22 years separate the past and present in the Coen Bros. new No Country For Old Men. Before a gas station attendant literally wins his life in a coin toss, a mythic Texas monster by the name of Chigurh (Javier Bardem) tells him, "This coin is from 1958. It's been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it's here. And it's either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it."
For the rest of the film, Chigurh walks a line between the past - when sheriffs didn't carry guns, and outlaws had principles -, to the present - where sheriffs are defeated, and outlaws run amok. He's a one man avalanche, an unstoppable destructive fist. From Chigurh's first moments on screen, it's absolutely clear that he cannot die.
In the dialogues of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is where No Country... finds its center. "Age will flatten a man", he says, and it has. The sheriff sees things bluntly and clearly. He seems to know the conclusion to the crime before it barely begins. The sheriff's path never collides with Chigurh's - it comes close in a tense hotel sequence - further giving him a mythic quality. It suggests that Chigurh is a ghost, an abomination on a mission to clean slates and hit the reset button.
Chigurh's violence is a force of nature. "You can't stop what's coming", an old man says, you can only hope to get out of the way. The Coens latch on to this idea early - from the blood trail Llewelyn follows to the loot, to the skid marks left behind by the boots of a strangled deputy - and portray death as a plague. Even Chigurh wants no part in it. After shooting a man point blank with a shotgun, he calmly lifts his boots out of the way of the man's spilt blood.
In other words, the Coens have given their violence a motive and a language. And when we least need to see it - Llewelyn's death, and his wife's death - we don't. With No Country... the Coens have corrected what felt flimsy about chintzy about the gangland killings in Miller's Crossing (their most misguided film...), and parts of Fargo. And while there are definite bumps on the surface of Intolerable Cruelty (a movie I like), and I wasn't a fan of The Ladykillers, there is something fresh about both films. Maybe we've entered Coen Bros. : phase II, and maybe No Country For Old Men is this period's first gem.