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Welcome to ‘Planet Coen’ — enjoy your stay

Joel and Ethan Coen have proved to be masters at mixing the horrific and humorous, the ominous and outrageous.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Joel and Ethan Coen have proved to be masters at mixing the horrific and humorous, the ominous and outrageous — nowhere more so than in their latest film, the savage crime saga “No Country for Old Men.”

The brothers take familiar Hollywood genres — film noir (“The Man Who Wasn’t There”), the gangster tale (“Miller’s Crossing”), the true-crime thriller (“Fargo”), the screwball comedy (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) — and filter them into something uniquely their own.

Like that “Barton Fink feeling” a studio executive blathers on about in “Barton Fink,” their tale of a playwright in Hollywood, there’s a “Coen brothers feeling” that can defy definition, but you know it when you see it in their films.

“No Country for Old Men” co-star Josh Brolin calls it “Planet Coen.”

“They find the absurdity of who we are in every situation. That’s what they’re fantastic at. Even in a movie as tense as this, they give you the ability to kind of chuckle and inhale and take a breath,” said Brolin. “You never know what’s going to happen around the next Coen brothers corner, whether it be fate or absurdity or a lack of humor where you’re positive they’re going to inject a joke.”

Adapted by the Coens from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, “No Country for Old Men” centers on three characters. There’s a wily Texan (Brolin) who stumbles on a drug deal gone bloodily wrong in the desert and makes off with $2 million left behind among the corpses. There’s a relentless, inhumanly brutish killer (Javier Bardem) tracking Brolin to recover the cash. And there’s a valorous but wayworn sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) pursuing both men. The film opens Friday.

‘There’s nothing predictable about this’At its core, the story seems a bit conventional for the filmmakers who made yodeling the musical backdrop for baby-snatching in “Raising Arizona” and turned a urine-stained carpet into a key plot catalyst for a crime comedy set among bowlers in “The Big Lebowski.”

But the balance of black humor and brutish violence, the sense of an otherworldly America in the vast Texas panorama, and the abrupt turns McCarthy sneaks in late in the story set the novel squarely on Planet Coen.

“It immediately seemed like the kind of thing we could make a movie out of, largely by virtue of what kind of story it is, which for Cormac is a little anomalous compared to his other things,” Ethan Coen, 50, told The Associated Press during an interview with his brother. “I don’t know what to call it — pulpier, more of a chase-action thing.”

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“On one level,” continued Joel Coen, 52, “it’s a very straightforward crime story, and on another level, it’s not that at all. Without sort of giving away the ending, he does certain things in terms of the structure of the story, the way the story moves, and what happens sort of three-quarters of the way through, which are quite unexpected and unusual and probably unique in terms of what one would expect from this kind of story. There’s nothing predictable about this.”

There has been nothing predictable about the Coens’ work since their 1984 debut with another violent Texas crime tale, “Blood Simple,” starring Frances McDormand, Joel Coen’s wife.

They seemed like pure fringe players with their early films, including “Raising Arizona,” “Miller’s Crossing” and “Barton Fink.” The latter earned the top honor at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, but it baffled many viewers, as did their next film, “The Hudsucker Proxy,” the films helping to solidify the Coens as cult favorites well outside the mainstream.

Then came “Fargo,” a surprise commercial success that grabbed seven Academy Award nominations, best picture and director among them, and won the best-actress Oscar for McDormand and the original-screenplay prize for the Coens.

“Fargo” spun the tragic farce of a real-life kidnapping in the Coens’ home state of Minnesota, which seems like an alien landscape as the story plays out in a seamless mix of the grotesque and hilarious.

Finding the black humorLikewise, “No Country for Old Men” twirls the audience through a whirlwind of bloodshed leavened with wicked laughs.

Strangely, it’s Bardem, the film’s most menacing figure, around whom much of the humor revolves as he brushes people and obstacles aside with stoic tenacity and a cache of outlandish weapons.

Bardem said he necessarily had to play such a ruthless character straight. The comedy came from the Coens.

“They made it happen by the way they put it together,” Bardem said. “Thank God, I didn’t know it, because then I didn’t pretend to be funny. I had my job to do, which was to be dead serious and frightening. So when they put it together, they put it together with a reaction from another person listening to me. That makes it funny.

“That’s why the Coens are the Coens. They know how to put it together to really release the tension and make you laugh out of fear, out of tension.”

“They understand that even when the bleakest things happen in life, there’s humor there,” said Kelly Macdonald, who plays the wife of Brolin’s character in “No Country for Old Men.” “That’s one of the biggest human traits. It’s a coping mechanism or something.”

The Coens deflect attempts to analyze their work or the combination of light and dark that goes into it.

“It’s not like they’re separate ingredients,” Ethan Coen said. “There are some situations that you might react to by laughing or being horrified. Either way is fine with us, but again, they’re not like two different ingredients that you measure and pour in. It’s kind of the fact that you can react either way that’s appealing.”

“We’re sometimes surprised when people laugh at certain places, although we’re never bothered by it,” Joel Coen said. “Every now and then, you get a laugh in really unexpected places.”

‘It’s horrifying at the same time it’s funny’His brother recalled one such scene that surprised the Coens in advance screenings since the film debuted at last spring’s Cannes festival:

“Javier is in this motel room, and he unzips a bag and takes out a gun with this big honkin’ silence on the end of it, and people laugh,” Ethan Coen said. “You go, ‘OK, I didn’t really expect that, but great.”’

“In that situation, it is quite funny. It’s horrifying at the same time it’s funny,” Joel Coen said.

The Coens’ next film leans more toward funny than horrifying, though Ethan Coen guaranteed that both qualities will be well-represented.

“Burn After Reading” is a comic adventure reuniting them with “O Brother” star George Clooney, who co-stars with McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich and Richard Jenkins.

True to that Coen feeling, the brothers describe it as a yarn set in motion by the collision of two diverse cultures: the CIA and the physical-fitness world.

That juxtaposition reminded them of the time they met former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and described the plot of the film they were then working on, “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” with Billy Bob Thornton.

“We said, ‘It’s about a barber who wants to be a dry cleaner,”’ Joel Coen said. “She looked at Ethan as well as me and said, ‘I’m trying to get excited about that.”’