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Coens return to the brilliant basics with 'No Country for Old Men'

3 1/2 stars out of 4

In their first film, "Blood Simple," brothers Joel and Ethan Coen put their twisted spin on the classic film noir. It was a brutal, unemotional and unapologetic thriller, and one of the most impressive debuts of all time.

Having worked in virtually every genre since then, the Coen brothers have gone back to the beginning with "No Country for Old Men," which could have just as easily been titled "Blood Simple 2."

Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the movie isn't a Western, but is set mostly in remote, desolate Texas deserts and the spare, small towns that dot the landscape there.

As they do in all their best work, the Coens' employ an eerily detached perspective of the unfolding story. They act as unobtrusive bystanders who never give their opinion of what's going on, and they don't practice emotional manipulation, either. There's no swelling backing score and no fancy camera work.

The filmmakers completely leave it up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions. The sole weak spot in the film is the last scene, which some might view as too open-ended.

There are a handful of people doing very bad things in this film, but they all conduct their affairs with a strict, yet demented, ethical code. No one does what they do because they really want to; they do so out of perceived necessity or because it is their job.

The lead is assassin Anton (Javier Bardem). Pale white with a Dutch-boy hairdo and questionable wardrobe, Anton is never far from his trusty oxygen tank, which alternately serves as a lock-pick and handgun. He's been hired by someone we never see to find the $2 million left behind at a botched drug deal where everyone involved is either dead or close to it.

It doesn't take long for Anton to determine that trailer-park dweller Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) is the guy who absconded with the cash. A Vietnam veteran, Llewelyn is a crafty guy who realizes immediately that someone is going to attempt to find the money he stumbled upon, and he does everything he can to cover his tracks. He gets his wife and mother-in-law out of town fast and starts making plans for a new life with his ill-gotten booty.

Chasing both men is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who also provides the third-person perspective and "big picture" of it all. Ed has seen a lot. Initially, he seems beyond shock, but as the investigation progresses, he comes to the realization he's no longer cut out for this particularly extreme strain of malfeasance.

As with all Coen movies, few people beyond their established fan base will feel compelled to see "No Country." It is dry, stark, violent, loaded with uneasy humor and impossible to view passively. You have to pay attention to every passing frame.

When it's over, you won't feel enlightened, moved, or more in touch with your fellow man or your feelings. You might actually have an overwhelming desire to rush home and take a scalding hot shower.

These Coen boys aren't interested in making it easy. They want to reveal particularly unsavory aspects of the human condition for what they are without cloaking them in an easy-to-stomach manner. They take no prisoners and call on you to do the same. (Miramax)