BLOOD SIMPLE (1984)
My first experience with a Coen Brothers film was 1998’s THE BIG LEBOWSKI. I must have been somewhere around 17 or 18 at the time, and when I saw it, the film itself had already been out for five or so years. When my longtime friend heard that I had never seen the film, he immediately went home and brought back his worn DVD copy.
Watching the film, I was struck by the sheer originality and audaciousness of the storytelling. I knew that the film had a cult following, but I was totally unprepared for the sheer, batshit-craziness of it all. It was a hell of a cinematic introduction.
Long hailed as two of the finest contemporary directors, Joel and Ethan Coen have carved out a formidable niche for themselves in the world of cinema. Their works are exercises in dichotomy– oftentimes dark and heavy subject matter approached from a wry, comic viewpoint.
This approach has given the Coen Brothers one of the most original voices in filmmaking, and each film has managed to accumulate its own dedicated cult of followers. They often credit their sardonic, intellectually-oriented worldview to their Jewish upbringing in the suburbs outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota by parents who both worked in collegiate academia.
Their mother, Erna, was an art historian at St. Cloud State University while their father served as an economist at the University of Minnesota. Joel arrived first, in 1954, and Ethan followed three years later, in 1957.
Their childhood in the St. Louis Park area, an enclave for Jews and Russians in an otherwise-predominantly Christian state, gave the two brothers something of an outsider’s point of view towards life as well as their art– indeed, their best work often assumes the vantage point of a protagonist at odds against his environment.
The duo is famously averse to critical analysis of their work… they take every opportunity to take the piss out of critics and analysts who assign any of their films with a “deeper meaning”. They no doubt would be quick to dismiss this very video series as a frivolous waste of time; an ill-advised attempt to interpret a filmography that actively defies interpretation.
Nevertheless, the Coens are a major force in American independent film, and their work is very much worth the risk of coming across like a pompous intellectual if it will bring some valuable insight as to to their cinematic legacy.
The Coens became enamored with filmmaking at an early age, making their own homegrown Super8mm movies with neighborhood friends and a camera they bought using their savings from mowing neighbors’ lawns.
Their droll sense of humor, by now their stylistic signature and a major aspect of their cultural appeal, was apparent even at the beginning, judging by such humorously idiosyncratic titles as HENRY KISSINGER, MAN ON THE GO and ZEIMERS IN ZAMBIA.
Upon completing high school, both Joel and Ethan went on to study at Bard College in Massachusetts. From there, Ethan went on to Princeton, while Joel went to New York University and made the short film SOUNDINGS– a project that marked the beginning of a serious pursuit of professional filmmaking.
After graduation, Joel found work as a production assistant on various industrial films and music videos, working his way deeper into the industry until he landed a gig as an assistant editor on a feature film for an enterprising young director. That director was Sam Raimi. The film was 1981’s iconic cult hit, THE EVIL DEAD.
Raimi proved an invaluable ally when it came time for the Coens to develop their own feature, a violent western / neo-noir hybrid titled BLOOD SIMPLE. The title came from a term coined by novelist Dashiell Hammett, used to describe the addled and fearful mindset people are prone to fall into after becoming involved in a violent situation.
The Coens’ felt it a fitting title to bestow on their inky crime thriller about the fatal consequences of infidelity and miscommunication, whose tone took a page from the Raimi playbook by blending lurid pulp and violence with touches of sardonic humor.
The existence of BLOOD SIMPLE. owes a lot to Raimi’s mentorship– in the absence of any connections to studio money, Raimi convinced Joel and Ethan to create a two-minute pitch trailer for the film, featuring THE EVIL DEAD star Bruce Campbell as a man pulling his bloody and broken body along a desolate stretch of highway.
The Coens’ then went door to door, showing neighbors their pitch trailer in the comfort of their own homes, and within a year, they had raised roughly half of their $1.5 million budget– enough to begin production. In the fall of 1982, Joel and Ethan began production of their first feature film, shooting in the Austin and Hutto areas of Texas over the ensuing eight weeks.
BLOOD SIMPLE. illustrates a signature Coen storytelling trope, whereby they take a basic story and layer in a series of plot twists and genre homages to create a wholly original work. While the film’s story story is morbid and dark, the brothers openly acknowledge the sheer absurdity of their scenario and their characters without playing them for laughs.
So too does the cast, who wholly embrace the material and make it even funnier with their convincing, stone-faced performances. For the central role of Abby, the housewife whose affair with her husband’s employee kicks off a series of violent turns, the Coens initially wanted Holly Hunter. She wasn’t available, but she knew someone who could knock it out of the park: her roommate, Frances McDormand.
If only the Coens could have known then how profoundly this fateful little development would shape their professional and personal lives. Not only would her debut performance here mark the beginning of a highly-accomplished acting career, it would also lead directly to her marriage to Joel in 1984.
McDormand’s performance in BLOOD SIMPLE. is a highly memorable one, with a relaxed femininity and syrupy Texan drawl belying a cunning intelligence and a superhuman ability to keep it together under extreme stress. Her character goes against the grain of the era’s gender archetypes, and her razor-tense showdown with M. Emmet Walsh’s antagonist character at the film’s climax serves as a great showpiece for the salty courage and determination that McDormand can convey.
As Abby’s lover and aimless barkeep, Ray, John Getz doesn’t get a lot to say, but his soulful eyes speak volumes about the character. The opposite goes for Dan Hedaya, who chews up every scene he’s in as Julian Marty– an oily, vindictive man who isn’t afraid to get his own hands dirty.
Hedaya is an interesting casting choice, as his physicality seems to lend itself more towards East Coast gangster pictures instead of cowboy neo-noirs, but his casting here echoes the fish-out-of-water sentiments no doubt felt by his directors, a pair of Jewish filmmakers from Minnesota immersing themselves in the country western landscape of deep Texas.
As Visser, the film’s chief antagonist , the aforementioned Walsh strikes at once both a formidable and genial presence. He’s clearly having the time of his life with his jolly, plump cowboy shtick– a characterization that’s rendered chilling by his relentless malevolence in the third act. There’s a reason that Walsh is featured in the film’s promotional material above everyone else– his performance sears its way into your brain.
To create the film’s uncompromising look and carefully-balanced tone, the Coens turned to Director of Photography Barry Sonnenfeld, who would later go on to become a director in his own right. As the legend goes, Joel had met Sonnenfeld during a party, having hit it off quite nicely after discovering they were the only two Jewish people in attendance.
Shooting on 35mm film, Sonnenfeld fills the 1.85:1 frame with warm, strong colors, inky blackness, the lurid glow of neon on a hot desert night, and shocking geysers of crimson blood.
The Coens’ knack for strong imagery is already apparent here, regularly showcasing memorable images that wordlessly reinforce the narrative themes, like the final shot showing Emmet’s dying perspective of the underside of a bathroom sink, light streaming through bullet holes in the wall, or even pools of blood seeping up through a towel hastily thrown over the backseat of a car.
For the most part, the Coens use classical camera movements like dollies and cranes to tell their story. However, these tried-and-true techniques are also used in some instances to convey their subtle sense of humor. One memorable instance finds a dolly shot moving across the top of the bar, towards a drunk man who has fallen asleep and threatens to block the camera’s forward movement.
Instead of cutting, the Coens simply… pop the camera up over him and continue along as if nothing ever happened. This visual inventiveness extends to several creative transition shots, like the one where a camera swings around as McDormand goes from a standing position in the bar to her lying asleep in her bed several miles away, all captured within a single unbroken shot.
Raimi’s influence is even further felt in a handheld shot that races in on the characters at breakneck speed, a technique used quite extensively by Raimi himself in THE EVIL DEAD. Beginning with BLOOD SIMPLE., the Coens also perform the editing themselves under a fictional pseudonym, Roderick Jaynes.
It’s a true testament to the their utter mastery of the craft when they can perform the writing, directing and cutting of a picture without compromising the quality of any part of the process.
The score, composed by Carter Burwell in his first feature-length effort, is appropriately pulpy and lurid. An ominously-spare piano theme is complemented by an electronic synth texture that buzzes with sharpness and malice, while also paying homage to the 70’s slasher thriller sounds pioneered by the likes of John Carpenter.
The exaggerated audio motif of a swirling ceiling fan gives the film’s sonic landscape a rhythmically percussive flavor that draws out our sense of suspense and intrigue. An inspired mix of country, R&B, and Spanish folk music fills out BLOOD SIMPLE.’s soundtrack and reflects the diverse, multicultural landscape of rural Texas.
The Coens’ lifelong fascination with the traditions of American music is modestly referenced for the first time in their work, with the Four Tops’ hit track “It’s The Same Old Song” featuring prominently over several scenes.
There’s a few other “classical Coen tropes” of note, some of which make their first appearance in BLOOD SIMPLE. There’s the moody prologue, set to long shots of the empty landscape while a low-key voiceover in a strong regional dialect muses about the setting and the film’s themes. Many Coen films start this way, a technique that’s no doubt influenced by Billy Wilder’s similar incorporation of the device throughout his own filmography.
BLOOD SIMPLE. also introduces the Coens’ penchant for positioning their protagonists as middle class men and women; common folk who are able to provide a street-level view of the action and sit comfortably between the desperation of poverty and the complacency of wealth while observing and commenting on the absurdities of either station.
This conceit manifests visually via the iconography of Americana– BLOOD SIMPLE. prominently features images of uniquely American brands like Converse sneakers, Miller High Life beer, and Cadillac cruisers. Despite the film’s self-seriousness, the Coens indulge every opportunity to playfully subvert our genre expectations.
The recurring image of fish rotting on a desk while hiding Visser’s easily identifiable and forgotten lighter is about as literal as red herrings come. BLOOD SIMPLE. plays like an early version of the Coens’ Oscar-winning masterpiece, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN— both films are sparse on dialogue, and heavy on atmosphere.
Some of BLOOD SIMPLE.’s most memorable sequences, such as the infamous “live burial” scene, contain no dialogue whatsoever. Beyond the tone and the rural Texas setting, the similarities include the use of sound effects as a suspense-generating device, or the sudden, premature death of the male protagonist.
Both are brooding crime dramas, although NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN enjoys the benefits of nearly two decades of professional filmmaking experience and sells its seriousness quite readily. The grit of BLOOD SIMPLE., on the other hand, feels slightly forced… Almost over-compensatory.
