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Friday, November 16, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

The quiet menace of "No Country for Old Men"

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

"No Country for Old Men," with Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. 122 minutes. Rated R for strong graphic violence and some language. Several theaters.

Cormac McCarthy's dark Western yarn "No Country for Old Men," written in prose as spare as prairie grass, comes to the movies as something unexpected: a showcase for the talents of Tommy Lee Jones. As Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, pursuing a thief (Josh Brolin) and a psychotic killer (Javier Bardem) in the crime-torn Texas borderlands, Jones draws on his trademark blend of forthright befuddlement and moral certitude, letting his lines slide out of a barely opened mouth. Haunted by his own experiences in a long-ago war, Sheriff Bell is distressed by what he sees as the erosion of civilization in his violent district, rampant with drug runners and hellish weapons of murder. With few lines — nobody talks much in this film — Jones creates a character of yearning sadness, masked behind a deceptively laconic sense of duty.

Joel and Ethan Coen, who share adapting and directing chores here, keep the novel's quiet menace intact — and much of the rest of it, too. Except for the deletion of a hitchhiking young girl late in the plot, the film version is remarkably faithful to McCarthy's pages. It's essentially a noirish chase story, with a good-man-gone-wrong instigating the plot's action. Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) is a Vietnam vet whose unexpected discovery of $2.4 million in drug money leads him to dream of a better life for himself and his young wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald, a Scottish actress whose Texan accent sounds uncannily right). He takes the money, and thus becomes the target of Anton Chigurh (Bardem), an ultraviolent hired gun determined to retrieve the stash, no matter how many bodies he leaves scattered along the way. Bell chases both of them, increasingly alarmed that he might just be too late.

Shot by master cinematographer Roger Deakins (his second Western this fall, after the beautiful "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"), "No Country for Old Men" seems to take place in another world, with the bleached-out Texas landscape looking like a planetary surface where no humans would roam. (Early in the movie, when a character checks his watch, you're startled; it's as if this place existed outside of time.)

The story unfolds in a series of lonely roads and cheap yellow-lit motel rooms, as Moss waits and Chigurh stalks and Bell ponders. Violent acts explode in the silence; murky red invades the faded browns of the interiors; bodies seem to be lying in wait everywhere.

The mood is darker and quieter than the Coens usually present, though some of the dialogue has a deadpan humor. (Two characters, eyeing a canine corpse: "That is a dead dog." "Yes, it is.") And the solemnity suits the weight of the material, with the characters representing larger themes of good, evil and corruption. Bardem is terrifyingly convincing here, looking menacing even in a bizarre pageboy hairdo, his eyes bulging in seeming glee as he strangles or shoots. Brolin makes Moss a quiet everyman, frightened yet resolute as he faces his comeuppance. But it's Jones' film, and "No Country for Old Men" fades out with him on screen as a clock inexorably ticks; a good man, caught in a time he could never have imagined.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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