one heck of a fight, since both are highly proficient at what comes naturally to them.

Brolin plays the underdog with enough cocksureness and apparent resourcefulness that viewers will root for him to "win," despite him not being a squeaky clean protagonist (the levels of gray in the film are nothing short of delicious and give it added and much welcomed depth).

Then again, others may find themselves drawn to Bardem's hitman, one of the best and most magnetic villains to hit the screen in a long time. Sporting a page-boy haircut, nearly soulless eyes, unusual and highly memorable weapons, and a unique life and death philosophy (sometimes decided by the flip of a coin), he's the human equivalent of The Terminator, a seemingly impossible to stop killing machine.

The fact that they're nearly balanced makes the film unique in that you won't know how things are going to turn out, an attribute the entire film sports. That certainly includes the material involving Jones and his character. As he's played the "lawman" countless times before, viewers will likely figure the actor will do his standard thing again here.

Granted, he does that to a degree, but he also puts a spin on the role by not really wanting to give chase, mainly because he's tired and overwhelmed by how society has evolved (or devolved, and thus the fitting title). Accordingly, the film also provides something of an examination of violence in our culture. As a result, it takes the normal cinematic titillation of violence and, while playing that up to an incredibly vicarious extent, also turns it on its head.

If all of that wasn't enough, supporting performances from the likes of McDonald as the hunted's wife (who turns out to be much more than initially believed) and Garrett Dillahunt as Jones' subordinate (proving some of the much needed, albeit still dark comic relief) are terrific and amount to tasty icing on this sumptuous offering.

While certainly not for all tastes or viewers, this is filmmaking at or at least very near its highest level of efficiency and skill. Joining "Blood Simple" and "Fargo" as the Coen brothers' best work, "No Country For Old Men" is a must-see for serious fans of the cinema. It rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed October 17, 2007 / Posted November 21, 2007

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