Adapted from Cormac McCarthy's rather forgettable novel, the central action of the story consists of a chase across Texas that spills over the border into Mexico: Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across two million dollars from a botched drug deal and is pursued for the rest of the film by the psychopathic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The chase device allows the Coens to eschew their usual method of characterization, allowing their lead figures to simply exist without burdening them with one or more of the irritating quirks that the filmmakers' generally assign to their characters - the Midwestern wholesomeness (and accent) of Marge Gunderson and the squeamish stupidity of Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, the exaggerated naïveté of Norville Barnes in The Hudsucker Proxy, the condescending self-righteousness of Barton Fink. Here the Coens subsume character in action - the men of the film count in so much as they act. Surprisingly, the filmmakers succeed by hewing to the demands of the genre (at least until the film's final act) - creating suspense, handling pacing, delivering the expected payoffs - rather than using the genre framework as a springboard for their trademark pop culture musings. Chigurh may be a typical villain, defined by the pleasure he takes in his villainy, but, with his unchanging expression, his bass voice and his absurdly asymmetrical bowl-cut, he is a particularly effective one. Moss is completely ordinary, a man seized by ordinary motives (greed), involved in continual activity. The third major character, a sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones, is likewise wholly unremarkable but, in his case, the Coens attempt to add some heft to his characterization by including a few feeble conversations that fill in his backstory and which mar two of the film's three final scenes. In this film, the principals are too ordinary for the Coens to condescend to; the filmmakers refrain from providing them with those unwanted quirks that too often invite the audience to feel superior to their main characters whose idiosyncrasies mark them out as objects of ridicule. But, lest the Coens' sense of superiority find no outlet, they save the condescending impulse for a gallery of hapless supporting rubes. The exaggeratedly obese woman who works the desk at a trailer park, Moss' mother-in-law who says things like "it's unusual to see a Mexican in a suit", a dim-witted motel clerk, all are defined by their grotesque inferiorities which identify them as dispensable rural beings whose only use is as figures of amusement for the film's more sophisticated audience. They may be confined to the margins of the film this time around, but their presence is still cause for regret.
If the American cinema suffers from a general unconcern with the visual aspects of film, thankfully the Coen Brothers can not be accused of furthering this disturbing neglect. In the past, they have perhaps tended too frequently towards an overstylization which occasionally caused them to lose their feel for setting. In the current film, the filmmakers have no trouble evoking the landscapes of rural Texas and their strong visual achievement only strikes a wrong note during some of the violent discharges. The wide expanses, the garishly lit interiors, the framing of characters, all contribute to a work that is as visually assured as any American film of recent vintage. In one scene, Chigurh dips a rag in oil, sets it in a car's gas tank and lights it on fire. He slowly walks away from the car and enters a drugstore. As he goes through the doors, the Coens place him in the center foreground of the screen. In the right background, through a window, we see the car and a tiny flame coming from the gas tank, umemphatically set into the mise-en-scène. Suddenly, the car explodes and Chigurh, without breaking stride, continues walking and, the staff distracted by the explosion, goes behind the vacated counter to seize whatever drugs he needs. The scene, for all its expert staging, gains its power from the single image of the small square of flame set off against the blue of the car so matter-of-factly wedged into the screen's background. This little detail leads to the more conventional aftermath of a routine screen explosion, but it is the tiny flame rather than the ensuing conflagration that sticks in the mind. This eye for detail within a general framework of expansive exteriors and constricting interiors ensures that the film never lacks for visual interest.
But the Coens' visual inventiveness is put to more dubious use in the scenes that depict the gore-heavy aftermath of the film's frequent violent encounters. David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, another of year's most celebrated films, likewise included jolting gore-heavy violence but, if Cronenberg's film can't exactly be called a critique of violence, it at least calls upon viewers to question their attitude towards its on-screen portrayal. The Coens' sole concern with the uses of screen violence seems to be the reaction they can elicit from the viewer. As in the infamous wood-chipper sequence in Fargo, this reaction is often one of laughter, but not the sort of self-critical laughter that results from Cronenberg's absurdist presentation. This laughter is more akin to the yuks that Quentin Tarantino gets from his own violent scenes, an unreflective laughter predicated on the director's cleverness in presenting mutilated flesh. In one scene from the Coens' film, Chigurh gets in a car accident and afterwards sits to the side, writhing in agony. As two boys approach the scene, we notice a piece of bone sticking out from Chigurh's arm. But, even if we didn't notice, one of the boys is there to continually remind us, as he can only keep repeating "his bone's sticking out of his arm." The image of the bone, like the fountains of blood gurgling from Stephen Root's slit throat in an earlier scene, is a masterpiece of makeup calculated to achieve the maximum effect but, not merely horrifying as it would be in real life, it is stylized into an odd sort of beauty that only make the uses to which the filmmakers put it all the more disturbing. In a way, the boy who notices the bone is the Coens' ideal spectator. He seizes on the most sensational detail and rapt by its gory spell stands in willful ignorance of the situation's other concerns - the fact of the injured man's pain doesn't seem to bother him. The other boy, by contrast, shows a genuine concern and stands as the only figure in the film not consumed by selfish motives, but it is the first boy who mirrors our reaction to the situation, at least if we buy into the Coens' cynical shtick. But, even if we don't, even if we object to their uses of screen violence and their ironic condescension, their latest film offers enough excitement and visual pleasure to make it continually worth our while.