Two brothers, Joel and Ethan, set out to make movies. Teaming up at first with a schlock-horror merchant, their brand of offbeat film-making never really fits in to a society obsessed with marketable gunfights, witty one-liners and romantic scenes. Despite much comic confusion about which brother is whom, and their own habit of 'mythologizing' (ie, lying about) their films, they eventually pull through and win an Oscar. For Best Original Script.
Their life stories may sound like something out of one of their own movies, but the Coens have managed to become the darlings of the Cannes film festival (with two Best Director awards from five nominations so far, and counting) and in the process attract a loyal following of filmgoers who enjoy watching something a little unusual once every two years or so.
For no discernable reason, Joel frequently uses the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes while editing his own films. He's also worked as editor on the Evil Dead series, and appeared briefly on-screen in the Chevy Chase comedy Spies Like Us.
Blood Simple (1983)
The most immediately striking thing about Blood Simple is the lighting. The high contrast is part of the obvious homage to 1940s film noir; however, its effect is greatly reduced by the use of colour film. The noir elements continue; Abby, in the tradition of the greatest femmes fatale, is an ambiguous figure who may be the innocent victim or may be more manipulative than she appears. The sleazy PI (Private Investigator) who won't hesitate to murder and betray for money, the dim lover and the feeble husband are also noir staples. Yet the harrowing burial of the still-living Marty by Ray takes us into psychological horror territory, and this continues to the classic woman-stalked-by-psycho ending.
Ultimately, this is a film about people failing to understand each other. Marty and Abby have drifted apart, Ray believes Abby to have killed Marty, Abby can't understand Ray's increasingly erratic behaviour (her failure to believe that his paranoia might have a basis in fact will cost him his life), and finally the PI will try to kill both Ray and Abby, believing that they know who he is. By the end of the film, Abby will be left believing that Ray has killed Marty for no reason, and not understanding who the PI is or why he attacked her. All this makes the plot somewhat difficult to follow on a single viewing.
Francis McDormand, a future Oscar-winner (and future wife of Joel Coen) makes her film debut as Abby.
Although directed by Sam 'Evil Dead' Raimi, the script for this film was co-written by Raimi and the two Coens. It has to be said that it doesn't show. The film is an over-the-top slapstick mess. Reed Birney's character gets further and further implicated for crimes committed by the rat-like exterminator brothers until he is eventually rescued from the electric chair by the last-minute intervention of his girlfriend. Look elsewhere for social satire or a witty script; all you will find here is a tired rehash of the Evil Dead formula. The Coens have remained good friends with Raimi - he has a cameo in Miller's Crossing, and, along with Campbell, has a small role in The Hudsucker Proxy - but it has to be said that it's fortunate that this was the last time his influence on their work was detectable1.
Features a cameo from Bruce 'Hudsucker Proxy' Campbell.
Raising Arizona (1986)
The Coens return to slapstick, though this time in their own style. The result is a huge improvement on Crimewave. HI 'Hi' McDunnough, a petty crook, and his barren wife Ed, a policewoman, kidnap one of the quints born to hugely wealthy Nathan Arizona. Arizona offers a reward, and the McDunnoughs then become the target for more ruthless (though no more competent) criminals Gale and Evelle, suspicious relatives and the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, who may be a figment of Hi's imagination or may be his long-lost brother.
The film has a light, cartoonish style, far removed from Blood Simple, yet also an artistic flair to much of the cinematography. In this way, it could be said that this is the first 'true' Coens film.
Frances McDormand crops up again, and John Goodman makes his first appearance in a Coen film. Nicholas Cage stars.
Miller's Crossing (1989)
The Coens enter Godfather territory. More complex and less humorous than Blood Simple, this is a film that will still have you scratching your head over the plot twists after repeated viewings. Despite that, it remains one of their best and most cinematic efforts. Gabriel Byrne's advice to his Mafia boss to avoid a gang war is ignored, so he switches sides (possibly), is betrayed (or betrays) his boss's girlfriend's brother (while also sleeping with said boss's girlfriend) and has to deal with the chief of police and his new employer's suspicious bodyguard, Eddie the Dane. In amongst all that, the Coens also produce not one but three of the best cinema sequences of all time (the assassination attempt on Leo to the tune of 'Danny Boy' and the walk into the woods - twice!). Steve Buscemi appears and is killed and buried in the woods, setting something of a trend for later films. Byrne's hat is clearly significant, but no-one is quite sure what of.
