Crime. Thriller. Drama. Comedy. Western. All are well-worn genres in film but it’s rare to have them fit into the same picture, much less mesh together to create a unique film. But this is the signature talent of the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan. As original a pair as their films, this duo have been working together producing some of the most innovative and off-the-wall films to great popular and critical success for over 30 years.
Armed with seemingly encyclopedic knowledge about film history and eager to bend well-worn cinematic conventions and tropes into something never seen before in cinema, the Brothers Coen have repeatedly reconfigured genre stylistics to produce numerous highly entertaining movies and some outright masterpieces. With a penchant to already start at the outer edges of a scenario and let the story spiral out of control from there in the most arresting fashion, it’s important to note that their films never become chaotic or fall apart into nonsense; there’s always a logical (enough) procession from beginning to end, and while they often employ symbolism to provide a grander meaning to their films, no story ever becomes too esoteric for the audience to grasp.
If only their characters could keep a grasp on anything: for some, their emotions, problems, concerns, and sanity are just a few slips away from losing control completely. For others-–the more even-keeled ones–-they function in the Coens’ universe like grounds to keep the more manic elements of their films moored to reality. Sometimes these low-key characters are the protagonist and sometimes the haywire ones are; neither are safe from the left-of-center, off-kilter worlds the Coens create in their films, and often they’re lucky to even survive the story.
The reality their films take place in is an embellished one from ours: hyperreal and kinetic, much like their cinematography, the Coens largely delve into America’s past for a setting and then exaggerate that era’s aesthetic and conventions to create dynamic, ironic stories within, upending audience expectations of the supposedly more innocent past past to reveal that the world’s always been as violent and its denizens as confused and human as they are today.
Their comedies can be surreal and exhilarating while also plumbing the pathos of its characters; their dramas can be dark, violent, and disturbing while also shockingly hilarious. There are few directors who are as dynamic as this pair; their work may even defy categorization. But they capture the dynamism of what the art form of film can be: both explosive and meditative, visually arresting and emotionally evocative, philosophical and frivolous, the Coen Brothers use every trick, technique, and twist in their arsenal to create singular visions.
“I like your style, dude.”
The Coen Brothers are masters of style: in their films, set design, wardrobe, tone, and cinematography relate wordlessly so much of what they’re attempting to say before a single word is spoken. By choosing an active, engaged cinematography for their films, the active frame becomes part of the story and imparts as much meaning as any dialogue; their kinetic camera keeps their movies exciting to watch, where they juxtapose a variety of techniques–from tracking shots to zooms to pans to overhead and low-angle shots–throughout their films to keep the film’s visual grammar active and engaging.
The Coens also never make the same film twice: instead, they are as restless as their camera, jumping from genre to genre and often mixing genres to create innovative new hybrid films that haven’t been made before. Is Fargo a crime thriller or a dark comedy? Is A Serious Man a bleak tragedy or an ironic drama? Is No Country For Old Men a suspenseful drama or a violent crime thriller? The answer to all of these questions is yes.
Dialogue is one of their greatest strengths, often leaning on humorous irony rather than straightforward exposition, as they prefer to show rather than tell important information. Instead, serious characters can come across as glib (think Marge from Fargo) while characters meant to be comic relief instead speak with grave intonation (like Walter from The Big Lebowski). Intonation is key in their stylistic: both screwball comedy and film noir conventions play heavily in their dialogue, with characters speaking like femme fatales and hard-boiled gumshoes from the 1940’s or fast-talking con men and reporters from screwball comedies. But more often than not, everyone speaks somewhat foolishly, and those that actually speak deeply are speaking Cassandra truths or else waxing philosophic long after any of it would make a difference.
This is also another trick that succeeds more often than not in the Coens’ work: paradoxical characters and reversed expectations. The supposedly strong and brave are quickly made out to be scared cowards; the seemingly naive are smarter than they initially come across; hicks carry sage wisdom and hidden depths; leaders are actually easily fooled puppets; the smart are blind; and the morally dubious may have a better understanding of the larger cosmic forces that seem to guide our fates than those who put on airs of moral superiority and pick an absolute path.
