The desolate landscape and moral layout evoke old Westerns, but the film also reconsiders that genre's conventions, suggesting comparisons between now and "the old times." So while Ed Tom follows clues and questions witnesses -- including Lleweleyn's wise, forgiving young wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) -- he's always a slight step behind his prey, recognizing Anton's extreme iniquity even before Llewelyn does. Though the war vet and the killer do match wits for some time in some deliciously tense, beautifully shot cat-and-mouse scenes, the sheriff knows that in a showdown, decency can't keep up with depravity.
Smart and compelling throughout, the film includes some stunning set-pieces, including a scene in which Llewelyn runs up a shallow river away from a ferocious hunting dog (the two shapes bobbing as they try to muster speed against the current is a sight you won't soon forget), and another in which he sits in a dark hotel room, shotgun on his lap, waiting for Anton's arrival. As a smooth-talking bounty hunter named Carson Wells, Woody Harrelson provides a few moments of welcome off-rhythm distance from Anton and Llewelyn's contest, but their intense focus on each other is overwhelming, even leading to a confrontation between Anton and Carla Jean, who refuses to participate in the coin-flip he offers. "The coin don't have no say," she says, eyeing him darkly. "It's just you."
Andin the end, it is just Anton, his bizarre, amoral meanness emblematic of the changes that Ed Tom perceives. Whether these changes are a function of his own aging, altered perspective, or a kind of national psychic shift, the film leaves for you to figure.