With 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty and 2004’s The Ladykillers, the general consensus was that The Coen Brothers had gone lukewarm. Over the course of their career, Joel and Ethan Coen had set the bar very high, but while both films carried the Coens’ trademark offbeat laughs, they fell short of vintage classics like Fargo and The Big Lebowski. The blame could be attributed to the fact that they were not original ideas conceived by The Coens: The Ladykillers was a remake, while Intolerable Cruelty was filmed from a script that had been kicking around Hollywood for a few years. Following on from that, there was a distinct sense of anti-climax when it was announced that their latest offering was to be an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country For Old Men. But when the film premiered at The Cannes Film Festival, the response was emphatically in the positive, and the film was quickly deemed to be up there with their best. Its subsequent six-gong haul at the Oscars (including wins for Best Picture and Best Director) only hammered home the success of No Country For Old Men even more.
When FilmInk met The Coen Brothers in Cannes, they admitted that doing three adaptations in a row was a mere coincidence brought about by timings of finance, noting also that their then forthcoming George Clooney and Brad Pitt vehicle, Burn After Reading, would mark a return to self-penned work. They had read Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men a year before it was published in 2003, and swiftly obtained the rights to the book. The multi-layered thriller – set around the Rio Grande – tracks the violence and bloodshed that follows everyman hunter Llewelyn Moss’ (Josh Brolin) discovery of $2 million in drug money and a pile of corpses. Soon, Moss discovers that he’s being tracked by a psychotic killer (Javier Bardem) who wants the money, and who prefers to kill first and ask questions later. Adding a third thread to the intrigue is the fact that the killer himself is being tracked by a melancholic and soulful sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones). As with McCarthy’s previous work, the contemporary American West is very much painted as more lawless than the wild west of yesteryear, with the issues of honour, justice and contemporary societal violence all stirred up in the mix.
While the marriage between The Coens and McCarthy now looks like an obvious one, the filmmakers didn’t single out the book as a Coen-like project, at least in the way that their audience identifies their work. “This was a story that is not only rooted to its place and environment – which was attractive to us – but also to a specific place which we’re familiar with and know something about,” says Joel of the attraction to McCarthy’s work. “Its story structure is interesting to us in the abstract; it’s this pulpy type of novel that then subverts the expectations of those kinds of formulas and becomes something completely different. To us, it was interesting in the way that it works as a novel and in the way that it could potentially work as a film.”
It’s hard not to compare the film’s general sentiment to Fargo, although The Coens insist that the thought didn’t cross their minds in the film’s production. “Not at all,” says Ethan. “If we had, it would have been a negative because we would have been aware that it was like something we’d done, and that’s not what we want to do.”
“That’s not to say that retrospectively when people have pointed that out that we don’t agree,” adds Joel. “Absolutely there are certain things – there’s a small town sheriff with a high moral standing in a specific region of the United States responding to and confronting an irrational cry.”
The film can definitely be categorised as one of The Coens’ most violent works, although not in the “action movie” sense of the word. The Coens, though, are keen to make the distinction that it doesn’t reflect on the violent nature of American cinema per se, nor on the violence-gripped country itself. “It’s all about what could be wildly inappropriate in one context, but that you feel is okay in another,” reasons Joel. “You proceed as with any other stylistic decisions, with what feels right in the situation. The novel is about a character trying to come to terms with a violent and unforgiving world. I don’t see that as being specifically an American problem, although the setting of the story is not only specifically American, but is actually a very specific place in West Texas. That aside, I do believe that the film is addressing issues that are not local.”
The man serving up the lion’s share of the violence is Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, a psychopathic killer who decides on who lives and who dies with the flip of a coin like some grim Angel Of Death. Instead of the cloak and scythe favoured by Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Anton Chigurh’s trademarks are a ridiculously lank hair style and a cattle gun. “There are differences, but there are similarities,” laughs Ethan of The Seventh Seal comparison. “The difference is in haircuts, but we never see that other guy’s haircut – it’s under his cloak – so who knows? It might be the same!”
Javier Bardem’s (a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner) absorbing and menacing presence borders on the pathological. The Coens had always been on top of the list of people to work with in America when Bardem was first thinking of working stateside, after branching out from the success he’d achieved in his native Spain. “When I first went to the US with a film, my agent asked me who I’d like to work with,” recalls Bardem. “I said, ‘The Coens’, and she said, ‘It’s not going to happen. Who else?’ I understand why she said that, because their films are deeply American.”
In the film, there is a distinction that Bardem’s merciless killer isn’t from America, with his background unknown. Bardem’s main preparation in playing him was working hard to neutralise his Spanish accent. But what of that hair? “There were many different ways to play the character, but having the haircut put us in a place where you can say, ‘He’s insane, but he’s normal’,” says Bardem. “I wanted to play him clumsy; he’s not an action man. I always thought of him as a tree trunk, which you have to hit hard to move; he’s kind of like a Terminator, but with a broken soul.”
With the story having been structured around the three main protagonists’ separate journeys, The Coens’ chief concern was finding a balance between the on-screen gravitas of their three leads. “Tommy was the first person cast,” says Ethan. “This is a story about three men who never meet each other, so you have to feel that each has his own equal weight on screen. Once Tommy was cast, the bar was set pretty high, so you have to have somebody who’s going to hold their weight on screen, and Javier was one of the natural people to consider.”
The real problem came with the casting of Llewelyn Moss. Despite an eventual performance that suggests Josh Brolin could have been in every film that The Coens have done, he was a desperate eleventh hour choice. “We saw a lot of people for that role, and Josh wasn’t even on the list,” recalls Ethan. “It’s fair enough to describe him as an everyman, because he almost is a body in surrogate – he’s the ordinary person who gets immersed in this extraordinary situation. The danger is that if it could be anybody, it could also be very dull.”
“That’s the weird contradiction of the everyman,” adds Joel. “We thought that there were going to be dozens of people who could play this part. Then we were confounded by the fact that it was much more complicated to find him than we thought.”
Josh Brolin, who grew up on a ranch, had always had a personal connection to the American West portrayed in Cormac McCarthy’s work, and had been alerted to the book through writer and actor Sam Shepard, who had an advance copy. “I was spending a reckless night with him when I was working on Grindhouse in Austin, Texas, and he told me about the book,” recalls Brolin. “He didn’t tell me because they were making a film. He told me as information that The Coens Brothers are making it as a film, and that he hoped they don’t screw it up.”
Far from “screwing up” Cormac McCarthy’s work, The Coens have created a film that demands repeated viewings…if only so audiences can try to fully grasp the unique style of the film’s ending. Without giving anything away, the climax, in tune with McCarthy’s book, dispenses with the need for typical plot twists or a big crescendo, and the film seems to slowly fade out and then fold into itself. “You think it’s a chase movie where there’s a good guy being pursued by a bad guy, and the end of that kind of movie comes when they meet and confront each other,” concludes Ethan. “That expectation gets confounded, and when reading the book, it puts you at sea, in an interesting way. It flies in the face of what you’re expecting emotionally. You think, ‘Okay, if that wasn’t the point, what is the point?’”
No Country For Old Men is available now on DVD and Blu-ray. Hail, Caesar! is available now on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.