When going to see a film that’s made by an auteur, it’s a good idea to get to know their filmography. Familiarising yourself with certain directors’ styles, themes, motifs and iconography ensures a more in-depth understanding and appreciation for what you’re about to see. You may notice things you would have missed had you not learnt them to be a recurrence in their work. Or perhaps understand what would otherwise be a nonsensical in that specific directors’ story.
That said, the Coen brothers- Joel and Ethan, have distinguished themselves greatly as American filmmakers. Starting out with smaller (but nonetheless remarkable) productions such as Raising Arizona (1987) and Millers Crossing (1990), the pair rose to the bigger budget of Hail, Caesar! (2016). This was on account of their expertise marking them in the field. Their newest film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, teases a star-studded cast of James Franco, Liam Neeson and Brendan Gleeson. Famous faces have always appeared as a trademark for the brothers’ films, frequently turning back to the trusted performances of Francis McDormand, John Goodman, George Clooney, Steve Buscemi and Jeff Bridges.
But what else makes it a Coen brothers movie? You’ll see most notably in this list the repetition of comedic elements- usually sprung from randomness or misfortune. Crime and (brutal) punishment. The journey and downfall of ‘average’ people. Camera/editing and a means to convey narrative. And distinct settings that act almost as characters themselves.
5.) A Serious Man (2009)
Starring Michael Stuhlbarg as the Jewish physics professor Larry Gopnik, this slightly lower-budget movie follows the typical Coen brothers’ story of an everyday mans journey through seemingly never-ending turmoil. Whether it’s his wife leaving, his unemployed brother moving in or his chances of tenure slipping further and further away, none of what Stuhlbarg suffers is fair. It’s this idea- the ‘undeserved’ punishment, that runs as an undercurrent to many Coen films. And it is this that often gives it humour.
As Stuhlbarg’s desperation grows, so do his measures of solving his problems. Visiting three different rabbis (each equally useless and entertaining to watch), before accepting his fate as a doomed man, the Coen brothers cleverly evoke a dark comedic note to the tragedies of this ‘serious man’. The peculiar behaviour of those around him subject our protagonist to a constant state of bewilderment. He remains as ‘weirded out’ by the randomness around him as the audience is, evoking a personal connection to Stuhlbarg.
This off-beat, humorous and sleekly filmed artwork is definitely worth a watch when looking for something a little less action packed, SGI Hollywood blockbuster. It’s sincerer, unpredictably funny and has a lot of heart.
4.) True Grit (2010)
The Coen brothers remake of this 1969 original is an example of how the pair are able to adapt their skill into any genre. This vengeful Western drama follows 14-year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who hires drunk accomplice Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track her fathers’ killer. The deserted west is no stranger to the Coen’s location scouting, but the 1873 setting gives them a little more to play with in terms of atmosphere and aesthetic. It must be noted the flawless performance young Hailee gives as the feisty protagonist. Joel and Ethan give Hailee room to take centre stage of her feature debut, rather than side-lining her to focus on more a marketable cast of Matt Damon and Josh Brolin.
Clear themes of revenge, judgement, gender and the American vision are set out in the characters literal and metaphorical journey. It refreshing to see a (teenage) female character lead as a smart, independent protagonist not in the romance or comedy genre. And also without being overly exaggerated to the point it’s empowering message becomes suffocating. Instead, the Coen’s direct Hailee to own the movie naturally in a narrative based on the balance of mortality.
It may not be the most obvious of Coen movies- what without the eccentric characters and bouts of randomness. Nonetheless it’s a classic and well-made adaption that’s good at easing you in to the world of the Coens (if perhaps you’re unaccustomed to the oddball genre).
3.) The Big Lebowski (1998)
Being so iconic there’s a legitimate religion formed after the protagonist’s lifestyle (‘Dudeism, as it’s dubbed), you’ve no doubt heard of this cult movie at some point. Flip flops, long hair and a White Russian ring any bells? Jeff Lebowski aka. ‘The Dude’, is your definition of laid-back. It’s this that gives Coens screwball stoner movie it’s memorable essence. Los Angeles acting as the perfect geographical reflection of The Dude himself, Joel and Ethan once again show their talent at sculpting both setting and character marvellously into one symbolical whole. After a visit from two gunmen, The Dude hunts down the true Lebowski he was mistaken for in a revengeful plot to steal a rug. Yes. That’s right. A rug. This leads The Dude on a humorous journey, made even funnier by the triviality of his pursuit, that forefronts many a life-threatening misunderstanding that The Dude seems completely unphased by.
