by David Denby
The Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men casts an ominous and mournful spell from the first shot. Over scenes of a desolate West Texas landscape, an aging sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) ruminates on the new viciousness of crime. He says that he’s not afraid of dying, but, he adds, “I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard.” But what does he mean? That he would be debased by the fight? That a devil might take his soul? Without transition, we see an odd-looking man in a modified Prince Valiant haircut (Javier Bardem) murder first a deputy sheriff, then a stranger whose car he needs. (He strangles the deputy and shoots the stranger with some sort of gun attached to what looks like an oxygen tank.) The movie jumps again, to Llewelyn, an early-morning hunter (Josh Brolin) who’s out in the desert tracking antelope. In the distance, he sees five pickup trucks arrayed in a rough circle and some dead bodies lying on the ground. He moves in slowly, rifle held low. His attentiveness is so acute that it sharpens our senses, too.
In the past, Joel and Ethan Coen have tossed the camera around like a toy, running it down shiny bowling lanes or flipping it overhead as a naked babe or two, trampolined into the air, rises and falls through the frame in slow motion. Now they’ve put away such happy shenanigans. There’s no music, only silence; the shooting and editing are devoted solely to what the hunter sees and feels as he inches forward—earth, air, a slight brush of wind, and the mess in front of him, which is obviously the remnants of a drug deal gone bad. Only one man, shot in the belly, remains alive amid the trucks. Nothing is explained to us, and nothing has to be; we accept the arbitrariness of disaster—and of goodness, too. Having lifted off a case full of money from the scene, the hunter—he’s actually a welder named Llewelyn—returns home to his trailer and banters affectionately with his young wife (Kelly Macdonald), but then decides, in the middle of the night, to go back to the desert and bring water to the wounded man. He gets chased off by thugs from the drug syndicate—the beginning of a very long chase that will go through many moments of terror.
So powerful are the first twenty minutes or so of No Country—so concentrated in their physical and psychological realization of dread—that we are unlikely to ask why Prince Valiant, whose name is Anton Chigurh, kills with a captive-bolt gun (the kind used in killing cattle) rather than a revolver; or if it makes any sense for Llewelyn, a likable roughneck, to return to the scene after he’s made off with $2 million in drug money; or how corpses lying in open air could have remained untouched by coyotes or vultures; or whether its probable that absolutely everyone involved in the drug shoot-out could be killed or wounded (such mutual wipe-outs occur in the movies more than in actual shoot-outs). No Country is based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, and the bleak view of life that has always existed in the Coens’ work merges with McCarthy’s lethal cool. After these initial scenes, Chigurh poses hostile and unanswerable questions to the baffled owner of a roadside gas station (Gene Jones), and the mind games are prolonged to a state of almost unbearable tension. Watching the movie, you feel a little like that gas station owner—impressed, even intimidated.
That’s an odd way to feel at a Coen brothers movie. For almost twenty-five years, the Coens have been rude and funny, inventive and sometimes tiresome—in general, so prankish and unsettled that they often seemed in danger of undermining what was best in their movies. Have they gone straight at last? The sheriff’s expressions of philosophical despair are meant to carry serious weight, and surely no one could deliver these sentiments with greater authority than Tommy Lee Jones. His creased face is a map of hard times, his voice, in its curious drops and rises, a record of long experience, many earlier ruminations, much defeat. But our questions about plot details and many other things return, and, in the end, one wants to argue with the picture’s aura of sinister fatality. How could the Coen brothers pull off a major statement about violence and death—they who have often made a joke out of both?
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There are the Taviani brothers, the Dardenne brothers, the Farrellys and the Wachowskis, but the Coens are surely the most relaxed and productive of all the fraternal movie partnerships. Joel was born in 1955, Ethan three years later, and they grew up in a Jewish household in a Minneapolis suburb, the sons of two professors (their dad an economist, their mother an art historian). Joel studied film at NYU, Ethan did philosophy at Princeton. During the college years, they weren’t that close, but they hooked up in their twenties, drawn together by memories of 8mm filmmaking as kids, a shared catalogue of movie references, a flourishing sense of the absurd. They launched their career in 1984, with the thriller Blood Simple. Joel got sole screen credit as director on this film and also on the next nine they made together, with Ethan listed as producer and both of them as writers. But Ethan was always there on the set, whispering into Joel’s ear or talking to the actors, and, in their last two films, ending all pretense of sole control, they have shared the director credit. They also edit the films together under the name of Roderick Jaynes, an invented surly Englishman who disapproves of their work.
