The latest Coen brothers’ film opens in the UK next week, based on the book by Cormac McCarthy. Most of the important US critics have already made it their top movie of 2007 I won’t argue: No Country for Old Men is the best film I’ve seen this millennium. Great books too often make bad movies—but not so in this case. The plot of McCarthy’s darkly Irish postmodern western unfurls like a rattlesnake against a backdrop of blacktop, blue sky and desert scrub. Trailer trash and wetbacks live and die violently in cheap motels and pickup trucks. An ennuied sheriff on his last case before retirement, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is the “Old Man” of the title, whose country and whose post-Vietnam values this landscape no longer represents, one step behind their golem, Anton Chirgurh, played with menace by Javier Bardem, whose medieval haircut is the second scariest thing in the movie.
No Country for Old Men resonates on a heroically symphonic scale, but does so with no background music whatsoever, apart from an abrupt burst from a Mariachi band midway through. Roger Deakins, the Coens’ cameraman of choice—and surely the inheritor of Jack Cardiff’s mantle as finest living English cinematographer—can frame a dead dog as a Caravaggio. This is an art movie, a thriller, a western set in the badlands of West Texas, 1980, with a bleak existential message that is paradoxically uplifting in the manner of a rousing requiem. We can’t do much about the hand fate deals us, but it could be a lot worse. Thank goodness we don’t live in a trailer home near the Mexican border where the weapon of choice is a cattle gun. Whether or not you love the Coens, and provided you’re not too squeamish, you must see this film, and listen to the music while the end credits roll and we fade to black.