This is our country?

Two Mondays ago Hazel took me as her guest to a BAFTA screening for No Country For Old Men . Hazel won a BAFTA scholarship last year, and one of the perks is that she's invited to all sorts of screenings and events. There seems to be one nearly every night.

No Country For Old Men is not my favorite Cormac McCarthy novel (I'm partial to Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, and The Road), but the Coen brothers have identified the spine of the thing and planted it in the dust of the West like a tombstone for a more comforting age in America's history, when the enemy wasn't as empty and unfeeling as the nihilistic killer Anton Chigurh, played with placid efficiency by Javier Bardem. When asked in Q&A how he found the character, he replied simply that it began with "the haircut" (Josh Brolin said that when Bardem walked out with that haircut for the first time, he complained, "I'm not going to get laid for three months").

McCarthy has written many beautiful elegies for the West; this one also ushers in something chilling in the form of Chigurh, whose weapon of choice, a percussion stun gun used on cattle, is the perfect symbol of a supposedly more civilized age but which seems clinical and soulless in its proficiency. Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, an ordinary man who finds a suitcase filled with $2 million in cash out in the Texas countryside, the remnants of a drug deal gone bad. Is there any cinematic symbol more pure than a suitcase of cash?

Moss decides to keep the money, and Chigurh, whom we've already met, comes after him like a bounty hunter from hell. Tommy Lee Jones, as a lawman following the trail of carnage behind Moss and Chigurh, has a face nearly as metaphoric as the cattle gun. Every crag and nook of Jones's face seems like a record of the history of the land. Jones knows that times have changed, that Chigurh represents a new sort of evil and darkness in the world, one he doesn't understand and one he fears he can't overcome.

From the opening shot, you know you are in the hands of craftsmen who control the tension in the film as easily as a violinist tightening a string on his instrument. It's a strong return to form for the Coen brothers whose Ladykillers was a big disappointment. There is at times a sense of stasis in the film; some of the characters are who they are, and they aren't about to change over the course of two hours (that's McCarthy's influence also). But it's a damned enjoyable two hours, and every time Javier Bardem appears on screen, you get a knot in your stomach that's tied together with one strand of suspense and another of glee.

The cast also includes Woody Harrelson and Kelly McDonald (great the first time I saw her in Trainspotting, she manages to extract a lot from playing Moss's wife; it's not easy being a woman in a McCarthy novel).

NOTE: One of my film school classmates Chris Carroll was an intern on the shoot and gets his own line in the credits under the camera crew. Look for him under "Intern."