Gene Siskel and I came back from our vacations and went to a screening the next morning -- for a movie named "Fargo." We knew nothing about it. Sounded like a Western. After the lights came up after that great film, we gasped at the credits: Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
It was and it wasn't a "Coen Brothers film." It didn't have the deliberate quirkiness and flywheel plot, but it had the intelligence, the humor, the human nature pushed to extremes, the violence raised to the level of classical irony.
Now there is another Coen Brothers film you wouldn't know was by them. "No Country for Old Men," which premiered at Cannes last weekend, is a spare, lean, straightforward story, as direct in its way as "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." I don't think there's a Coen touch in the movie, unless it's the sheer quality and the plot twisting back on itself, and the plot comes from the Cormac McCarthy novel. The movie has the same kind of deadpan intensity that Tommy Lee Jones, its star, is so good at. The film's style is pure and uninflected, a series of surprising but, in a way, inevitable developments that are presented with implacable logic. There isn't much we anticipate, but nothing we can't accept. Some of that comes from McCarthy, the heir of Faulkner, who mines the Southwest and Mexico for the way they can break your heart before they kill you. McCarthy is best known for his Border Trilogy, about men, horses, pain and loyalty; All the Pretty Horses was directed by Billy Bob Thornton. McCarthy's best book is said to be Blood Meridian, which Harold Bloom said he hated so much for its violence he threw it across the room twice, and then read it, declared it a masterpiece, and wrote the introduction for the Modern Library edition. My own favorite is Suttree, with its closely-woven mosaic of unusual and unknown words and its heartbreaking story. It's about a man fallen from grace who lives in a houseboat, catches catfish for a living, has hallucinatory alcoholic adventures and episodes of sentiment, pity and loyalty. In the book, a family of river people die in a way so sudden, arbitrary and final that you have to read the page again to know for sure what happened. The book's language is such that every page contains words you've never seen before. I have occasionally looked some of them up in the dictionary, to find that in every case, they were correctly used. But you don't need to know what they mean; their shape and music do the job. McCarthy's most recent books are No Country for Old Men and The Road, for which he just won the Pulitzer Prize. Both are fine, sound books, but not equal to the fierce genius of Blood Meridian and Suttree. His Pulitzer, in a way, parallels Scorsese's belated Oscar for directing "The Departed." It's a good film, but where was the Academy after "Raging Bull," "Taxi Driver" or "GoodFellas"? The Coen brothers may have chosen wisely, however, in choosing No Country for Old Men to film. It's filmable. I don't know if audiences could endure Blood Meridian if it were filmed faithfully. As for Suttree, imagine Huckleberry Finn crossed with Under the Volcano. "No Country for Old Men" begins with a drug transaction gone so terribly wrong that when a rancher discovers the site in a barren wasteland, all the money and all the cocaine are still there, along with a litter of trucks and corpses. The movie follows the trail of the money and drugs and the rancher (Josh Brolin), and he is followed by a lank-haired merciless killer named Chigurh (Javier Bardem) while the taciturn local sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to piece together what happened. Chigurh is a clone, in a way, of the Judge in Blood Meridian, who kills as a way of life. You may have guessed that I admire this film. A proper review will have to await the film's opening, positioned for Oscar season in November. Note: The Road is a selection of Oprah's Book Club, and McCarthy has agreed to appear on her program. It will be, as far as I am aware, the only television appearance in the history of the mysterious and reclusive author, who is not much given to publicity. This is one program I plan to watch.