Perhaps their greatest strength–which goes hand-in-hand with the restless cinematographic techniques they employ in their work–is the ability to create and sustain sharp tonal shifts as a way to create a rhythm in their films. From masterful sequences that (again) show exposition rather than speak it plainly in Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy to the intentionally restrained pacing and tones of No Country For Old Men, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, and Fargo, which have long gaps of either silence, innocuous scenes, or meditative bridges before exploding into violence, the Coen Brothers excel at creating a rhythm in their films that both entrances the audience and provides urgency to the story being told. There are few dull moments in their work, and even if there is a quiet moment, you can be sure there will be an active one soon to follow–and most likely an unexpected one, at that.
Postmodern Irony and America’s Past
“Now the future, you never can tell about. But the past–that’s a whole other story.” – The Hudsucker Proxy
What’s fascinating about the Coen Brothers’ films, at least from a nationalistic standpoint, is how uniquely American both their films and subject matter are: in the 17 movies they’ve made up to this point, all of them have not only taken place in America, but all but 4 have been period pieces, taking place at some specific point and geographical location in its past. They are as interested in the history and culture of America as they are in the stories they tell and characters they depict. In fact, these historical and geographical locations inform the story and characters that are being detailed in them.
But the Coens are not necessarily interested in documenting the past accurately: their interest lies in exploiting the expectations of their audience of a generalized, nostalgic version of the past–one where people were decent and treated each other kindly, morality and social order were the guiding forces of people’s behavior, and life was much better and easier than it is today. The Coens subvert these assumptions in their work to great effect, reminding their audiences that murders and adultery still occurred, people were as cynical as they are today, and life was never fair no matter what era in America you lived in.
This is postmodern revisionist history in the most entertaining version of such a controversial concept: to transgress the nostalgic image of the past and make it akin to contemporary modality. While the difficulty of postmodernism as it is academically used today is that it may lead to dangerous conclusions of an ahistorical perspective, when employed in fiction and film it can lead to dynamic new narratives.
The Coens understand this all too well, framing their films through a postmodern lens where the supposedly wholesome past retains its aesthetic while previously unassociated behaviors and character types perform within this context. Think of the disconnected and cynical characters in The Man Who Wasn’t There and the 1950s suburban trappings of that film–adultery, malfeasance, murder, suicide, and a general nihilistic perspective are all major attributes of the film’s plot, and when placed in the supposedly placid, booming decade of 1950s America it creates a new perspective of that era that hadn’t been considered before. It’s not to say that these things weren’t present in that decade, but that they were never explicitly depicted in films from that era or in the generalized, stereotypical image many hold of that period of time.
Perhaps a better way to explain the Coens’ postmodern perspective is their application of neo-noir stylistics in genres that haven’t been associated with its style: Barton Fink, itself a film that defies easy categorization, could be seen as a neo-noir film, with its dramatic dark tone, plot elements of being a mystery thriller (complete with a murder of a woman in trouble, a police investigation, and one character being a murderer), urban location, and overall dark view of humanity. Even an outright comedy like The Big Lebowski is heavily imbued with neo-noir elements, making it a rare comedy noir film.
The Coen Brothers & Philosophy
“Daylight is a dream if you’ve lived with your eyes closed.” – Barton Fink
Many Coen Brothers characters are guided by a philosophy of one sort or another: whether it’s Hi in Raising Arizona relating his dreams and desires in voice-over to the audience, Ed Crane’s laconic indifferent observations of his own life in The Man Who Wasn’t There, the diametrically opposed ethics of No Country For Old Men’s Sheriff Bell–who ruminates nostalgically of what he considers a more moral past–and the hardlined, nihilistic Anton Chigurh, who holds his own terrifying code of honor, The Big Lebowski’s The Dude with his Taoist acceptance of the yin-yang push and pull of the universe, or Fargo’s Marge, a moral character in an amoral world who finds joy in the little things.
What the Coens’ own philosophies are is never made evident in their work since they never speak explicitly of their own philosophies: instead, they place that on their characters, using them as conduits to express various ethical and moral perspectives.