The Coens form a conspiracy of two—industrious, secretive, amused, and seemingly indifferent to both criticism and praise. Early in their careers, they gave detailed interviews, but in recent years they have discussed only specific and relatively trivial matters concerning their movies, avoiding comments on larger meanings or anything approaching a general intellectual outlook. At times, they are given to sour pragmatic remarks, such as Ethan’s “The awards put a movie on people’s radars. Festivals are good, even though the idea of putting movies into competitions—this one is the best this, that one is the best that—is ridiculous.” Their attitude is, “The only way to avoid bullshit is to say as little as possible.” Avoiding art talk is solidly in the tradition of such American movie directors as Ford or Hawks, who presented themselves solely as entertainers. But the Coens, in their hip mulishness, have gone further into insouciance than any old-time director I can think of. In the opening titles for Fargo (1996), they announced that the movie was based on a true story, though it wasn’t. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) begins with a title stating that the movie is “based upon The Odyssey by Homer,” which they later claimed they had never read. From the beginning, they’ve been playing with moviemaking, playing with the audience, the press, the deep-dish interpreters, disappearing as artists behind a facade of mockery and silence.
Consider a stinging moment in their first film, Blood Simple (1984). Two adulterous lovers, Ray (John Getz) and Abby (Frances McDormand), frightened and at odds with each other, are standing at a screen door. As they talk, we see something flying end over end toward them. It hits the door with a thwack—but it turns out to be just the morning newspaper. Blood Simple is the kind of adultery-and-murder story that James M. Cain would have written in the 1930s and Hollywood would have made a decade later into a seductive work of cinematic nightshade—the kind of picture that, as James Agee put it, lulled the audience into “a state of semiamnesia through which tough action and reaction drum with something of the nonsensical solace of hard rain on a tin roof.” But there’s no such solace in Blood Simple. For the audience, that thwack was more like a slap across the face; it jolts us into noticing the new thing the brothers were doing. Blood Simple was full of such noir flourishes as a slowly turning fan, but the drama was set not at night in the labyrinthine city but in the bright sunshine and heat of underpopulated rural Texas. The characters are not shrewdly calculating sophisticates but moral idiots and screwups. The movie is both a homage to noir and a teasing gloss on it.
For example, the illicit romantic attraction between the lovers, which sets the story in motion, doesn’t mean a thing; it’s completely without heat. What interests the Coens is how foolishly people behave, and how little they understand of what they’re doing. The lovers keep misreading signs, misperceiving what’s going on. As trouble closes in on them, they can’t make themselves clear to each other. The Coens may be the first major filmmakers since Preston Sturges to exploit the dramatic possibilities of stupidity. In Sturges’s movies, however, you don’t feel that he is putting people down—not even the rubes and yokels who won’t shut up. Sturges was an affectionate satirist of gabby democratic vitality, but the Coens can be sardonic, even misanthropic. In their world, stupidity leads to well-deserved disaster. In Blood Simple, the cuckolded husband (Dan Hedaya) hires a vicious private eye (M. Emmet Walsh) to get rid of his wife and her lover, but the private eye double-crosses the husband, killing him instead, and sets up the lovers to take the fall. He laughs to himself, enjoying what a bad guy he is, but then, chasing Abby, he reaches out of a window and into an adjacent one, only to get his hand tent-pegged to the sill by her knife. The Coens spread dark blood on the floor in a spirit of play. Even fans of the movie (including me) came away feeling a little wounded.
