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Coen Heads

Javier Bardem as the the tonsorially challenged psychopath in No Country for Old Men.  

Storyboarding every second does remove an element of live-wire-ness from the brothers’ filmmaking: You don’t feel that intangible excitement of a director hammering out scenes and shots on the spot. But it frees the Coens to concentrate on the most vital found objects: the actors.

The Coens often cite Stanley Kubrick as a model, but Kubrick in his last three decades depersonalized his actors, whereas the Coens cultivate their actors’ distinctive weirdness. They love them some weirdos. I can imagine them in the editing room—they edit their films under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes, who once “wrote” an essay disparaging them—chortling at the faces onscreen, like poor Dan Hedaya’s as he leaks blood from every orifice in Blood Simple or roly-poly mouth-breather Jon Polito’s as he dies one of several grotesque deaths. The Coens obviously adore John Turturro’s hungry visage and Steve Buscemi’s clammy dyspepsia. They relished John Goodman’s bravura girth before anyone else did. They made Holly Hunter (former roommate of Joel’s wife, Frances McDormand) a movie star by milking the tension between her pixieish face and snapping-turtle delivery. Listen to them on a DVD commentary track for The Man Who Wasn’t There in the company of Billy Bob Thornton: Over and over, they point out “the Ed nod,” the teensy bobbing of the otherwise catatonic protagonist’s head. I could reel off twenty more performances—and I bet they could reel off a hundred. They’re fans.

None of their previous actors show up in No Country for Old Men: The Coens are out of their comfort zone. The film opens with lonely vistas of desert and mountains and the plaintive narration of Tommy Lee Jones, as an aging Texas sheriff who stares with incomprehension at the horrors the young’uns inflict upon one another in these godless times. The horrors to come are formidable. Faithfully adapted from a novel by Cormac McCarthy, the movie centers on a likable trailer-park loser (Josh Brolin) who stumbles onto a scene of slaughter in the desert (Mexican drug smugglers shot to pieces along with their dogs), discovers a suitcase filled with millions of dollars, and decides—dumb!—to make off with it. It isn’t long before he’s tracked by teams of Mexican assassins and, more chillingly, a psychopathic Terminator (Javier Bardem) who reflexively murders thugs and bystanders alike with the kind of air gun used to blast the brains out of cows.

The film is somber, austere, yet rich in feeling. The Coens don’t wink at you, but you know they’re there and grooving on the barbed-wire witticisms and the actors’ Weirdo Factor: Jones’s hangdog face; Woody Harrelson’s doofus air of infallibility as a cowboy-hatted bounty hunter; and especially Bardem’s Prince Valiant haircut, basso-Lurch voice, and dark, freaky stare in the extended foreplay before his killings. You want thriller set pieces? A man leaps into a fast-moving river to escape an attack dog—but the dog is right behind him, its bobbing head both ridiculous and terrifying as it closes the gap. A sequence in a cheap motel room, in which the hunter and hunted—their rooms connected by an air vent—telepathically intuit one another’s presence, is so insanely taut you have to whoop. The psycho’s gun blasts come from nowhere and everywhere, relentlessly, like the whirligig decapitator of the kung fu schlock classic Master of the Flying Guillotine.

No Country for Old Men is a gorgeous fusion of its novelist’s and filmmakers’ sensibilities, at least until its climax—or, rather, its climacticus interruptus. What a shriveling is there! It’s not that McCarthy’s overriding cruelty is foreign to the Coens, who rarely miss an opportunity to linger on victims’ suffering or their spreading pools of blackish blood. It’s that there’s too much life in their universe—and in their actors—for the film to end with a whimper of resignation. In McCarthy’s novel, the characters are barely described, but the flesh changes all. Jones’s liquid eyes and acid intelligence make it unthinkable he’d do—or not do—what his character does—or doesn’t do—here.

McCarthy’s novel is good trash dressed up with so-so metaphysics: In the middle of a description of the desert, you’ll get something like, “That god lives in silence who has scoured the following land with salt and ash.” (McCarthy does transcend genre fiction in The Road, the novel that followed this one.) In the film, you wait to see the sheriff, the venerable rock of decency, confront the newfangled evil in a showdown as cathartic as Carl Franklin’s B-movie classic One False Move. But the Coens are true to their source, if not their strengths. I’m told that McCarthy liked the last part of the picture best, and he would.

Something about the ending bodes well, though. In Miller’s Crossing, the protagonist has a recurring anxiety dream of a hat blowing away in a forest—an image that puzzled a lot of viewers but struck me as the perfect representation of the character’s fear of losing control. The filmmakers’, too. Film is a medium for control freaks, of whom the Coens are among the control-freakiest. The flat, unironic, nondisjunctive stoicism of the final scenes of No Country for Old Men must have been hard for these jokers. This might be the start of something thrilling: Joel and Ethan Coen learning how to let go.