Director Retrospective: The Coen Brothers
After my previous retrospective on Steven Spielberg, which was a beast to write, I had planned to take a short hiatus from these director retrospectives. But then a friend of mine requested that I write one about The Coen Brothers. And being sympathetic to requests, a glutton for punishment, and a busy-bee (i.e. a bad combination), I decided to forego said hiatus against my better judgment and write some thoughts about this dynamic (filmmaking) duo. And though the Coen Brothers’ directorial style is quite different than Spielberg’s (and, thus, doesn’t exactly pair that well with him this week), they have similarly enjoyed critical acclaim and commercial success to varying degrees. So…here goes…
The Big List
So far, I’ve seen all 17 films by the Coen Brothers, which is not all that surprising since their work is pretty readily available. Still…17 movies is 17 movies — nothing to sneeze at for any director(s).
Here’s the list: Blood Simple (1984); Raising Arizona (1987); Miller’s Crossing (1990); Barton Fink (1991); The Hudsucker Proxy (1994); Fargo (1996); The Big Lebowski (1998); O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000); The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001); Intolerable Cruelty (2003); The Ladykillers (2004); No Country for Old Men (2007); Burn After Reading (2008); A Serious Man (2009); True Grit (2010); Inside Llewyn Davis (2013); Hail, Caesar! (2016).
The Top Five
And here are my picks for the “Top Five” Coen Brothers films (ranked from #1-#5, with some comments on each)…
Fargo (1996) – One of the worst criminals in film history in Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy)? Check. One of the oddest “odd couples” in film history in Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare)? Check. One of the best police officers — and one of the most kick-ass female characters — in film history in Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand)? Check. Etc. etc. etc. How much “one of the best _____” type praise can you heap onto a single film? Fargo is an undeniable cinematic masterpiece and the Coen Brothers’ effort that should have won the Academy Award for Best Picture — losing, unfortunately, to the stunningly shot but pretty dull The English Patient. It perfectly blends the Coens’ recognizable film-noir interests with their bleak sense of humor, against a thoroughly North-Midwestern (in terms of speech, manners, climate, etc.) landscape. I’m tempted to proclaim Fargo as a “perfect film” — not going to go quite that far but it’s close…real close. [On a side-note: If, for some reason, you’ve not yet checked out the FX television series, Fargo, you need to do that. It’s one of the best 3-4 shows on television right now.] More than most other films, Fargo feels like the sort of art that one should spend less time writing about and more time (re)watching. I’m going to follow my own advice here and keep this short.
No Country for Old Men (2007) – In some ways, No Country for Old Men doesn’t really “feel” like a Coens’ film. Aside from some dialogue witticisms from Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the script eschews humor (even dark-humor) in favor of violence and violence and…more violence. Or, perhaps more accurately, this is a film about the threat of violence, most notably demonstrated in a scene involving villain Anton Chigurh and an unsuspecting cashier, and the aftermath of violence. Based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel, the film’s tone feels like a callback to an earlier Coen Brothers’ effort — their first feature-length, theatrical release: Blood Simple. (More on that film later.) Interestingly, No Country is a peculiar film in which the three main characters (Ed Tom, Chigurh, and Llewelyn Moss) don’t really share any time together on-screen, as their paths are always obstructed, their interactions frustrating near-misses. Each of the main actors (Jones, Javier Bardem, and Josh Brolin) are perfectly cast, and the supporting turns from Woody Harrelson and Kelly Macdonald (in particular) are equally memorable in somewhat limited screentime. It’s worth seeing for Chigurh alone — the obvious nominee for “best-big-bad-with-a-bad-haircut” in cinematic history. A lot of viewers were frustrated by the film’s ending and, to be fair, I didn’t exactly know quite how to interpret it at first. However, upon re-watchings, I’ve come around to it and am now a fierce supporter of that ending in terms of characterization and the larger themes / codes at work within the narrative.
