“ … Sure, it’s all there, but it’s kind of a tease. We’re definitely guilty of teasing.”
—Joel Coen, on Barton Fink
If you’ve visited the website for No Country for Old Men (opening November 9), you might have read the claim that the Coen brothers’ newest film “strips down the American crime drama and broadens its concerns to encompass themes as ancient as the Bible and as bloodily contemporary as this morning’s headlines.” As promotional copy goes, this is not just a bold assertion, but quite out of character for the Coens, suggesting that, for once, they have attempted to make a real-world movie and not the usual cartoonish oddity on which they have built their artistic reputations. If you’ve been watching the Coens’ movies since the beginning, you know that the boys have made their mark in peddling fun and don’t take anything seriously. But after years, this outlook has yielded films with, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, very little there there.
So fans of the Coen brothers have taken heart at the news that the brothers, in adapting a novel for the first time in their careers, chose a title from the decidedly hard-boiled Cormac McCarthy; coming out of the Cannes Film Festival, it was seen as a triumphant return after years of mediocrity.
With its strange characters, Southwest setting, a complex plot involving a lost bundle of cash and plenty of outrageous violence, McCarthy’s novel shares a number of hallmarks from the Coen oeuvre—more specifically, from their noir films, which include their first, Blood Simple (1984), Miller’s Crossing (1990), and 1996’s Oscar-winning Fargo.
Blood Simple was a cool piece of work, slow yet compelling, with its bizarre camera angles, low-life characters and their oddball dialogue, and a plot that circled back on itself like a snake swallowing its own tail. Its deadpan humor and gushing violence were great thrills in that pre-Tarantino era; personally, it made me want to make movies (though I didn’t get around to it), and seek out noir beyond Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Eventually I discovered Jim Thompson and James M. Cain—the latter’s work was a primary influence on Blood Simple, which, as a shallow masterpiece, portended great things for its creators.
The Coen brothers are certainly neither the first nor the last filmmakers to pay homage to their favorite cinema. After all, these were boys who, growing up in St. Louis Park, used to remake movies on Super-8, including one title, Advise and Consent, that they hadn’t seen but thought sounded cool. For a fledgling cinephile, watching the Coens’ work could lead to other discoveries through its references to Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, Busby Berkeley, and even David Lynch. You could do little wrong hunting down the myriad references at your video store—even though it begins to expose the Coens as less than meets the eye by comparison.
Miller’s Crossing was the single instance of the brothers’ homage working in utter service to the plot. This incredible film, based on a hybrid of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and The Glass Key, was at once their greatest work and the one movie that seemed to reflect a deeper concern for their characters. The plot bedevils anyone who tries to summarize it, but involves rival gangs, Irish and Italian, and musings on the nature of loyalty and friendship. Its violence was at once disturbing and ridiculous, most notably in the scene in which Leo (Albert Finney) shoots a man through a window, making the guy do what one critic called the “Thompson jitterbug”: a quivering gangster is kept standing by the bullets from a rival’s Tommy gun, while simultaneously firing his machine gun (and shooting his own toes off). If the manic pace and startling violence didn’t hook you, the rich characters made you want to watch it again and again.
But after that, the Coens hit a wall called Barton Fink. It’s often forgotten that Fink was, before Fargo, their most acclaimed film, becoming the first and only movie in the history of Cannes to win best picture, actor, and director. But the movie is a strange thing, schizophrenic, the first half seeming to be their most personal effort yet, the second half a baffling parable of … what? The Coens had written the script in three weeks, supposedly in an attempt to recharge their brains while writing the demanding screenplay for Miller’s Crossing. And Fink looks tossed off: Is this merely a parody of the writer in Hollywood, a Lynchian examination of an artist’s mind, or a strange entertainment devoid of meaning? Is it just, as Joel Coen said, “a tease”?
It’s a question that dogs their every film. In interviews, the Coens fail to answer probing questions—such as the meaning of the myriad hats that show up throughout Miller’s Crossing, or the weird scene in Fargo with Marge and her pal from high school. The brothers seem determined to obfuscate, arguing that they’re only having fun, that the movies are just entertainment devoid of connection to life in general and their lives in particular—or else they shift the focus to their detailed craftsmanship.
At times it does seem as if the Coens look on their subjects cavalierly. When asked by one interviewer about the comic and thriller elements in their movies, the two evoked Chandler and Hammett and Cain, suggesting that those writers were grim, but that the tones were upbeat, or as Ethan put it, “insanely eupeptic.” This is a pretty shallow interpretation of these works, especially Chandler’s, whose novels are bleached with the sun-bright despair of Los Angeles. Think of the doomed Harry Jones in The Big Sleep, who gulps poison to protect the woman he loves, or the ruined blonde, Silver Wig, a tragic figure who vanishes into the night. These characters, each of whom probably takes up fewer than five pages in the book, have more emotional resonance than any figure in the Coens’ entire body of work.
Consider death in the Coens’ films. Their characters kick the bucket in a variety of distinctive ways: buried alive, blown apart by a grenade, diving off a skyscraper, fried in the electric chair, drowning at the bottom of a river (in a knowing but ultimately empty nod to The Night of the Hunter), succumbing to a heart attack, and, most famously, by ax, then disposed of in a woodchipper. Now, in No Country for Old Men, they are dispatched by a coin-flipping psychopath wielding a slaughterhouse stun gun. But we remember the gruesome murders more than we mourn the people who suffer them. Joel Coen has said that he loathes people crying in movies. So he’s made no film that has ever moved anyone to tears, or even a lump in the throat. Even Preston Sturges, whose work has influenced so many Coen brothers films, has done as much in his madcap comedies.
With this in mind, could the Coens be hoping to piggyback onto some deeper meaning by adapting a novel from Cormac McCarthy? From early reviews, it sounds as if No Country for Old Men sticks close to the intensity—and the spiritual gravity—of the book, and you certainly couldn’t describe this McCarthy title (or anything from him) as “eupeptic.” There’s also some indication that No Country resurrects some of the gravity of Miller’s Crossing and its literary inspiration in Hammett. As with McCarthy, novels from Hammett are sparse things, where violence explodes suddenly and affects people in all too real ways.
This change from the Coens would be a welcome relief. While there’s nothing wrong with films as simple entertainment, if they lack any feeling, any sense of emotional connection, any characters who are remotely real, what makes a Coen brothers film any more significant than, say, the newest Michael Bay flick—except that it’s made to appeal to artsy cinephiles? Looking back at a Preston Sturges comedy, it’s easy to see how it speaks both of its specific time and of people in general. Not so with the Coens.
For nearly twenty years, I’ve been hungering for them to make another movie on the order of Miller’s Crossing, and I’ve been disappointed with every new film. Just as I’ve come to wonder if anything truly concerns the Coen brothers, maybe the brothers themselves have come to ask themselves a similar question. And maybe with No Country for Old Men, we’ll both have an answer.