Brother Ethan put it this way: "There's a little niche market of people who go to our movies no matter what, and that's worth like $7- to $10 million. Obviously, this movie appeals to people who don't know who we are, or care."
"True Grit" is pushing $160 million - that's already more than double their next biggest hit, "No Country for Old Men," and is a total roomy enough to accommodate 10 "Big Lebowski"s or 30 "Miller's Crossing"s.
It's not really the total that's staggering - $150 million is an opening weekend for "Transformers" producer Michael Bay - it's the way "True Grit" is piling up the dough, with a performance that defeats all known algorithms for tracking ticket sales.
Over the final January weekend, for example, the movie's sixth week in release, the movie's nationwide run dropped by 330 theaters as new product moved into the market.
But its box-office take increased relative to the previous week, by 2.5 percent, another $7 million, an unheard-of feat for a movie that opened wide and has been sitting in theaters for a month and a half. (Movies that drop less than 40 percent week to week are considered respectable. Phenoms like "Titanic" and "The Sixth Sense" ebbed at roughly 20 percent.)
The Coens are stunned, even though Ethan, as he edited the picture, suspected that they were crafting a "crossover" movie.
"We perceived this movie as a piece of entertainment," he said. "We wanted it to work that way for the audience. When we finished, we put it out there and thought, 'This might cross over.' For us, that meant doing the kind of business that 'No Country for Old Men' did. What's happening now, this did not seem to be in the realm of possibility."
Rave reviews certainly helped, and 10 Oscar nominations. But only word-of-mouth can give the movie the kind of sturdy legs that are carrying "True Grit" into the second-tier markets, where the movie is posting some of its best numbers.
It's been a hit with all ages, both genders, on the coasts and in the heartland.
"We bad!" crowed Ethan, facetiously.
In truth, the Coens know their "place" in movies, and are happy with it - making smaller movies enables them to do distinctive, weird stuff, without studio interference.
"We understand when we do 'A Serious Man' or 'Barton Fink' that expectations are different, and that's why those movies cost less to make," Joel said. "We adjust the budget, so that each movie can be successful on its own terms."
"True Grit" is successful on anyone's terms, and stacked next to "No Country For Old Men," demonstrates filmmakers who are continuing to grow, develop and challenge themselves.
"No Country" was a serious-minded adaptation of one of Cormac McCarthy's great and thorny American novels. And the Coens sought to separate their "True Grit" from the 1969 John Wayne film by making a more faithful adaptation of Charles Portis' neglected book (newly reissued and well worth a read).
These movies show the Coens summoning, when they want to, a new style - more classic, sincere. The films have more gravity, and the characters feel more independently alive.
I asked if this was intentional.
Ethan answered. "There are all kinds of things at work. One of them is that, to a certain extent, as you get older, you are interested in different things. The things that interest you at 25 are not necessarily the things that interest you at 50. And when you do an adaptation, that complicates it even more. You are looking for something that intersects with your proclivities, but it's material that you might not [invent] on your own."
The Coens are older, married, they have kids. The climax of "True Grit," with Rooster (Jeff Bridges) riding to the rescue of the 14-year-old girl (Hailee Steinfeld) in his charge, is full of paternal feeling.
What studio old-timers call "heart."
The brothers aren't just getting older, they're getting better.
They are even, against their instincts, becoming more astute at making commercial decisions.
"This movie was unusual in that we finished it literally two weeks before it was released in theaters," said Joel. "The studio really wanted it for Christmas, and asked us to push extra hard to finish it."
Ethan finished the thought.
"Yeah. We're usually idiots about that kind of thing, but even we realized it was a good idea."