CineMasters: The Coen Brothers

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While it was being adapted for the cinema, the convoluted plot of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep was causing director Howard Hawks some problems. “Who killed the chauffeur?” he asked the writer as he tried to tie up the loose ends of the novel. Chandler, notorious for his drinking, had no idea – his patchwork ­­­story of intrigue had gotten the better of him.­ 

Although not known for their drinking, it’s easy to imagine Joel and Ethan Coen having the same problem recalling some of their more outlandish plotlines, heavily indebted as they are to hardboiled writers like Chandler.  

Taking their cues from Classic Hollywood films of the forties and fifties, the Coens have spent much of their career crafting a self-described “aggressively idiosyncratic”[1] Pop Noir, interlacing thematic elements of the genre with screwball comedy, westerns, gangster movies and the European arthouse.  

Growing up making films on Super 8 in their hometown of Minnesota, the Coens self-funded their first feature Blood Simple (Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 1984) at a time when subverting and commenting upon genre movies was de rigeur on the American independent film scene, making them kindred spirits with directors like Sam Raimi, Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley and Whit Stillman.  

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Thematic elements that the Coen Brothers would use time and again are present here. Money is fetishized; supposedly good characters reveal themselves to be only marginally different from the film’s villains; and the gritty impressionism of noir is interrupted by disturbing splashes of absurdity.  

While tense, there’s a sense of detachment about Blood Simple, as though its characters are chess pieces being deliberately moved into danger on a board. Ironic references abound in the film, signposting that while this is a hardnosed thriller, the Coens find their characters’ predicaments grimly amusing.  

Roger Ebert summarised the Coens’ style best when he wrote, “The Coens sometimes have a way of standing to one side of their work: It's the puppet and they're the ventriloquists. The puppet is sincere, but the puppetmaster is wagging his eyebrows at the audience and asking, can you believe this stuff?”[2]  

The absurdity described above simmers beneath Blood Simple. In their next film Raising Arizona (Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 1987) it would become the main attraction.

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Revolving around a married reformed criminal and ex-cop who decide to steal a child, Raising Arizona pitches itself as an absurdist comedy from the start. But its theme of male identity in crisis and its heavy reliance on voiceover narration point to its noir heart.  

The crisis of male identity becomes its central motif, as it does with a vast number of Coens’ work. As Raising Arizona builds a dizzying number of plot twists, central character Hi’s inability to meet the expectations placed upon him by fatherhood tie every narrative strand together.  

Raising Arizona hides its themes of traditional family values and blue-collar existentialism behind several veils of irony and Looney Tunes-esque slapstick. Films like Miller’s Crossing (Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 1990) and Barton Fink (Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 1991), would follow this format, vacillating between high-minded philosophy, surreal imagery and brutal slapstick, sometimes all in one scene. This melting pot technique created an ironic distance from its characters, a distance that would lessen with the Oscar-winning Fargo (Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen,1996).  

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With a plotline that has clear parallels to Blood Simple, Fargo diversifies the Coens world by adding police officer Marge Gunderson to proceedings.

Seventh months pregnant as she unravels the increasingly violent and complex kidnapping plot, Marge’s relationship with her husband provides a warm counterpoint to the freezing weather of the locale. More than this, it gives the Coens a mouthpiece with which they can explicitly deconstruct the genres they’re commenting on. “There’s more to life than a little money, you know”, says Marge near the film’s conclusion, undercutting the plot of both Fargo and a thousand other noir movies from a bygone era.  

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If Fargo shows an increased focus on sympathetic characters from the Coens, then O, Brother Where Art Thou? (Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2000) brings that heart to a band of tearaways. The first in a series of fruitful collaborations with George Clooney, the film follows three runaways from a chain gang during the American depression of the thirties as they go on a Homeric journey towards their personal El Dorado. On their journey they encounter a multitude of oddball characters loosely based on The Odyssey, all drenched in the sepia tones of Roger Deakin’s cinematography and Carter Burwell’s timeless score.  

Their zany streak continued through the early 2000s with Intolerable Cruelty (Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2003) and The Ladykillers (Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2004), before they jettisoned humour almost entirely for their bleakest work, No Country for Old Men (Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007).  

An adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name (and the Coens’ first literary adaptation), this western-neo-noir follows the rugged Llewelyn Moss as he happens upon a huge sum of money in the desert – as well as several dead bodies from a drug deal gone wrong.  

Described by Joel Coen as a “horror movie”[3], No Country’s brutal morality tale never lets the audience off the hook in its depiction of violence. Where Fargo’s money grubbing crooks provide prime opportunity for offbeat comedy, here every cat and mouse set piece depicts a nihilistic sensibility which gives its viewer no ironic distance.   

No Country marks a move away from the sardonic genre inflections of the Coens’ early period, sparking interest in a new theme of middle-aged characters out of step with modern times. It’s a maturation that’s as much a comment on the age of the directors themselves as the characters they’re depicting.

Kevin Fullerton
Freelance Writer
November 2017

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[1] Joel Coen, Speaking to Charlie Rose, Fargo DVD extra ‘Interview with the Coen Brothers’.

[2] Roger Ebert, review of Intolerable Cruelty, 10/10/03

[3] Joel Coen, No Country for Old Men DVD extra, ‘The Making of No Country for Old Men’

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