Primer: The Coen Brothers

Primer: The Coen Brothers

Primer is The A.V. Club's ongoing series of beginners' guides to pop culture's most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you.

Today: Who are the Coen Brothers? Arguably, they're the most controlled and technically proficient filmmakers of their time—peerless writers of stylized dialogue, efficient in pacing, ingenious in plotting, and brilliant in harmonizing every aspect of the craft (music, cinematography, editing, performances, et al.) to best service the whole. But here's the funny thing about the Coens: Their detractors are likely to agree with nearly every scrap of hyperbole in that last sentence and still hate them anyway. They'd be wrong-headed to do so, but there's a chilliness that goes along with the Coens' obsessive pursuit of perfection, even as all 12 of their features to date bristle with intelligence, snap, and the generosity of great entertainers. Many filmmakers could be called chroniclers of the human condition, but the Coens are even further removed from the rest of us—they're anthropologists and historians, looking at humanity from the other end of the microscope.

Coen Brothers 101

Usually, filmmakers need a couple of ragged efforts under their belt before they really come into their own, but the Coens' 1985 debut feature Blood Simple found them in command right from the start. It also firmly established their abiding affection for Old Hollywood, which would split off frequently into noir-inflected crime dramas and zany screwball comedies. Here, their love of film noir and the detective fiction of writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler figures into a potent contemporary tale of infidelity and murder. Right off the bat, the Coens indulge in the sort of show-offy cleverness that often rankles their critics, having the opening credits appear and disappear with the swoosh of windshield wiper blades. But stylistic flourishes like that do nothing to weaken the film's insistent pull; it's more deliberate than future Coen films—so deliberate, in fact, that the brothers tightened some scenes and cut out others in the DVD director's cut—but its moody, evocative tone was unlike anything in the barren landscape of independent cinema in the mid-'80s.

Blood Simple also set the table for many Coen movies to come: Though the amount may vary—it's $10,000 here, $80,000 in Fargo, and $2 million in No Country For Old Men—money makes the world go 'round in the Coens' eyes, with greed driving people to short-sighted decisions and appalling acts of violence. And once they've stepped over that line, the blood never washes away, which is a point made literal in Blood Simple's most memorable scene, when a pool creeps across a hardwood floor, resisting all efforts to absorb it and wipe the slate clean. The film also anticipated the genre pastiches that would come into fashion a decade later when Quentin Tarantino reconfigured trash for the arthouse set, proving that cinema's past could be effectively folded into its future.

The years haven't been quite as kind to Raising Arizona, the Coens' follow-up film, but it showed their willingness to go down zanier tributaries, and presaged the cartoonier elements of films like O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Ladykillers, and Intolerable Cruelty. The humor is surprisingly lowbrow and slapstick-y, which only serves to underline the superiority of the smart alecks behind the camera. Yet it's also undeniably hilarious, choked with lines and phrases ("My FI-antz left me," "way-homer," "Son, you've got a panty on your head") that are regurgitated in everyday life nearly as often as those in The Simpsons… or at least Fletch. In the figure of a bounty hunter in search of an abducted baby, it's also an early showcase of the surrealism that would flower in a more sophisticated way in later Coen films like Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski.

More than anything, though, Raising Arizona is a marvel of narrative energy, especially coming off the statelier Blood Simple. Having the credits arrive after the first reel is over—a good 20 minutes into the film—may seem as show-offy as the wiper blades in Blood Simple, but it was really the first pause in the action. Through voiceover, flashbacks, and wild digressions, the setup of the film is so absurdly long-winded and overstuffed that the credits are a payoff in themselves, a moment where the audience can catch its breath and giggle over how much movie has been squeezed into so small a timeframe.

