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The Coen Brothers in Five Films

on August 10, 2017, 12:00am
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With Netflix announcing the Coen brothers’ new western anthology series, we revisit our crash course in their filmography.

Ever felt overwhelmed by a director’s extensive IMDB page? In Five Films is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into even the most daunting filmographies. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.

Art is subjective. Nothing has universal appeal, and the weirder a work of art gets the less likely it is to appeal to large swaths of the population.

Joel and Ethan Coen, the writing, directing, and producing duo best known under the collective moniker the Coen brothers, are undeniably weird. With four Oscars, a Palme d’Or, and countless other major awards and nominations to their name, and a star-studded stable of regular collaborators that includes the likes of George Clooney, the pair are hardly renegades or underdogs at this point in their three decade-long career, but their style, their aesthetic choices, and their twisted sense of humor still sets them apart from many of their similarly lauded peers. Their films appeal to a fairly large subsection of the population – particularly weirdos who obsessively quote their loopy, rhythmic dialogue and vociferously worship them as cinematic gods – but they’re never going to be for everyone. And, after 33 years’ worth of Coen efforts, audiences have been given plenty of time to figure out whether or not they belong in that particular cult.

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Which makes the creation of a primer on the two filmmakers a challenging endeavor. People predisposed to appreciate the stunningly broad spectrum of genre-embracing thrillers, satires, screwball comedies, and crime dramas that make up the Coen’s CV are already fans of their work and know exactly what it is they love about it so much. And the people who aren’t part of the Coen faithful have spent so much time listening to the passionate members of the former category wax rhapsodically about their most prominent films with all of the dedication and tact of a recent non-smoker deriding cigarettes or a Nam vet defending the rules of bowling that they’re understandably over the idea of giving the Coens a(nother) try. They know how absurdly funny fans think The Big Lebowski is. They know how knuckle-biting the score-free No Country for Old Men can be for the crime drama lover. Another listicle about those films helps no one.

So let’s take a different approach with this In Five Films. Let’s look at five defining characteristics of the duo’s wildly divergent oeuvre and then talk about five (somewhat) lesser known Coen productions that embody those principles just as well as the True Grits and Inside Llewyn Davises do. And we promise we won’t make a single joke about nihilists or rugs along the way.

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The Shaggy Dog Storytellers

A Serious Man (2009)

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Four years before the collective cuteness of Oscar Isaac and a wayward cat convinced otherwise normal audiences to follow the laissez faire adventure of Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers took a similarly meandering journey through the battered psyche of a meek physics professor in A Serious Man.

If the average Coen film is not everyone’s cup of tea, then A Serious Man is cinematic kombucha. Described not uncharitably as “the kind of picture you get to make after you’ve won an Oscar” by Variety critic Todd McCarthy, it finds the Coens at both their least outwardly sensible and least compromising. It begins with a Jewish couple in eastern Europe who may or may not be visited by a dybbuk, a prologue that the Coens – who previously displayed their love of whimsical misdirection with the introduction to the re-release of Blood Simple and the claim that Fargo was based on true events in its opening title sequence – claim has no thematic connection to the rest of the film. From there, it shifts its cynical and dark humor onto Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a beleaguered professor who is chasing tenure, fighting off bribery, facing divorce, and seeking the advice of Jefferson Airplane-quoting sages in 1960s Minnesota.

The plot has less direction than an early ‘90s LA burnout. Not even its most ardent defenders seem to agree what it’s actually about, although some are really invested in the idea that it’s a modern-day Book of Job. It’s funny, although the strangeness or ha-ha-ness of said funniness is entirely in the eye of the beholder. And it’s often more brutal than Coen films with 20 times the body count.

In other words, it’s basically real life with a touch of Coen humor thrown into the mix and just as polarizing as both of those things.

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The Genre Spanners

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

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For filmmakers with such a distinct sensibility, the Coen brothers have consistently shown a remarkable ability to work (mostly) within the confines of a whole slew of genres over the course of their career. Whether they’re making a Western (True Grit), noir (The Man Who Wasn’t There), or even a classic-ish screwball comedy (Intolerable Cruelty), they always manage to craft a picture that is both true to its origins and true to themselves.

They first demonstrated this flair for the genre in 1990 with Miller’s Crossing, a neo-noir gangster flick that starred Gabriel Byrne as a gambler with criminal ties trying to juggle the conflicting interests of an Irish gang, an Italian mob, and himself. The plot is dense – so complicated, in fact, that the brothers had to take a break from struggling with the screenplay to write the comparatively light and straightforward Barton Fink to relax their brains – and the moral ambiguity at work is even more complex, making Miller’s Crossing equally at home among the works of Dashiell Hammett and Martin Scorsese.

