[22 February 2008]
LOS ANGELES - On a Sunday night this past January, as the filmmaking brothers Ethan and Joel Coen were picking up one of several New York Film Critics Circle Awards for “No Country for Old Men,” they tossed to the crowd what must have seemed, to them, like a bouquet: “Until tonight,” Ethan Coen said, “we thought all critics were (expletives).”
This was addressed to people who are not only inclined to like the Coens but were giving them an award. So it may be small wonder that the perception of the Coen brothers - the apparent front-runners for this year’s best picture Oscar - is such a mixed bag.
To their devoted acolytes, the brothers - creators of such warped, sometimes wonderful pastiches as “Fargo,” “Miller’s Crossing” and “Raising Arizona” - constitute a single artistic entity, joined at both the hip and the head and possessing not just a profound knowledge of movies and moviemaking but a special gift for getting their peculiar vision on screen.
To the more skeptically inclined, the Coens’ reverence for cinema is not quite the equal of their reverence for themselves. Some argue that they’ve rarely felt compelled to defer to their material or rein in their considerable cleverness (especially in movies so full of ripe movie allusions as “The Hudsucker Proxy”).
And they have on occasion allowed their films to suffer via an excess of ostentatious drollery and disdain. Different audiences, of course, have different tolerances, but it’s certainly arguable that “Fargo” made fun of the Midwest, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” made fun of the South, “Barton Fink” made fun of Hollywood (see fish in barrel) and “The Big Lebowski” made fun of unemployed, white-Russian-drinking league bowlers.
“No Country,” however, is different: The beneficiary of an enormous Oscar campaign courtesy of its distributor, Miramax - can you turn on the TV without seeing an ad for it? - the movie is as anonymous as it is skillful. Even those who drink the Coen-flavored Kool-Aid would have trouble describing what it is about “No Country,” exactly, that screams “Joel and Ethan,” save for its dark intent. (The film tells the tale of a drug deal gone bad near the Texas-Mexico border and the mayhem that ensues.) Given their faithfulness to the novel - the film’s darkness is to the credit of author Cormac McCarthy - it’s the first time the brothers have based a film on material not their own (if you don’t count Homer’s “The Odyssey,” the supposed inspiration for “O Brother”).
To be sure, not everyone is a fan. “It’s very mechanical,” said J. Hoberman, longtime Village Voice critic. “I don’t see it as having any particular substance. It does work to unsettle the spectator; it delivers certain shocks and thrills and so on. But it’s kind of a stunt performance by Javier Bardem.”
But Roger Ebert has declared “No Country” as good a film as the Coens have ever made - “and they made `Fargo.”” Scott Foundas of LA Weekly said Bardem was “the creepiest movie psycho this side of Anthony Hopkins in `The Silence of the Lambs.”” And the film has met a phenomenal critical reception elsewhere across the country. It has already won the film-of-the-year designation from the Boston, New York, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, D.C., San Diego and Phoenix critics groups, as well as top awards from the Directors Guild and the Screen Actors Guild. Bardem has been collecting best supporting actor honors all over the United States for his performance as the menacing hit man Chigurh, and is up for the Academy Award as well (the film got eight Oscar nominations.)
So is this the Coens’ big moment? It’s hard to take Hollywood’s jumpy pulse at this time of year - that the Writers Guild strike was settled so close to Sunday night’s Oscar broadcast has meant communitywide anxiety attacks and, we’re guessing, coronary thrombosis. But the sentiment seems to be this: If “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country” somehow cancel each other out, then “Juno” could win. If logic rules, which is hardly ever the case, “No Country” seems poised to triumph; craft and sentiment are with it.
If money rules, which is more often the case, the movie still stands a good chance: With more than $60 million at the box office, it has made nearly three times that of the Coens’ best-known feature, “Fargo” (for which the duo won Oscars for screenwriting) and more than any other best picture nominee this year - except “Juno,” which has made almost precisely double the earnings of “No Country” ($124 million plus).
As they say around the hallways of Oscar’s accountant, PricewaterhouseCoopers, do the math.
Popularity among Oscar voters is a big factor, though, and the Coens have a knack for attracting the talent and loyalty of some very big names - perhaps because they’ve had the talent for perceiving talent before the public does. John Turturro was practically discovered by the Coens (“Miller’s Crossing,” “Barton Fink”); Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter were virtual unknowns when they starred in “Raising Arizona.” Steve Buscemi, John Goodman and Frances McDormand (Joel Coen’s wife) have all thrived in Coenville.
“I was shooting `Three Kings’ in Arizona when someone told me that the Coens want to talk to me,” George Clooney said during an interview in Cap d’Antibes in 2000, when “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was in the nearby Cannes Film Festival. “I’d never met them, but I was delighted. They came to Phoenix, put the scenario on the table and said, `We’ve written this, and we want to know if you’ll star in it.’ I accepted, without reading it. Of course, I was a little bit afraid that it would be their first bad movie. But when I read it, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. They are incredibly brilliant.”
The Coens - Joel, 53, usually credited as director; Ethan, 50, usually credited as writer-producer - grew up in Minneapolis, where their mother and father were college professors. Joel attended New York University’s undergraduate film program, Ethan went to Princeton. Their first feature film, “Blood Simple” (1984), was a genre thriller and an amalgamation of noir conventions. Following it were “Raising Arizona” (1987), “Miller’s Crossing” (1990) and “Barton Fink” (1991), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and established them as forces with which to be reckoned. Their work virtually defined the American independent spirit of the `90s; they have had few out- right flops - “The Ladykillers,” their 2004 remake of the 1955 Peter Sellers-Alec Guinness comedy, would be one. Still, if they don’t always inspire audiences, they inspire their actors.
“Working with them is great,” said Josh Brolin, whose overlooked performance as Llewelyn Moss in “No Country” is among the academy’s many glaring omissions this year (the film also starred Tommy Lee Jones, who is nominated for best actor for “In the Valley of Elah”). “Their interests are all over the place, yet they’re incredibly focused. Personally, they’re a lot of fun to be around; professionally, they don’t really say a lot. They’re very intent about what they’ve, prepared, over-prepared almost.”
And is the academy prepared to reward the Coens again? No doubt they would find it amusing to win for a movie that isn’t supposed to tickle anyone, except its creators who, in their new role as industry darlings, have ratcheted up the violence and diluted the qualities - absurdist humor, skewed perspective, eccentricity and defiant individuality - that made them who they are. Or were. Past and present tense may work themselves out on Oscar night.