A Country For Old Brothers: Celebrating The Great American Filmmaker Duo, Ethan and Joel Coen
A businessman whose name we don't know is sitting at his desk talking to a younger man we've never met. We know the businessman only from an earlier scene when he hires a cowboy-hat-wearing bounty hunter (played by Woody Harrelson) to hunt down and stop Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem), who has made a big old mess in trying to recover some drug money. Suddenly, the office door bursts open and through steps Chigurh with his trademark silenced shotgun. Before the businessman can rise from his chair, Chigurh has torn into him with a blast from the weapon. Chigurh calmly approaches the businessman, prone and gurgling blood n the floor. He stands over the businessman staring for a moment, then, without turning, he speak to the young man.
Chigurh: Who are you?
The young man glances up at him with wide eyes, an are-you-talking-to-me expression. This man who he has only just met but clearly knows by his terrifying reputation is now speaking to him, moments after putting buckshot into his bosses' chest. After a short, shocked pause, the man spits out quickly:
Young man: Nobody...accounting.
It's a note we hear so very often in a Coen brothers film. A human response, incredibly specific and somehow philosophical (Who are any of us?) and thus elevated by virtue of its delivery and circumstance to a level of bleak, black humour. As an audience, we recognize the extraordinary scenario immediately. His boss is dying violently and the man who shot him wants to know who he is. So of course his answer is, well, he's the accountant.
Very casually, Chigurh lectures the accountant about his soon-to-be-deceased employers' choice to send the Mexican drug dealers after Chigurh. The accountant tries to explain the rationale.
Accountant: He feels - he felt, that the more people looking -
Chigurh: That's foolish. You pick the one right tool.
One could laugh to themselves, almost against their own morality, as much as recline in terror. It feels philosophical, in that Chigurh appears immoral and yet has some recognizable code or ethic by which he follows. He's cold-blooded with the capacity of mind to lecture on the businessman's approach. This is a sociopath.
The scene ends, having mined both a strange humor and an all-consuming tension, with one last note.
Accountant: Are you going to shoot me?
Chigurh: That depends. Do you see me?
For anyone who has watched a Coen brothers film, this scene will feel familiar. It has all the technical cues of a Coen Brothers project: well-conceived, well-written, well-shot. As a scene it is incredibly tense, yet manages brevity and levity. It says everything it needs to in fewer than ten lines of dialogue. Everything else is said in action.
No Country For Old Men is a film packed with masterful scenes such as this. That the scene isn't even the one most visited by cinema fans says something about how incredibly deep the film is. It is, arguably, the finest piece of work the Coen brothers have made. At a minimum, it is 1B.
Today marks the ten year anniversary of the release of No Country For Old Men.
Adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, No Country For Old Men won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year along with three other statues (tragically, it was nominated but didn’t win for Best Cinematography, representing one of the 13 times Roger Deakins was totally and utterly shafted). The film represented a breaking out for Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, and Kelly Macdonald, while providing a reminder of the excellent careers forged by Woody Harrelson and Tommy Lee Jones. More importantly, it was a reminder that the Ethan and Joel were the finest American filmmakers working.
Few filmmakers have criss-crossed the United States, canvassing a picture of Americana that is both familiar and revelatory. In almost every picture, the Coen brothers bring to life a place and a time, and having done so for over thirty years now, they represent the clearest eyes on America that we have in cinema.
From Midwestern crime comedies built on sing-song accents and bloody woodchippers like Fargo to slapstick road pictures masquerading as Greek myths like Raising Arizona, if there is a cultural footprint somewhere in the United States, they Coen brothers will film it.
The Coen brothers are dyed in the wool filmmakers. They carry forward many of the proud traditions of cinema, from using pseudonyms for soem of their film credits – such as Roderick Jaynes, the editor of their own films (whose only "interview" is an absolute classic case of industry goof-off ) – to casting regulars in their films (from Jon Polito, John Goodman, and Steve Buscemi in their earlier years to J.K. Simmons, Stephen Root, and Josh Brolin in this current run of form). You would think they were born and raised in the circumference of Hollywood. But you would be wrong - they are as rural as it gets, born and raised in Minnesota (suggesting where their incredible eye for spotting Americana comes from).
Some filmmakers feel they only make worse pictures as time goes on (Quentin Tarantino famously feels this way and is determined as such to stop making pictures after he’s done his 10th), but this is not the case for the Coen brothers. Blood Simple was a trailblazing first picture and Hail, Caesar! (while received to uneven critical results) is the production of talented, inspired workers. In No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading, and Inside Llewyn Davis, we can see and feel all the same energy as Blood Simple, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski.
With the Coen brothers filmography dating back to their first until their most recent there is a thread that one can grab onto in the darkest night and still find their way. What makes the Coen brothers stand out amongst filmmakers the most is their incredible ability to balance; the banal with the bizarre, the somber with the amusing, the violent with the calm. Few filmmakers can drop something comedic suddenly and violently in a blender.
We can feel the slow burn of Blood Simple in No Country For Old Men. The mythological tones of artistic torture, loud as the click of a typewriter in Barton Fink, are switched for musical melodies with Inside Llewyn Davis. A Serious Man may not be as bloody, but it’s black sense of humour and philosophy are foreshadowed in Fargo a decade before.
Beneath the surface of every Coen brothers film are things both recognizable and curious. Even in films anchored more heavily in the authentic, Ethan and Joel adeptly remind us that cinema is an suspension of belief. What could remind us of this in a more subtle way than LaBeouf’s impeded speech after biting his tongue in True Grit or the terrifying mop hair style worn by Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. The Coen brothers remind us that we are watching a film, a production. The Coen’s are puppet masters over their characters and we the audience are omniscience and complicit in their fun. Nobody has done it better.
Which is why No Country For Old Men is as startling a cinematic experience today as it was ten years ago. It is a unique novel, conveying the harsh, detached whimsy of a life being lived. It is also written in such simple prose to suggest that anyone could film it. But very few could film it properly. So as few writers are like Cormac McCarthy, few filmmakers are like Coen brothers who felt nearly perfect for the job.
It’s a film that still haunts. It typifies the maddening power of the ambiguous outcome, reinforcing every step of the way how we are not in control and neither are our characters. That its protagonist, Llewyn Moss, is killed off-screen is frustratingly cruel. That his wife soon follows at Chigurh’s hands suggests the same. In the moments following her death, we are left angry, questioning the point – until that most Coen thing, a sudden, violent reminder that not even Chigurh, a harbinger of death and fate, is free from its reach. The car accident that protrudes the bone of his arm through the skin leaves him alive but unmistakably leaves us feeling shaken, disoriented, and awed.
One feeling permeates every frame of No Country For Old Men: inevitability. When it comes to the minds behind it, the excellence of each new film feels just as certain in Coen hands.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys has worked six years in the public relations industry rubbing shoulders with movie stars (who ignored him) to athletes (who tolerated him). He likes tiki-taka football, jelly beans, and arguing with Bruce about everything.