The Coen brothers’ finest film, a gritty, nerve-wracking crime story with deeper meaning. Simplified, this is an existential horror movie set in the harsh and desperate environs of dusty, bleak Texas. Josh Brolin takes the wrong money from the wrong drug dealers, victims of a cocaine buy gone bad, after he happens upon their slaughtered bodies while hunting. Javier Bardem is dispatched by the higher-ups to get it back, killing most everyone he encounters along the way (including rival bounty hunters sent by his employer). The pacing is taut, the terror near-asphyxiating. But interwoven in the story is a sense of generational disconnect, rot and the utter bewilderment of an older generation at the brutality and senseless violence of the new.
Set in 1980, the young are depicted as callous and corrupt. Brolin, shot and desperate to get to Mexico, encounters kids on the border bridge returning to the U.S. after a night of carousing. He offers to buy a shirt from one of the trio to cover his bleeding, but they quickly demand money, and when he asks for a beer, they want more. Similarly, at the end of the film, two boys encounter a wounded Bardem and bicker over the share of what he has given them for a shirt.
The Vietnam generation is represented by Brolin and Woody Harrelson, the latter sent to bring Brolin in before Bardem gets to him. Brolin is not exactly honorable but he still maintains a tie to some principles. He literally awakes with guilt because he can’t let a dying drug dealer go to his end without water, and it is that charity that brings Bardem his way. Harrelson, also a Vietnam vet, has a similarly flexible code (he is a killer), but at least there is some code there. As he says to Brolin about Bardem: “You can’t make a deal with him. Let me say it again. Even if you gave him the money he’d still kill you. There’s no one alive on this planet that’s had even a cross word with him. They’re all dead. These are not good odds. He’s a peculiar man. You could even say that he has principles.” When Brolin returns from Mexico, still hobbled but intent on stopping Bardem, a border guard lets him through on the strength of Brolin’s Vietnam service.
Then, there are the old men for whom there is no longer a country. Tommy Lee Jones and his law enforcement contemporaries just don’t get it. It’s all gone to hell and a hand basket and while they understand violence, they don’t understand the new violence. As Jones says, bewildered, reading the paper: “Here last week they found this couple out in California they would rent out rooms to old people and then kill em and bury em in the yard and cash their social security checks. They’d torture them first, I don’t know why. Maybe their television set was broke. And this went on until, and here I quote… ‘Neighbors were alerted when a man ran from the premises wearing only a dog collar.’ You can’t make up such a thing as that. I dare you to even try.”
It is not Jones’ world anymore (my favorite Jones musing was from Cormac McCarthy’s book – “She kept on, kept on. Finally told me, said: I don’t like the way this country is headed. I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion. And I said well ma’am I dont think you got any worries about the way the country is headed. The way I see it goin’ I dont have much doubt but what she’ll be able to have an abortion. I’m goin’ to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she’ll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation”).
The film ends with Jones driven to retirement, talking to other older lawmen about what it all means:
Roscoe: It’s all the goddamned money, Ed Tom. The money and the drugs. It’s just goddamned beyond everything. What is it mean? What is it leading to?
Roscoe: If you’d a told me twenty years ago I’d see children walkin the streets of our Texas towns with green hair and bones in their noses I just flat out wouldn’t of believed you.
Jones: Signs and wonders. But I think once you stop hearin’ sir and madam the rest is soon to follow.
Roscoe: It’s the tide. It’s the dismal tide. It is not the one thing.
And the end of the film, Jones has retired (he’s done, “overmatched,” he says) and he sits with an older retired lawman, Barry Corbin, who observes, “All the time you spend tryin to get back what’s been took from you there’s more goin’ out the door. After a while you just try and get a tourniquet on it.”
And the coda:
Corbin: You’re discouraged.
Jones: I’m… discouraged.
Corbin: You can’t stop what’s comin. Ain’t all waitin’ on you.
Bardem is what is waiting on us all. Certain, unstoppable, arbitrary death.
This is a beautiful, unrelenting movie, deservedly winning Oscars for best picture and supporting actor for Bardem.