Those who grew up with the Coen Brothers would naturally move on to Miller's Crossing next, but an entire generation of younger Coen fans met them first with 1998's The Big Lebowski, a shaggy-dog comedy that overcame a tepid critical and box-office reception to achieve major cult status. Hard to say why it failed out of the gate: Perhaps the same stoners who caught up with Dazed And Confused belatedly couldn't drag themselves off the couch or maybe the film's shambling, Chandler-inspired narrative takes more than one viewing to fully appreciate. Whatever the case, it's now rightly considered an oddball classic, held together by Jeff Bridges' iconic performance as "The Dude," a '60s burnout trying desperately to laze his way through life in early '90s Los Angeles, only to be yanked repeatedly out of his complacency. His exchanges with John Goodman's Walter Sobchak—the boorish 'Nam vet who does much of the yanking—are pricelessly aggravated, and the film's looseness allows for one unexpected and delightful detour after another. In fact, it's like a series of crazy detours that lead, improbably, to the right destination.

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Intermediate Work:

Now that you've studied the basics, it's time to move onto denser texts. That means going back to Miller's Crossing, an impeccable period gangster drama that's stylized within an inch of its life, but has great reserves of feeling under the surface. Much like their new film No Country For Old Men, it uses crackerjack genre material to reveal what happens when the social order breaks down and it's every man for himself. And no character in the Coen oeuvre defines it better than John Turturro's Bernie Bernbaum, a bookie who operates without any moral code whatsoever. When the hero, an Irish gangster played by Gabriel Byrne, finally takes him in the woods to whack him for his deceptions, Bernie pleas desperately with him to understand his nature; after all, he's a guy who works all the angles, so why should he be killed for it? But, of course, if you spare him, there's nothing stopping him from double-crossing you, because that's his nature too, right? No gratitude, no loyalty. Just Bernie looking out for Bernie's interests.

There's not much imagination to the pitiful dreams of freedom and low-level prosperity that drive an ordinary schmoe to do terrible things in Fargo, the Coens' 1996 masterpiece about a car salesman (a never-better William H. Macy) who cooks up a half-baked kidnapping scheme to bilk money from his wealthy father-in-law. But here, the Coens offer a powerful moral counterpoint in Frances McDormand, a small-town sheriff whose impeccable instincts in getting to the bottom of the case go along with her revulsion at its grisly twists and turns. In the end, there's an almost comic dissonance between the pettiness of the crime and the amount of carnage it yields, yet the final two scenes drive home the tragic inexplicability of it all, too—first by having McDormand wonder aloud why the pursuit of "a little bit of money" could wreck so many lives and then offering a window into her life that's the warmest imaginable portrait of Midwest domesticity.

Still, the Coens' dim, cynical view of human nature tends to prevail and they have bottomless contempt for the charlatans who think they're above it all—including, to an extent, themselves. The brilliant surrealist meta-comedy Barton Fink may be the closest the Coens have come to autobiography; it was reportedly penned while the brothers were suffering from writer's block on Miller's Crossing and is choked with doubt about the whole creative process. In John Turturro's Barton Fink, the Coens mercilessly send-up the pretensions of self-proclaimed artistes who know nothing of the fishmongers of whom they speak. Barton can pontificate endlessly about a theater of the common man, but he doesn't bother to listen to them (here John Goodman's traveling salesman, who could tell him some stories) and he's too detached even to hack out a simple B-movie about a wrestler, an orphan, and/or a dame. His limitations become a cage from which he can't escape and his anguish manifests itself in an unexpectedly abstract final act that's like the literary equivalent of self-immolation.

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Advanced Studies:

Seeing all the Coens' work leading into the 21st century is a nice start, but they'll only get you so far into the one-two punch of 2000's O Brother, Where Art Thou? and 2001's The Man Who Wasn't There, two movies so loaded with allusions that only a thorough education in literature, pre- and post-war American cinema, and folk music history could unpack them. O Brother is better known for its soundtrack than as a movie, and not unreasonably: Producer T-Bone Burnett, given free reign to explore the obscure musical tributaries of the Depression-era South, with a few unearthed classics and a lot of new songs that lovingly mimic vintage bluegrass, country, and soul music. And the movie itself, cast off by some as the Coens at their most garish and grotesque, is hugely underrated, a loving homage to '30s Americana assembled from popular icons and artifacts, and told with the intoxicating energy of a Warner Brothers cartoon. It's fun to play the game of "Spot That Allusion"—in addition to a plot that follows The Odyssey and a title that references Sullivan's Travels, there are also nods to Clark Gable, Robert Johnson, Busby Berkeley, The Wizard Of Oz, and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang—but look closely and the Coens are disarmingly sincere about their hero's salvation and his wild, perilous journey home.

