This week’s question is in response to the arrival of the new Coen brothers film, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, on Netflix:
Given the sheer number of brilliant bit parts, one-scene wonders, and character actor geniuses who populate the Coens’ oeuvre, it feels borderline blasphemous to pick one of their protagonists for this distinction. And yet, like poor, pathetic Mike Yanagita, I have to admit it: I love Marge Gunderson. It’s rare for the Coens to allow bravery, strength, and kindness to exist together in a single person in their films, but Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning Fargo performance is the “Oh gee”-ing exception that proves the rule. For half a second, you’re tempted to dismiss Brainerd’s police chief—slightly disheveled, cracking corny jokes, and seven months pregnant—as just another small-town buffoon in a movie that’s full of them. But then you watch her dissect a grisly murder scene, or casually crack a stammering witness, or—in the film’s most poignant moment—gently try to make sense of the dead-eyed multiple murderer silently stewing in her cruiser’s backseat, and you realize that Marge Gunderson is the closest that the Coens have ever come to putting a bona fide hero into one of their films. Like some sort of Minnesota nice Superman, Margie is a vision of humanity at its best, holding back the darkness in whatever little ways she can.
It may be because Raising Arizona was the first Coen brothers movie I saw, but the movie’s protagonist, Hi (Nicolas Cage), is still my favorite of over 30 years’ worth of their quirky weirdos who dwell at the fringes of regular society. Raising Arizona is a surprisingly good movie to show a kid you want to introduce to the Coens, given the film’s kinetic Looney Tunes energy. Energy exemplified in Hi: twitchy, perpetually surprised, with aggressively unkempt hair and a deep desire to be good, but zero functional knowledge of how to do so. He’s a small-time crook whose incompetence lands him in jail so frequently he builds enough of a relationship with his corrections officer, Ed (Holly Hunter), to propose to her. Married, he attempts to live a law-abiding life, but fails spectacularly in ways both small (stealing diapers) and large (stealing the baby that he stole the diapers for). But even though his crimes put him in conflict with old prison mates, terrible family friends, and a cruelly competent bear of a bounty hunter that’s also his symbolic dark half, Hi still holds on to that hopeful spark that everything, despite all evidence, will work out okay.
And speaking of the darkness encroaching from the periphery of Fargo, I’ve got to go with that movie’s Carl Showalter, the scummy conman played by Steve Buscemi. Like Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), Showalter seems like a character vaguely ill-suited to a life of crime, a weaselly figure etching out a living doing the work others won’t. He’s nowhere near as nihilistic or easy with violence as his partner, who eventually kills him and shoves him through a wood-chipper. You don’t really argue with this fate; Showalter doesn’t deserve a happier ending. And yet, somehow, Buscemi makes him a sympathetic figure, whether it’s the comic rapport he develops with Peter Stormare (“total fucking silence”), his scummy attempts at being charming (“still got that smell!”), or the way he grows increasingly exasperated with the other characters, a bit player in a grand Greek tragedy. He’s small and wormy and deeply human, which is part of what makes the movie work so well.
I still think the road-trip stuff with John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund belongs in a different movie (a much broader one), but on the whole, Inside Llewyn Davis has grown a lot on me over the last five years—enough so, in fact, that I now consider it among the Coens’ best films. A big part of that is Llewyn Davis himself. Though loosely modeled on ’60s folk singer Dave Van Ronk, Llewyn could exist in any era; he’s the artist as incorrigible screwup—talented but maybe not talented enough, clinging stubbornly to his principles even when they get him nowhere, looking down on the people he inevitably turns to for a gig or a favor or a couch on which to sleep. The role made Oscar Isaac a star, and for good reason: Hilariously difficult, he never sands down Llewyn’s sharp edges, never pleads for our sympathy but gets it anyway, maybe because we can see the wounded humanity behind all the prickliness and bad judgment. (It’s most detectable, naturally, whenever he’s strumming away on stage.) Of course, it could be that the character’s pigheadedness, laced with self-loathing, hits close to home. Relating to Llewyn Davis’ worst qualities, even perversely admiring them, is very Llewyn Davis.
Whether it’s his disastrous decision-making skills, guileless optimism, pretty-boy cluelessness, or fitness-centric lifestyle (and let’s be honest, it’s the combination of all of these things), I have a profound love for Chad Feldheimer, the puppyish but doomed Hardbodies gym employee from Burn After Reading. The Coen brothers’ black comedy was initially considered one of their more lightweight offerings, but its subtly subversive wit and sly commentary on the faulty and antihumanist institutions of American society—and the dearth of intelligence that can and does adhere to supposed bastions of intelligence—only gets more profound (and funnier!) to me as the years go by. And Chad is the highlight of it all; Brad Pitt’s gung-ho performance is the definition of scene-stealing (no easy feat when you’re surrounded by heavyweights and scene-stealers in their own right like Frances McDormand and John Malkovich), outsize and iconic yet perfectly matched to the material. I never get tired of watching him go, even his ignominious death in a closet—to quote Chad himself, “This is, like, intelligence shit… I can’t believe this shit I’m seeing!”
You can call it an obvious choice if you want, but that’s just, like, your opinion, man: Jeff Lebowski, a.k.a The Dude, is not only one of the Coen brothers’ greatest creations, he’s one of the greatest comedic characters of the back half of the 20th century. Who among us has not stood in the dairy aisle of a supermarket in the middle of the night in a bathrobe and flip-flops, buying mixers for a White Russian with a post-dated check? Buzzkills and narcs, that’s who. And The Dude is the elemental opposite of those things. He is chillness incarnate, a long-haired manifestation of the part of every one of us who would rather be sparking a fat joint than doing just about anything else. The world just keeps fucking with The Dude, but he never loses his cool. He’s a man of simple pleasures; even his quest to get his rug replaced is based more on principle than attachment to material things. He’s a veritable Bodhisattva in a Pendleton sweater, accepting life’s “strikes and gutters, ups and downs” with good-natured clarity. And as long as he’s out there, taking ’er easy and knocking back a couple of brewskis, the cosmic balance also abides. No wonder there’s a religion based around him.
You never forget your first Coen brothers film, and mine was Raising Arizona. So it’s not too surprising that Holly Hunter’s Ed would become my maternal spirit animal. Sure, she stole a kid instead of giving birth to one, but once she grabs hold of Nathan Jr., she clicks instantly into lioness mama mode. You could find me doing a straight-up approximation of her sobbing (“I love him soooo muuuuuch”) once my own kids were born; like her, I was also trying to improve my household and approximate a respectable family—though I didn’t have to rid my home of any prison escapees. Similar to Ed, I would absolutely face off against a warthog from hell to keep my children safe, and her innate goodness leads her and Hi to do the right thing in the end. Ed’s all-encompassing motherly love always resonated with me—and you better believe I never let the Dr. Spock book out of my sight for at least the first two years of my kids’ lives.