BEVERLY HILLS, California — If the Coen brothers aren't the greatest filmmakers on the planet, they're sure as hell near the top of the heap.
"I think 'Fargo' is a pretty near-perfect film," actress Kelly Macdonald said of the Coens' Oscar-winning 1996 drama. "It's really beautiful and is something you can learn from when you go back to it time and again; I can do that with 'Fargo,' every time."
"Oh, I love 'The Big Lebowski' because of the white Russians," laughed Josh Brolin, thinking back to the anticlimactic adventures of the Dude. " 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' is probably their movie that I've seen the most of ... but I love 'Miller's Crossing,' I love 'Barton Fink,' and then there's 'Blood Simple.' "
"I'd say it's this one," Tommy Lee Jones asserted of his favorite Coen brothers film — and as the star of their buzz-heavy, ultra-violent new thriller "No Country for Old Men," which opens in limited release Friday (November 9), he should know better than anyone.
Based on a critically acclaimed novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy, "Country" has already been welcomed with open arms at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals and has built such awards-season momentum that an Oscar nom for star Javier Bardem seems a certainty. But before you start thinking it's a sappy art-house flick that is this year's "The English Patient," you have to remember the two guys behind the camera.
"This is just fiction. You don't kill people for real. But you have to make it click, in order to not feel uncomfortable with it," explained Bardem, who has a breakout performance in the flick as ruthless hit man Anton Chigurh. "There is something [in this character] that has to do with emotional detachment with other people's feelings. You have to understand that, and be there, and just be someone that cruel with no feelings at all."
This beast of a baddie is unleashed after Brolin's Llewelyn Moss, a naive Texas farmer, stumbles upon a half-dozen dead bodies, $2 million in cash and a flatbed full of drugs. Hoping to make a better life for himself and his refreshingly frank wife (Macdonald), he sets out on the run with nothing less than the angel of death on his trail.
"He's taken the money, he's made this decision," Brolin said of Moss, a seemingly simple character painted with such a complex brush that he returns to the crime scene to give a dying man water, thus exposing himself to the manhunt. "I think [his return to the scene] defines the character as being somebody who is the opposite of somebody like Chigurh. Whereas Chigurh is pure evil, this guy has a lot of goodness in him."
The third element of this irreverent chase flick is Jones' Sheriff Bell, a downtrodden lawman determined to stop Chigurh's murderous mission. "It's unusual," grinned Jones, whose character's pursuit of Bardem and Brolin results in very few scenes where the three actually meet. "I felt pretty confident about the directors and the cast, even if I didn't have scenes with them."
But even Jones couldn't have predicted the career-defining effort by Bardem, whose methodical Chigurh is already being dubbed the new Hannibal Lecter. "It lasted five minutes, the haircut itself," Bardem said of the creepy, early-'80s pageboy look he sports in the film. "And it lasted three months living with it."
The hairdo makes Chigurh look like a demented prince from a "Shrek" movie, and in reality, the cut became the scariest thing for a man trying to give a scary performance. "No matter what you do with it, it will stay the same shape," he laughed. "So you're going to buy milk or something, and people will look at you like, 'What's wrong with this guy?' Every time you wake up it's not easy to face yourself — but with that haircut, it's even more difficult."
Undoubtedly, it will be even more difficult for anyone to face Bardem after "Country," particularly thanks to a tense scene that has his character flirting with the notion of killing a gas-station attendant just for kicks. "That was a long scene that has a lot of dialogue, and since we worked hard on the goal of getting rid of my accent as much as we could, it was difficult," he remembered of the moment. "The actor who plays the character of the guy at the gas station did an amazing job ... because when you are playing a king, you have to make sure people see you like a king. In this case, he is seeing me like a monster — so you don't have to play a monster."
Bardem admits to being a bit confused by Chigurh's constant coin-flipping, however, which was a dangerous game in the script, but didn't translate to his Spanish roots. "The thing with the coin is something I've never done," he admitted of the Two-Face-like gimmick that his character employs to decide who lives and who dies. "It must be a very singular game in this country, because people seem to understand it here better than in my own country. We don't flip coins."
Once "No Country" has traveled around the world, however, it seems that the ways of Anton Chigurh will haunt a lot of moviegoer memories.
" 'Blood Simple,' 'Fargo' and this would make a great trilogy," Macdonald said of the three films concerned with greed, betrayal and revenge. "[The Coens] are clever boys. [Their films] could all be construed as being quite dark, but there's humor there. And I think that's what carries it through. That humor is very Joel and Ethan."
"They specialize in preparation," Jones said. "They don't do a lot of talking. They don't waste a lot of film. And I like that just fine."
Pressed for his favorite non-"Country" Coens film, the notoriously gruff "Men in Black" star finally coughed one up. "Besides this one? I like 'Fargo,' " he said, thinking of Frances McDormand's Oscar-winning performance. "I love Joel's wife."
Perhaps fearing a wrath even greater than that of Anton Chigurh, he quickly corrected himself. "I mean that in a good way," he said, offering a grin. "She's a wonderful actress. A good mom and a good wife. To Joel."
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