No Country For Old Men. It could very well be the best film of the year. Based on Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name, it was directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. It stars Josh Brolin as Llewellyn Moss, a man that makes off with a stash of purloined cash. Javier Bardem plays the reclusive, unstoppable killer Anton Chigurh. His mission is to retrieve the cash by any means necessary. He is fate's angel, calling man's destiny with the flip of a quarter. When they lose, he likes to blow their brains out with a high-pressured air gun used for killing cattle. Tommy Lee Jones is the sheriff on both of their tails. No Country For Old Men is a near perfect landscape of gritty tension. Most believe that it will sweep the Oscars this year. It is the Coens' best film since the mid-nineties.
The Coen Brothers. Joel and Ethan. They are Academy Award-winning filmmakers with one of the most unique resumes in Hollywood history. Every film they make is a bizarre character study residing in the seediest, most lascivious areas of our American subculture. They have been at this gig for more than twenty years. They first came on the scene with their acclaimed masterpiece "Blood Simple". Since that time, they have written, directed, and produced some of our biggest cult hits. Their oeuvre has attracted a ravenous audience. Their 1996 hit Fargo won an Oscar for best screenplay. Some are calling No Country for Old Men a return to form.
In the film, Javier Bardem plays the coin-flipping embodiment of evil known as Chigurh. It is an award worthy performance that has everyone screaming, "Oscar!" He is a silent killer, a deadly force of fate that dispatches his victims with a high-powered air-hose. He also likes to use the cattle-killing tool to blow locks off of doors. One of which hits Josh Brolin in the stomach. The most frightening thing about Chigurh is his hairdo. True to all Coen Brothers films is the main character's particularly bizarre coiffing style. We see it with Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona. George Clooney was a man obsessed with his tresses in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. The guy even had an addiction to pomade. The Man Who Wasn't There was about a barber. Where do the two brothers come up with these hairstyle ideas?
Joel explained that Chigurh's particular pageboy from Hell "Actually came from a piece of research the wardrobe department did. It was a photograph of a man sitting inside a bar/brothel in a Texas border town. From 1979. We actually copied that haircut and those clothes that this person was wearing, for Javier. That is really where it came from." Cormac McCarthy actually came to visit the set a couple of times while they were shooting the film. "One of the first things Javier asked Cormac was, 'What do you think of Chiugar's hair?' And Cormac was impressed." Joel added, "It is a haircut that says, 'Hello!' Ah, but it's not really funny anymore."
Javier Bardem was Joel and Ethan's first casting choice for Chigurh. Ethan wanted Bardem right away, "That was one of the big casting puzzles of the movie. I don't know that I would characterize Chugar as evil. He is a little more illusive than that. He is a little more mysterious than that. So it was a casting challenge. He is definitely not the good guy. I will concede that. He is so mysterious, and he is so withheld in the novel. There is very little description of him in the actual book. He is unsettling. It is hard to find your footing with him. He is hard to pigeonhole. That obviously presents a casting challenge. All of that is a long preamble, and I honestly don't have any reason why we thought of Javier. Except that we thought, 'Whatever it is that Javier supplies, and we don't know what it will be, cause it should still be mysterious and illusive, it will still be interesting. Javier is a leap of faith that we wanted to take."
Joel was on board the Bardem wagon from the get-go as well, "He wasn't going to do the cliche. We were convinced of that. We really weren't sure what he would do, but we knew he wouldn't do the cliche. One thing that maybe sort of lead to him, or was a little arrow pointing in his direction, was that he was the only character in the book that isn't of the region. We felt that he could be an outsider. He could be exotic, maybe even foreign. When we thought about it that way, it opened up the idea of Javier, who is not American. That sort of exoticism, that aspect of who he is, might have helped us to find him in a way."
The interesting thing about Javier is that they cast him without testing him first. They just automatically offered him the job. As Joel pointed out, "We'd seen him. He has done enough movies that we knew what we were going to get. We were completely confident. We had no question about it. We knew that he could inhabit this role in an interesting way. And we knew he would do something interesting with it. Even if we didn't know exactly what that was."
Brolin plays Llewellyn Moss, an honest man that makes an honest mistake. He steals a stash of cash from a drug deal gone wrong. And he has to pay for that mistake with his life. The character was a hard one to cast. The brothers read many people for the part. But none seemed right. Ethan explains, "Tommy and Javier had already been cast. Josh's part was of no lesser importance. He needed to hold his weight with those two actors. We were setting the bar pretty high. We saw everybody for the part, and we didn't like anybody. We didn't want the audience thinking, 'Now I've got to sit through the dull guy before getting back to the other two guys.' Josh was the only person we met that put our mind at ease. We met him just a few weeks before we were to start shooting. I don't quite know what we would have done if we didn't meet Josh. It was quite an integral thing."
Josh wasn't exactly on the directors' radar. Ethan hadn't ever really seen him in anything before, "I don't think either of us had seen any of his movies. Except "Flirting With Disaster", which is very funny. But you wouldn't see that and think of Josh as being the lead in this movie. So, no. We didn't think of him early on."
