The first nine-tenths of Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men—the centerpiece of this year’s New York Film Festival—is the best thing they’ve ever done, with the possible exception of The Big Lebowski as seen for the third time, stoned. (No Country’s last tenth I’m not so sure about, but we’ll get to that.) The Coens’ return to the festival is a glorious omen. The NYFF made the brothers indie darlings in 1984 with the screening of their first film, Blood Simple. Six years later, Miller’s Crossing gave the opening-night glitterati an unexpected barrage of rat-a-tat-tat and splatter. Now, seventeen years after that, No Country for Old Men throws into stark (wide-screen, deep-focus, emotionally devastating) relief their evolution from snotty art-film postmodern jokesters to snotty art-film postmodern jokesters … with soul. This one is Blood Subtle.
Before I continue: Writing about the Coens—and mining their oeuvre for Big Ideas—is a sure way of looking like an ass. When the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman contended that the climax of Miller’s Crossing was a Holocaust allegory, the Coens didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. And when I interviewed them for American Film in 1986, on the occasion of their second film, Raising Arizona, they greeted my pointy-headed critical theories with the look of the Sundance Kid hearing a cockamamy new scheme: “You just keep thinkin’, Butch. That’s what you’re good at.” Their cinematographer at the time, Barry Sonnefeld, told me, “Topics are incredibly unimportant to them—it’s structure and style and words. If you ask them for their priorities, they’ll tell you script, editing, coverage, and lighting.” Later, I pressed Joel for his thoughts on the movie’s ostensible subject—procreation, infertility, child-rearing—and he squirmed and smoked and finally said a baby’s face is “fodder,” like a gunshot with blood running down someone’s shirt: something you can play with in surprising (and perverse) ways. “Fodder” sounds a little glib. I’d prefer a more highbrow formulation: The Coens take found objects and arrange them for maximum disjunction.
At first, those found objects were movie conventions. The camera that travels smoothly along the bar in Blood Simple and ostentatiously rises and falls to avoid a slumped barfly was a cinéaste’s in-joke—arty Mel Brooks. Raising Arizona—undertaken largely to be the polar opposite of Blood Simple, bright and raucous instead of dark and moody—is a hyperbolic cartoon, a riot of tacky décor, fashion, and hairstyles. Fargo is a dumb dialect comedy elevated (or deadened) by its wintry mise-en-scène and shocking violence. The Big Lebowski goes furthest: As I wrote in a Times piece celebrating its burgeoning cult, “[It’s] not Fargo but one of filmdom’s most inspired farragos … The Coens take a disheveled stoner layabout, the former sixties activist the Dude—seen mostly in baggy shorts, sandals, an oversized T-shirt through which his gut is visible, often sucking a joint, mixing a White Russian, or lying on his rug with headphones listening to bowling competitions or whale songs—and make him the gumshoe protagonist of a convoluted Raymond Chandler–style L.A. mystery-thriller in the tradition of The Big Sleep.”
It’s a dope thing. I don’t mean that the Coens were potheads. (I don’t mean they weren’t.) But they came of age artistically when Father Knows Best fifties culture was viewed ironically, through a cannabis haze; when kitsch was embraced with a nudge and a wink; when David Letterman turned the folks back home into Larry “Bud” Melman–like freaks; and when David Lynch homed in on the putrefaction under the paneling. Dope creates disjunction by fracturing bogus harmony. Nothing flows together. Nothing is beyond deconstruction.
But can disjunction be more than a source of easy yuks? In O Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens did something radical. They introduced an element of authenticity—realistic objects embedded in a surrealistic canvas. The film takes its title from Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, in which a commercial Hollywood director bent on making a socially conscious melodrama ends up side by side with “real” people in a chain gang. Arguably the least of Sturges’s masterpieces, the movie loses its satirical fizz when it dwells on the Walker Evans–like nobility of the common man. In O Brother, the Coens take a startlingly different tack. Cartoonish farce is now interwoven with authentic folk culture—period bluegrass so stirringly pure that the album, produced by T Bone Burnett, was a cultural event, far bigger than the movie. The tension is even more extreme in the badly received remake of The Ladykillers, in which a snaggletoothed Tom Hanks leads a bumbling gang of thieves to a soundtrack heavy on southern spirituals—stylized buffoons juxtaposed with genuine African-American church choirs and worshippers in a small Mississippi town.
I’m in the minority in disliking most of Fargo and O Brother; I don’t think the disparate elements mesh on any level. But how many mainstream filmmakers are so ambitiously mischievous?
Another thing keeps the Coens’ movies from seeming like the work of cold, patronizing, solipsistic formalists. Call it the X Factor. Or maybe the X-Squared Factor. Their aesthetic is grounded in a magical communion, a mind meld. The Coens are a biosphere. I imagine them pacing as they write—or, rather, Ethan pacing and Joel typing, always on the same wavelength, always able to finish each other’s thoughts. Do they relentlessly crack each other up like Click and Clack on NPR’s “Car Talk”? Jeez, I hope not. But their films are infused with the warmth of their process—a process that continues with J Todd Anderson, the storyboard artist who helps them compose their tricky frames.