But you can also see the budding hallmarks of any good Coen film woven into this elaborate tapestry. The dialogue is snappy but off-kilter, delivered by a compelling casts of ne’er-do-wells, disinterested cops, and misfits. The humor is as sharp and as unexpectedly timed as the gunfire. And the death scenes, of which there are many, are stunning and disturbingly choreographed and shot.

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Making You Laugh to Beat the Band (Parts, Anyway)

Burn After Reading (2008)

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The Coen brothers established their comic chops incredibly early in their career with 1987’s Raising Arizona, but they officially became the patron saints of stoners, misfits, and the ridiculously inclined when they followed up their 1996 Oscar-winning breakthrough into the world of serious business cinema, Fargo, with the least prestige-friendly and most unabashedly silly of their entire career, The Big Lebowski (1998). They then somewhat reasserted their status in 2000 with O Brother, Where Art Thou? But let’s face it: You’re either reciting quotes about lady friends and R-U-N-N-O-F-T-ing as you read this, or you’re dreading those quotes.

So let’s talk about the other ridiculous comic misadventure that the Coens made in the wake of massive critical and Oscar success: 2008’s Burn After Reading.

Much like Fargo begot Lebowski, the hyper serious and devastating No Country for Old Men (2007) led directly to these misadventures of a pair of unassuming nobodies who stumble into a plot far beyond their comprehension and run afoul of a collection of dangerously strange characters along the way. This time around, we have Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt), a pair of dimwitted and unscrupulous gym employees who find a disc containing the memoirs of a CIA agent and attempt to sell them, attracting the confused attention of both the CIA and the Russian Embassy. If The Big Lebowski is Raymond Chandler on acid, this is John Le Carre hopped up on off-brand gym supplements: a shifty but intoxicating mix of conflicting loyalties that leads to a conclusion so meaningless that even the characters bemusedly accept that they’ve learned nothing. It’s darker and has less fondness – and more brutal consequences – for its characters than its zany predecessors in the Coen catalog, but Burn After Reading is still just as amusing.

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The Rural Crime Masters

Blood Simple (1984)

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Backwoods America. Petty criminals. High stakes. Crossed lines. Wavering loyalties. Existential dread-inducing death scenes. Over a decade before the Coens started to combine all of those elements to clean up at the Oscars with critical darlings, they laid the blueprint for those masterworks with their riveting debut feature.

Suspecting that his girlfriend Abby (Frances McDormand in her film debut) is cheating on him with one of his bartenders (John Getz), small town Texas bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) hires a private detective to follow them. Unhappy with the results of that experiment, he also hires the private eye to kill them. What should be a straightforward hit quickly dissolves into a series of misunderstandings and double crosses that leads to one of the most disquieting death scenes ever committed to film and a pitch-perfect gut punch of an ending. Unlike the victims in the film, Blood Simple itself is expertly executed with a precision and skill that makes the rookie filmmakers look like veterans of the neo-noir thriller, and it paved the way for both of their most decorated efforts. The dark and sometimes violent humor on display in Blood Simple was refined into the McDormand-led Fargo in 1996. Its ruthless drama was wound even tighter and made even more anxiety-inducing to deliver No Country for Old Men in 2007.

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Welcoming You to Los Angleeees

Barton Fink (1991)

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Hollywood loves to skewer itself, or at least attempt to skewer itself. But even the best efforts at Tinseltown satire from within tend to veer toward the self-satisfied (The Player, State and Main) or the overcompensatingly cynical and moralistic (Wag the Dog). Only the Coens have ever truly pulled off a well-balanced evisceration of the institution.

Whether it’s because they’ve almost seamlessly drifted between the film world’s inner circle and indie fringes for most of their career, or because they’re just creatively predisposed to treating their characters with an equal mix of kindness and viciousness in general, the pair bring a unique perspective to the proceedings. Their work acknowledges, quite gleefully, that Hollywood is fundamentally fucked up, but they also understand that life outside of that world isn’t really that much more normal. It’s this tone that makes Hail, Caesar! look so promising and what made 1991’s Barton Fink one of the most wickedly brilliant films in their insidiously entertaining arsenal.

Starring John Turturro as its titular character, the Palme d’Or-winning Barton Fink is the story of a celebrated Broadway playwright who is lured to Los Angeles with the promise of a multi-picture deal, only to be put in charge of a wrestling flick. His professional life miserably deteriorates from there. His personal life, which mostly revolves around the oddball neighbor he befriends in his ramshackle apartment building, fares much worse. It’s an insightful ribbing of the fickle and unscrupulous nature of the motion picture business, but it’s also an equally pointed take on haughty intellectualism, solipsism, and the male ego.

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