Steve Buscemi, in his apparent mission to appear in every independent American film, starts a long and fruitful association with the Coens. John Turturro will become another regular, while Frances McDormand is already well established. Jon Polito gives a memorable performance as Caspar.
The hat, rolling across the ground, was seen by many as intensely symbolic. When asked what the hat might mean, the Coens replied simply: 'We don't know...'
Barton Fink (1991)
Allegedly suffering from writers' block during the making of Miller's Crossing, the Coens produced... a script about writers' block! Not only that, but in doing so they produced the only film to have won Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival2, making this their most critically-acclaimed film. An arty, metaphorical, incomprehensible script may or may not involve a literal descent into hell. Steve Buscemi appears and, presumably, is burnt to death when fire destroys the hotel.
New York writer Barton Fink (who bears more than a passing resemblance to the Coens) is persuaded by his agent to travel to Hollywood to write for the movies. Booking into the Hotel Earle, he finds himself cut off from 'the common man', his inspiration, and cannot write for the wrestling B-movie he has been assigned.
Sound is particularly important in this film; from the reception bell that takes forever to fade into silence, to the noises through the walls that are the only indication we have of the existence of other guests at the Hotel Earle (aside from their shoes outside the doors). Even Fink's play is never seen by the viewer, only heard being performed off-camera (except, in deliberate irony, the stage-hand crying 'fresh fish', who is the only performer not seen by the play's audience and the only part of the play seen by the film's audience).
The film repeatedly plays with ennui and distraction. Fink watches the wallpaper peeling in his room. Later, as Charlie Meadows comes round, they both watch the same paper peeling again. When it gets too boring for the audience, the Coens throw in a dead body, just to liven things up! Fink, of course, deals with this by going into shock and staring at his feet. For all Fink's talk of 'theatre of and from and for the common man', he has not the slightest idea of what that means - his New York friends all wear dinner jackets, and he doesn't listen to a word Charlie Meadows says. He can't even understand what is required of him in writing a wrestling movie until another writer puts it into literary terms ('a simple morality tale') for him.
The Coens have always enjoyed repeating themselves, but perhaps never so much as in this film. Fink's writers' block is indicated perfectly by his film script echoing nearly word-for-word the closing phrases of his smash-hit stage play that we saw at the start of the film. At one stage he even opens the Bible and sees only the text of his own play. The 'dailies'3 Fink is shown to demonstrate the wrestling movie consist of the same shot repeated time and again. Charlie Meadows/'Madman' Mundt repeats Fink's 'life of the mind' line. Ultimately, of course, Fink seems to retreat to a more literal 'life of the mind' as he encounters on the beach the woman in the photo on his hotel-room wall. Is this all a hallucination? Has the Hollywood system finally broken him and sent him over the edge?
John Turturro, John Goodman, Jon Polito and Steve Buscemi all cement their credentials with a second appearance in a Coens film. This film marks cinematographer Roger Deakins' first association with the Coens; he has worked as their Director of Photography on all of their films since.
Did you Spot...?
The lower row of decorations on the colonel's uniform hangs from one end in one shot, but has fixed itself moments later.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Next on the Coen's hitlist of homilies were the feel good films of Frank Capra. For complex reasons, the board of Hudsucker Industries decide to hire an idiot to replace their founder as chairman. Enter Norville Barnes, with his circle sketched on a piece of paper, and investigative reporter Amy Archer, straight out of His Girl Friday. Steve Buscemi serves juice and coffee (but not Martinis) and apparently survives. Meanwhile, a good janitor and an evil janitor fight for the soul of the company...
Steve Buscemi is starting to look very familiar to Coens fans by now. Tim Robbins and Paul Newman star alongside Jennifer Jason-Leigh.
Norville's frequent claim that his invention (the hoola-hoop) is 'y'know... for kids!'
Did you Spot...?
Unlikely as it may seem, the fat woman on Barnes' left at the party is the woman that broke Waring Hudsucker's heart. Check out his suicide note for the clue.