That being said, BLOOD SIMPLE. is still an extremely effective thriller and a striking debut film, made all the more special by the careers that the Coens have cultivated for themselves in the years since.
The finished film was turned down by every major Hollywood studio, but it proved to be a big hit on the festival circuit, taking home the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and winning Best Director and Best Male Lead categories at the Independent Spirit Awards.
After its selection into the New York Film Festival, the Coens inked a deal with Circle Films to distribute the film around the US. The small box office returns were to be expected, but the Coens most likely did not anticipate how much the film would resonate with critics.
BLOOD SIMPLE. has enjoyed a particularly healthy after-market life, with a retooled director’s cut premiering at the 1998 Austin Film Festival to wide acclaim, and a full restoration being performed in 2015. Typical of the Coens’ preternatural ability to defy expectation, their director’s cut actually clocks in at three minutes shorter than their original version, thanks to tighter edits and some shots that were dropped altogether.
With BLOOD SIMPLE., the Coens had established themselves as a formidable new force in the realm of independent cinema.
RAISING ARIZONA (1987)
For their follow-up, the Coens approached Circle Films with a long-gestating script of theirs titled “The Hudsucker Proxy”. The anticipated budget proved too high for Circle to reasonably cover, however, so the Coens turned their attention to a much smaller and more realistic idea. Influenced by the madcap capers of Preston Sturges, they wanted their second feature to be almost the polar opposite of BLOOD SIMPLE.’s moody tone–in other words, they wanted to make a zany, live-action cartoon that would illustrate the comedic side of their artistic identity.
Armed with a significantly higher budget than their last go-round (about $5 million), the Coens ventured back out into the high deserts of the American southwest for a 10-week shoot that would result in 1987’s RAISING ARIZONA. Well aware of the phenomenon of “the sophomore slump”, the Coens poured as much style, energy, and pure eye candy as they could into their second large-scale effort, and would come out the other end with a divisive heist comedy that demonstrated the sheer breadth of their directorial range.
Thanks to the critical success of BLOOD SIMPLE., the Coens were able to secure an eclectic group of fairly well-known faces for RAISING ARIZONA. With his ridiculous mutton-chops and meth-head stare, a young Nicolas Cage is perfectly cast as career screw-up H.I. McDonnough. Cage has acquired something of a reputation as a problem collaborator, but there’s no denying his actions come from a place of unbridled passion and eccentric conviction.
The Coens reportedly had a tense, yet respectful, working relationship with Cage, who would grow frustrated when they declined to consider the various ideas he kept bringing to the table. The role of H.I.’s wife, a sweet police officer named Edwina, was written specifically for Holly Hunter, who finally made herself available to work with the Coens after turning them down for BLOOD SIMPLE.
She’s a great foil for Cage, with a reserved nature that helps keep the film grounded and makes her eventual breakdown into hysterics even funnier. Together, this oddball pair transforms into a couple of folk heroes, out to right what they perceive to the natural injustices of the world– like, say, the local furniture tycoon’s wife giving birth to quintuplets when she herself can’t bear any.
John Goodman is a common fixture throughout the Coens’ work, and he makes his first appearance in their filmography here as Gale Snoats, an old friend of H.I.’s who has sprung himself out prison along with his younger brother Evelle, played by William Forsythe. Together, these two serve up as much trouble for our two leads as they do laughter for the audience.
Randall “Tex” Cobb plays a wild bounty hunter named Leonard Smalls, or to put it another way, The Lone Horseman Of The Apocalypse. Looking like he’s just walked off the set of THE ROAD WARRIOR, Cobb is a fierce presence that puts the fear of God in people’s hearts as he tears through the desert on his chopper.
The character is cartoonishly over-the-top, all fire and brimstone, but he works well within the film because he’s meant to be a manifestation of McDonnough’s own outlandish imagination. A few familiar faces from BLOOD SIMPLE. return, albeit in smaller cameo roles. Frances McDormand shows up briefly as Dot, a chatty friend of Ed’s with a plentiful supply of overbearing motherly advice.
M. Emmett Walsh also appears as a fellow worker at the steel drilling plant where H.I. is employed. His face may be covered in grime, but that unmistakable laugh of his cuts through the clutter of noisy machinery like a laser. The characters’ florid dialogue style marks a stark departure from the gruff spareness of BLOOD SIMPLE., which was engineered by the Coens to be a mix of the local Arizonian dialect and the particular language tics they’d absorb from their reading material– namely, magazines and the Bible.
The Coens re-team with Barry Sonnenfeld to create a distinctly different look for RAISING ARIZONA, which speaks to their ability to handle diverse visual styles and camerawork. Whereas BLOOD SIMPLE. was all pervading darkness and wells of concentrated light, RAISING ARIZONA’s 1.85:1 35mm film image is brightly lit and obscenely saturated with color like a Tex Avery cartoon.
The brothers frame the action much wider this time around, with a deep focus that highlights an exaggerated theatricality to returning production designer Jane Mursky’s sets. The camerawork is exceedingly more dynamic than BLOOD SIMPLE.’s, showcasing the Coens’ technical dexterity and brilliance via sweeping crane and dolly shots and frenetic action sequences laced with slapstick humor.
The influence of Sam Raimi is further felt in RAISING ARIZONA through a small number of shots that adopt an EVIL DEAD-style perspective, wherein the camera rushes at breakneck speed towards a target, jumping and gliding over many obstacles along the way. Interestingly enough, RAISING ARIZONA is one of the few Coen films that the brothers did not edit themselves, instead handing off that particular honor to Michael R. Miller.
Carter Burwell returns to provide the score, a folksy theme comprised of banjos, whistles, and full-throated yodels. It perfectly complements both the absurd nature of the story as well as the redneck qualities of its characters. Pieces of Beethoven’s classical works also dot the film and provide an ironic, high-class counterpoint to the proceedings.
Several thematic ideas and images that the Coens established with BLOOD SIMPLE. can also be found in RAISING ARIZONA, further coalescing their particular aesthetic into its own highly identifiable and contained universe. The film takes place decidedly within Middle America, in a vast expanse of desert that the coastal elite would know as “flyover country”.
The protagonists are, for lack of a better term, trailer trash, and their aspirations reach only as high as creating a smsll family for themselves. McDonnough is an outsider in his own environment, deemed unfit by the government to adopt a baby because of his expansive prison record. There’s no struggle between the rich and the poor here; everyone is more or less on the same socioeconomic level. Even the local business tycoon derives his modest wealth from a decidedly unglamorous market: unpainted furniture.
Convenience stores, trailer homes, references to the Bible, and even tattooed images of The Road Runner contribute to the Coen’s growing portfolio of Americana-inspired imagery while giving the film a unique visual identity all its own.
RAISING ARIZONA screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, marking the Coens’ debut on the world stage. It secured studio distribution from Warner Brothers, thus bringing the brothers to the attention of the moviegoing public beyond just the indie community. The film received mixed reviews, with some critics turned off by the abrupt tonal reversal from BLOOD SIMPLE.
However, RAISING ARIZONA has persisted through the years, slowly accumulating a loyal cult following typical of the brothers’ other lesser-known works. There’s no denying that the film is wildly entertaining– the cast and crew are clearly having so much fun with the material that it’s impossible to not get swept away in their infectious enthusiasm.
As to the film’s actual quality, it has many flaws inherent in the subject matter and approach– albeit the brothers Coen make a full-throated attempt to transcend these flaws at every opportunity. For that reason, the film has aged much better than it has any right to. The fact that it has cultivated a small but dedicated following also speaks to the film’s understated strengths.
All told, RAISING ARIZONA– while it doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of BLOOD SIMPLE– is a strong entry in the Coens’ canon, and its distinctive tone and energy is a benchmark for all those who might follow in those wild footsteps.
MILLER’S CROSSING (1990)
The Coens’ third feature film, MILLER’S CROSSING, would up the ante in nearly every department to become their most ambitious film to date. Their infamously labyrinthine gangland tale about shifting loyalties and reckless violence pulled inspiration from a variety of sources like Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (1961), Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), and the Dashiel Hammett novels “Red Harvest” and “The Glass Key” (Hammett, if you’ll remember, was the writer who coined the phrase “blood simple”, which the Coens appropriated as the title for their debut feature).
Indeed, the plot is so complicated that during the scripting process, Joel and Ethan managed to write themselves into a corner. To break through their writer’s block, they did what so many writers find it unbearable to do: they walked away. They embarked instead on a diversionary project called “Barton Fink”, which we’ll get back to in a moment. This action served as something of a palette cleanser, allowing Joel and Ethan to return to the writing of MILLER’S CROSSING with a fresh eye.
Joel and Ethan also produced the film, which shot in New Orleans on a $1014 million dollar budget. MILLER’S CROSSING is set in an unspecified American city circa 1929, and the Coens specifically chose New Orleans for its untouched Jazzage architecture.
Mirroring the dark, subtlyhumorous tone of BLOOD SIMPLE., MILLER’S CROSSING derives a great deal of sly comedy from the overserious and impassioned performances of its cast. Gabriel Byrne plays the primary antagonist Tom Reagan, a brutish enforcer to Albert Finney’s Irish mob boss Leo O’Bannon.
His unconventional Everyman physicality makes for an ambiguous hero his dark eyes cloud his intentions, and we can never quite tell if he’s angry, sad, or drunk (most of the time it’s a combination of the three). Leo’s existing friendship with Reagan makes for a compellingly conflicted antagonist a tough, lively son of a bitch who’s given a real chance to shine during a masterfully orchestrated home invasion sequence.
To add to their already-conflicted business relationship, both men are romantically entangled with Marcia Gay Harden’s slinky femme fatale character, Verna Bernbaum.
Like their cinematic peers Paul Thomas Anderson or Wes Anderson, part of the Coens’ distinct directorial stamp is the continuing cultivation of a small repertory of performers. This electric group already included Joel’s wife, Frances McDormand, who makes a small cameo here as the Mayor’s secretary, and John Goodman, who played a supporting role in their previous film RAISING ARIZONA (1987).
MILLER’S CROSSING is notable within Joel and Ethan’s filmography in that it marks the addition of three new faces into this select group: John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, and Jon Polito. In finding the inspiration for Verna’s oily, neurotic brother, Bernie Bernbaum, Turturro reportedly looked to cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld.
