As "No Country for Old Men" star Josh Brolin said in accepting the Screen Actors Guild Award for ensemble cast, "The Coen brothers are freaky little people, you know, and we did a freaky little movie."
Indeed, sitting down with the notoriously press-shy, iconoclastic auteurs in a suite at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills with the only light coming from the rapidly dimming, overcast sky, is a little bit freaky.
Joel, the older and taller Coen, a cross between Tim Burton and Frank Zappa, wears inscrutable sunglasses in the unlighted room and barely moves. He does most of the talking, and that in a measured baritone, although the two often complete or enhance each other's thoughts. Ethan, the slighter Coen, paces nervously and smiles sardonically throughout. The conversation is dotted with clarifications of questions, denials delivered with a smile and long pauses, cones of silence.
When told that, in an earlier interview, "No Country" costar Javier Bardem described them as characteristically American filmmakers ("They do these very deeply American movies; there is always a deep America within their movies," the Spanish actor said), Joel shrugs off the notion that their work might shape international filmgoers' impressions of this country.
"Our movies are too outside of the mainstream," he says. "This is the biggest-grossing movie we've ever had. And even at that, it doesn't approach the kind of business and influence, in terms of people's perception of American culture, that big, Hollywood studio movies do."
Whatever the influence of their films is, says Ethan, "it would be very marginal."
Since their 1984 debut with the nouveau noir "Blood Simple," which grossed an underwhelming $2.2 million domestically on its initial release, the impact of the brothers' work would certainly be considered "marginal" if box-office figures were the only standard. Until "No Country's" $55 million take, their releases had averaged just over $19 million domestically and considerably less abroad, although surprisingly, their coolly received 2003 screwball outing with George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, "Intolerable Cruelty," picked up $35 million at home -- and $85 million internationally.
But if critical acclaim and awards are more indicative of directors' legacies, the Coens would unquestionably rank among the top American filmmakers of the last 25 years, with forests of laurels for their quirky visions, including multiple wins for direction at Cannes and a Palme d'Or for 1991's "Barton Fink."
Dark, complex works such as "Blood Simple," "Miller's Crossing" and "Fargo" gave birth to an entire subgenre of violent, low-budget crime movies with clever dialogue, creative camera moves and morally unsettled universes. Their earliest works, viewed today, seem to make more cinematic sense than they did at the time -- because they have been more influential and timeless than the behemoths then dominating the box office ("Three Men and a Baby") and Oscars of the time ("Chariots of Fire," etc.). They didn't receive an Oscar nomination, however, until 1996's "Fargo," for which they took home the screenwriting prize and Frances McDormand (Mrs. Joel Coen) won for her lead performance.
But even now, the brothers reject their status as leaders of American cinema:
"We ain't leadin' anything, buddy," says Ethan with that wry grin.
Odds stacked against it
To most decision-makers in those "big, Hollywood studios," "No Country" must have sounded like a spectacularly losing proposition. It's a dark, brutal tale, in part about what Joel calls "how aging changes your perception of the world," and what Bardem had once called "this huge wave of violence that the world has been taken by." It's based on a book by Cormac McCarthy, a Pulitzer-Prize winner whose only previous film adaptation, "All the Pretty Horses," tanked despite an A-list cast.
"For Cormac McCarthy, it's a much pulpier novel than he usually writes," says Joel, 53, of the quirks in "No Country" that hooked him and his brother. "It's a crime story but it doesn't unfold in a conventional way."
He seems to dig in, even removing his shades, as he gets into the geography of the novel, both figurative and literal: "In certain ways, it can't be told without an emphasis on the landscape it takes place in. It's important to understanding the story, to the telling of the story, making it specific in the right ways as far as the characters are concerned. I think [McCarthy] once described it as natural history, which is sort of interesting . . . "
"He's a natural historian," interjects Ethan, 50.