O brothers, what hath thou wrought?

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - By Ken­neth Tu­ran

CANNES, France — Ex­pec­ta­tions to the con­trary, Joel Coen is “not an in­dis­crim­i­nate fan of vi­o­lent films.” He and his brother Ethan may have made some leg­en­dar­ily fe­ro­cious films, in­clud­ing the likes of “Fargo” and “Blood Sim­ple,” but, Joel says, “there are cer­tain vi­o­lent ones I see the previews for and I say, ‘I don’t want to go.’ ”

The Coens, sit­ting side by side in the no­tice­ably peace­ful lobby of the Ho­tel du Cap, are in com­pe­ti­tion at the Fes­ti­val de Cannes with yet an­other vi­o­lent film, their adap­ta­tion of Cor­mac McCarthy’s “No Coun­try for Old Men.” Yet there is some­thing dif­fer­ent about this one, so much so that the brothers, who share writ­ing, di­rect­ing and pro­duc­ing credit, say they would con­sider let­ting their old­est chil­dren, not quite teenagers, see it. “They could both watch this,” Joel says, “and take it in the right way.”

That’s be­cause there is on­screen vi­o­lence and on-screen vi­o­lence, and “No Coun­try for Old Men,” the story of stolen drug money and the car­nage it pre­cip­i­tates, is a film that doesn’t cel­e­brate vi­o­lence, it de­spairs of it. This is a com­pletely grip­ping ni­hilis­tic thriller, a model of im­pec­ca­bly con­structed, im­pla­ca­ble sto­ry­telling. All you could hope for in a mar­riage of the Coen brothers and McCarthy, it’s a film that you can’t stop watch­ing, even though you very much wish you could as it es­corts you through a


[ world so hor­rif­i­cally bleak “you put your soul at haz­ard,” as one char­ac­ter says, to be part of it.

One of the things that makes “No Coun­try” dif­fer­ent, the brothers agree, is that piti­less qual­ity. “That’s a hall­mark of the book, which has an un­for­giv­ing land­scape and char­ac­ters but is also about find­ing some kind of beauty with­out be­ing sen­ti­men­tal,” says Ethan. There is, adds Joel, “no sort of re­lief from the un­re­lent­ing na­ture of the story.”

It was pro­ducer Scott Rudin who bought the book rights and of­fered it to the Coens, who at the time were work­ing on a project that fell apart, an adap­ta­tion of James Dickey’s “To the White Sea,” a novel about the fire­bomb­ing of Tokyo that the brothers say had a sim­i­lar vi­o­lent theme.

With this adap­ta­tion, the Coens have stuck re­mark­ably close to the book, do­ing more prun­ing than any­thing else. “We weren’t go­ing to re­write Cor­mac McCarthy in any sub­stan­tial way,” says Joel, while Ethan, deal­ing with the com­mon mis­un­der­stand­ing of what’s in­volved in adap­ta­tion, adds a mock­ing, “It’s work to hold the spine open so you can copy the words.”

One of the places in where the Coens found com­mon ground with McCarthy was in the novel’s ten­dency to fool around with genre con­ven­tions. “That was familiar, con­ge­nial to us; we’re nat­u­rally at­tracted to sub­vert­ing genre,” says Joel. “We liked the fact that the bad guys never re­ally meet the good guys, that McCarthy did not fol­low through on for­mula ex­pec­ta­tions.”

An­other area that at­tracted the Coens was the novel’s in­tense sense of place. “The re­gional thing is strong for us, and this was not East Texas or South Texas, this was West Texas,” says Ethan. The Coens and their reg­u­lar cin­e­matog­ra­pher, Roger Deakins, shot key ex­te­ri­ors in that part of the state. “We turned over the idea of shoot­ing ex­clu­sively in New Mex­ico, where there are great tax in­cen­tives, but Tommy Lee Jones, who comes out of that West Texas land­scape, yelled at us that it would be a mis­take,” says Ethan. “So it wasn’t all prin­ci­ple, it was par­tially brow­beat­ing.”

Jones, who plays dis­il­lu­sioned Sher­iff Ed Tom Bell, was the first per­son cast in the film. “It was an easy de­ci­sion, but not an au­to­matic one,” says Ethan, and Joel elab­o­rates: “You’re sort of aware you don’t want to be too much on the nose with cast­ing, but it’s not ex­actly like you’d read the book and think Tommy Lee em­bod­ied the char­ac­ter ex­actly. Tommy Lee brings acid to him that isn’t in the book, and that was kind of in­ter­est­ing to us.” Ethan adds, “We had a hor­ror of sen­ti­men­tal­ity; we didn’t want Grandpa Char­lie Weaver.”

The next to be cast was Javier Bar­dem, who plays the golem­like con­tract killer of mys­te­ri­ous eth­nic­ity, An­ton Chig­urh. “We wanted some­body who could have come from Mars; we even shot the be­gin­ning of the film like ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth,’ ” says Joel. Given that the story takes place in the South­west, the Coens wor­ried briefly that Bar­dem’s Span­ish eth­nic­ity might make him too tied to place, but Bar­dem’s gifts won them over.

But be­cause “No Coun­try” is what Joel calls “a three-headed mon­ster,” the Coens still needed to find the third lead, a lo­cal named Llew­lyn Moss who takes the drug money. “Hav­ing cast th­ese two guys,” ex­plains Ethan, “we didn’t want to cut to ‘Here’s the dull guy.’ We were like, ‘Oh God, what are we go­ing to do?’ ”

For­tu­nately, just be­fore shoot­ing started, the Coens found Josh Brolin as Llew­lyn. The ma­jor sur­prise of the film, Brolin, who grew up on a ranch in Cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia, eas­ily holds his own with his costars, bring­ing the kind of grounded rural pres­ence to the role the brothers con­sid­ered es­sen­tial. “We lucked out with the cast­ing,” says Ethan. No one who sur­vives this dis­turb­ing, un­set­tling film will be in any mood to ar­gue.


Mi­ra­max Films

BLEAK LAND­SCAPE: Josh Brolin costars in Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Coun­try for Old Men,” an adap­ta­tion of Cor­mac McCarthy’s un­re­lent­ing novel of the car­nage stolen drug money pre­cip­i­tates.

Mi­ra­max Films

ADAP­TORS: Ethan, left, and Joel Coen on the West Texas lo­ca­tion of “No Coun­try for Old Men. “We liked the fact that the bad guys never re­ally meet the good guys,” Joel says of Cor­mac McCarthy’s tale.

Richard Fore­man Mi­ra­max Films

KILLER: Javier Bar­dem as the mys­te­ri­ous An­ton Chig­urh.

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