His role is fairly small here, but his performance garnered some of the highest praise of his career, and set the stage for his starring turn in the Coens next project. Buscemi’s role is even smaller, amounting to little more than a cameo, but the combination of his unmistakable facial features and motormouth dialogue delivery makes for an appearance that lingers in the mind.
As rival Italian crime boss Johnny Caspar, Polito is one of the most dynamic presences in the film, delivering an inyourface performance that all but leaves spit on the lens. Finally, the Coens’ filmmaking mentor and colleague Sam Raimi appears as a freshfaced lawman who can wield dual pistols with proficiency
For their third and final collaboration, the Coens and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld have created a darkly handsome 35mm film image. The 1.85:1 aspect ratio frame is filled with evocative lighting, moody contrast, and natural colors that draw from a tobacco palette of earth tones. Being a film with Irish protagonists, the color green is extremely prominent throughout (appearing in the opening titles, wall sconces, desk lamps etc.).
While the camerawork of their previous film resembled a zany Tex Avery cartoon, the Coens and Sonnenfeld shoot MILLER’S CROSSINGrelatively sedately, with glaciallypaced dolly moves that echo common techniques of cinema from the era. Despite the austere nature of the film’s cinematography, the Coens still incorporate select bursts of kinetic playfulness, like handheld camerawork during a fistfight, or the Sam Raimipatented camera POV move that flies towards its subject at breakneck speed.
Dennis Gassner, a recurring production designer for the Coens who makes his first contribution to their filmography here, fills the frame with authentic period detail that never feels out of place or anachronistic. Little touches, like periodappropriate fedora hats, are given an unusual amount of attention– indeed, closeups of Reagan’s fedora hat become something of a prominent visual motif throughout the film. RAISING ARIZONA’s editor, Michael R. Miller, returns to bring a punchy rhythm and pace to an otherwise slowmoving presentation.
While the phrase “Miller’s Crossing” understandably refers to the woods in which these gangland executions are carried out, an obscure piece of Coen trivia maintains that the title also refers to Michael Miller himself. There doesn’t appear to be a particular reason why, but it adds yet another injoke to a long line of sly references the Coens have packed into their body of work.
For the score, the Coens bring back Carter Burwell, who fashions a waltzy, whimsical score that reflects the Irish heritage of the film’s characters while also bestowing a sense of place and time to the proceedings. A number of Irish folks songs also make an appearance, with “Danny Boy” being a musical highlight that pulls double duty as as an ironic counterpoint and a bombastic directorial flourish during the aforementioned home invasion sequence with Albert Finney’s character.
As they did in their two previous films, The Coens subvert our genre expectations at every turn, imbuing a somber gangland narrative with touches of cartoonish absurdity. Gunfire erupts with the staccato urgency of a Sam Peckinpah film and the bottomless magazines of an arcade shooter, while the characters walk around with an almostmeta sense of self awareness.
Even the opening sequence plays like a bizarro alternate reality where Francis Ford Coppola lost out the director’s chair on THE GODFATHER (1972) to Billy Wilder. The film’s narrative structure reinforces the Coens’ predilection for positioning their commonman protagonists against their own environment, painting Byrne’s protagonists as a feared (but barely respected) midlevel enforcer who lashes out against the power systems and social values of organized crime.
In what could be considered an additional nod to the growing universe of injokes the Coens have been cultivating, a building named the Barton Arms is prominently featured no doubt named for their next film’s protagonist, whose creation helped the Brothers see MILLER’S CROSSING through to its completion.
While it may not glue you to the screen like some of their better known works, MILLER’S CROSSING still stands as an engaging and entertaining spin on welltrod material. The Coens are at they’re best when they’re subverting genre expectations, but it comes with a price: namely, a ceiling on box office earning potential.
Most cinemaliterate audiences know what to expect by now when they buy a ticket for a Coen Brothers film, but try telling that to audiences circa 1990 the film’s marketing promised an exciting mafia picture in the vein of THE GODFATHER or ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, but delivered something altogether different and unexpected. The fact that MILLER’S CROSSING was regarded as a box office failure upon release, then, shouldn’t come as a surprise, nor should its gradual accumulation of a distinct cult appreciation in league with other “failed” Coen pictures.
BARTON FINK (1991)
As mentioned before, the Coen Brothers hit something of a mental block while writing MILLER’S CROSSING, so they stepped away from it and traveled to New York and for 3 weeks, where they hammered out a new story intended as a vehicle for their MILLER’S CROSSING star John Turturro.
They drew from a wide variety of references Preston Sturge’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, Roman Polanski’s REPULSION and THE TENANT, and Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING, in addition to numerous other literary influences and traditions to create a thoroughly postmodern tale about Barton Fink, a New York playwright who moves to Hollywood to write for the movies on the eve of America’s entry into World War 2.
Initially intended as something of a diversionary project, the Coens’ fourth feature, BARTON FINK, taps into a primal aspect of the writer’s psyche. Most writers wants to create lasting, important works that inspire their audience, but these ambitions are usually incongruous with the commercial aspects of the profession.
Hollywood has a long history of appropriating celebrated playwrights for the cinematic medium, and an even longer laundry list of brilliant ideas that were trampled over by populistic commercial schemes hatched by those who couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag.
BARTON FINK covers this external aspect of the profession quite comprehensively, but it also spends a considerable amount of time exploring the writer’s internal conflict: the debilitating uncertainty about whether the work at hand is something important, or merely trash, when oftentimes the difference between the two is completely indistinguishable. By channeling these frustrations and unloading them onto their hapless, eponymous protagonist, the Coens managed to create one of the most inspired and celebrated works of their entire career.
Set in Hollywood shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, BARTON FINK serves as one of the earliest showcases for actor John Turturro as a leading man, and he pours his heart and soul into his performance as the titular Jewish playwright with coke bottle glasses and the battiest hairdo this side of ERASERHEAD. The character, as well as the central conceit of the story, is loosely based on New York playwright Clifford Odets, who worked to promote social issues and the Stanislavski method of performance through his work with the Group Theatre during the 1930’s.
When his audience began to migrate towards escapist fare, Odets also moved to Los Angeles and became a working screenwriter. The Coens applied this basic template to their own ambitious protagonist, tailoring it specifically to Turturro’s idiosyncratic strengths as a performer and isolating him within the mysterious labyrinth of the fictional Hotel Earle.
BARTON FINK went before cameras shortly after wrapping on MILLER’S CROSSING, shooting for 8 weeks on a budget of $9 million dollars. Likely owing to how fast the production of BARTON FINK ramped up, the Coens pull from their roster of stock actors more heavily than usual. Such Coen company regulars as John Goodman, Jon Polito, and Steve Buscemi are all heavily featured throughout the film.
As the Hotel Earle’s concierge, bellhop and seeminglyonly employee Chet, Buscemi plays up his natural weirdness to memorably inquisitive effect. Polito pulls a 180degree reversal from his MILLER’S CROSSINGcharacter by assuming a quiet, bookish mentality in his performance as the studio lackey, Lou Breeze.
Goodman outright steals the show as Charlie Meadows, a perpetuallysweaty insurance salesman with a small brain and a big heart. Always armed with a cheap colloquialism, Meadows is an endearing character who initiates a friendship with Fink by sheer virtue of being the only other visible inhabitant of the hotel. He’s given a chance to shine in the film’s showstopping climax, an opportunity he relishes with a psychopathic fury and glee.
Even the firsttime cast members already seem to have that inimitable Coen company touch. John Mahoney, as Fink’s literary idol WP Mayhew, channels the alcoholic ghost of William Faulkner. His secretary and secret ghostwriter, Audrey Taylor, is played by Judy Davis with a dry glamor that’s reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn.
Tony Shalhoub turns in a memorable performance as Ben Geisler, a producer with a rapier wit and a rapidfire verbosity. Finally, there’s Michael Lerner, that venerable character actor of corrupt bureaucrat types. He absolutely devours the scenery as Jack Lipnick, a greedy Hollywood titan and the defacto owner of Fink’s soul. He’s cut from the sage cloth as other largerthanlife producers like Albert Broccoli or David O. Selznick, which makes him a perfect foil to Barton’s artistic integrity.
Over the course of their career, one of the Coens’ most valuable collaborators has been cinematographer RogerDeakins. BARTONFINKmarkstheirfirsttimeworkingtogether,anditbecomesquicklyapparent that this is a match made in heaven. Deakins, who filled the role after Barry Sonnenfeld left to pursue a directing career of his own, crafts a darkly handsome 35mm film image highly suited for both the 1940’s time period and the Coens’ unique visual sensibilities.
The 1.66:1 canvas deals in the same tobacco-toned color palette and classical camera moves as MILLER’S CROSSING, albeit with a heavily impressionistic panache that echoes Fink’s interior state and lends the film a sweaty, dreamlike quality. The keys of Fink’s typewriter strike paper like deafening clashes of thunder.
The chaos of a rowdy brawl at a USO party manifests in woozy, canted-angle slow motion. The creeping one-point perspective compositions in the Art Deco-styled Hotel Earle conjure haunting memories of THE SHINING’s Overlook Hotel. All these expressionistic moments, and more, are blended together into a feverish lather by returning composer Carter Burwell, and the Coens themselves under their editing pseudonym Roderick Jaynes an alter-ego whose existence owes to guild regulations.
One of the Coens’ distinct directorial talents is the ability to imbue a relatively simple story with multiple layers of subtle thematic context. BARTON FINKhas an uneasy feeling that courses underneath the plot, like something crawling under your skin or (more aptly), wallpaper sweating off the walls– entire sheets at a time.
The Coens leave the true meaning of the plot’s developments just ambiguous enough so as to stoke all kinds of fan theories about what’s actually going on, the chief interpretation being Fink’s contract with Hollywood serving as a metaphorical deal with the devil, and the hotel in which he languishes in limbo being a gateway to Hell itself. Artifacts of the Hotel Earle’s residents (like their shoes) are seen, but we never actually glimpse the residents themselves– we only hear their mysterious individual dramas between the walls.
Audrey Taylor’s mysterious murder halfway through the film promptly veers the story into a waking nightmare, culminating in Goodman emerging as Lucifer himself amidst the raging inferno that has engulfed the Hotel Earle. It’s almost as if the Coens knew how thoroughly audiences and critics would dissect their vision, peppering in deliberate images that point in that direction without bearing any particular relevance to the plot, like Charlie Meadows’ mysterious box that may or may not contain a severed head, numerous references to the Bible, or the camera traveling down the drain of a bathroom sink during a sex scene.