The Big Lebowski (1998) – My personal “favorite” Coen Brothers film — and the one that I find to be the most immediately re-watchable of their oeuvre — even if I don’t necessarily think it’s their “best” film, The Big Lebowski has firmly cemented itself into the American subconscious and has become an undeniable cultural artifact at this point. A neo-noir (it’s a Coen Brothers’ movie after all), the film is a strange mishmash of white Russians, German nihilists, Midwestern nymphomaniacs, Californian pornographers, Vietnam vets, Texan narrators, sex-offenders, multi-millionaires, avant-garde artists, dimwitted adolescents, private eyes, and bowling enthusiasts — i.e. your standard motley crew brought together by an honest-to-god case of mistaken identity and a rug that really tied the room together. Aside from its wonderful noteworthy lead-performances, The Big Lebowski is, of all the Coen Bros films, the one where I most appreciate the supporting roles; and its definitely one of those films where each viewer likely has a personal favorite minor character. (The supporting character that makes me laugh the most is probably “Brandt,” portrayed with the appropriate mixture of nervousness and subservience by the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman.) The various dream-sequences are some of the most interesting moments in the entire Coen filmography, while little gags (like The Dude’s penchant for recycling earlier dialogue that he’s overheard into later conversations) push the comedy forward while also adding to the characterization. Yes…because The Big Lebowski exists, we have to put up with those fans of the film; but, in the end, I think that’s a small (albeit annoying) price to pay.
Raising Arizona (1987) – Here’s where things get tricky. While the previous three films (Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and The Big Lebowski) are, to my mind, in a tier all on their own, the Coen Brothers’ “second-tier” contains about 5-7 films that could, realistically, be listed here. Therefore, these final two “Top-Five” picks are mostly just a matter of personal preference. For the uninitiated, Raising Arizona tells the story of an unlikely marriage between career criminal H.I. (i.e. Nicolas Cage in one of his best roles) and Officer Ed (i.e. Holly Hunter in one of her best roles) — a couple whose relationship is threatened by the revelation that they cannot have children, only to decide that they should kidnap one of the infant quintuplets from a local furniture-store owner, setting-off a strange series of events. In addition to the aforementioned fantastic performances from Cage and Hunter, there’s a bevy of strong supporting work here from the likes of John Goodman, William Forsythe, Trey Wilson, Frances McDormand, Sam McMurray, and most notably Tex Cobb (as an extremely rough-and-tumble bounty hunter with some pretty serious “mommy issues”). Featuring an all-time great chase scene, an all-time great fight scene, and an all-time great score (that is perfect for this film), Raising Arizona is just one of those movies that you’re unlikely to forget. And for me personally, because Raising Arizona was my first exposure to the Coen Brothers’ films, it’s always the first film that comes to mind when I think of their work.
True Grit (2010) – As with Raising Arizona, another tough pick here. I considered A Serious Man, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Blood Simple, Barton Fink, and Inside Llewyn Davis here (probably in that order). Ultimately, however, I gave the nod to True Grit — a film that I “liked” upon its initial release but “loved” with my subsequent (re)viewings. After her father is murdered by Tom Chaney (played by Josh Brolin), young Mattie Ross (played by Hailee Steinfeld) recruits a posse consisting of U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (played by Jeff Bridges) and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (played by Matt Damon) to track down and capture or kill the traitorous Chaney. Based on a very good Western from the 1960s (starring John Wayne, Kim Darby, and Glenn Campbell) which was itself based on a Charles Portis novel, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit is the rare remake that actually improves upon an already good original. All of the aforementioned principle actors are wonderful here and demonstrate fantastic chemistry, which is very important for a film that relies a lot on quick, Coen-esque banter. In particular, Steinfeld is exceptional and earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination in her first ever film role. The story is straightforward and the violence, when it occurs, is often sudden and un-Romantic — marking this film’s revisionist aesthetic. But if you’re watching this film, it’s for the characters: the fast-thinking and fast-talking Mattie, the drunk and incoherent Cogburn, the insufferable and condescending LaBoeuf, etc. In terms of casting, performance, and chemistry, this is probably the Coens’ second-best ensemble after The Big Lebowski.
The Underrated One
There are a few contenders here in my opinion. Miller’s Crossing is a rock-solid gangster movie that a lot of folks haven’t seen. Aside from great performances from Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, Marcia Gay Harden, and John Turturro, it also contains one of the most memorable scenes in the entire Coens canon (i.e. a walk in the woods). Barton Fink is a “trendy” pick for underrated Coen — partially because, I think, it’s a movie with a subject-matter that appeals to the sort of people who write stuff like this (i.e. writers and/or critics). But it’s a good film in its own right with great performances from two Coen mainstays: the aforementioned Turturro and John Goodman. I think that O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a fun, visually striking, and mostly successful riff on the Homeric journey plot. My guess is that not enough casual viewers have seen A Serious Man or Inside Llewyn Davis, both fantastic films. But my pick here is going to be the Coens’ first feature-length theatrical film, Blood Simple (1984). While this movie was a huge critical success and opened a lot of doors (especially with investors) for the Coens’ subsequent projects, I suspect that — aside from cinephiles and rabid Coen Brothers fans — this superb film-noir hasn’t gotten the following that it deserves among casual viewers. Dan Hedaya provides a (typical, for him) good performance, and Frances McDormand is similarly excellent in her film debut; however, the star of the show is undoubtedly M. Emmet Walsh as the murderous, amoral private-eye, Visser. (The climactic scene of Visser’s confrontation with McDormand’s Abby is of particular note here.) With the exception of No Country for Old Men, Blood Simple is probably the Coens’ darkest / bleakest movie to date, lacking the intermittent humor that occurs in their other “crime” films like Fargo, Burn After Reading, etc.
