Coens in Cannes

That's just who they are: Ethan and Joel Coen on the set

That's just who they are: Ethan and Joel Coen on the set

Cannes, France—

Adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men represents the Coen brothers' strongest filmmaking in the nine years since The Big Lebowski. Matter of fact, the first three-quarters of this bloodsoaked Texas noir, returning the native Minnesotans to Fargo territory (if not geographically speaking), are engaging and nearly great. There's a familiarly tenacious sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones), but the story's most indelible character, as the book's many fans well know, is Anton Chigurh, a remorseless killer played with ice-cold reserve (and a frightening pageboy haircut) by Javier Bardem. Wielding an absurdly high-powered gun, sometimes sealing the fates of his innocent victims by coin toss, Chigurh seems to prefer to take his time before a slaughter, sadistically exploiting his total control over those on the other side of the, barrel.

Given the Coens' habit of being a tad ruthless with their own tool (and of being more than a little wary of disclosure), I took the opportunity of a No Country press luncheon to ask the brothers what they think of this Chigurh character and his particular philosophy.

"He's got a philosophy?" asks Ethan, his eyes almost invisible behind shades tinted the same color as his red-brown beard. He pauses, the younger brother, then proceeds. "Yes. He embodies something, yes."

Okay, I'll persist. What is it?

"Well, he's connected to the [desert] landscape and to everything impersonal. He's also just a character in a thriller. But he doesn't have morality. That's not something we can be angry about or despise, that's just who he is. He just doesn't have moral values." Then, after another pause (regretting what he said?), he reiterates: "He's a character in a thriller."

Later I ask about their degree of regional research in this case.

"Our experience is, you know, we've had some," says Ethan, who has been grazing on green beans, sans fork. "But it's limited. We've been through the area, each of us has, [through] west Texas. But neither of us has lived in west Texas for any length of time. We didn't do research per se."

"That's true," says Joel. "I don't know why."

Joel, in case you're wondering, talked even less. (More to the point, perhaps: He ordered the chicken and a beer.)

No Country for Old Men opens in the U.S. six months from now, presumably to capitalize on its considerable awards potential. For fans who'll find it hard to wait that long, there's actually a new Coen brothers movie opening at the Uptown on Friday. Granted, it runs only six minutes (as part of the omnibus film Paris, je t'aime). But it's pretty good. And it's a helluva lot more revealing of the brothers than anything they'd murmur into their green beans at a press luncheon.

In the piece, named "Tuileries" after the Parisian Metro station of the same name, Steve Buscemi plays a poor American tourist (from St. Louis Park?) whose awkward ignorance of French custom lays him bare right on the train platform—and exposes "the French" as petty and cruel.

I ask: Was "Tuileries" informed by your many visits to Cannes?

"Yes, it's definitely autobiographical," Joel says flatly, followed by a laugh.

"Well," says Ethan, "I've never been beaten up in the metro. Although the rest of it happened to me."

One never quite knows with the Coens, but I'm pretty sure he's being serious.