BARTON FINK continues to build out the particular character of the Coens’ selfcontained universe by rearranging recurring ideas and themes within the context of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The narrative framework of an east coast playwright transplanted to California echoes the outsider’s perspective the Coens bring to their sense of storytelling.
Like so many Coen protagonists, Barton Fink is a man at odds against his environment, railing against a system that encourages exploitation, mediocrity and profit over artistic integrity even as his own writer’s block pits his productivity against his desire to create. Up until this point, the Coens had fashioned their protagonists in the mold of the common man, but BARTON FINK flips the script on the formula by making the titular character an entrenched member of the high society intelligentsia who lionizes himself as a warrior for the middle class.
He’s so intent on promoting middle class values, even, that he frequently talks over the very people whose plight he romanticizes, ignoring the very real human stories they have to share. He commodifies their hardships in a misguided campaign to stroke his own ego, just as his own talents are commodified by the head of Capitol Pictures in a vain attempt to gain prestige. It should also be noted that the Capitol Pictures depicted in BARTON FINK is the same studio seen in HAIL, CAESAR! (2016), further solidifying the interconnectivity of the Coenverse.
As a film that started life as a simple diversionary project, BARTON FINK exceeded nearly every expectation to become the Coens’ first true masterpiece. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the tastes of mainstream audiences, the film was a financial bomb but what it lacked in box office receipts it more than made up for in critical plaudits. BARTON FINK holds the esteemed distinction as the only film to win the top three awards at the Cannes Film Festival: Best Actor, Best Director, and the Palm d’Or.
It also went on gain three Oscar nominations: Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and a Best Supporting Actor nod for Michael Lerner. The earliest instance of the Coens’ artistic aesthetic coalescing into something truly identifiable as their own, BARTON FINK has grown in appreciation over the years to become not just a cornerstone of the brothers’ filmography, but an indispensable cinematic treasure in its own right.
THE HUDSUCKER PROXY (1994)
Ever since they first started working together on 1981’s THE EVIL DEAD, the Coens and fellow director Sam Raimi had endeavored to write an ambitious screenplay about corporate fatcats and towering Gotham spires they called THE HUDSUCKER PROXY. They had completed the screenplay as early as 1984, and tried to make it following their breakout with BLOOD SIMPLE., only to be told that their vision was too expensive.
After the critical success of BARTON FINK raised their artistic profile to the level of the mainstream studios’ attention, producer Joel Silver managed to bring the brothers’ longgestating business satire under the fold of Silver Pictures at Warner Brothers. Thanks to their cinematic reputation as well as Silver’s own clout as a massively successful producer, the Coens managed to achieve what so many emerging directors would kill for: complete artistic control on their first studio film.
Released in 1994, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY is the Coens’ love letter to the sentimental screwball comedies of yesteryear. It is the bastard child of Preston Sturges, Frank Capra and Howard Hawks, whose existence marks the culmination of their early string of postmodern period pieces.
Shot mostly on the Carolco Studios sound stages in Wilmington, North Carolina as well as locations in downtown Chicago, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY finds the brothers working with major Hollywood stars for the first time, all of whom effortlessly fold into the wryly idiosyncratic nature of their artistic voice.
Tim Robbins headlines the film as Norville Barnes, a plucky and naive smalltown dreamer whose boundless optimism propels his rapid ascent to the top of Hudsucker Industries while also blinding him to the cynical manipulations by his Board of Directors, led by Paul Newman’s grumpy, cigarchomping executive, Sydney Mussburger. One of the most venerated actors of his generation, Newman proves an inspired choice in a role that plays against the handsome leadingman roles he’s best known for. He easily connects with the Coens’ offkilter sense of humor, turning in a dignified, winking performance that never descends into camp.
A freshfaced Jennifer Jason Leigh steals the show as Amy Archer, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter with a heavy MidAtlantic accent who initially endeavors to deceive Norville into leaking corporate secrets only to fall hard for his plucky brand of optimism. Leigh consumes all the energy in the room, redirecting it back out through her fullthroated performance while subverting our expectations of the conventional love interest archetype.
BARTON FINK’s John Mahoney and THE EVIL DEAD star Bruce Campbell join her in the bullpen as the hotheaded Chief and the rival reporter Smitty, respectively. Bill Cobbs, Peter Gallagher, and the late Anna Nicole Smith round out the cast while fleshing out some midcentury flavor beyond the confines of Hudsucker Tower.
Cobbs plays Moses, a folksy clock tower mechanic and the source of the picture’s drawling narration. Gallagher mashes together the spirits of Dean Martin and Elvis Presley in his performance as a soulful crooner, while Smith plays to her strengths with a fictional take on Zsa Zsa Gabor. Of course, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY wouldn’t be a proper Coen Brothers film without appearances by members of their particular stock company: John Goodman, Jon Polito, and Steve Buscemi.
Goodman makes a voice cameo as a newsreel announcer, while Buscemi plays the beatnik bartender of a juice bar. Polito’s cameo is even more brief, popping up during a throwaway gag in what seems to be a reprisal of his character from MILLER’S CROSSING.
Right away, we notice that THE HUDSUCKER PROXY has a highly-stylized Art Deco look, accomplished via imaginative skyline miniatures and elaborate sets designed by the Coens’ regular production designer, Dennis Gassner, as well as highly theatrical cinematography by returning Director of Photography, Roger Deakins. The soaring Gothic spires and their smoky, mechanical underbellies call back to Fritz Lang’s iconic 1927 silent classic, METROPOLIS, presenting an extremely stylized and retrosurreal vision of 1958era Manhattan.
It’s into this cold, angular environment of straight lines that the Coens introduce a simple plot device: a circle, in the form of a hula hoop. As we all know, a circle has no straight lines. No beginning, middle or end. It’s a constant loop of maddening defiance. In the perfectlystructured world of industry, the circle is anarchy. On a fundamentally thematic level, it’s very fitting that something as innocuous as a circle turns the world so violently on its head.
Deakins’ photography echoes this sentiment, imprinting a cold, desaturated aesthetic onto the 1.85:1 35mm film frame. What little color there is draws from a steely neutral palette which makes the introduction of Norville’s hula hoops, rendered in brilliant primary colors, all the more disruptive. Precise dolly moves and one point perspective compositions reflect the calculating will of corporate forces, and are countered at nearly every turn by chaotic whippans, highvelocity pushins, unbalanced low angle compositions, and a playful willingness to break the fourth wall.
The Coens’ lofty, overtly theatrical approach to THE HUDSUCKER PROXY is matched by returning composer Carter Burwell’s operatic and lushly romantic score, which courses through the increasinglyabsurd narrative with a building urgency and grandeur.
Considering how long the brothers spent working on the script, it should be no surprise that THE HUDSUCKER PROXY serves up a quintessential Coen experience. Their wry sense of humor is immediately evident, beginning with the folksy opening voiceover that muses about the film’s setting a narrative device that the brothers have frequently employed throughout their work.
Their uniquely sardonic stamp continues throughout the film, with cartoonishly exaggerated minor characters like the mail chief, the elevator boy, and the executive secretary, as well as an absurdist dream sequence that deals in the same “Hollywood musical”based visual grammar as its 1998 counterpart, THE BIG LEBOWSKI.
The structural framework of a small town protagonist trying to make it in the big city stays consistent with the outsider’s perspective that the Coens regularly bring to their work, while their fondness for the iconography of midcentury Americana is brought out in the imagery of towering skyscrapers, vintage newsreels, and even President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
THE HUDSUCKER PROXY premiered at Sundance, and then went on to screen in competition at Cannes, ultimately losing the prestigious Palm d’Or to their insurgent generational peer, Quentin Tarantino, and his second feature, PULP FICTION. Like MILLER’S CROSSING and BARTON FINK before it, the film premiered with a resounding flop at the box office.
Critics appreciated the unique visuals and the bold risks undertaken, but they deemed the element most lacking was the human element, and thus embraced the film only at arm’s length. The culminating chapter in the Coens’ triptych of postmodern period pictures, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY has proved itself to be one of their most fantastical and imaginative films, and has gathered a devoted following of its own on home video.
While their first mainstream studio effort might not have met their expectations, the Coens had laid the necessary groundwork to begin a new phase in their career one that would see their fan base grow exponentially, along with their stature amongst the pantheon of great contemporary directors.
In 1996, directors Joel and Ethan Coen achieved their first mainstream success story with a project that would take them back to their homeland: the snow covered sprawl of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Their quirky blend of humor and violence had evolved through their previous films, coalescing into an artistic persona that tapped directly into the cultural zeitgeist of the Clinton era.
They collected a mix of sensational crime stories and urban legends from around the area, and threw them together into the proverbial wood chipper to create an undeniable masterpiece of atmosphere, tension, and pitch black comedy called FARGO.
Perhaps because the Coens know their subjects so well, they can sustain an exaggerated comic tone that nonetheless manages to project an air of authentic sincerity. This is thanks in large part to the performances by FARGO’s cast, who seem to be fully aware of the film’s significance and are thus applying careerbest efforts. As the conniving salesman Jerry Lundegaard, William H. Macy plays to his eccentric physicality in a careerbest performance, creating a sadsack, emasculated schmuck cursed with the awareness of his own incompetence.
In a desperate bid to dig himself out of a mountain of debt and bad business decisions, he enlists the help of two bumbling criminals to kidnap his wife and split the ransom money paid by his wealthy father-in-law. Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare deliver star making turns as the two incompetent crooks, Carl Showalter and Gaer Grimsrud. Showalter is the oily-haired brains of the operation a manic, motormouthed antagonist who the locals can only describe as “funny-looking, in a general kind of way”.
Far more imposing is his calm and collected counterpart, the bleach-blonde Grimsrud, who has a nasty propensity for sudden, cold-hearted violence. This interesting pair possesses a dynamic that’s reminiscent of the Coens’ own diametrically-opposed cinematic influences. If Buscemi alludes to the slapstick comedy of Buster Keaton, then Stormare is straight out of a hard-edged Sam Peckinpah picture.
While the ensemble nature of FARGO’s storyline might suggest otherwise, the film truly belongs to Frances McDormand and her Oscar winning performance as the plucky, pregnant policewoman, Marge Gunderson. She adopts a heavy Midwestern accent that’s endearing and infectious– the minute she opens her mouth to speak, you can’t help but fall in love with her even as you try to contain your laughter.
