It's difficult to peg the true star of Joel and Ethan Coen's new film, "No Country for Old Men" (both co-wrote and co-directed), especially if you're sifting through the hardscrabble humans: Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a welder who finds $2 million among a band of dead drug-runners; Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a psychopath (we can tell by his haircut) who's after the money; Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), on hand for commentary.
Billed at least equal to these performances, however, should be the action -- especially the chase toward violence, its eruption and the studiously arranged aftermath. The Coens have mastered not only detail and realism, but also a way of surprising the audience with something new at each further outburst of mayhem or settling of dust. This sustains "Country," even when it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
The plot hinges on an improbability: Llewelyn goes back to the death scene to take water to a dying man. Of course he's discovered, setting in motion the events above. The Coens, as usual, take great pride in their improbable characters and story, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Our media culture, frantic to grasp the higher purpose and reduce it to a category, immediately named the film a Western noir. If the phrase is meant simply to designate a dark, contemporary Western, then it's not incorrect. But the result is more than anything distinctly a Coen brothers movie, pulling together numerous influences and reference points, and mixing them up into an agitated state of unusual personalities and behavior. Though no more conclusive, it could just as easily be called a cross between "The Most Dangerous Game" and "Raising Arizona."
The hero, if we can call Moss one by the finale, first appears hunting against the flat backdrop of Texas wasteland. Soon it is he who is the hunted by Chigurh, who's a sort of 1980s dark horseman of the apocalypse, a recurring figure in movies by the Coens. Anton Chigurh is not simply a bounty hunter (he works for nameless corporate evildoers, whom he dispatches to the hereafter for second-guessing him); he attaches a philosophy to his work, which is supposed to make him all the more dangerous. Both primal and reflective, he won't just steal your car he'll put a hole in your forehead as easily as most of us shake hands. It doesn't matter to Chigurh if Moss gives back the money. He must die anyway, to clean tainted honor. But Moss doesn't feel like dying and vows to turn the tables. It's here, amid truly engrossing episodes of cat and mouse, that you might start feeling uneasy about the logic on display.
As they do in their best films, the Coens look at every setting and prop with an eye toward reinvention, whether that means putting a silencer on a shotgun or staging a cop-movie-style chase sequence between a man and a dog in the middle of a rapid river. (Almost everyone by now has heard the faint hiss conducted by Chigurh as he turns on the gas to his air-powered slaughterhouse gun, used to punch through doors and bodies.) The cliché "there's never a dull moment" is entirely appropriate, and it's difficult to argue with anyone who loves the movie. The Coens have labored intensely to polish their scenes. I only wish they'd stopped for a moment to see if they reflect real life.
Chigurh, with his seeming invincibility and killer's honor, is the only one of the trio who steps over the line into outright caricature, but Moss and Sheriff Bell, though meant to be more normal men, never escape their symbolic essence either. This is a story that strives to be taken seriously, yet true gravity requires stepping down into the mud of ordinary existence, and the Coens seem more interested in riding high on the jokes and signposts of life. Everything is a zinger, whether it's a fly buzzing over a corpse's mouth or a helpless woman pleading for her life. To impart significance, they turn frequently to Sheriff Bell's jawing, but it doesn't amount to much. The Coens can draw a lake of meaning out of one bead of sweat curving down a cheekbone, but they fall back on empty wit when putting words to the action. "No Country for Old Men" as a film has the perfect representative in Chigurh. It's a masterful menagerie of the grotesque, but a little too weird to believe. (R) 122 min. S