Beneath the eye-catching photography and violence, and the good acting, there lies an empty plot
To call this "film of the year" is to ignore that the world is a big place, and full of films that are a lot better.
This film simply didn't live up to the critical acclaim it garnered prior to release. Yes, Tommy Lee Jones does a good turn, as does Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem is somewhat unusual. The bleak countryside is well filmed and one of the reasons I cannot forswear multiplexes, and the violence also grabs the viewer's attention, but even that artifice wears off as the violence simply becomes monotonous.
The critics have uncovered nuances that separate this film from the classic Hollywood blood-and-guts formula, the most notable of which is that the lawman doesn't get the bad guy in the end. The trouble is that beyond critics counting angels on heads of pins, the Coens have retained hackneyed Hollywood clichés aplenty, the most egregious of which is the psycho who comes from nowhere, a plot device that dates back to the devil featuring in mediaeval morality plays and was debunked by the time Shakespeare was a lad. Hitchcock famously explained why Norman Bates became a psycho, and his suspense was all the more masterful as Anthony Perkins didn't look like a killer, just the Mummy's boy he really was.
With Hitchcock, you know something very bad is going to happen; but the suspense lies in not knowing what, by whom or when. After the first few minutes with Bardem's character, however, you know he will do the killing, you know how and you know it will be sooner rather than later. The only time the evil Chigurgh acquires more than one dimension is when people tell him he has a screw loose, but he just doesn't get it. Otherwise, he's as predictable as Terminator. We also have no idea where he learned his Rambo or Jason Bourne tricks, or how he gets to be better informed than the cops, and that is just one of many plot holes.
Bardem has acted much better before, as when he diversified from tongue-in-cheek macho roles years ago in films like "Carne Trémula" or "Segunda Piel". He successfully masks his native accent, but ends up sounding a bit too machine-like.
We can see Chigurh is after a pot of drug money, but just who the hell is he? Who are the "managerial" guys who put him in the picture? We are left to guess that Woody Harrelson is a hired man, but told nothing about his background, who does the hiring, or why. And why is Woody's character stunningly efficient one minute, in tracking down Moss, while allowing Chigurh to sneak up on him the next?
We are also meant to believe that a full-blown drug war can break out with just a lone sheriff on the case, without the feds getting involved. Yes, there is a lot of disbelief to be suspended in seeing this picture.
And then there is the foray across the border, which is corny and stereotypical to any one who has ever lived for a while in Mexico. Since when do norteño bands dress like mariachis? Since when do they serenade blood-stained gringo vagrants, for nothing, and in the morning? Since when do foreigners with bullet wounds get admitted to hospital, no questions asked? This has as much to do with the real Mexico as nachos and chile con carne. Could the Coens find not one Mexican adviser?
OK, so maybe this is beside the point, that the film is really all about a man getting too old for his job, as the very title suggests, but even here the plot is full of holes. It is all very well for the sheriff's uncle to wistfully say that a lot of nasty stuff has always happened on the border, but that ignores the fact that drug trafficking entails a dangerous mix of grinding poverty and instant fortunes which has made things nastier, all along the supply and distribution routes; Mexican towns once known for little more than growing avocadoes now have severed heads rolled across dance floors, and the country's equivalent of David Letterman was wasted in broad daylight.
Even that hollow and superficial take on drugs violence fails to grasp the nettle of centuries of brutality, of slavery and killing Indians, in making the U.S. what it is. And yes, it is possible to cover all these bases in a two-hour film. I will certainly look for them, and for answers to all the plot holes, should I ever read Cormac McCarthy's original novel.
For a sense of just how disturbingly omnipresent drug-fuelled violence is, and how it ends up breeding more violence, "La Vírgen de los Sicarios" did the job far better, but with Spanish dialogue and being made in Colombia, it never came to the attention of the critics who heap undeserving praise on the Coen brothers.