In a world of scheming, comically-incompetent male types, Marge excels with a very simple agenda: use the facts to find the bad guys. She’s a refreshingly insightful protagonist, offering some of the film’s most poignant moments in her obtuse cadence and simple musings.
Roger Deakins returns as the Director of Photography, rendering the 1.85:1 35mm film frame in bright swaths of blinding white and suffocating black. This monochromatic color palette is accentuated by vivid splashes of crimson red, which recur throughout the film like bullet wounds in the otherwise-pristine landscape. Natural lighting schemes and dolly-based camerawork help to create a sedate, observational tone that places the emphasis on the cast’s off-kilter performances.
Despite its straightforward visual presentation, the Coens manage to cultivate a noir vibe reminiscent of their 1984 debut, BLOOD SIMPLE. especially during similar sequences that both feature murder on an isolated country road. Editing once again under their pseudonym Roderick Jaynes, the Coens infuse the film with a languidly succinct pace that complements the film’s deadpan sense of humor while injecting a sense of gravitas that sustains returning composer Carter Burwell’s iconic, brassy score.
The theme to FARGO, borrowed from an old Norwegian folk song titled “The Lost Sheep” and headlined by mournful strings, injects the proceedings with a confident assertion of (quote, unquote) “importance” a pretension that would sink most films, but elevates FARGO into the realm of transcendent cinematic experiences.
FARGO is usually the first film cinephiles go to when trying to describe the essence of what constitutes a “Coen Brothers” film, as it marks a convergence between the crystallization of their particular artistic identity and the widespread embrace of mainstream audiences.
Like many other iconic Coen works, a great deal of FARGO’s humor stems from a playful fascination with the absurdity of the mundane. Whereas most filmmakers prefer to explore the people and stories of exciting cultural epicenters like New York or Los Angeles, the Coens are primarily interested in Middle America.
This manifests in protagonists who belong firmly to the common class, the prominent inclusion of Americanainspired imagery, and frequent references to the Bible. With FARGO in particular, these fascinations coalesce into the recurring appearance of fast food every other meal comes from an Arby’s or McDonald’s, reflecting the culinary tastes of 90’sera flyover country.
The outsiders perspective that the brothers bring to their work is doublypresent in FARGO, with McDormand’s maternal policewoman being a figurative outsider in a violent, maledominated profession, and also with Buscemi and Stormare’s inept crime duo being literal outsiders foreign agents intruding on a lifestyle that’s not their own, represented musically by their taste for punk rock when the world around them listens primarily to honkytonk country tunes.
In a way, the Coens themselves are outsiders within their own art form they’re quick to pop the bubble of cinema’s inflated sense of selfimportance. FARGO pursues multiple avenues in this regard, the most highprofile of which is their decision to falsely portray the film as a true story. While we all know better today, audiences were easily roped into the fiction, to the extent that some even made the journey out to Minnesota themselves in search of Showalter’s forgotten briefcase of money, still buried somewhere out there in the snow.
The Coens took advantage of our collective tendency to blindly accept art as initially marketed to us; after all, it has to be based on a true story if it says so on the poster, right? While cynical studio marketing departments have used this same technique in recent years, none of their efforts have come even remotely close to the potency of the idea’s use in FARGO.
Joel and Ethan’s antigenre convictions lead them to further subvert the expectations of the crime drama. For instance, McDormand’s protagonist isn’t even brought into the narrative until the second act. Furthermore, they stage the death of Jerry’s kidnapped wife a major character, integral to the plot entirely offscreen, a technique they would use again a decade later in another antigenre masterpiece, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. The brothers also sabotage the seriousness of their crime narrative at every turn by incorporating exaggeratedly comical minor characters.
This refusal to play by the cinematic rule book has made the Coens iconoclasts in the eyes of Hollywood, but it’s also directly responsible for their distinctive appeal, which continues to fuel their success in spite of the occasional misfire.
FARGO was the Coens’ first true commercial hit, but it fared even better with critics, who lauded it with Best Directing honors at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival as well as their first Oscar a win in the Best Original Screenplay category. It is routinely cited as one of the best films of the 90’s, but perhaps the most significant prize would come in 2006, when the Library of Congress deemed FARGO worthy of inclusion into the National Film Registry in its first year of eligibility thus assuring its place in the canon of great American films.
There have been many attempts to replicate FARGO in the years since its release, but none have been able to reproduce it’s bizarre, macabre charm. The success of the Coens’ sixth feature film established them not only as an immediately identifiable voice in mainstream American cinema, but as a cultural force that would be appreciated and studied for a long time to come.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)
When the Coens made their debut with BLOOD SIMPLE., they managed to develop a personal friendship with their sales rep, Jeff Dowd. The brothers were fascinated by Dowd’s eccentric character, known throughout LA as a good-natured stoner/slacker nicknamed “The Dude”. Around the time of Barton Fink, they started developing a script inspired by Dowd, supplemented with the character of their other friend Peter Exline, a Vietnam war veteran whose life story contained several anecdotes that would be incorporated as they wrote.
This project, which they dubbed THE BIG LEBOWSKI, was further influenced by the sprawling structure of Raymond Chandler novels, which tended to weave a densely-layered tapestry of the multitude of subcultures that called The City of Angels home.
Polygram Filmed Entertainment and Working Title Films, who had also developed and financed FARGO, once again ponied up the cash for production of the Coens’ seventh feature film a labyrinthine kidnapping anti-caper that blends the essence of the brothers’ comic sensibilities with the inherent weirdness of LA to create a delirious postmodern brew that’s attracted one of the most rabid cult followings in cinematic history.
Every performance contained within THE BIG LEBOWSKI borders on the legendary for a substantial portion of the cast, it’s the movie that they are most well-known for. Jeff Bridges was born to play The Dude, by sheer virtue of the role probably being the closest to how he is in real life– give or take his notorious preference for White Russians.
He’s never been more comfortable on-screen, no doubt owing in part to the fact that he’s wearing his own clothes in the film. CoenVerse regular John Goodman cribs the style of right-wing film director John Milius in his scene-stealing performance as the cranky Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak, barking his lines like an overbearing, angry bear.
Steve Buscemi puts in his fifth consecutive appearance for the Coens as The Dude and Walter’s bowling buddy, Donny. Buscemi assumes a meek, slightly stupid affectation that serves more as a bouncing board for Goodman’s outsized performance, striking a stark contrast to his over-caffeinated motormouth performance in FARGO.
An inspired mix of faces both old and new round out the Coens’ eclectic cast. As the titular Big Lebowski, David Huddleston channels the pungent odor of Dick Cheney for his wheelchair-bound performance. In one of his earlier roles, the late and inimitable Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Brandt, Lebowski’s brown-nosing butler. Julianne Moore tries on a heavy mid-Atlantic accent reminiscent of Jennifer Jason Leigh in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY for her performance here as the Big Lebowski’s aggressively feminist daughter, Maude.
Tara Reid plays Lebowski’s young gold-digging wife, Bunny, to great effect. Peter Stormare expands on the comically austere personality he developed for FARGO,channeling it into his performance here as the droll leader of a gang of German nihilists. John Turturro makes his return to the Coens’ set as the purple-clad pederast and bowling fetishist, Jesus Quintana.
Jon Polito also returns in a brief cameo as a sweaty PI following The Dude around town. Ben Gazzara, on loan from the John Cassavetes Repertory Players, exudes sleek sleaze as porn producer Jackie Treehorn. And finally, Sam Elliot gives the proceedings a drawling, southwestern flavor in his smoky narration as The Stranger.
Roger Deakins cements his relationship with the Coens as their goto cinematographer by returning to shoot THE BIG LEBOWSKI, creating a unique blend between 1970’s pop western and 1960’s mod aesthetics. The 35mm film image is rich with saturated, natural colors that brilliantly capture the story’s dusty, neontinged locales.
There’s not a huge emphasis on composition within the 1.85:1 frame, opting instead for a lowkey, tighter approach achieved with slow dolly and crane movements in a bid to emphasize the performances. However, THE BIG LEBOWSKI does take the time to punctuate the story with some impressionistic flourish, like slowmotion speed ramps, fourth wallbreaking narration, and highly imaginative dream sequences, which swipe elaborate dance and camera choreography from old Busby Berkeley musicals.
Production designer Rick Heinrichs’ richlydetailed work is evident from the first frame, getting the Gulf Warera period details right while not screaming “period” itself. This is due in part to the mix of other anachronistic elements, which gives the film a timeless, bygoneera feel that’s countered by the characters’ verymodern pathos.
While Carter Burwell delivers his seventh consecutive score for the Coens here, THE BIG LEBOWSKI’s true musical identity stems from the contribution of rock legend TBone Burnett, who compiled the eclectic mix of cowboy country, classic rock, art pop and soul ballads that give the film its distinct, timeless character. TBone works with the Coens to create a different musical motif for each character, the most memorable of which being the Gypsy Kings’ cover of “Hotel California” to underscore The Jesus’ lewd hip gyrations.
The success of their first collaboration here would lead to many more efforts in subsequent films, making TBone a vital collaborator in the Coens’ filmography. Like many of their previous works, the Coens further imbue the film with their distinct stamp by editing THE BIG LEBOWSKI under their pseudonym Roderick Jaynes, in collaboration with Tricia Cooke.
If FARGO was evidence of the Coens’ mastery of a starker, Peckinpah-style aesthetic, then the THE BIG LEBOWSKI balances the dichotomy with a prime example of their zanier, Buster Keaton-inspired side. The film is a quintessential example of their wry sense of humor, which tends to highlight the absurdity of wealth and power by aligning the audience’s perspective with members of the common class. This conceit is further underscored by the Coens’ decision to set the film in the San Fernando Valley, away from the glitz and glamor of elitist Hollywood or Beverly Hills.
That physical distance also allows for a remove from temporal immediacy, an opportunity that Joel and Ethan take advantage of by incorporating the distinct iconography of stale midcentury Americana at every turn: retro-flavored bowling alleys, greasy diners, fast food burgers, Corvettes, and striking architectural structures. Just as much as the overt stylistic elements, the BIG LEBOWSKI distinguished itself as a Coen Brothers film by what it omits: namely, explicit instances of social commentary.
Subtext-obsessed critics have written reams about what they perceive to be veiled critiques of sociopolitical constructs and ideologies, like Walter’s neocon leanings but in true Coen fashion, conclusive evidence for such claims proves to be elusive, and like the kidnapping plot that drives the film is ultimately irrelevant to the larger cosmic narrative.]
