Coen Heads

Joel / EthanPhoto: Andrew Eccles

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.

Javier Bardem as the the tonsorially challenged psychopath in No Country for Old Men.Photo: Richard Foreman/Courtesy of Miramax Films

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.

Coen Heads