If Blood Simple suggested that the Coens didn’t want to make a thriller so much as tease one into existence, Millers Crossing (1990) sported with the form in heavier and grimmer ways. The movie is set during Prohibition, in a nameless, somber-looking city dominated by Irish and Italian gangs. The openly corrupt atmosphere and much of the slang (“What’s the rumpus?”) come out of Dashiell Hammett’s novels Red Harvest and The Glass Key; as does the hero (Gabriel Byrne), a morose, alcoholic, and mysterious loner who plays the gangs off against each other. Sullenly handsome, Millers Crossing was shot in blended browns and dark greens; it looks serious, and, with the Gabriel Byrne character front and center, the Coens seem to be saying, or confessing, something about the inability to express feeling. But the situations and the dialogue are so stylized—so manically fretted with crime genre allusions and tropes—that the Coens killed whatever interest we might have taken in their story or in their hero. Created as a somber put-on, the movie perversely invented a new form of failure. It canceled itself out, almost as if the Coens had acted in bad faith toward themselves.
If Blood Simple and Millers Crossing were almost offensive in their knowingness—and almost undermining in the way the knowingness yanked meaning out of the movies—the Coens in those early days had another side that was more generously eager to entertain. The comedy that the Coens made between those two thrillers, Raising Arizona (1987), has the lilt and shock of a disjointed folk ballad. This tall tale is set in a sun-drenched Arizona whose reddish deserts and magnificent mountains are disfigured by trailer homes and Short Stops—paradise giving way to suburbia. A young married couple—H.I. (Nicolas Cage), a semi-retired convenience store thief, and Ed (Holly Hunter), an ex-cop—decide that, since they cannot have a child of their own, they have the right to snatch one of the quintuplets born to a wealthy couple. This time, the Coens expressed open affection for their lunkheads: H.I. and Ed talk in moralistic platitudes culled from the Bible and self-help manuals. Loving their snatched quint, they desperately want to do what’s right—that’s the comedy built into their outrageous behavior. Their struggle is accompanied by subdued yodeling and Beethoven’s Ninth, played on a banjo.
The Coens’ joking is inseparable from topography. In every movie, working first with the cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld and later with Roger Deakins, they establish a specific landscape, and pull whatever eccentricities they can out of it. In Arizona, two prison buddies of H.I.’s show up at the house and steal the baby, but then mistakenly leave him in a car seat along the road. Shrieking with remorse (they, too, have fallen in love with the kid), they drive back for him, and the camera sweeps across the blacktop, as if sliding on an oil slick. The wildest scenes in the movie were shot from the tots point of view. Seen from below, a burning-eyed bounty hunter on wheels—a creature the Coens discovered in the Southwest named Randall “Tex” Cobb—is a caveman figure out of a child’s book of monsters. The genre the Coens were leaning on was 1960s and 1970s biker movies, with its bearded creeps and outlaws of the road, but they were the first to think that a tot’s point of view might be cooler than a biker’s.
These three movies established the emotional and stylistic range of the Coen turf—the flagrancy, the jack-rabbit creativity, and the self-destructive whirl of unhinged pop scholarship. The filmmakers clearly had no interest in ordinary Hollywood realism. They could not—or would not—tell their stories straight or develop themes; their movies were jangled in style, brilliant and flashing but without sensuality or much interest in women. In order to get the right tone of controlled hyperbole, they depended on certain repeated American character types—not just their foolish heroes and heroines but fat, pompous men sitting behind desks and shouting; hulking, pre-mental brutes who murdered at will. They would draw on a stock company of actors—John Goodman, John Turturro, Jon Polito, Peter Storm are, and Steve Buscemi—who were not stars or lookers but rough-and-ready talents eager to play eccentrics, meatballs, killers, obsessives, and grouches. (There was only one woman in the group, Frances McDormand, who married Joel Coen after working on Blood Simple. McDormand could play anything—she shows up in Raising Arizona as a suburban bitch in a wig.) The Coens traveled to the boonies, working up the slang and commonplaces of the South or the Midwest into their own joshing patter. They could be nasty, heartless, even cruel, though with soft spots here and there. If they couldn’t care less about sex—an absence that makes many of their movies seem adolescently skittish—they would take a tender attitude toward marriage.
