A famous dead white male, Horace Walpole, once observed, "Life is a comedy for those who think . . . and a tragedy for those who feel."
Since they first hit the big screen big-time two decades ago with the neo-noir thriller "Blood Simple," Ethan and Joel Coen have earned a reputation as thinking persons' comic entertainers, cockeyed observers of American life, with its ritualistic violence and heroic failures, its conflicted morals and bizarre regional folkways.
Over the course of a dozen movies, they've tended to make us laugh (and think) first and feel second; to crack deadpan jokes and paint gorgeous images while raising cosmic questions about the nature of good and evil and the devil's bargain that each man inevitably makes with his own soul.
But as last week's best picture Oscar confirmed, the Coens finally may have scored their long-awaited masterpiece with "No Country for Old Men," the brothers' most tragic, least humorous and, not coincidentally, most heartfelt work.
That powerful combination stems in large measure from "No Country's" source material, an existential-borderlands thriller by Cormac McCarthy. It was the Coens' good fortune, at a crucial juncture of their careers after two so-so movies ("The Man Who Wasn't There," "Intolerable Cruelty") and one major misfire ("The Ladykillers"), to have partnered with a kindred creative spirit. In McCarthy, the brothers found an artist equally as fascinated as themselves with the metaphysics of bloodshed and the everyday yet epic struggle between our inner angels and demons.
Though "No Country" is unmistakably a Coen brothers movie, it's also in some ways their least characteristic film. Yes, it exhibits their typically extra-dry sense of humor, often pitched at an odd upper register, like a dog whistle. Think of that scene in which the battered, bleeding Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), on the run from a relentless assassin (Javier Bardem) who wants some waylaid drug money back, wakes up in a Mexican border town to find himself surrounded by curious mariachi musicians.
Throughout their careers, the brothers have used such screwball touches to put a twist on their newfangled genre pastiches and to soften the sharp edges of the various mobsters, hit men, suburban desperadoes and chain-gang fugitives who wander across their mythic American landscapes. Their erudite wisecracking took the sting out of their penchant for jocular moral fables bathed in blood.
But it also removed some of the emotional bite from their movies. Even admirers sometimes wondered whether the brothers' distancing irony made it hard to take their movies seriously as statements about the human condition.
It was as if the Coens were constantly slipping a whoopee cushion between their art and their audience's emotional reactions to what was on the screen. Even the warmly humanizing presence of Frances McDormand (Joel Coen's wife), playing the tough-but-maternal police chief in "Fargo," couldn't fully thaw out the brothers' icy-black humor.
(After winning the lead actress Oscar for "Fargo," appearing backstage with her husband and brother-in-law to face the media, McDormand chimed in sympathetically and said something to the effect that she'd been trying to get a straight answer out of these guys for years.)
But in the desert wilderness that McCarthy's prose and Roger Deakins' cinematography so lyrically evoke, there is no oasis of sophomoric sight gags, no place to take refuge in smarty-pants references to old movies.
A biblical connection
"No Country" (which will come out on DVD March 11) is a stark but richly poetic allegory about a Western garden of original sin in which a world-weary authority figure, Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), and a satanic predator (Bardem) fight over a naive young Adam who falls into temptation and drags his Eve down with him.
Measured in body counts, McCarthy's book is far gorier, to the point of macabre. But with "No Country," the brothers have reined in both their inner joker and their inner sadist and set free their inner humanist. We wince watching Llewelyn pluck those cactus spines (or whatever they are) out of his bleeding body. We shiver along with the gas station owner who saves his own life simply by calling "heads" when Bardem's blank-faced killer engages him in a high-stakes coin flip.
The Coens allow the story's full horror to register, while resisting emotional cheap shots. For example, they pass up McCarthy's description of a dead woman slumped in a rocking chair after being caught in the crossfire between Bardem's character and a group of rival bad guys. In their younger years, the Coens would've filmed that image with glee, maybe even have added a dead pet cat, plugged with a ricocheting bullet.