Unlike FARGO, THE BIG LEBOWSKI was initially met by most audiences with confusion and disinterest upon its release. It did modest business at the box office, grossing just above its $15 million budget, but the mixed reviews from critics, who just prior had showered FARGO with raving plaudits, imprinted the Coens’ latest effort with the distinct whiff of failure.
Their vision was so unique and eclectic that most people didn’t know what to make of it they did know, however, that it possessed an undeniable magnetism. That same magnetism would serve the film well in the home video aftermarket, where a cult following slowly amassed as tapes and DVDs were circulated amongst tastemaking cinephiles.
While most of the Coens’ films have found their own devoted fan followings, THE BIG LEBOWSKI stands heads and shoulders above the rest with its own distinct subculture replete with annual events like Lebowski Fest and even a pseudoreligion called Dudeism (or, The Church Of The Latter Day Dude), which boasts a membership of over 220,000 ordained “Dudeist Priests”.
All of this appreciation would eventually culminate in one of American cinema’s highest honors an induction into the National Film Registry in 2014 that would ensure its preservation as a nationally important cinematic work alongside its sister film, FARGO.
O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000)
It was around the year 2000 when I started really becoming cognizant of cinema as a cultural phenomenon. Sure, I knew everyone liked movies, and many of them liked the same movies I did, but at the age of 14 I was growing more aware of a world of cinema outside my own perception. A small film I had never heard of before, O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? was released that year and caused a modest sensation. One of my school teachers even used the film’s soundtrack to show us examples of historical folk songs like Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain”.
Everywhere I went, everyone seemed to be talking about the film and its now-legendary soundtrack. I had no clue who the Coen Brothers were at the time, and I wasn’t particularly moved to see the film until much later, when I was in college.
Seven features into their career, Joel and Ethan had managed to to carve out their own distinctive sub-genre of films– an aesthetic marked not by an immediately identifiable visual style, but by a sardonically playful approach to story and character. Music served a major purpose in that regard, often acting as a subtextual thematic device but not yet as part of the narrative itself.
As the world celebrated the dawn of the 21st century, the Coens embraced their growing reputation as cinematic stewards of the American musical tradition by looking back on the early years of the 20th– specifically, the Mississippi Delta during the height of the Great Depression. Their eighth feature– O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?– would borrow so heavily from the structural framework of Homer’s ancient epic “The Odyssey” that Homer himself is given a co-writing credit in its telling of the story of three escaped convicts using the popularity of dustbowl folk music to seek treasure and return home to their families.
Released by their frequent production collaborators Working Title Films in the year 2000, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? marks another significant hit in the Coens’ filmography– one that, like THE BIG LEBOWSKI before it– would send ripples through the fabric of American pop culture itself.
Taking its title from the movie-within-a-movie in Preston Sturge’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS– the latest bit of inspiration the Coens have taken from that particular film throughout their filmography, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? finds the brothers working with Hollywood megastar George Clooney for the first time.
Clooney plays Everrit McGill, a slick and conniving con-man with an unhealthy affection for pomade. As the Depression-era stand-in for THE ODYSSEY’s Ulysses, Clooney has the unenviable task of embodying the film’s heart and soul, but in his efforts he manages to find a special kinship with the Coens’ distinct worldview– kicking off a string of buffoonish Coen rascals that deliberately play against his polished, leading-man image.
Coen regulars John Turturro and John Goodman appear as Everritt’s right-hand man, Pete Hogwallop, and the treacherous cyclops bible salesman named Big Dan Teague, respectively. Both men are entirely comfortable within the Coens’ quirky style of filmmaking, and channel it into larger-than-life performances.
Neither man finds in their role a career-best or particularly memorable persona, but both give the entirety of themselves over to the brothers’ idiosyncratic vision. Rounding out the central trio of escaped convicts is seasoned character actor Tim Blake Nelson as Delmar O’Donnell. To date, this is his only appearance in a Coen Brothers film, somewhat of an oddity given the brothers’ propensity for re-using talent.
A few other familiar Coen faces emerge, including Charles Durning and Holly Hunter. Durning, who played the titular suicidal CEO in the THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, assumes the affectation of a bloated, aristocratic dandy in his portrayal of craven bureaucrat Pappy O’Daniel.
O’Daniel is a broad stroke of a character, relying on our recognizance of the “desperate-for-votes incumbent politician who’s up for re-election” archetype, but Durning nevertheless makes the role his own. Holly Hunter, who hasn’t been seen in a Coen film since 1987’s RAISING ARIZONA, has a relatively small role here as Penny, Everritt’s estranged wife.
From the first frame on, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? immediately distinguishes itself as one of the Coens’ most visually-stylized films to date. The dawning of the new millennium brought with it major advances in digital filmmaking technology, and while the film was shot on old-fashioned 35mm celluloid, its cinematography nevertheless achieves one of the earliest distinctions of the digital age– the first American motion picture to be color-timed and mastered via a digital intermediate.
The process of scanning film into digital files that can be endlessly manipulated and stored is commonplace now, but O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?’s adoption of DI technology was, at the time, truly unprecedented. This choice allowed the Coens and their cinematographer Roger Deakins full control over the color grading of the image, which takes on a washed-out, gold & tobacco patina after they were able to isolate and reduce the saturation of blues and greens.
This earthy, impressionistic color palette recalls the monochromatic texture of old photographs from the era, while their first-time use of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio makes for wider, inherently-cinematic compositions. Energetic camerawork proudly shows off returning production designer Dennis Gassner’s authentic, well-worn patina, which evokes the cracked, warbly texture of the gospel folk tunes that inform the film’s musical soul.
Leaving a legacy arguably larger than O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU’s cinematography– at least in the eyes of the public– is the soundtrack. Returning musical team Carter Burwell and T-Bone Burnett’s eclectic musical palette provides a brief, yet sprawling survey of Depression-era American folk music while also singlehandedly kick starting a popular resurgence in contemporary pop.
Indeed, Harry McClintock’s hobo anthem “Big Rock Candy Mountain” probably hadn’t been enjoyed at this wide a scale since the Great Depression. The inspired mix of blues, religious hymnals, Appalachian mountain folk and bluegrass drives the film with a lyrical, rollicking energy that reinforces the film’s central theme of music being an agent of personal redemption.
The soundtrack proved so popular upon the film’s release that it’s said to have surpassed the success of the film itself, selling five million copies in its first year and earning five Grammys.
O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? deals in many themes and ideas that the brothers had explored to varying effect in previous films, putting a particular emphasis on references to the bible. The characters’ spirituality and remarks on scripture are naturally incorporated into the story, thanks to the evangelical ideology that sculpts the social landscape of the Mississippi Delta.
The outsider perspective that guides the Coens’ work is also present here in its portrait of three escaped inmates on the run and ostracized by society at large. The characters that inhabit this world belong mostly to the common class, a demographic predisposed to lionizing Everett and his gang as folk heroes, out to stick it to fat-cat bureaucrats and expose the absurdity and wastefulness of the concentrated pockets of wealth that dot the Delta.
The Coens never let the proceedings get too serious, subverting the weight of the central quest narrative at every turn with exaggerated minor characters and old-fashioned slapstick humor.
O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, which by now had become almost standard procedure for the release of a new Coen Brothers film. Save for one notable exception in Roger Ebert, the film received warm reviews from critics who appreciated the brothers’ effortless transition into an epic story scope, as well as their pioneering use of digital intermediate technology and realistic implementation of computer-generated imagery.
Most of all, they simply appreciated how fun it all was, and their praise helped propel the film t0 sleeper-hit status at the box office, earning back almost triple of its $26 million production budget. The film received two Oscar nominations– one for Joel and Ethan’s creative adaptation of Homer’s epic poem, and the other for Deakins’ cinematography. The mainstream success of O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? is evidence of the Coens hitting their stride, having delivered yet another bonafide masterpiece to their already impressive body of work.
THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE (2001)
The success of O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? propelled the Coen Brothers into the hearts of Middle America, broadening their fanbase considerably. So how did they capitalize on this large, captive audience? By making a small, black-and-white murder noir that would alienate those heartland sensibilities entirely. But such is life with the Coens– their body of work is an exercise in contradictions and winking in-jokes made at the audience’s expense.
Initially inspired by a prop poster of 1940’s haircuts on the set of THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, Joel and Ethan expanded the idea into an acutely sardonic meditation on mid-century American values and suburban malaise titled THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE. Their ninth feature finds the celebrated filmmaking partners consolidating their tragicomic strengths while further exploring a highly-stylized visual aesthetic, making another postmodern bid to recontextualize the iconography of the past for contemporary storytelling tastes.
Billy Bob Thornton makes the most of one of his rare leading turns as the laconic, calculating barber at the center of the story, Ed Crane. He narrates the film with a disaffected, almost-clinical temperament that highlights the Coens’ morbid sense of humor. Joel Coen’s real-life wife and frequent leading lady, Frances McDormand, turns in a memorable performance as Crane’s unfaithful spouse, Doris.
It’s a much more unsavory role for McDormand, and it’s a testament to her diverse range that she can effortlessly transition to the other side of the bars after her last performance in FARGO as the kindly police officer, Marge Gunderson. As the philandering department store owner, Big Dave Brewster, James Gandolfini simultaneously eschews his tough-guy Tony Soprano persona while subtly embracing it. He’s the alpha male, the biggest figure in his small town.
Every noir needs the arrogant sucker character, and Big Dave fills that role in unexpected ways. Longtime Coen mainstay Jon Polito has a substantial role here as Creighton Tulliver, a street-smart huckster with an ill-fitting suit and a worse-fitting toupee. Polito throws his considerable weight around in his energetic performance of a shady get-rich-quick schemer who regards dry-cleaning technology as the second coming of Christ.
The film’s supporting cast boasts several famous faces who have already made or are making the first of several appearances in the Coens’ filmography. Scarlett Johansson, looking almost child-like in one of her earliest roles, plays Birdy Abundas, an inquisitive young girl with a talent for music and a hidden sexuality beyond her years. Her innocence here contrasts quite dramatically with the character she’d play fifteen years later in 2016’s HAIL, CAESAR!.
