You know it's a weird year at the Academy Awards when the Coen brothers are not only front-runners, but potential history-makers. After 23 years as oddballs whose films occasionally click with broader audiences, tonight in Los Angeles, Joel and Ethan Coen could become the first filmmakers to win four Oscars for one movie, with their crime thriller No Country for Old Men. They would be the first siblings to win the directing honor and only the second duo to share Hollywood's top filmmaking honor, following Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins for 1961's West Side Story. And they would tie the record of four Oscars won in a single year held by one of Hollywood's most mainstream figures, Walt Disney, a quadruple winner for 1953 as producer of three short-subject winners and the documentary recipient. The Coens share a best-picture nomination as producers of No Country for Old Men, a zigzagging tale that captures the bleak beauty of the west Texas landscape and seamlessly blends vicious violence with absurd humor. They also have nominations for directing, adapted screenplay and editing under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes. Since their 1984 debut Blood Simple, another crime story set in Texas, the Coens have established themselves as curious cousins to big Hollywood, delivering some films with solid yet modest box-office returns and others, such as The Hudsucker Proxy, that are mainly for the Coen faithful. "What they manifest is a full-blown roller coaster instead of some linear idea of escapism," said No Country co-star Josh Brolin. "When you go see a Coens movie, it's not that at all. You're totally involved and yet you're doing things and reacting to things that are constantly surprising you." Adapted from Cormac McCarthy's novel, No Country centers on three men: A resourceful Texan (Brolin) who makes off with a satchel of cash from a drug deal gone bad; his pursuer, a relentless killer (Javier Bardem) with an inhuman detachment and a bizarre hairdo vaguely reminiscent of Moe Howard's from the Three Stooges; and the sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) tracking both men, who finds himself on a case so inexplicable in its savagery that it shatters his flintlike mettle. Of course, it wouldn't be a Coen brothers movie if there weren't some wicked laughs. And while the story begins as a straightforward chase thriller, it veers wildly into unexpected places and moments of puzzling ambiguity. The Coens, who often finish each other's sentences, describe the story's appeal this way: Ethan Coen: "Not that in and of itself it kind of goes off the track you think it's on, but the way it goes off the track is not..." Joel Coen: "... arbitrary..." Ethan Coen: "...arbitrary. It's pointed. There is a point to it, so it's satisfying in a way that it wouldn't be if it were arbitrary." With eight nominations, No Country for Old Men tied for the Oscar lead with fellow best-picture nominee There Will Be Blood, an oil-boom saga that rivals the Coens' flick for weirdness, barbarity and black humor. Two more conventional Oscar contenders, the historical drama Atonement and the legal tale Michael Clayton, are right behind with seven nominations. The teen-pregnancy comedy Juno earned four nominations, including the fifth best-picture slot. Past Oscar winners Daniel Day-Lewis of There Will Be Blood and Julie Christie of the Alzheimer's drama Away From Her are solid bets to win again in the lead-acting categories, though Christie faces strong competition from Marion Cotillard, who stars as singer Edith Piaf in the film biography La Vie En Rose. IT'S A strong and varied Oscar lineup, but expectations are that the Coens will rule the show. Along with the Coens' four personal nominations, Bardem is favored to win the supporting-actor honor for No Country. The Coens have been embraced by Hollywood's most-exclusive club before, winning the Oscar for original screenplay with 1996's Fargo. Yet coming into the biggest night in show business as favored sons is a strange position for two filmmakers who always have followed their own eerie muse. The Coens' eccentric stories include tales of a barber who dreams of becoming a dry cleaner (The Man Who Wasn't There), a playwright with writer's block who may or may not be the keeper of a severed head in a box (Barton Fink), and a childless couple that kidnaps one of five quintuplets figuring the parents had babies to spare (Raising Arizona). At $60 million and counting, No Country is the Coens' biggest box-office draw, topping the $45.5 million gross of O Brother Where Art Thou. Their films have another life, though, striking cultural chords beyond the theater. With its earthy soundtrack, O Brother won the Grammy for best album of the year and helped usher in a rediscovery of American roots music. Their 1998 comedy The Big Lebowski, about an overgrown slacker named the Dude who lives for bowling and gets more than he bargained for when seeking compensation for his urine-damaged rug, has spawned its own counterculture that includes fan festivals and T-shirts proclaiming the lead character's laid-back approach to life: "The Dude abides."" The harmless existentialism of the Dude, played by Jeff Bridges, could be the mirror to the cold-blooded variety of Bardem's No Country killer Anton Chigurh. He seems to come from nowhere, existing to kill without mercy, occasionally letting victims determine if they will live or die by a coin toss. Anton is something of a martian, a presence from elsewhere inexplicably bearing terror and death. "The whole idea of the man who fell to Earth is sort of what we tried to get across in his introduction to the movie. He's just coming out of the landscape," Joel Coen said. "You make him both the implacable killer, but you imbue him with sort of recognizable humanity at a certain level that makes him even scarier." Bardem views Anton as "a man who has an earplug, and he's talking to you, but at the same time, he's hearing a soccer game, so when you're talking to him, you don't know where he is. 'Are you here or are you there?' "Instead of a soccer game, it could be God or fate that he's talking to, so that would be the insane part. That along with the haircut will create a kind of insanity and uncomfortableness for the person he's looking at." There's one big question should the Coens sweep all four of their categories come Oscar night: Will the real Roderick Jaynes be there to collect his editing prize? The Coens describe their alias as a cranky geezer in his late 80s who lives in England and doesn't like to travel. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences acknowledges the Coens as quadruple nominees even though their names are not on the ballot for editing. So who gets the trophy if Roderick Jaynes wins? "We're going to read the name on the card," said academy spokeswoman Leslie Unger. "Who comes up remains to be seen."