the take

How Did ‘No Country for Old Men’ Win the Big Prize?

The Coens and Scott Rudin onstage last night.Photo: Getty Images

A few years ago, we were hired for a development job at a film-production company in New York City. On our first day in the office, we were handed a pile of material to read, including a manuscript of a novel that the company had recently optioned. The novel was a stark and spare thriller set in eighties Texas, with few sympathetic characters, brutal, unredeemable violence, and an ending in which the closest thing the story has to a protagonist is killed offstage. “No way this’ll ever be a movie,” we told our co-workers at the time. “How could we ever make this into a movie?”

That was our introduction to No Country for Old Men, which last night proved once and for all why we’re a blogger and not a wealthy producer by winning Best Picture at the Oscars.

The awards for No Country welcomed three longtime outsiders into the embrace of the Academy, and their responses were as you might have expected. Directors Joel and Ethan Coen, long indifferent at best to the Academy, seemed mortified by the attention. Producer (and former Vulture boss) Scott Rudin — who, though he sets himself apart from the Hollywood Establishment by operating out of a New York office, has famously long coveted an Oscar — was ebullient.

Their film, too, was something of an outsider to the Oscar party; an odd hybrid of thriller, Western, literary adaptation, and philosophical treatise, No Country should be remembered as one of the more sui generis Best Picture winners in quite some time. Its triumph can be seen as a victory for cinéastes; love the film or hate it, it’s hard not to be thrilled that the men behind Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski have been given an Oscar.

No Country for Old Men is the Coens’ most financially successful movie to date, and a critical champion in a year generally considered to be one of the best for American film in a long time. Nevertheless, it’s far from universally beloved among ordinary moviegoers; our mother-in-law, for example, is as baffled and upset by this win as we were by Crash’s beating Brokeback Mountain. While some viewers have had problems with the film’s violence, or its deadpan, Coen-ish approach to storytelling, it’s No Country’s ending that has most bitterly divided audiences. But it’s that ending that most likely won the film its trophies. The Coens remained faithful enough to the novel that Rudin and the marketing team could accurately portray their bloody Western as a literature-inspired work of art, a canny move that carried them through awards season and culminated last night in incongruous shots of Cormac freaking McCarthy joyously leaping to his feet in the audience of the Kodak Theater.

What’s next for the Coens? Their comedy Burn After Reading, starring Brad Pitt and George Clooney, is already shot; we read the script and think it’ll be pretty funny, and determinedly not Oscar-worthy. According to Variety, they’re about to start shooting A Serious Man, starring Frances McDormand, in Minnesota. Both these films seem likely to resemble Coen movies of old — small, quirky, less commercial than you’d think, given their stars. But then comes the directors’ next big literary adaptation, their film of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, also for Rudin. As with No Country for Old Men, we’re excited to think about the Coens adapting this, even as we worry it might be a total disaster. Presumably, then, it’ll win a half-dozen Oscars in 2010.

Related: Jon Stewart Hosts an Academy Awards
Click here for Vulture’s complete coverage of the 2008 Academy Awards.
Click here for New York magazine film critic David Edelstein’s take on the ceremony.

How Did ‘No Country for Old Men’ Win the Big Prize?