Well-respected character actor Richard Jenkins also delivers his first performance for the Coens as Birdy’s bookish father, Walter. He shares an easy friendship with Crane, although he’s blind to his friend’s burgeoning inclinations towards his daughter. Tony Shalhoub, in his second Coen outing since BARTON FINK ten years earlier, steals the show as Sacramento’s quote/unquoted “best” lawyer, Freddy Riedenschneider. His character sucks all the air out of the room with a rapid-fire verbosity, which counters rather neatly with Crane’s silent brooding.
Finally Michael Badalucco, who played Pretty Boy Floyd in O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? appears again here as Crane’s portly brother in law and fellow barber, Frank. All in all, the performances are perfectly serviceable and believable, if not particularly memorable.
The Coens’ regular cinematographer, Roger Deakins, earned his second consecutive Oscar nomination for his work on THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE. While O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? fully embraced the freedoms of digital intermediate technology, this time the Coens turned to conventional laboratory processing techniques to achieve their highly stylized look. The 35mm film stock was shot in color, but printed in stark black and white to achieve the evocative silver screen look we associate with classic film noir.
His lighting setup complements this old-fashioned approach, favoring a moody, high-contrast aesthetic. Black and white film represents a kind of purity when it comes to exposure, because when a cinematographer doesn’t have to deal with traditional chroma concerns, he or she is free to literally paint with pure light. Deakins knows this well, and artfully uses light and shadow to distinguish the various gradations of grey for a compelling look.
THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE seems like a film out of its time, because it is– the Coens and Deakins limited themselves to the common filmmaking techniques of Hollywood’s Golden Age: the stylized silhouettes of the noir genre, the 1.85:1 Academy aspect ratio, and classical dolly-based camera movement. The Coens and Deakins have crafted a nightmare of a Norman Rockwell painting, fleshed out by returning production designer Dennis Gassner’s authentic period designs.
This sense of melancholy timelessness extends to an appropriately classical bed of music characterized predominantly by piano and the violin. The Coens supplement longtime composer Carter Burwell’s nostalgic, bittersweet score with sourced opera tracks and various Beethoven compositions like “Moonlight Sonata” to imbue their portrait of suburban malaise with a classical universality.
While the Coens go to great lengths to meticulously recreate the cinematic conventions of Eisenhower-era Hollywood, their signature thematic conceits infuse THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE with a decidedly modern sensibility. The detached, hard-boiled voiceover is a defining characteristic of the noir genre– a trope that the Coens subvert with their sardonic comic worldview, which is able to see humor in our darkest moments thanks to a degree 0f psychological remove from the immediate actions onscreen.
This outside perspective fundamentally informs every aspect of THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, right down to the title. Like so many Coen protagonists, Ed Crane is a man at odds against his own environment. He’s set apart from the flow of life around him, giving him an elevated perspective that makes clear the idea that the trappings of modern life are ultimately a distraction.
He nihilistically sits back and watches the ceaseless parade of mid-century Americana and small-town culture: images of barbershops, churches, department stores, pulp magazines, and even flying saucers serve as diversionary constructs that distract the characters from the fact that one day this will all come to an end. Even Crane’s narration is ultimately revealed to be meaningless, the product of a writing prompt for a men’s magazine he performs while on death row, paid by the word with money that he’ll never actually get to use.
This isn’t to say that the film itself is nihilistic– indeed, as he sits on the electric chair his narration expresses hope that he’ll be reunited with Doris in the afterlife. It’s only another layer upon multitudes of contradictory sentiments that reinforce the Coens’ love of confounding anyone who tries to take their films too seriously.
THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE met with modest success upon its release, earning warm applause from audiences and critics alike. It earned the Best Director award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, which it shared with David Lynch’s mystifying masterwork, MULHOLLAND DRIVE. While it hasn’t gained the kind of cult following enjoyed by works like THE BIG LEBOWSKI, the quality of the Coens’ craft holds up with a sense of timelessness that ensures its longevity.
Together, these two films are indicative of an industry acquainting itself with the possibilities of breakthroughs in digital technology, figuring out how to use a suite of new and exciting tools. By placing themselves at the forefront of this adoption, the Coens have made the old new again– making the past come alive in a tactile, impressionistic way that, for the most part, had never been seen before.
O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? is, without a doubt, the more influential film of the two, having ushered in an age of radical color timing and abstract palettes, but THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE stands strongly on its own merits, having carved out a space for itself as another cult classic within the brothers’ filmography. Most importantly, this pair of old-fashioned works set the stage for a new act in the Coens’ career– one that would see them soar to ever-greater heights while cementing their legacy as the preeminent chroniclers of the darkly absurd.
INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003)
The Coen Brothers are generally regarded as two of the finest living American filmmakers. Each of their films has been released to some modicum of critical acclaim and/or box office success. However, they are people like you and I, and are prone to mistakes. Every career has its mis-step, and the Coens’ tenth feature– 2003’s INTOLERABLE CRUELTY– is just that.
Drawing inspiration from Howard Hawks romantic comedies like BRINGING UP BABY (1938), INTOLERABLE CRUELTYis an old-fashioned love romp cursed with a modern-day cynic’s attitude. Miles Massey (George Clooney) is a devilishly handsome and slick matrimony lawyer who’s built his career upon a foolproof prenuptial document of his own devising. He’s used to winning, and has the fancy car and huge Beverly Hills mansion to prove it.
He finally meets his match in the form of Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) a woman who’s made a career out of marrying rich men and divorcing them for a hefty profit. As he represents Marilyn’s husband Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann) in the divorce proceedings, Miles finds himself falling hard for the alluring wife. After a brief barely-romance, Miles and Marilyn marry in a Vegas drive-thru chapel. But is it true love, or is Miles just another target in Marilyn’s treacherous scheme?
The film’s performances draw heavily from the slapstick romantic comedies of yore. Clooney and Zeta-Jones’ chemistry plays like a forgotten James Stewart/Katherine Hepburn film, yet despite their best efforts, the film doesn’t quite pull it off. In his second Coen outing, Clooney lampoons his suave, star persona quite well. His vanity is manifested in physical traits like obsessively checking his teeth, a recurring joke that is one of the movie’s more brilliant aspects.
It’s clear that he’s having a lot of fun, and his enjoyment is infectious. As the shrewd, calculating Marilyn, Zeta-Jones is a worthy adversary to Clooney’s charms. The role requires someone with effortless grace, beauty, and sexuality– all of which Zeta-Jones possesses in spades. It’s a serviceable performance, if only because the role itself doesn’t require much in the way of involved acting ability. For what the film is and what it aspires to be, the casting of the two leads is pitch perfect.
The supporting cast allows the chance for the Coens to trot out their signature outsized characters. Billy Bob Thornton, who last starred for the Coens in their previous film (2001’s THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE) plays Howard Doyle, a Texan oil baron and one sucker in a long line of them competing for Marilyn’s fake affections. His role is the polar opposite to his laconic, nearly-mute barber in THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, a casting technique that the Coens are fond of (see the dichotomy between Steve Buscemi’s roles in FARGO (1996) and THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998).
Geoffrey Rush plays Donovan Donaly, a ponytailed television producer who goes on a wild shooting rampage when he comes home early to catch his wife in bed with the pool boy (which is odd because they have no pool). Rush embraces the full-tilt psychopath aspects of his unhinged character to considerable comedic effect, and is one of the standout performers in the film.
Cedric The Entertainer plays Gus Petch, a private investigator specializing in philandering husbands. His catchprase, “I’m gonna nail yo’ ass”, is invoked in almost every other line. It’s an energetic, memorable performance, but I don’t know if you can really call it a performance when Cedric The Entertainer is essentially just being himself.
Richard Jenkins, who appeared alongside Thornton for the Coens in THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, shows an unexpected knack for comedic timing in his depiction of Freddy Bender, Marilyn’s impotent and perpetually-aggravated lawyer.
A few other Coen cameos clue us in that INTOLERABLE CRUELTY exists within their winking, self-contained universe: Bruce Campbell appears as a surgeon on a television screen and the man who plays Mortimer Young (of the infamously fictional Forever Young film preservation society concocted by the Coens as a skewering of pretentious cinephiles) makes his first in-film appearance for the Coens as a curmudgeonly lawyer.
INTOLERABLE CRUELTY conscripts regular Coen cinematographer Roger Deakins into service once again. Shooting on 35mm film, Deakins evokes the bright, cheery visuals of romantic comedies past. The sun-dappled environs of Los Angeles and Las Vegas are rendered within the 1.85:1 frame with warm color tones and a high-key/somewhat overlit lighting scheme.
The film makes extensive use of handheld cinematography in the opening sequence, while opting for a more traditional locked-off/dolly/crane scheme for the remaining scenes. It hurts me to say this, but this is perhaps Deakins’ worst-looking film. That’s not to say it looks bad, but only that it is uncharacteristically bland and pedestrian. It gets the job done, but I’m sure Deakins won’t be putting it in the proverbial reel anytime soon.
This time around, the Coens swap their usual production designer, Dennis Gassner, for Leslie McDonald. McDonald does a commendable job recreating the privileged lifestyles of Los Angeles’ elite, imbuing the film with a stuffy old-money sensibility. Her work is not unimpressive, but neither is it impressive. It, like most of the movie, is bland, middle-of-the-road journeyman stuff. Hardly the eccentric, nuanced design we’ve come to expect from a Coen Brothers film.
Carter Burwell returns to score the film, utilizing a brassy, big-band sound that further alludes to Hollywood Golden Age comedies. His music is accompanied by a generic mix of folk rock offered up by the likes of Simon & Garfunkel. It makes the film more enjoyable, to be sure, but it rarely makes for a transcendent experience.
There is one instance of what seems to be genuine inspiration here: the Monty Python-esque opening credits that animate Victorian paintings of Cupid and couples in love. However, it’s not enough to save the film from its lackluster execution. Many signature Coen conceits are present, like their fondness for Buster Keaton-style slapstick.
Their dark sense of humor is also incorporated, but to substantially diluted effect. The whole thing seems to have the stink of big studio meddling about it, from well-known producers like Brian Grazer and Grant Heslov on the payroll, on down to a screenplay in which the Coens had to share credit with no less than three other writers.
Considering the strength of their earlier films, INTOLERABLE CRUELTY is a major disappointment. It seems that I wasn’t alone in my thinking– the film bombed upon its release and was not warmly received by critics. I don’t know if the Coens just weren’t trying this particular go-round, but something is very noticeably off about their execution.