I found myself being to some extent jealous of Lebowski’s passivity, excellently portrayed by Jeff Bridges, wishing I could stroll through life with such blissful ease. The other characters that surround The Dude are equally as unique. There’s the almost bipolar Vietnam veteran Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), extreme art feminist Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore) and the tightly screwed butler Brant (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
The Coen brothers establishes their trademark imagination through these one-of a kind caricatures, that when put together end up in some hilariously unimaginable situations. Though the ludicrous plot is enough to entertain the audience, it’s the characters that really bring this hit indie flick to life. Not to mention the psychedelic dream sequence, reminiscent of the 1940’s Dumbo animation, being pure Coen brothers craftsmanship.
2.) Fargo (1996)
Fargo has gained such recognition over the years it has since been adapted into a critically-acclaimed TV series. With three seasons that harbour a star-cast of Ewan McGregor, Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton and Kirsten Dunst, the TV version generally maintains its original Fargo-charm. However, it doesn’t quite equate to the original Coen masterpiece (though it’s good in its own, entirely separate way).
We open to a credit sequence that, in another Coen-esque parody, flat out lies to us that ‘this is a true story’. Following this we meet a desperate salesman (yet another prime example of the ‘every man’ suffering blows he doesn’t really deserve) who hires two thugs to ransom him money. A key allegory occurs here: that bad people can get away with bad things because their bad. Good people can’t. We see this time and time again in the Coen brothers movie reel, but here it seems the most potent and, well, entertaining to watch.
Later we meet the likable character of Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a pregnant small-town investigator who adds a sense of normalcy to the otherwise extreme film. She is loving, content with her life and the only character seemingly smart enough to not be running around like a headless chicken. Again, though the plot is humorous and bizarre enough in itself to keep us watching, it’s the characters we fully engage with.
Perhaps the most famous component of Fargo is it’s setting. The icy backdrop that the narrative unfolds within is an important part of the characters identity. Primarily Gunderson with her heavy exaggerated accent. The simplistic, knitted-jumper and family restaurant culture plays an important role in showing how these characters aren’t cut out for the criminal lifestyle. And the whiteness of snow acts as a literal blank canvas for the Coen’s to work with. Contrasting pops of red from blood and clothing are not only aesthetically eye-catching, but add a layer of colour symbolism to the comedic Neo-noir. This box-office smash is what put the Coens on the map, and no wonder!
1.) No Country for Old Men (2007)
Though they may have certain styles that cover their entire filmography, the same certainly cannot be said about genre. In arguably the Coen brothers most acclaimed movie, No Country for Old Men contrasts to Fargo’s wacky, light-hearted approach to crime with another dark, Western thriller. As of True Grit, the west recurs as a key landscape for the Coen brothers. (This is probably from their childhood spent in Minnesota).
It’s been said many times that a film is only ever as good as it’s villain. If that’s true, this must be a pretty damn good movie. Our antagonist Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) dominates every scene with his deep voice, stern expression and iconic captive bolt pistol. The unusual choice of weapon furthers Chigurh’s eerie unreadability, as we remain in a constant state of tension at what he is about to do. Most memorable is the ‘coin toss’ sequence that captivates us with the Coens pure talent for scripting dialogue.
But who’s our protagonist? Joel and Ethan subvert expectation by experimenting with this usually clear-cut narrative component, reminiscent of the Hitchcockian plot twist that shocked us in Vertigo (1958). At the beginning of the film, the audience feel pretty secure in knowing what kind of movie their watching. But with a conclusion that probably takes two viewings to fully understand, we find the message of this intricately designed story is not to do with tracking down of criminals, but the evolution of American society that makes it no longer a country for old men.