If you ran into the Coen brothers at a party, you'd write 'em off as socially awkward weirdos best left alone. Joel, the older Coen bro at 53, is the more talkative of the two. The younger Ethan, 50, speaks as little as possible, but, when he does, he bubbles with an energy that seems desperate to escape his introverted demeanor.
The Coen brothers are those kids who got made fun of in school. All these years later, they'd still get made fun of if they hadn't bestowed upon the world such cinema classics as Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and, more to the point, next week's No Country for Old Men.
It's been five years since the sibling writer-directors delivered a movie worthy of their names. The Ladykillers (2004) at least challenged Tom Hanks to climb outside the career-long box he'd been stuck in as an actor, but 2003's Intolerable Cruelty was so abysmally bad that even George Clooney's frenetic performance couldn't salvage even one scene. It's probably why No Country, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's meaty novel, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin, has been passionately embraced by critics since its Cannes debut earlier this year. Let it be said that No Country is a masterpiece on par with Fargo.
Sure, No Country serves as a wonderful companion piece to that 1996 crime classic. It stumbles on its own thematic artfulness — though that's probably more a fault of the brothers faithfulness to the source material. Flaws aside, it's still the brothers' most impressive work in years.
The Coens are sitting in Beverly Hills' Four Seasons today, forcing themselves to talk about the new movie. Force might be a strong word, but there are few places these two would rather not be than press junkets. Forget TV; they won't do it.
What about the similarities between No Country and Fargo, then?
"We didn't think about it like that," Joel says. "But retrospectively, at one point, I realized there are certain superficial resemblances to Fargo. There's a very specific regionalism to the stories, and they're both about sheriffs from towns confronting crime."
This time, the sheriff's played by Jones rather than Joel's wife, Frances McDormand. Bardem's a relentless killer, a sort of avatar of fate who often uses a coin to make decisions. He's on the trail of Brolin, a Vietnam vet who expects a better life after stumbling upon $2 million in Mexican drug money. Kelly McDonald and Woody Harrelson have bit parts too, but it's really Bardem and Brolin's show, with Jones as little more than the oil that helps keep the story moving smoothly. No Country is the Coen brothers' least mannered movie to date, which made us wonder if this was a conscious attempt to—
"Knock it off?" Ethan says, chuckling as he avoids eye contact. "Hmm, no. No. And we never make those kinds of overall abstract decisions or calculations. It was an adaptation of a book and we loved it, so we tried to serve the story. Even with stories that derive from our own thing, our attitude toward them is the same: We just want to treat them how it feels like they were meant to be treated."
"It comes from another person's imagination, and it was our job to bring that to the screen," Joel adds. Later, he'll talk about the bizarre, off-screen, and anti-climactic conclusion to the cat-and-mouse chase between Bardem and Brolin's characters and say, "If the novel had been more conventional in that sense, we probably wouldn't have been interested in making it into a movie." So, yeah, his and Ethan's direction might seem less obvious in No Country, but McCarthy's novel was Coen enough to make up for the subtlety of their artistic decisions.
The possibility that the dramatically un-Hollywood ending might leave audiences squirming and confused doesn't concern Joel either. "Look, whenever you're doing these things ... [you have to accept], as I'm sure Cormac McCarthy does when he writes a novel, that you might not be writing it for everybody," he says. "When we make a movie like this, we might not be making a movie for everybody — but we're convinced that we're making it for enough people who will see it as an interesting thing. We don't worry about it anymore."
This is probably the most intriguing thing about the Coen brothers; the pair is unable to relax in front of people, but they exude absolute confidence in their directorial skills (or, shall we say, directorial gifts), both in what they put up on the screen and how they discuss it when forced.
And what about their constantly changing cast of actors? In terms of direction, do the brothers push the actors to specific performances, or is their process more spontaneous?
"We do what the actor wants to do; we don't have a position on that," Ethan says. "They're all very different."
"There's so many different ways an actor comes to a performance," Joel says. "Some do this research, some don't look at the script until the night before. Some have everything down by heart weeks in advance, other people are looking at lines before they do the scene. Some want to have subtextual conversations about the character, and some wouldn't go near that."
Joel goes on to explain that Javier Bardem was hired for his skills, not his take on the character. The brothers had faith Bardem would make good decisions. That's a lot of confidence in an actor; most directors don't have a fraction of that kind of faith. And most directors don't have the balls to make decisions that'll probably alienate large numbers of potential audiences either. Thing is, the Coens create on their terms — much like Cormac McCarthy — and can bend cinematic laws to fit their wishes without suffering any real consequences (um, don't count Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers). American cinema needs more oddballs making real films from great fiction.
No Country for Old Men hits theaters on Friday, Nov. 16.Cole Haddon is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]