The Coen brothers' first literary adaptation, from a Cormac McCarthy original, an overflowingly bloody pulp thriller, plumped up with folksy first-person social commentary in italics, about a Texas good ole boy who stumbles upon the internecine scene of a drug deal gone bad, makes off with a satchel of cash, and tries to ditch the implacable hired killer (among others) on his trail. Sharing the writing credit as always and sharing the directing credit as they only began to do with The Ladykillers, the brothers were smart to cut down the social commentary — the Decline of Western Civilization as viewed by an aging third-generation lawman — to a single block of voice-over at the outset ("Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun"), and to sprinkle any additional such commentary lightly into the dialogue ("Once you quit hearing 'sir' and 'ma'am,' the rest is soon to follow"). Without those repeated and repetitive interruptions, the simple pursuit narrative — the killer pursuing the filcher, the lawman pursuing both — unfolds as lean, linear, streamlined, and yet slow, steady, and long, never very deep. And on the Coens' part, never very inventive. They have followed McCarthy's blueprint scrupulously, even slavishly, and have bountifully harvested his lip-smacking dialogue; and the major unconventionalities in this mostly conventional thriller are all his. (For better or for worse.) To be sure, the Coens are meticulous technicians, supremely skillful, attentive to the minutest detail. And while the body count climbs numbingly high, the tension in individual set pieces is teased out to an exquisite agony, and with no artificial boost from any background music. (The Coens' regular composer, Carter Burwell, gets credited for the exit music.) Certainly a personal touch, a personal sense of humor, comes into the local-color cameos of gas-station attendant, motel clerk, hotel clerk, trailer-park manager, etc., etc. And perhaps a somewhat unseemly humor, or at least unseemly delight, comes into the characterization of the psychopathic killer, with his robotic delivery of lines, his torturous banter, his gimmicky weapon (a compressed-air tank for blowing locks out of doors and blowing holes in heads), and above all his Engelbert Humperdinck haircut circa 1972 (hair humor always being big with the Coens). Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson. (2007) — Duncan Shepherd
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