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An Oscar-tipped turn in No Country For Old Men proves this Goonie is good enough after all
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, with Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem. An Alliance Atlantis release. 122 minutes. Opens Friday (November 9). Rating: NNNN
Lucky breaks. Like most actors not named Brando, Josh Brolin has seen his career defined by them. Never so literally, though, as when his motorcycle T-boned a car and threw him over the hood at 35 miles an hour. Collar bone, meet pavement. Snap! Crackle! Pop!
It was just two days before this accident that he was cast in No Country For Old Men, the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen, who never wanted the 39-year-old in the first place. They’d already cast Tommy Lee Jones in another role and wanted somebody of similarly sturdy character, older, rougher around the edges, beaten down by life.
Nick Nolte maybe. Hell, they’d have settled for Brolin’s dad, James.
But somehow he convinced them – more on that later – only to see the most important role of his life skid across the asphalt and come to rest beside the mangled heap of steel and chrome that used to be his bike.
“I’m flying over the car – and I’m really getting some air – and I remember thinking, ‘Fucking shit! I really wanted to work with the Coens,'” Brolin says, grinning.
To keep the part – “It was a good fuckin’ part,” Brolin says – he kept his busted shoulder a secret. Never mind the doctors who wanted to operate the shoot couldn’t be delayed.
He toughed it out, chose to let the bones mend on their own. Two weeks later he was being stalked across west Texas by Javier Bardem’s psychotic-yet-principled killer, who was, in turn being chased by Jones’s small-town sheriff. The pain gave Brolin’s performance the world-weary gravitas the Coens were seeking.
“I got lucky,” says Brolin during the Toronto Film Festival. “My character gets shot in the shoulder early on, so I didn’t have to act the hurt.”
Of course, if the Coens had done a little digging, they would’ve realized Brolin is exactly the kind of laconic Marlboro Man type they were looking for in the first place. He races cars and surfs and rides horses. A real cowboy. And the role of Llewellyn Moss is nothing if not a cowboy.
No Country is a Cannes-certified return to the Coens’ Fargo form after the disastrous Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. It’s based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy, who writes spare, blunt prose about spare, blunt men who often look like Tommy Lee Jones and, yes, Josh Brolin.
While the set-up is a Hollywood cliché, and intentionally so – a cowboy, a killer, a conflicted cop and a sack of cash scratch a bloody trail across an inhospitable landscape – the execution is pure Coen brothers. Cruelly, comically violent, it’s been dubbed an action-packed morality tale, a parched meditation on manhood and an oblique existentialist thriller.
Whatever it is, Brolin gives a breakout performance as the sun-toughened Moss, who stumbles across a bag full of drug money and decides to keep it. The Coens have called the role “the action centre of the film.”
While he’s continually being pursued by Bardem’s ghostly nutbar with the Prince Valiant bob and Jones’s sheriff, and much of the bloodshed happens around him, there’s a sense that Moss is like a bottle of nitro rattling along in the back of an old buckboard. One wrong move will set him off.
“That’s what’s so great about those kinds of guys. The place where they let out whatever angst they hold in would be in a bar fight,” says Brolin, sounding like he knows a thing or two about bar fights.
No Country has also been referred to as a western, yet it’s set in 1980.
“What’s western about it is this idea of sparse, tough terrain, laconic characters. I mean, when we talk about adding a line of dialogue for my character, it’s like, should it be ‘Mmmm’ or should it be ‘Hmmm’? Very Clint Eastwood,” Brolin says. “And there’s something very mythological in Javier’s killer.”
Javier’s Chigurh is the kind of sick fuck who flips a coin Two-Face-style to decide people’s fate, which means half the time he sends them to the sweet hereafter using an air-driven bolt gun used to kill cattle. Bardem calls Chigurh “the embodiment of violence,” someone who “appears, creates horror, pain and misery and leaves.”
“He feels like a messenger of fate, the grim reaper, very Biblical and shit,” Brolin says.