Intellectually challenged car salesman Jerry tries to extricate himself from a financial hole by having his own wife kidnapped. Naturally, things spiral out of control and it's left to very pregnant cop Marge Gunderson to sort out the bodies. Meanwhile the snow falls, giving the Coens the chance to film some great white-backgrounded shots (including the opening) and Steve Buscemi is murdered and fed into a wood-chipper. For a brief moment, the Oscars yawn sleepily, hand out a couple of minor gongs, and then return to dreaming of $100-million epics. Someone actually took seriously the Coen's claim that this film was based on real events, forcing them to admit that it wasn't. A recent press report claims that one fan of the film froze to death searching for the suitcase full of money lost (à la Psycho) and forgotten about in the snow.
Fargo is a great stand-alone thriller, stripped of most of the Coens usual absurdities, but retaining their love of human characters. The slightly dim set of characters (even Marge, the sleuth who figures it all out, always gives the Columbo-like impression of constantly guessing) are presented with a genuine characterisation that helped to convince most of the audience that this really was a true story.
Steve Buscemi shows up again, as does Oscar-winning Francis McDormand. William H Macy dunnit.
'Kinda funny-lookin'' and 'Yah'... The sound of a warning bell for an unfastened seat-belt also punctuates many scenes.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Jeff 'The Dude' Lebowski has his carpet soiled by a pair of thugs who have mistaken him for millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski. Attempting to have his rug replaced, the Dude finds German nihilists, kidnapped heiresses, modern art and a mysterious VW-driving PI (rather like the one in Blood Simple) in serious danger of interrupting his bowling. All he needs to do is work out if anyone actually has been kidnapped, prevent his best friend from restarting Vietnam, and stop Jesus from winning the bowling.
As if flirting with the Oscars wasn't bad enough, the Coens nearly manage a commercial blockbuster. Based on The Big Sleep, only with more nymphomaniacs and green varnish. And an iron lung. Steve Buscemi dies of a heart attack and is cremated and scattered (theoretically over the bay, but mostly over The Dude).
A good one for the Johns, with John Goodman, John Turturro, Jon Polito and Steve Buscemi (who always has to be different). Jeff Bridges stars.
Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Another confusing title4 for another film based loosely on an older story, this time The Odyssey. George Clooney leads a prison breakout, accidentally forms a band of one-hit wonders called The Soggy Bottom Boys and journeys home to stop his wife from leaving him. En route, his motley ensemble of backing-singers-cum-fellow-convicts come across singing washer-women (who turn one of them into a frog), corrupt politicians, an unnamed secret society with more than a passing resemblance to the Ku Klux Klan, and a very large man with one eye. There's even a hint of buried treasure for good measure. As with Barton Fink and Raising Arizona, there is a chance that the devil appears in this film.
By basing this film on Homer's The Odyssey, the Coens are also giving a nod to James Joyce's book Ulysses, which is also based (more metaphorically) upon the Greek legend. Their usual stately, simplistic opening shot is missing, replaced by a series of memorable early vistas; for example, the three convicts, still chained together, appearing and disappearing into the cornfield. Perhaps this absence of the traditional opening indicates a continuity from the previous film; Oh Brother and Big Lebowski share a lighthearted style that the Coens have made their own since Raising Arizona.
Tim Blake Nelson does his own singing while John Turturro mimes. Holly Hunter and John Goodman reappear, alongside George Clooney.
The folk-blues soundtrack to this film won a Grammy, and was successful enough to spawn a spin-off live concert and CD called Down From the Mountain.
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
A dull barber who no-one ever remembers accidentally kills his wife's boss. Just when you've figured out that this is another film noir, his wife is accused of the crime and it becomes a court procedural. Then a mixture of Billy Elliot, Lolita, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Dead Man Walking ensues. By the end, people still don't remember the barber, but he knows most of their haircuts. The only man with a non-standard haircut turns out to be wearing a wig. The only innocent is the slimy salesman who you were convinced was a con-man. The Cannes jury give a half-share in a Best Director award, while Uncle Oscar snoozed on regardless.
As with Blood Simple, the instantly noticeable thing about this film is its style. TMWWT is filmed to look as though it was made in the 1940s. It is black-and-white, with very little camera movement and no fast editing. Even the acting seems to owe more to the expressive 1940s style than the more realistic method styles.
A case could be made that if Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? was based upon Homer's Odyssey, this film is based more loosely still upon Joyce's Ulysses; the sudden changes between styles and genres within the film mirrors the central conceit of Joyce's book.