They made lurid thrillers and screw-loose comedies, all of them shot with a liberated camera that alternated between swooping runs and trancelike fixations on objects dislodged from their context—a hat flying beautifully through the woods in Millers Crossing, a pair of dead fish lying atop a Zippo lighter in Blood Simple. These objects were stuck somewhere between gag and symbol—a symbol without a referent. (Gabriel Byrnes fedora, in Millers Crossing, epitomized the decor of 1930s gangster movies, but not their meaning.) The movies were skewed genre commentary—surreal parody, offered without irony; spoof that was too unstable to settle into satire. As in a David Letterman routine, derisive quotation marks surrounded the higher sentiments.
Barton Fink (1991), for instance, was a bizarrely malicious joke on a New York left-wing playwright (John Turturro)—Clifford Odets as he might have been imagined by Nathanael West. The Coens portrayed the Odets character as an open-mouthed prig and phony who goes to Hollywood in the early 1940s and immediately sinks into artistic paralysis. The playwrights sin in the Coens eyes was his disgust for the task of writing a studio genre picture. They punished him with their own media-hip fluency: They turned the writer’s hotel into a flaming, horror-film fantasia out of The Shining. In O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), three more open-mouthed clods (Turturro, George Clooney, and Tim Blake Nelson) horse around in a Depression-era South soaked in myth and legend. The movie is a stunningly uneven mix of cornpone monkeyshines, lovely pastoral imagery, and condescension. The sarcasm was thick. O Brother may have revived the blues and country music of the period, but it scorned such affecting Depression-era classics as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and The Grapes of Wrath. The Coens, it seems, are irritated by the earlier naive strains of earnestness or pathos. They expended their talent in an indiscriminate taste for ridicule and crazy-salad genre mixes. You might call them nihilists if their subversions were more systematic; or postmodernists if their fooling weren’t so random that it shattered any academic category you could place it in.
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Before No Country for Old Men, the Coens had never made a movie that grossed more than $50 million domestically, but, for good or ill, they’ve never given up their aberrant panache, maintaining their independence by writing their own material and by keeping budgets low—sometimes very low. (Fargo was made for just $7 million.) If some of the movies have been misfires or hodgepodges, there are astonishing passages in many of them, like the Ku Klux Klan musical number in O Brother. Except for The Man Who Wasnt There (2001), a dud academic exercise in absurdist moods, nothing the Coens did was spiritless, and a little more than a decade ago they stopped banging movie references together and made two harmonious masterpieces in a row, the first a tragic comedy, the second a slacker hymn of praise so gentle and goofy that it has floated off the screen into the fantasy life of the nation.
In Fargo, the topographical obsession yields a view of landscape as moral destiny. Despite the title, the movie is set largely in Brainerd, Minnesota, where the snow falls so heavily that the fields and the sky merge into a single blinding mass. Watching the horizon line disappear, one thinks of evil’s white body—Melville’s white whale and Robert Frost’s “dimpled spider, fat and white, on a white heal-all.” The movie is about the blurring of ethical distinctions. The protagonist, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), who manages a car dealership, is deep in debt and needs more cash for a real estate scheme. He hires two thugs to kidnap his wife; his wealthy father-in-law, he assumes, will come up with the ransom, which Jerry will use to pay the kidnappers, while keeping the lion’s share himself. As played by Macy, who has a face like Howdy Doody gone to seed, Jerry is the most destructive of the Coens’ dopes; the confusion that he unleashes is so violent that the movie comes close to farce. Close, but it never steps over the line. The pace is deliberate, the tone deadpan, the style a flattening out of realism (there are no camera tricks or oddly angled shots). The Coens grew up in Minnesota and believed that something strange was going on there—a regional verbal tic that masked a collective nervous breakdown. Jerry’s idiocy is a product not just of personal fecklessness but of a way of life in which rampant greed (among other things) gets covered over by an implacable blandness. Committed to politeness and the best of all possible worlds, Jerry has no inkling of his own wickedness—no words to put it in—and not the slightest fear that his idiotic scheme might fail. He’s chipper and reassuring and unconscious, but no more so than the other citizens of Brainerd. Allowing for a change in accents, they could all be versions of Samuel Beckett’s Winnie in Happy Days, who, buried up to her neck in sand, keeps insisting “This is a happy day, this will have been another happy day!”