As for The Man Who Wasn't There, it synthesizes a lot of themes familiar from Coen movies past (Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, Fargo) and future (No Country For Old Men) while presenting them in a mature, subtle, hushed aesthetic that's unique within their oeuvre. And it all starts with Billy Bob Thornton's courageous minimalist turn as a barber who embarks on a typical Coen scheme gone wrong—here, a blackmail plot to raise seed money to get into the dry-cleaning business. Like William H. Macy in Fargo, the crime is tied both to a pitifully minor dream of financial solvency and the marital discord that's at the root of his miseries. The difference is that Thornton's character really does love his wife (played here by Frances McDormand), but lacks the capability to express it, which gives a tragic undercurrent to a noir that owes its plotting to James M. Cain (particularly The Postman Always Rings Twice) and its pervasive ennui to Jim Thompson.

Miscellany

Those looking to sample Coen obscurities, shorts, and side projects should probably start with 1985's Crimewave, which the brothers wrote for then-neophyte director Sam Raimi. Raimi has disowned the film due to its meddlesome producers, who kept him from using Bruce Campbell and fired his editor and composer during post-production, but there are plenty of embryonic elements that could come into play later on in both Raimi and the Coens' careers. For one, there's a penitentiary named Hudsucker—a name that would figure prominently in a later collaboration—but more generally, the wacky crime comedy, narrated by a patsy about to die on the electric chair, has a kinetic, cartoon-y quality that the filmmakers would refine in future efforts. (The less said about 1998's The Naked Man, a Michael Rapaport vehicle that Ethan Coen wrote for another director, the better.)

Recently, the Coens have gamely participated in a couple of short-film anthologies that show their facility for the form and stand up nicely against shorts by other international heavy-hitters, mostly for providing some comic relief. "Tuileries," their contribution to 2006's Paris Je T'aime, follows a American tourist Steve Buscemi's misadventures at the Paris subway stop, where he's pelted with spitballs and unwillingly intervenes in a lover's quarrel. The Coens, rightfully anticipating the project as a collection of love letters to the city, cleverly zag in the other direction.

A year later, for the Cannes' 60th anniversary anthology Chacun Son Cinéma (To Each His Own Cinema), the Coens turned out another irreverent short featuring Josh Brolin, in full No Country For Old Men cowboy get-up, stumbling into a two-screen arthouse and trying to decide whether to see the French classic The Rules Of The Game or the contemporary Turkish film Climates. (His message for the usher afterwards: "Tell him the dude in the hat enjoyed the hell out of Climates.")

Completists would also do well to check out Ethan Coen's 1999 short-story collection Gates Of Eden. Not surprisingly, the stories are vividly cinematic and feature Coen's talent for gracefully appropriating different styles, from old-fashioned gangster comedies to radio scripts to more sober pieces that reflect the author's Minnesota upbringing. Coen's ability to craft colorful dialogue was already well-established, but there's a difference between writing screenplays and writing prose, and he happily shows a facility for both.

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Demerits:

The Coens have yet to make a bad movie, but they're at their least assured on those periodic occasions when they try to go Hollywood and make a film, "you know, for kids." 1994's The Hudsucker Proxy includes some of their finest touches—the brilliant hula-hoop montage, the note-perfect mimicry of '30s screwball dialogue, the heightened portrait of corporate-world drudgery and irrationality—but there's a hollowness to the whole enterprise that reverberates like a drum in the final third. Making that crucial shift from stylized pastiche to resonant romantic comedy isn't easy to do, so when Tim Robbins' naïve hick and Jennifer Jason Leigh's fast-talking sophisticate come together, the Coens can't get over the mechanized heartlessness that makes the rest of film harmonious. It's a big, splashy production—with Joel Silver as producer, it doesn't get any bigger—but one that doesn't rise above clever exercise.