Jon Polito, Francis McDormand. Billy Bob Thornton makes his Coens debut.
Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Slightly less screwball that the Coen's usual rom-coms, Intolerable Cruelty showed some signs of creeping mainstreamism in the Coens' canon. For instance, the Coens have displaced their signature surreal opening shot for a more usual pre-credit sequence, followed by an elaborate animated credit sequence, and only then are we introduced to a close-up of George Clooney's teeth under UV light.
The plot concerns rivalry and romance between a successful but jaded divorce lawyer and a professional gold-digger. This was the first time that the Coens had worked with a script written by someone else, although they are believed to have extensively rewritten it (the film is credited to Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Robert Ramsay, Matthew Stone and John Romano).
There is a running joke throughout the film concerning a pre-nuptial agreement that is repeatedly signed and torn up, accompanied by excalmations of 'Darling - you're exposed!' The Massey Pre-Nup is a good example of the Coen's love of a MacGuffin (Hitchcock's term for an object such as a suitcase full of money, a bomb or a secret file that is introduced solely to drive the plot). Other Coen MacGuffins would include the Red Letter from The Hudsucker Proxy, the stash o' cash from Fargo and the baby from Raising Arizona.
Further humour is derived from PI Gus Petch's catchphrase 'I'm gonna nail yo' ass!'
Billy-Bob Thornton is cast against type as an actor playing a wealthy Texan dupe. George Clooney cements his Coen credentials with a second lead role, opposite Catherine Zeta-Jones. The improbably-named Cedric the Entertainer takes on a supporting role, as does Geoffrey Rush.
The Ladykillers (2004)
The Coen's first and (so far) only remake. Coming hard on the heels of Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers was another mainstream rom-com with an A-list star, and was a second consecutive film to have underwhelmed the critics. The Ladkillers suffered from comparison with the Alec Guinness original (or perhaps from comparison to the reputation of the original) and lost money at the US box office.
The eponymous lady, Marva Munson, shares her name with the judge from Intolerable Cruelty. A further link between the two movies is the presence of Bruce Campbell in cameo roles.
Tom Hanks provides the glitz for this movie.
No Country for Old Men (2008)
The Coens' 2008 offering was something of a welcome (and much-needed) return to form, after a couple of critical flops, winning two Golden Globes - for Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Javier Bardem - and four Oscars, including Best Film and Best Director, from its eight nominations. The plot is adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, and will be familiar territory to Coens fans, being highly reminiscent of their previous 'straight' noirs; the Texan location and cat-and-mouse between assassin and hunted who never see each-other could have been taken from Blood Simple, and the suitcase-full-of-money MacGuffin is straight out of Fargo or Raimi's A Simple Plan.
The film is perhaps most notable for what it does not show. The plot centres around the fallout from a shootout we (the viewers) never see. One of the main characters dies part-way through the film in another shootout we do not see. The ultimate fates of both the money and another character are strongly hinted at but never directly shown. It is mentioned that there is a hidden floor in an office block, but nothing more is ever said of this. Much of the slow, Texan feel to the film comes from the absence of any incidental music at all in the film, combined with long shots of rolling, scrubby hills.
They seem to have made a point of not including any of their usual cohorts. Tommy Lee Jones appears, and many of the familiar behind-the-scenes names appear on the credits, including that of producer Mike Zoss (whose name also appears in the film on the Zoss Pharmacy). Carter Burwell retains his usual credit for scoring the film, as he has on every Coens movie, despite the absence of any obvious sign of his handiwork prior to the end credits on this occasion.
The Coens have placed themselves firmly in the auteur school with their use of repeated themes throughout their canon. As well as the offbeat sense of humour that has become their trademark, especially in their more recent films, other examples include;
The 1930s and 40s
Most obviously, several films are set during this period. Miller's Crossing is set during Prohibition, Barton Fink is set in 1941, The Hudsucker Proxy in 1958/1959 and Oh Brother during the Depression. Of their other films, almost all are stylistically similar to the films of that period, especially film noir - The Big Lebowski is a very loose remake of The Big Sleep and Fargo, Blood Simple and No Country For Old Men have strong noirish elements. This reached its pinnacle with The Man Who Wasn't There, which looks as though it was filmed in the 1940s.
