It happened very quietly somewhere between “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers.”
After obfuscating their roles for 20 years, Joel and Ethan Coen decided to share directing credit.
Maybe that doesn’t seem like such a big deal, considering that critics and fans have understood since day one that the Coen brothers write, direct and edit their movies together, but look at it this way: In the past, listing Joel as director and Ethan as producer was just one more way of mystifying audiences about their process.
Now that the creative duo appear on the ballot together, Hollywood seems ready to recognize the auteurs on their own terms. It’s about time, since “No Country for Old Men” is nothing if not uncompromising, alternating as it does between nearly wordless action and abstruse philosophical ruminations. The irony is, it’s also business as usual for the Coen brothers.
“No Country’s” very DNA traces back to their 1984 debut, “Blood Simple,” a noir-tinged white-knuckler inspired by the Texas passion murders.
That high-tension hotel shoot-out between unlucky stiff Josh Brolin and killing machine Javier Bardem that everyone’s talking about? It’s the polished version of a cat-and-mouse scenario between Frances McDormand and M. Emmet Walsh from that earlier film.
But the movie “No Country” most resembles is the Coens’ Minnesota-set follow-the-money thriller, “Fargo.” Though laced with their trademark sense of humor, both films find the brothers in “serious” mode, telling the story of a no-nonsense sheriff on the heels of someone who’s in over his head with the criminal element.
While “Fargo” ends with the Coens’ grisliest gag yet, the new film is bloodier by a country mile. And though both feature sly, closely observed regional satire (consider the overweight trailer-park desk clerk or Moss’ busybody mother-in-law), “No Country” tones down the caricature.
According to Ethan, “The fact that this is actually in many ways a scary movie (for audiences) seemed to be important in terms of telling the story in the way it was meant to be understood or taken in. And because the movies are tonally very different, that flows to everything. It informs the other stuff you do as well.”
Another important distinction is that it was producer Scott Rudin who brought Cormac McCarthy’s book to the Coen brothers, not the other way around. Many of the lines, which sound crafted with the Coens’ golden ear for dialogue, actually trace back directly to the novel.
It was McCarthy’s sensibility, combined with the Coens’ interest in West Texas culture (Joel lived there for a number of months, and Ethan claims to know it, too) that convinced them to give it a read. And then their filmmaking instincts kicked in, drawing connections not to their own earlier work but, rather, a vein of storytelling absent from contemporary Hollywood: Peckinpah movies.
“It’s not even that we were trying to copy (his style), but by virtue of setting it and the maleness, you realize that this has been done before — like the shoot-out in the hotel, there’s a whole, like, body jerk thing that Sam Peckinpah perfected,” Ethan observes.
“You picture Warren Oates walking through,” Joel laughs. With that image in mind, the brothers went about doing what they do best: crafting a cohesive, yet deeply idiosyncratic yarn no lone director could accomplish.