The Coens stumbled further with the back-to-back comedies Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers in 2003 and 2004, respectively, though both are brighter than their relatively dismal reputations would suggest. Intolerable Cruelty opens with by far the worst sequence in the Coens' career, a grating confrontation over marital infidelity that's all cartoonish noise with none of the wit usually associated with them. Things smooth out considerably later, thanks to the typically peppery dialogue and George Clooney's easy charm in the lead role, but the film is still hampered by Catherine Zeta-Jones' tone-deaf line-readings, which tramples some good zingers and sabotages her chemistry with Clooney. The Ladykillers is a little better, thanks largely to Tom Hanks' indelible performance as a malevolent Colonel Sanders who orchestrates a hapless robbery scheme and Irma P. Hall as the old woman who stands in his way. The major question dogging the film is "why," as in why remake a beloved British comedy without bringing something new to the table? Other than the Deep South setting and a rich gospel soundtrack, courtesy of O Brother mastermind T-Bone Burnett, the Coens never answer that question sufficiently.

The Essentials:

1. No Country For Old Men (2007): In Cormac McCarthy's novel, the Coens have found the perfect vessel for themes that have run through their work since Blood Simple: Greed, human fallibility, and the incomprehensible horror of a world overrun by violence. The dialogue pops with dark humor and sly Southern colloquialisms, the three lead performances are perfectly balanced to where there's no anxiousness to get back to one of them in particular, and the film has a depth of feeling not often associated with the Coens' work. It makes for a stark morality play, not to mention the most gripping thriller in recent memory.

2. The Big Lebowski (1998): No Coen film has greater rewatch value than this shaggy-dog comedy, which continues to yield endless rewards with its gloriously profane dialogue, its lovingly daffy tribute to the "City Of Angels," and a dense, wayward plot that miraculously coheres about 10 viewings in. And then there's Jeff Bridges as "The Dude," the laziest man in Los Angeles County ("which would place him high in the runnin' for laziest worldwide"), who wants desperately to return to his layabout diet of weed and White Russians, but the rug-pissers, the Nihilists, and his belligerent 'Nam-addled buddy Walter (John Goodman), among many others, won't leave him alone.

3. The Man Who Wasn't There (2001): As the title implies, the second-chair barber played by Billy Bob Thornton isn't someone who makes his presence felt, which may explain why this bone-deep noir remains the most overlooked and underrated film in the Coen catalogue. For the most part, Thornton yields the floor to men (James Gandolfini, Jon Polito, Tony Shalhoub) who are full of hot gas, while he recedes to the background, quietly harboring his own unspoken desires. Remarkably, this scarily disciplined film doesn't give up the ghost until its heartbreaking final line.

4. Fargo (1996): In retrospect, this snowbound crime drama seems like a warm-up for No Country For Old Men in much the same way Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha laid the groundwork for Ran. Here's the thing: Kagemusha is still a great movie—and more intimate in it way than its epic follow-up—and so is Fargo, which may lack the mythic pull of No Country, but makes up for it with two unforgettable lead characters, played by William H. Macy and Frances McDormand, who together express the Coens' vision of the world. Both come from common Minnesota stock, but one is petty and small, acting out on a cowardly instinct to take control of his life, and the other is the embodiment of simple decency, forging a private paradise with her husband out of fricassee and three-cent stamps.

5. Barton Fink (1991): The life of the mind isn't easy to depict outside of the printed page, but here the Coens go deeper and deeper into the headspace of a frustrated writer until his world collapses into surreal chaos. It's a strange movie, with an ending that's impossible to fathom from the way it opens, but until that point, the pleasures are endless, from the lavish accommodations at the Hotel Earle to Michael Lerner's hot-tempered studio boss ("I'm not one of those guys who thinks poetic has got to be fruity. We're together on that, right?") to John Goodman as the booming voice of the common man. The film is like nothing else in the Coen oeuvre—it's got "that Barton Fink feeling," in spades.