It’s a startling breakthrough performance from the 39-year-old Brolin, who, despite his numerous film credits—including fine work in Paul Haggis’s recent In the Valley of Elah, David O. Russel’s Flirting With Disaster and Ridley Scott’s upcoming American Gangster—has not shouldered the dramatic weight of a similarly pivotal role. His Llewelyn Moss is a dusty everyman, a professional welder who lives in a trailer with his sassy young wife, played with a pitch-perfect accent—says Jones—by Scottish actress Kelly McDonald. As the movie begins, Moss has been hunting antelope on the open plains, and it is while tracking the blood spoor of an animal he shot that he happens upon the carnage of a drug deal gone bad and, in a moment of lonely reckoning, makes his fateful decision.
“When I open up the satchel and I find the money, I look up and I go, ‘Uh-huh,’” says Brolin, explaining that he ad-libbed the crucial “speech” after discussing with the directors a range of options for registering the moment. “We actually talked about and rehearsed that one word, and Ethan always laughs when he hears it [in the final cut].”
The Toronto audience also burst out laughing—which surely says something about the proximity of laughter and dread in the cinematic experience. Throughout its taut two hours, No Country percolates with the unspeakably black humor the Coen brothers perfected in Fargo. Jones gets the best lines and makes the most of them, like a Shakespearean actor who creates dire mirth among the slaughter. Now 61, Jones plays Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, in whose jurisdiction the film’s mayhem occurs, and he looks as if he were pried from the same dry ground. Bell’s wit is equally parched. In one scene, he recounts to his deputy a story he’s read in the morning papers, about a couple in California who took in elderly boarders and then murdered them for their Social Security checks. “They’d torture them first,” says Bell, dismayed at such signs of evil in the world. “I don’t know why. Maybe the television was broke.”