When good men do nothing the path to evil is left obstructionless. Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is a man of a distant time, his father a relic of an era where lawmen carried no weapons. Anton Chiguhr (Javier Bardem) is a man of principals, unorthodox principles to be sure. With a cattle stungun in one hand and a silenced shotgun in another he is death incarnate. Between these two archetypes of good and evil lies Llewelyn Moss, a former Vietnam veteran who stumbles across $2,000,000.
Bell's bewilderment at the state of crime today echoes the sentiments of many Americans. In an age where cowardice is more common than bravery only fate can save us. Jones is very familiar as a lawman he has played it many times, but it is his weariness and fear that separates this performance from the rest. He is a man afraid and, rather than go out and be a part of this world, he will seek solace from the world. Jones' delivery during the, "then I woke up" scene is perhaps one of the best pieces of subtext I have ever seen used in a film.
Bardem is excellence itself as the mop-topped contract killer, Chiguhr whose wandering eye strikes fear into every man he meets. Some interpretations of the film make him out to be an angel of death who is cleansing the world of injustice, others see him as the personification of death. The Coens strive to keep Chiguhr as free from association as possible. If Chiguhr is human you would never know it from his Jaws-like ability to come and go leaving havoc in his wake.
Like it's sequel-in-spirit A Serious Man, the Coens create a world where fate decides what lies for us, it doesn't wait on us certainly, for that would be vanity. Whatever actions lead you to your current situation are inarguable in the face of cold, calculating death.
The Coens subvert the genre brilliantly with No Country for Old Men and in doing so craft one of the finest westerns ever.