Here's the puzzle:
How to talk about a movie that, for its first 100 minutes is excellent, but whose last 20 minutes almost don't play at all (even though they do make perfect sense conceptually and thematically)?
Especially since, as much as I liked the movie - and I liked it quite a bit: it's alongside 28 Weeks Later, The Host, and Death Proof as my favorite movies of the year - I'm much more interested in writing about what I didn't like about it, partly because the good stuff is so good that I think it's a real shame that the movie as a whole doesn't quite deliver.
About the good stuff: though the story is nothing new - guy finds money from a drug deal gone wrong, tries to keep it for himself, gets into trouble as a consequence - the storytelling is so fully-realized, with so many "just right" details that moment-to-moment the movie is breathtaking. There are two perfectly executed suspense sequences - one involving the guy getting chased by a dog and the other involving a cat-and-mouse game in a hotel that turns into a running gunfight through the streets of a run down Texas town - and two sustained, spot-on main performances - from Tommy Lee Jones ('natch) and Josh Brolin*.
The major problem is that after the Men's Adventure Movie plot comes to an end, there are still several more scenes that serve to wrap up Cormac McCarthy's thematic concerns. The scenes are well-done, (with one exception) well-acted, and, in some ways, they feel a lot more like what we're used to from the Coen Brothers (think the "philosophical" dialogue scenes from Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing, or The Man Who Wasn't There), but compared to everything that came before, they're flat. And there's too many of them: I got the same sense I had at the end of the movie version of Return of the King - one ending would be enough, we don't need three or four. Of course, Return earns those endings (in a way) because they're meant to cap off 8+ hours of epic moviemaking. With this movie, though, they weigh everything down by making too many of the movie's themes explicit.
(It isn't often that I'll see a movie and know exactly what I would cut out, but here it's: Javier Bardem's scene with Stephen Root, Tommy Lee Jones's conversation with the El Paso sheriff played by Rodger Boyce, and Bardem's scene with Kelly MacDonald and it's aftermath - see below.)
My other problem with the movie: Javier Bardem's performance, while technically accomplished, got old pretty quickly.
Compared to the easy naturalism of Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones, Bardem is doing elaborate, cartoony schtick. It's the lead performance most like those from other Coen Brothers flicks. This wouldn't be so bad if there wasn't as much of it, because each of his dialogue scenes is making the same point - that he's a psychopathic freak on his own wavelength - in the same way - Bardem's off-kilter, spaced-out intensity.
Bardem is a little like John Turturro in The Big Lebowski, but the big differences are that (a) Jesus is only on screen for a few minutes and (b) the joke at least has a punchline.
Bardem's Chigurh is as one-note of a performance as Robert Patrick's in Terminator 2, but James Cameron is smart enough to have the T-1000 keep his mouth shut. Chigurh, like the T-1000, is supposed to be a kind of a force of nature and he seems more like a plot device - the relentless killing machine - than an actual character. Not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you realize that it's not very interesting to try to get inside the head of a plot device.
Watching Bardem, I started comparing him (unfavorably) to Tom Noonan in Manhunter: Bardem's performance is intense, but it also has big quotation marks around it - he's doing a quirky take on "Movie Psycho" - while Tom Noonan's is intense but also terrifyingly, believably alien - it's creepy and disturbing in a way that we don't usually see in thrillers. The horror comes from the total, straight-faced commitment Tom Noonan brings to that character's twisted belief system.
*After Brolin's performance here and in Planet Terror, I have to wonder if he's always been this good or it's more like after working so long in so many second rate roles in second rate productions he's finally gotten to the point where these kinds of note-perfect genre turns just come naturally to him.