The Coens’ steady hand in this movie gives stupidity an astounding power; sarcasm gives way to a calmly amazed observation of chaos. The quiet directorial style takes in not only Jerry’s depraved normality but also the brutishness of the two. kidnappers (Buscemi and Peter Stormare), who hail from out of state and don’t share the local manners. Buscemi, a sour-tempered lowlife, protests against the silence of Stormare’s stone killer so frequently that Stormare knocks him out and feeds him into a wood-chipper, leaving only a foot sticking out of the top. The black comedy encompasses even the good folks. The pregnant sheriff, Marge (McDormand), is more shocked by rudeness than by the bloody homicides that she successfully investigates. She and her stolid husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), a wildlife artist who paints wooden decoys, demand little; they cuddle together in bed, awaiting their child, far happier than the grasping people outside in the snow.
Sometimes slowness, literalness are only a mask; it was moving to see the Coens acknowledge that. The surface of the Coens’ work is jumpy, even hyperactive, but in Fargo they associated goodness with, of all things, a state of rest. That state, and its surprising life-affirming qualities, turns up again in The Big Lebowski (1998). The hero, known as the Dude (Jeff Bridges), a waddling Los Angeles mammal in candy-striped shorts, T-shirt, and gray hoodie, gets into all sorts of trouble but wants only to be left alone. The Big Lebowski received mediocre reviews and did little initial business, but this odd comedy has built, over the years, an enormous obsessive cult following, madly devoted to every detail of the movie. There are minuscule and profane versions of the film on YouTube, as well as costumes, posters, stickers, and frequent regional stagings of a weekend “Lebowski Fest,” at which young men consume many White Russians (the Dude’s favorite drink). Heroic sloth has been memorialized into a national holiday, into ritual and reaffirmation. The devotion is entirely deserved. As cult movies go, The Big Lebowski is much wittier than Animal House or Hairspray, and free of the dumb-bunny silliness of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or the fumy mystical pretensions of El Topo.
The jumping-off point for The Big Lebowski is the insolent Howard Hawks classic The Big Sleep (1946). But this movie doesn’t taunt its model; it mutely reveres it, and finds a rhythm of its own. As in The Big Sleep, an old man in a wheelchair assigns the hero the job of dealing with whoever is blackmailing a wayward young woman in his family—in the Coens’ version, the old man’s sluttish trophy wife. As in Hawks’s film, the hero is pulled into an incredibly complicated set of circumstances—pornography, avant-garde art, conspiratorial groups, a real Los Angeles miasma. But private eye Philip Marlowe, in Humphrey Bogart’s devastating performance, always anticipates the next moment and has a thirst for action, whereas the Dude is a man so slack that he can’t sit in a chair without hitching his leg over one arm, exposing his crotch. Marlowe always anticipates the next moment, but the Dude, caught up in an indecipherable Los Angeles intrigue, is so vaguely constituted that he can hardly complete a sentence. The Dude, so to speak, resists being drawn into a story; he wants to spend his time bowling with his irascible friend Walter (John Goodman), a Jewish convert who served in Nam and has become a rhetorically enabled face-down-in-the-mud kind of guy. He thinks the fact that Americans died heroically in Vietnam justifies his getting furious over the smallest incidents in his life. Many of the Coens’ idiots are obsessives, but Walter, who has burning eyes and a tight beard outlining a mighty jaw, is so fiercely methodical in his false syllogisms that you begin to understand paranoia as a form of intellectual egotism. The Big Lebowski is a tribute to harmlessness, friendship, and team bowling. It offers a persistent “no” to the hard-pressing American “yes.” No wonder there’s a cult; it’s the only movie that makes inertia, and the resistance to work, family, and responsibility, seem like a position of honor. Women don’t much care for it; for men, it’s the Holy Grail. “The Dude abides,” Jeff Bridges says at the end, meaning that mere living is enough. Or almost enough. The picture, in an amazing turn, becomes quite touching. After disastrous misadventures, the Dude and Walter realize they have nothing in life but each other. Their final hug completes one of the great movie tributes to friendship. Like Raising Arizona, the movie is a ballad held together by tenderness. The Coens, it turned out, had a heart after all.
