First of all, the critics are right. This is a fantastic movie: gripping, beautifully shot, and masterfully acted. Brolin, Jones, McDonald, and particularly Bardem nail these roles. It's a movie that affected me as I walked out of the theater and that I'm still trying to parse, to really understand, hours afterward.
This is the kind of movie you wouldn't expect to like; despite the fine cinematography and typical Coen-inspired acting brilliance and the relentless suspense that kept our very full theater breathless for most of the movie, the film absolutely epitomizes the word bleak. That bleakness, however, becomes one of the movie's greatest assets because the Coen Brothers embrace it so completely. It's a movie about the almost comic senseless of human cruelty, where the young slaughter each other with neither conflicted pathos nor psychotic indulgence, and the old can only watch from the sidelines, their only choice in the events being the ability to decide whether to react with horror, abject despair, and amusement at the sheer inanity of the evil unfolding before them. There is no joy in No Country; the only time a character actually laughs in it, it's because of a particularly absurd story of mass murder in the newspaper, and the only smiles come from Wells and Chigurh, the two hired killers.
This is also a movie that requires reflection, however, and this is where I think the critics flubbed it. Granted, I could never do the job they do; most of the time the critics analyze movies with far greater eloquence and awareness than I could ever muster. Perhaps because they have to watch and write about so many movies, they don't have time to reflect on the ones that really need it, and far be it for me to be judgmental about that. That being said, however, the movie benefits from being a literary adaptation in ways the critics either didn't notice or didn't bother to mention. For instance, the Coens effectively marshal a number of symbols to aid in conveying the themes of the film: the antagonist Anton Chigurh's pocket full of coins and the capricious perfidy of fate; milk (which, admittedly, I haven't yet figured out myself); the constant soiling/tearing of clothes; the hundred dollar bills that seem to catalyze every action in the entire movie; and the air pump, normally used for the slaughter of livestock, that Chigurh uses to kill people.
Anton Chigurh also is a little bit deeper of a character than the critics gave him credit for as well, though it is admittedly subtle and perhaps even purely subjective. For most of the movie he seems like a character of pure callousness and sociopathy, someone who answers his victims' frequent entreaties of "You don't have to do this" with a half-quizzical look, as if he doesn't even understand the words. There's a moment, however, when he flips a coin to decide whether one of the characters lives or die, and the character adamantly refuses to "call it." Chigurh asks them again, raising his voice slightly, and for a fleeting moment, they both seem to recognize that Chigurh rationalizes killing people who don't deserve it, who never got in his way or attracted his anger, by relinquishing his own agency to the coin, as if it's not really his choice if the victim chooses wrong. The character, thus, refuses to allow him to pretend like it's not his choice to kill them, and he seemed to me to be momentarily shaken by that epiphany.
There's also the sense of place, upon which there is an almost Clint Eastwood movie-esque fixation. Yes, the scenery is beautful yet bleak, blah blah blah, but in every scene the Coens emphasize the fact that this is taking place in west Texas, not only in the shots of the brushlands and mesas and foothills of the Rockies, but in the license plates and thick Texas twangs. Even the casting choices reflect the emphasis of place, such as San Saba native Tommy Lee Jones, one of whose most memorable roles was in Lonesome Dove, Midland boy Woody Harrelson, and Barry Corbin who hails from Lamesa, Texas, about an hour north of Midland/Odessa. Perhaps the setting could be taken as a microcosm for the world generally, but the movie isn't about that and doesn't try to do that.
Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the critics to a man missed the "point" of the movie, the moral of the story (if it can called such) as discovered by Sheriff Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones (with the exception of Boston Globe columnist Ty Burr, who didn't just miss the point but thought the movie was saying the direct opposite). In the beginning Bell has a voice-over in which he talks admiringly about the lawmen who came before him, his father and grandfather and some other more famous ones, who didn't feel the need to carry a sidearm during work hours. Their time was a more peaceful one than ours, and they were greater men than us. "How would those men handle these times?" he asks.
The point of the movie, however, is that he was wrong, as he finds out after all the carnage of the main plot has been cleaned up. That is the whole point of Barry Corbin's scene, in which Bell is enlightened to this point, and the final scene in which he's left to ponder what his subconscious has already figured out. Those who came before us were not better men and did not live in better times; though the commodity in question may be different now, the ruthlessness used to acquire it is nothing new. Before the no-man's-land of West Texas formed a theater for the drug war, farmers fought with ranchers over the fencing of the range, and before that the Yankees battled the Mexicans over political control, and before that the white man coveted the land under the Apaches' feet. Our fathers rode out on our own dark path long before we found it, and we cannot help but follow them into the night.