As for Llewelyn Moss, it’s perhaps the most challenging role in the film and easily the most challenging of Brolin’s career. “Josh plays a passive character but he doesn’t give a passive performance,” says Bardem. “Which is remarkable.”
“Llewelyn is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Chigurh,” says Brolin. “His intentions are so pure and so kind of romantic. He’s not rash and absolutely weighs out the consequences of his every action.”
Brolin could be talking about himself.
He’s seen his stock in Hollywood rise and fall several times, from his debut at 16 as one of the Goonies to playing an armpit-licking bisexual cop in Flirting With Disaster to a string of forgettable characters in forgettable films.
Preferring underemployment to acting in crap, he played the stock market to pay the bills (he’s so serious about Wall Street he even co-created a website for investors) and sold his ranch.
It’s paid off. He’s having a Jude Law type of year (minus messing around with the nanny). In addition to No Country, he steals scenes from Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington as a corrupt cop in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, and he actually manages to draw attention away from Charlize Theron in Paul Haggis’s In The Valley Of Elah (which also stars Tommy Lee Jones).
And he started the year off as a menacing doctor in Planet Terror, director Robert Rodriguez’s half of Grindhouse.
But back to the Coens not wanting to hire him.
“They weren’t interested in me,” he says bluntly. “At all.
“Sam Shepherd, whom I’d done True West with in New York, gave me the book and said the Coens are doing a movie and they’ll probably fuck it up, but you should take a look. I read it and was completely blown away. But the Coens wouldn’t see me.”
So Brolin asked Rodriguez to shoot his audition tape. Shot by Rodriguez and directed by Quentin Tarantino on a $950,000 digital camera, it has to be one of the most professional audition tapes ever made.
“The Coens looked at it and all they said was, ‘Who lit it?'” Brolin says with a chuckle. “Luckily my agent kept pestering them until they saw me, but they still turned me down. I had to audition again to convince them I was right for the part.”
Not that Brolin, who could easily find work if he just wanted to work, minded jumping through hoops. “There’s something nice about working for a part, about feeling like you deserve to be there,” he says.
To prove the point, he’s yet to pick his next project because he’s at a career peak and needs to make smart choices. “The next couple of jobs will determine if I’m the real thing or if I’ve just had a nice moment.”
Doesn’t matter if those roles are in art films or blockbusters.
“Commercial films are just films that are seen by more people,” he says before dropping into a Brando impression. “I only do independent film. I only do theatre. Yeah, whatever, dude.”
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (Joel and Ethan Coen) Rating: NNNN
I’ve dropped my rating of No Country For Old Men from 5 to 4Ns after puzzling over the climax for a month or so.
I still like it a lot. It’s a powerful thriller with tremendous performances by Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin as three men circling around a bunch of corpses and a large quantity of money from a drug deal gone wrong. The Coens do a phenomenal job of constructing a very classical thriller – impressively, without using music.
It’s also one of the most faithful literary adaptations this side of The Maltese Falcon. Cormac McCarthy’s stripped-down Hemingwayesque prose could be put into script form and shot, and I kind of think the Coens did exactly that, including the “stage” directions. (Not a bad approach. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.)
The problem is that McCarthy plays a nasty trick on his readers. We’re expecting the three main characters to collide. Everything in the first three-quarters of the novel leads up to that. We want to see it.
And then one of the characters arrives after the other two have met, and we’re left wondering if there are pages missing from the novel, or a scene from the film. It’s one thing to subvert reader-viewer expectations. It’s another, I think, to betray them. The Coens behave fairly honourably here they shot the book exactly as written. But just because the author acted in bad faith is no reason for the filmmakers to do so.
McCarthy is in an odd position. On the one hand, he’s a literary novelist. On the other, he writes westerns and thrillers and even post-apocalypse science fiction. There’s a contract with the reader that genre writers enter into: here’s the ride, and the route may be twisty, but we expect to get to a certain point – the confrontation between hero and villain.
Skipping over it just seems wrong.