Where Javier didn't have to test for his part in No Country for Old Men, Josh surely did. Joel knew it was the only way they'd be able to find the right actor for the role." It is very hard to explain. Josh literally came in and he read some scenes for us. Which is what many of the people we met for the part did. It is the simplest and most straightforward way of finding someone for a part. You have them audition. You have them read. But it is harder to describe what, in that reading, convinced us that he could do it. Aside from the fact that it sounded right. That it looked like he could do it. He lost us in the moment, there in the room with him. We were obviously the first audience for this. And that is what he did. He read just a few scenes. At that point, we both sighed a sigh of relief and decided that he was the one. He was going to do the movie, and that was the end of it."
In the film, the Coen Brothers rely on ambient sounds. Most of the aural landscape is made of natural audio and recreated sound effects. The quiet trickle of sweat or a pair heavy footsteps help make up the film's background soundtrack. Even though Carter Burwell is credited as the music supervisor, his contribution is meager to say the least. Ethan explains, "There is actually a little music. It is pretty subliminal and pretty sparse. There are some synthesizer drones that almost could be sound effects. They blend in with the sound effects in the movie. Up until the end, that is the extent of the music." How did they come to this decision? "It just seemed to work well. Looking at the movie, it worked well without music. It made more of the background effects stand out. The music is just there to set a mood. Having very little music in the film seemed to be the right mood in this case."
The screenplay is also quite lean with its dialogue passages for the first twenty minutes of the film. Joel told us, "It is not true of the book. At that point in the book, it operates in such a different way. It alternates these first person ruminations by the sheriff. They intertwine with the storyline of the novel." Ethan joked, "We thought, if there is less dialogue, we might have room for some music."
A couple of years ago, Joel and Ethan were set to make a film entitled The White Sea. It was completely free of dialogue. That project fell through though, as Joel tells it, "The White Sea was a movie we both wanted to make. We never succeeded in getting the money for that. It was about an American airman shot down over Tokyo during the War. It didn't have any dialogue by virtue of the situation. There wasn't anybody he could talk to. It shares an esthetic with No Country for Old Men, but it wasn't so much that we wanted to try that technique here. We were aware that the two movies did resemble each other. Getting to do this one did make up for not getting to do The White Sea. Yeah, in some vague way, I guess." He continued, saying, "The successive drafts of the script did seem to eliminate more and more dialogue. It is presented in a more general way. We realized that the less people actually said in the movie, the more we liked the way it was feeling."
The original location as described in the book is West Texas. That's where most of the action takes place. Due to budget constraints, a lot of the film was shot in New Mexico. With a few exceptions, as Joel pointed out. "We did actually shoot in Del Rio. We shot in the part of West Texas that is near Martha and the Presidio. At the border of New Mexico. The rest was shot in New Mexico. The parts of the movie that are supposed to be Eagle's Pass and Del Rio were mostly shot in Las Vegas, New Mexico. And the border bridge that you see in the movie was made on a freeway pass in Las Vegas, New Mexico."
Ethan explained, "We were a little bit acquainted with this environment, having spent a little time in West Texas. Most of that comes from Cormac McCarthy. That sense of place. That is what attracted us to the novel in the first place. How specific that was." Did the environment provide any interesting challenges? "Here is one challenge. We had a lot of extras that had to lye around in the backing sun, covered in fake blood on the desert floor. For hours at a time. At a certain point, I found out from the art department that we were doing it like the Pentagon. I was basically charging three hundred dollars for a hammer. You see, the make-up department was buying this special blood that was made in England. It was make-up blood that was eight hundred dollars a gallon. I wanted to know why they were doing that instead of just mixing food coloring with Kayro syrup. I was told that this blood had no sugar in it. Which, most make-up blood mixtures do. Which was sort of important, since they were lying there for hours and didn't want to be attacked by coyotes. There were also all kinds of creepy bugs and other animals that might have been attracted to the sugar."
This is being marketed as a rather violent film. That pretty much goes without saying. The book is known for its graphic depictions of brutality. The Coen brothers didn't want to deviate from that path. They wanted to honor the book, as Joel tells it. " There was no way we couldn't adapted the violence. It is a very, very violent book. Violence is an important hallmark and element in many of the books that McCarthy writes. It seemed to us completely misguided to try and soft peddle that allocation. We wanted to make sure that Producer Scott Rudin was in agreement on that. Which he was. We were very aware of the fact that we were making a very violent movie. You can find a place with that. One that seems appropriate for the medium, and the subject. You then have to calibrate that to a certain extent as you are doing the adaptation, and making the movie. It wasn't something we worried about. It was an element of the book that we thought was important, and that had to be included. It was like any other directorial problem. How to do it. What to show, how much to show. We had to find some reasonable, appropriate balance to it."
With that came the challenge of balancing the humor as well. Ethan doesn't see humor as a defacto element, "If it is funny or not, that is something we let take care of itself. I actually think the book is pretty funny. As all of Cormac's books are. You are always allowed too laugh. I think the movie is funny. Some people find it funnier than others. Whatever that balance is, we didn't think about it in terms of humor. Dramatically, there were certain things we had to change. But it is interesting. The book is interesting, and that's why we thought it could be adapted into a movie. The fact that it's a crime story, but it doesn't resolve itself like a conventional crime story is interesting. And funny."
The film was released November 9th in Los Angeles and New York. It opened at #15 on the weekend box office charts, pulling in $1,226,333 million dollars playing on just twenty-eight screens. The film goes wide, dashing into theaters across the country November 21st. That's when you, Joe Public, will get to see the Coens in their finest hour since Fargo.