There are some overarching themes in their films: free will vs. determinism, nihilism, personal ethics, and existential issues are all approached in their films, sometimes dominating the plot: A Serious Man examines faith and nihilism and whether either have any true effect on one’s life; The Man Who Wasn’t There is a man experiencing an existential crisis, a sort of twisted American version of Camus’ The Stranger; No Country For Old Men depicts free will vs. determinism in bleak terms, while The Hudsucker Proxy also addresses this dichotomy only in a comedic manner; Fargo examines the effects of ethics upon one’s life, decidedly arguing that while acting unethically may have short-term gains, as long as there are people fighting for justice, one will have to face the consequences of their actions. Interestingly, No Country For Old Man argues just the opposite: no matter how much one fights for justice, there’s too much evil in the world and it will continue to evolve and outmaneuver the righteous, mostly because the wicked will always be willing to perform acts of violence and villainy that would never even occur to the good people of the world.
And perhaps there is no meaning to their films: maybe the philosophical notions they imbue their characters with are to create either motivations for their characters or as a device to create an internal logic in their films. The Hudsucker Proxy is an excellent example of this: seemingly all major actions that occur in the film to make the plot unfold are fate-driven. From Norville Barnes’ coffee mug creating a circle around the entry level position job at Hudsucker Industries to him being selected to go deliver the “Blue Letter” to Mussburger on his first day–the same day Waring Hudsucker commits suicide–to the chain of events in Mussburger’s office that leads Norville to being selected as the proxy president of the company, all the way to the end where said “Blue Letter” is rediscovered at the last minute, which guarantees Barnes’ continued position as president of Hudsucker Industries. There’s even a magical janitor that stops time to save Barnes from dying as he falls from the 44th floor of Hudsucker headquarters, where he addresses the audience directly and says he’s not supposed to do this, but nobody else had a better idea. To drive this notion of divine fate that guides this film’s plot, the angel of Waring Hudsucker comes down to advise Barnes what to do.
While this film explicitly makes the plot fate-driven, this shouldn’t be taken as a philosophical statement but a device the Brothers Coen use to make the plot function–just as the suggested nihilism of No Country For Old Men isn’t meant to be an ultimate statement of their personal philosophies or how they view the world–it’s just how that particular world seems to work. The same goes for The Big Lebowski, a film driven by coincidence and mirrored characters–both Lebowskis are complete opposites of each other and are only pulled together in this universe based on mistaken identity. Are we to conclude that fate was involved or that it’s a random coincidence? The Coens seem to view The Dude as a character who just goes with the flow and doesn’t struggle over any particular philosophical quandaries; as a result, the film itself is relatively meaningless. But it’s an enjoyable meaninglessness, and that’s all that seems to matter sometimes to the Coen Brothers. Barton Fink is just the opposite: it’s a film that posits a great number of philosophical ideas that all dangle like loose strings by the end without any answer given. Does it make the film meaningless if there’s no answer provided at the end?
I would suggest that 1) no, of course not, and 2) the Coens aren’t attempting to answer any questions but create narratives that explore a great number of ideas without necessarily needing to affix meaningful answers to any of them–their films generate new concepts and situations that hadn’t been explored before, and it’s up to the audience to find the potential meaning in them. Perhaps this make the Coens existential filmmakers more than anything.
Perfect (American) Directors
“We grew up in America, and we tell American stories in American settings with American frames of reference.” – Ethan Coen
And while we could continue to examine and investigate the many facets and features of the Coens films, let’s instead ponder the issues and ideas raised in this essay. For this writer, the Coen Brothers are perfect filmmakers because they want nothing more than to make the interesting and genre-bending pictures they do, and what they have produced so far is no less some of the most unique films in modern cinema. They are perfect filmmakers because above any philosophical, ethical, or even artistic motive, they create films their way, in their own style, and accomplish what they set out to do more often than not. Sometimes they even create masterpieces.
Not only are they perfect filmmakers, but they are possibly the most quintessential American filmmakers one could imagine: all of their films are about the individualistic characters, various (and often contradicting) attitudes, and determined inventiveness that this country and its people hold as ideals. Their interest in the history of America and efforts to explore and replicate them on-screen is admirable, as is their unique postmodern retelling of the American story.
And like America, they continually reinvent themselves with every movie, each one a new challenge–to paraphrase JFK, not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Being restless, working hard, and looking for a new challenge was once a popular ideal in America, and one this country should take up once again. The Coen brothers are emblematic of this ideal, and maybe that’s why they’re so successful in their enterprise.