The One to Avoid
I’ve got five nominees for this “honor” of Coen Brothers movie that you ought to avoid. While I know that it has its fans, I found The Man Who Wasn’t There to be mostly boring (notwithstanding a semi-interesting performance by Billy Bob Thornton). Burn After Reading suffers from the weight of an altogether forgettable narrative, although it’s saved from winning here by two memorable performances: Brad Pitt (as the manic trainer, Chad) and, to a lesser extent, John Malkovich (as retired CIA agent turned terrible memoir-writer, Osbourne Cox). With few exceptions, I’m biased against movies about Hollywood — especially Hollywood of yesteryear — so I found Hail, Caesar! to be tiresome and unnecessary. Intolerable Cruelty is a (mostly) unfunny screwball romantic-comedy that, aside from a few scenes and a few character quirks, largely feels like a movie that anyone could’ve made — i.e. it lacks that Coen Brothers’ magic. But my winner for one to avoid is The Ladykillers (2004). Whether it be via genre (e.g. The Hudsucker Proxy, The Man Who Wasn’t There, etc.), via adaptation (e.g. Miller’s Crossing, O Brother, etc.) or via remakes (e.g. True Grit), the Coens obviously demonstrate an awareness of and a fascination with the past and with preexisting texts. In that vein, their The Ladykillers is a remake of a 1955 film starring Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, etc. about a group of criminals who attempt to commit a robbery while renting rooms from an elderly woman. And while it’s moderately amusing to watch Tom Hanks play very against-type as an utterly uncharming and menacing “Southern gentleman,” it’s also a bit too on-the-nose, a tad too Colonel Sanders in its execution. Moreover, whether it’s a fault of the script, the direction, the editing, or the actors themselves, this comedy is just devoid of comedy, as most of the characters are so overwhelmingly stupid (and, in some cases, coarse) as to be grating. Skip it! You can thank me later.
The Place to Start
It’s tough to know where to start, if you’re recommending the Coen Brothers to someone. Their aesthetic is such that I don’t really blame those that, for whatever reason, don’t click with their brand of humor and violence. While it’s not exactly an “acquired taste,” figuring out what kind of Coen film you most prefer — i.e. those that lean more heavily on humor or those that lean more heavily on violence — is likely to be a trial by error. For me, first and foremost, I think of quirky characters, off-beat visuals, and an importance (maybe even more than most directors) on the soundtrack to do thematic / narrative work. Basically…while I appreciate their brand of violence, my first thought is toward the humor in their films. As such, I think that I’d recommend starting with a film like Raising Arizona, which has the characterization, imagery, and music that I associate with Coen-brand comedy. While it’s “weird,” it’s certainly much more straightforward than something like The Big Lebowski with its noir-influenced twists and its large database of characters (whose connections / motivations might not be as clear upon an initial viewing). Another similar option in the Raising Arizona vein of comedy might be something like O Brother, Where Art Thou? — which is also a pretty “easy” film to watch. From there, one can ease into the darker comedies like Fargo and A Serious Man.
The Final Word
With an instantly recognizable aesthetic — e.g. strange characters + quick banter + dark-humor + sudden violence, etc. — the Coen Brothers fall squarely within the “auteur” category. Their films feel simultaneously “old-timey” and “progressive,” ambivalently peculiar and familiar. To my mind, they’ve created three undeniable “masterpieces” in film: Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and The Big Lebowski. (As I’ve stated in previous director retrospectives, my definition of “masterpiece” is broad so as to suggest those films which I believe, subjectively, ought to be preserved and viewed by subsequent audiences forever and ever.) In addition to these masterpieces, they’ve also created about 6-7 other films that are legitimately great films — even if they don’t quite reach that “masterpiece” tier to me. While their filmography isn’t without blemishes, while they aren’t immune to the occasional bad / mediocre movie, I am always willing to give the Coen Brothers the benefit of the doubt. When they release a film, I am excited to see it.