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But its not tenderness that impresses audiences in No Country for Old Men. Stimulated by McCarthy’s tough little sentences, which record action and thought but not sentiment, the Coens have hardened their style to a point far beyond what they accomplished in Fargo. The movie delivers an unparalleled sense of menace. What were watching seems to fall somewhere between a bitter modern Western and an absurdist parable. The empty West Texas road, which was right there at the beginning of the Coens’ career, in the first shot of Blood Simple, returns again, suggesting a void of moral order, a wilderness where limitless freedom can lead to chaos. This movie never lets up. As Llewelyn flees, half of the Southwestern drug trade pursues him and his $2 million. But the money is most seriously chased by the strangely named, strangely armed Anton Chigurh, who’s working (vaguely) for the American side of the drug network. The movie is essentially a game of hide-and-seek, set in brownish, stained motel rooms and other shabby American redoubts, but shot with a formal precision and an economy that make one think of masters like Hitchcock and Bresson. The killer and the money thief, as played by Bardem and Brolin, are alike in endurance, resourcefulness, and tolerance of pain. We get to know their torn flesh with admiring intimacy. Has there ever been a better chase?
Tommy Lee Jones’s sheriff remains on the sidelines (he never really gets into the action of the movie) and continues to make dejected remarks. Impotent as a lawman, he has become a connoisseur of meaninglessness, irresolution, futility. Civilization, it seems, has come to an end, petering out in the yellow-brown fields of West Texas. But does the story support the sheriff’s metaphysical dyspepsia? And have the Coens found, in Anton Chigurh, a correlative for their malign view of life? He’s very entertaining as a movie creep, but who is he? What is he? He kills a cop, and then eleven other people; he walks around carrying what appears to be a vacuum cleaner, yet no one sees him, no one reports him. He enters and leaves motels and hotels, walks the streets, appears out of nowhere, vanishes into nowhere, but the police don’t get their act together and come even close to laying a finger on him. The plot, when you parse it from scene to scene, doesn’t hang together as a crime story.
Some people have said that you cannot read the movie literally Chigurh is Death, they say, a supernatural figure, a vengeful ghost. Well, Death shows up bearing a scythe in Bergmans Seventh Seal, but that grim movie is set in the Middle Ages, and its bathed in an atmosphere of magic, superstition, and religious fear. The fabulous, solemn Grim Reaper fits in The Seventh Seal. But No Country is set in trailer-park West Texas, a setting banal and spiritless and ever so real, and if Chigurh is supernatural, what do you do with the rest of the movie? Tommy Lee Jones’s nonhero certainly lives in a realistic world. No, I’m afraid that Chigurh, despite Bardem’s gravid tones and elocutionary precision, is not Death but a stalking psycho killer out of a grade-C horror movie, an implacable force who sports a cheap line of metaphysical patter. You keep wondering when he’ll return—he’s an intellectual Freddy Krueger. He’s a trashy element in the book, too, but Cormac McCarthy gave him a shade more reality: He returns the money to the head of the drug syndicate and discusses an ongoing partnership. He murders people, but he wants to continue working in the trade; he’s not quite the ineffable spirit of Evil.
The spooky-chic way the Coens use Bardem has excited audiences with a tingling sense of the uncanny. But, in the end, the movie’s despair is unearned—it’s far too dependent on an arbitrarily manipulated plot and some very old-fashioned junk mechanics. No Country for Old Men is the Coens’ most accomplished achievement in craft, with many stunning sequences, but there are absences in it that hollow out the movie’s attempt at greatness. If you consider how little the sheriff bestirs himself, his philosophical resignation, though beautifully spoken by Tommy Lee Jones, feels self-pitying, even fake. And the Coens, however faithful to the book, cannot be forgiven for disposing of Llewelyn so casually. After watching this foolhardy but physically gifted and decent guy escape so many traps, we are close to him, and yet he’s eliminated, off-camera, by some unknown Mexicans. He doesn’t get the dignity of a death scene. The Coens have suppressed their natural jauntiness. They have become orderly, disciplined masters of chaos, but one still has the feeling that, out there on the road from nowhere to nowhere, they are rooting for chaos rather than against it.
The New Yorker, February 25, 2008; revised 2011