Repeated Scenes and Dialogue
The Coens derive much of their humour from repeating themselves, especially in a different context. Many of their characters have catchphrases or mannerisms: Hi's 'That son-bitch' in Raising Arizona; Marge Gunderson's 'Oh yah?' in Fargo; The Dude's habit of repeating other people's phrases (President Bush's 'this aggression will not stand' and Maude Lebowski's 'in the parlance of our times,' for example); and almost everyone working at The Hud.
It doesn't end with dialogue or humour, though. There are two near-identical suicide attempts in The Hudsucker Proxy (Waring Hudsucker's and an anonymous board-member's). In the same film, Norville Barnes repeats Mussberger's words to show his lack of understanding and his own words to show his lack of ideas. Even as early as Blood Simple, Abby's dream of Marty returning her 'weapon' seems almost prescient.
Perhaps the most effective repetition in a Coens film is not done for humorous effect though. The two walks Gabriel Byrne is forced to make into the woods are outstanding moments in the Coens' and Byrne's careers. In the same film, Bernie Bernbaum's failure to put any conviction into his second plea to 'Look into your heart' probably costs him his life. See also Barton Fink for a note on the various uses of repetition in that film, easily their most repetitious.
The Opening Shot
The Coens believe firmly in sucking their audience into a film right from the first frame, whether it be the whiteout that opens Fargo, the car slowly coming into view and giving a sense of scale, or the gently spinning barbers pole of TMWWT.
Production is underway on the Coens' next film, Burn After Reading. Like Intolerable Cruelty, this will feature George Clooney, alongside John Makovitch and Frances McDormand. A certain Brad Pitt will receive his screen debut (well, his screen debut in a Coens movie anyway) in this comedy featuring the CIA. Pairing Pitt and Clooney will, of course, invite comparisons with the highly successful Ocean's Eleven series of heist movies. Joel has described this film as 'about the culture of the Central Intelligence Agency and the culture of physical fitness in Washington DC and what happens when those two worlds collide. It’s also about Internet dating.'
They will follow this with A Serious Man, which is described in the same interview as 'a movie about a Jewish community in the Midwest in 1967'.
A third project currently in development is Suburbicon, being directed by George Clooney from a script by the Coens. It's a comedy due for release in 2009 - little else has been revealed about this project.
The Coens have also moved into production with John Tuturro's Romance and Cigarettes and Bad Santa starring Billy-Bob Thornton.
Aside from the themes detailed above, there is an underlying kookiness to the Coens' films that makes them instantly recognisable. From the surrealism of the drug-induced dream sequences in The Big Lebowski through to their fascination with human reactions - Jean simply staring as a balaclava'd man stalks up to her house, and only reacting when he smashes through the window in Fargo - it is this that makes any Coen brothers film a delight to watch. They revel in ordinary-looking bystanders, rather than the glamorous extras we are used to seeing hanging around every Hollywood street corner. Their use of surreal images or arty, lingering shots of the utterly normal have become almost their trademark, from the topless woman flying through the air in Lebowski (on a trampoline, it turns out) to the dripping tap that is the last thing the PI sees in Blood Simple.
Sound is as important as vision. Its uses in Barton Fink have already been noted, and Oh Brother prominently features a pop song. It had not just a Grammy-winning soundtrack album but also a live concert of music from the film recorded for release on CD. Also already noted was the effective use of 'Danny Boy' during a key scene in Miller's Crossing. Music is central once more in The Man Who Wasn't There as ability on the piano springs to the fore, and the absence of incidental music in No Country For Old Men is essential to the atmosphere of the film.
From artistic triumphs like Barton Fink to unusually intelligent yet easily accessible thrillers like Miller's Crossing and Fargo, and from the comic and commercial touches of The Big Lebowski and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, to the moving No Country For Old Men, the Coens have covered an incredible breadth of genres. There are few film styles that they have not touched upon or subverted, and those genres are the poorer for it. Although cheap by Hollywood blockbuster standards, their films are commercially successful without sacrificing quality. The Coens have a nearly unique ability to balance art and commerce, and yet also a remarkable consistency of quality. Whichever of their films you watch, and whether or not it is the first time you have seen it, or indeed whether or not you have seen any of their other films, there will always be something new to see in a Coens film. Empire Magazine once said that 'In a perfect world, all films would be made by the Coen Brothers.' While that may never happen, vive la difference - vive les Coens!