Reviewed by Tim Wong

JAVIER BARDEM is a Mexican sent from the future in this vicious, tactile masterpiece of the Southwest, a film about doomed opportunism and its ceaseless hunter whose only conception of mercy is the flip of a coin. Bardem’s breezy Hispanic locks frame eyes of unforgivable blackness, and there hasn’t been an assassin this callous or unrelenting since The Terminator. Like a cyborg programmed to kill, his circuitry is exacting, near-infallible, and ruthlessly precise. Similarly, Joel and Ethan Coen direct with seasoned accuracy and efficiency, their filmmaking marksmanship now a sight to behold after so many good, but never quite great collaborations. Shot with devastating rhythm and uncharacteristic simplicity, the film is formally, a marvel, yet also the Brothers’ least showy and most nihilistic feature to date – humourless as a counterpart to Bardem’s grim reaper, unremittingly bleak as an itinerary of death’s pursuit.

Dissociated from a specific time or place, No Country For Old Men bleeds with violent nowness and urgency; indeed, only is it apparent half way through the film that its events are set two decades in the past. Stumbling upon the bloody aftermath of a botched drug deal, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) appropriates a suitcase full of cash, along with the unwanted attention of hitman Anton Chigurh, who kills with such wanton regularity that characters find themselves constantly adjusting their tenses from present to past. With a peripheral view of this horror is an old, wise sheriff, embodied sombrely by the maturing Tommy Lee Jones, whose ageing sadness is amplified by the actor’s recent choice of roles. Neither morbidly fascinated nor aroused by the thrill of the chase, his is a changing world of burnished, depressed landscapes, soon to be perforated by the strip malls and budget hotels that overwhelmed the ‘new west’ of The Three Burials of Melquaides Estrada. The film, incidentally, is the latest to broach the unpredictable American-Mexican border (Fast Food Nation, Babel and the aforementioned Three Burials are current examples of the trend), its scorched earth again depicted as a sand trap for the most desperate of men.

Sure enough, Jones’ heavyhearted morality and sense of helplessness contrasts starkly against Bardem’s personification of evil, a killing machine who speaks in terrifying passive-aggressive tones. Other weapons of choice include a captive bolt pistol (see: Benny’s Video), using compressed air to blow the locks out of doors or the brains out people’s heads, and a Very Big Gun, the force of which is palpably captured by Skip Lievsay’s petrifying sound design. Far removed from the contrivances of a poker-faced thriller, No Country For Old Men also holds no bluffs: when Bardem points his firearm, he intends to shoot it, a rock solid principle that instils the film’s already loaded confrontations with at times unbearable levels of tension. The choreography of violence is on par with David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises: the screen space taut, the motions assertive, the brutality abrupt and without concessions.

The cat-and-mouse sequences between Anton and Llewelyn are, by themselves, hallmarks of consummate suspense cinema, slotted between Roger Deakins’ dusk ‘til dawn cinematography (he’s a certainty for the Oscar this year) and some chilly, profoundly matter-of-fact exchanges of dialogue. Yet it is the Coen’s insistence on a denouement condemning all the main players to a permanent state of unrest that three-dimensionalises No Country For Old Men above and beyond mere western-noir classification. Those believing they’d transform Cormac McCarthy’s novel into a desert black comedy of Fargo proportions should be forewarned: smiles, wicked or otherwise, are few and far between (Llewelyn’s description of Chigurh as the “ultimate badass” a rare, amusing understatement), for this is the Coen Brothers at their darkest and most disquieting ever. A heartless gut-wrench astonishing in its execution, the film’s only problem (for New Zealand audiences) is that it has crossed over into 2008. Aside from the formidable There Will Be Blood, it’s unlikely to be trumped by another American film all year.