Ten years after its release, it’s been all but forgotten– denied even a small cult following like the ones that cropped up around many of their other lesser films. Every filmmaker has a mis-step in his/her career, but because this is the Coen Brothers we’re talking about, INTOLERABLE CRUELTY is a nearly-unforgivable transgression by virtue of its indifference– arguably the biggest filmmaking sin of them all.
THE LADYKILLERS (2004)
I had never seen Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2004 feature, THE LADYKILLERS, until only recently. However, funnily enough, I do remember its release. I remember seeing posters for the film displayed at Pioneer Place mall in downtown Portland, OR, which had a theatre that I frequented in those days. I distinctly recall being wholly uninterested in the film, an impression that barred me from seeing it until a few days ago– nearly ten years later.
I was expecting a creatively indifferent dud like their previous film, 2003’s INTOLERABLE CRUELTY. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the film’s humble charms and it’s picturesque Mississippi setting. It’s certainly not one of the Coens’ great films, but it is an unexpectedly entertaining effort that plays like a hayseed version of OCEAN’S 11.
Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) is a wealthy widow and God-fearing Christian living in a small Mississippi town. One day, an eccentrically-dressed man named Professor Dorr (Tom Hanks) arrives at her doorstep, inquiring about her upstairs room for rent. He presents himself as a worldly, educated man and a member of a musical ensemble specializing in church music. He gains permission to live with Munson and have rehearsal with his band in her basement cellar, so as not to distract her during the evening.
What he doesn’t tell her, however, is that his band is a front– together, his merry little group uses the basement to conspire and execute a daring heist of a ferryboat casino on the Mississippi River. The casino’s vault is located underground on the river bank, and Dorr’s master plan requires them to tunnel directly from underneath Munson’s house and into the vault.
Dorr and his men pull off the heist successfully, but their getaway is bungled when Munson discovers their haul and presents them with a choice: give the money back and go with her to church, or go to prison. In response, these bumbling thieves come up with their own response: kill kindly old Mrs. Munson.
The performances are energetic and suitable for the zany tone that the Coens are after. Tom Hanks clearly relishes the opportunity to ham it up, Coen-style. His Professor Dorr is a southern gentleman and a dandy with a bizarre, gulping nervous laugh. As the matronly Marva Munson, Irma P. Hall is endearing and sweet in her stubborn indignation.
Her rants about the “hippity-hop” music are funny, and her conversations with the portrait of her long-dead husband are poignant. Despite her elderly stature, she’s a tough old broad that can stand her own against the basement full of criminals under her feet.
Dorr’s crew, haphazardly assembled from want ads he placed in the paper, is a veritable rogue’s gallery of clumsy fools. The standouts (Marlon Wayans, JK Simmons, and Tzi Ma) provide the film with its best comedic moments. Wayans, as the gangsta janitor of the boat casino, is the fiery, unpredictable inside man. It’s a little sad, after his bravua performance four years earlier in Darren Aronofsky’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, to see him revert to a cliched ‘hood archetype, but his knack for comedic timing transcends the role’s limitations.
As an animal wrangler/demolitions expert with chronic IBS, Simmons’ Garth Pancake makes full use of his particular cadence and body language. Simmons is known primarily as a comedic character actor, but here he gets to embrace a unique dynamic entirely apart from his best-known roles. And then there’s Tzi Ma, the mute Vietnamese shop owner known only as The General. He proved to by my favorite character in the film– his effortless slinking, tunneling, and cigarette-swallowing abilities are truly hilarious.
The fact that he gets the film’s biggest laughs without barely speaking is a testament to Ma’s physical talents.
THE LADYKILLERS is fairly light on the expected Coen cameos, but Bruce Campbell shows up briefly in a dog food commercial shoot. Stephen Root, who previously appeared up as the blind record label owner in O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000), makes his second Coen outing as the casino’s stern manager and Wayan’s boss. It’s a small role, but Root makes the best of his limited screentime.
Roger Deakins returns as Director of Photography, crafting a gorgeous looking film from the Coens’ preferred 35mm, 1.85:1 shooting format. The film takes on a sepia-tinted hue, drawing from a murky palette of earth tones and bright colors. The camerawork is appropriately elaborate in proportion to the film’s comfortable budget, consisting of artful dolly and crane movements that add scale to the story. The Coens also utilize a brilliant POV camera shot from within a football player’s helmet during a chaotic game.
Moments like this make it clear that THE LADYKILLERS is considerably more engaging subject matter to the Coens than INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, their uninspired previous film. Subsequently, Deakin’s work is markedly better as well.
Dennis Gassner reprises his Production Design duties as well, bringing an authentic, lived-in quality back to the Coen universe. He really brings out the Old World charm of the Deep South, making for an immersive experience. The languid pacing, courtesy of the Coens’ cutting alter-ego Roderick Jaynes, echoes the leisurely Southern mentality while bringing dynamic energy when it’s needed.
Carter Burwell is again credited as crafting the score, but I barely noticed his efforts within the finished film. Instead, the story is peppered with a mix of blues, gospel, classical and hip-hop music– all chosen by the Coens’ frequent music supervisor T-Bone Burnett. The carefully chosen tracks do a great job in conveying a distinct culture and place, while giving the film a unique gospel-inspired patina.
While it’s not as memorable a mix as the soundtrack to O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, the soundtrack is another great survey of Americana folk music.
The film is technically a remake of the 1955 of the same name, but the Coens bring enough of their quirky vision to the proceedings so that it stands on its own merits. It’s chock full of their signature gallows humor (sometimes quite literally), and the characters are well-drawn variations on unexpected archetypes.
While it can still be considered one of their minor works, THE LADYKILLERS is far from their worst. Rather, it’s an underrated, enjoyable little surprise of a film– one that I suspect will respectably hold its own against the ravages of time.
In 2006, a film called PARIS, JE T’AIME premiered with a unique concept. It was an omnibus film, consisting of twenty separate shorts directed by twenty different directors. The common thread uniting them was that timeless city of light, Paris. It was well-received, spawning a series of similar anthology films built around a single city (New York, Rio, Jerusalem, etc…).
Joel and Ethan Coen served as contributors to PARIS, JE T’AIME, ultimately creating one of the best shorts of the project. Their piece, entitled TUILERIES after the Parisian subway station, concerns an American tourist: Coen regular Steve Buscemi. He’s sitting in a station, waiting for his train and reading his tourism book. One passage encourages him never to make eye contact with others on the subway, which of course he does. He’s caught staring at a pair of young, hotheaded lovers (Axel Kiener and Julie Bataille), who begin accosting him belligerently.
As the young woman uses Buscemi to instill jealousy in her boyfriend, Buscemi quickly finds himself in over his head.
The short is no more than five minutes long, but the Coens are able to pack a great deal of their specific brand of comedy and quirk into the piece. They are able to effortlessly convey a complicated comedic scenario using only French dialogue (no subtitles) and Buscemi’s increasingly confused facial expressions. The action builds to a fever pitch, leading to the angry young Frenchman pouring Buscemi’s tourist trinkets all over him before waltzing off with his girl, their own relationship troubles seemingly forgotten.
The film is shot by Bruno Delbonnel, in a departure from the Coens’ usual cinematographer Roger Deakins. However, Delbonnel stays faithful to the Coens’ established look- 35mm fill framed with a 1.85:! aspect ratio, wide compositions interspersed with detailed close-ups, etc. The subterranean location is rendered in a saturated amber hue that’s romantic and wistful– a device that lulls Buscemi’s American tourist into a complacent state. Music is included via the diagetic presence of a street perfumer strumming a classical guitar tune.
Even at its short length, the Coens’ distinct touch is immediately apparent. The shortform medium limitations and self-imposed dialogue restrictions on Buscemi’s part allows the Coens to really dig into what they do best: outlandish characters getting into absurd scenarios with unexpected results.
TUILERIES is only the second short film the Coens have made to date (if you’re counting Joel’s student film SOUNDINGS), but it’s just as good as much of their feature work. It’s like those little bite-sized candy bars you get at Halloween, except instead of chocolate… it’s Coen.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)
The year 2007 was a watershed year for me in regards to my development as a filmmaker. For starters, it marked ten full years that I had been making films– I was only eleven when I trained a video camera on my action figures and made a stop-motion movie with them. 2007 also saw the year I shot and completed THE ARCHITECT, my thesis film that would cap my studies at Emerson College. And finally, the top three films of the decade (a opinion shared by many besides myself) all debuted within a few months of each other during 2007.
These three films– David Fincher’s ZODIAC, Paul Thomas Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD, and Joel & Ethan Coen’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN– left an indelible mark on me, and have influenced and informed my work ever since. It was the closest that I felt modern-day Hollywood has ever gotten to my favorite era of cinema– the 1970’s– and the success of these films suggested the dawn of a new age of artfully-made films.
Sadly, this was not meant to be. Only a year later, the specialty studios that made these kind of prestige films– Warner Independent, Paramount Vantage, New Line, etc– would shutter, paving the way instead for the dominance of big-budget, rudderless spectacle films, remakes, sequels, and prequels. I had the pleasure of interning at Warner Independent Pictures in its closing days, and it was heartbreaking to see the house collapse in on itself.
The studio executives I worked with were the complete opposite of your archetypal Hollywood producer: they were unbelievably kind, had great taste in scripts, had little regard for the box office results of their work, and genuinely desired to create great movies. And in the great American tradition of capitalism, all their hard work was rewarded, not with bonus checks, but with pink slips.
It was a short, glorious era for filmmaking, and as a budding filmmaker who had recently made the big move to Los Angeles to finally start his career in earnest, it was an incredibly exciting time. Walking around the Warner Brothers lot on my lunch break, I felt like anything was possible.
My optimism was countered by the pessimistic nature of these three films. I once read somewhere that periods of war and controversial presidencies often influence pop culture to ask tough questions and reflect the somber view of reality. It was certainly true for the 1970’s, quagmired in Vietnam. It was also true for the Bush administration, which was losing two wars and slipping into the worst recession in nearly eighty years. For many, it seemed like the world was ending, and this pessimism bubbled it’s way to the surface, channeled into our art as a coping mechanism.
It’s into this climate that the Coen Brothers released NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, the film stunned audiences into a dumb silence, almost as if they were bludgeoned by some blunt instrument. I had caught the film during my last days of living in Boston, and it felt like nothing short of a revelation.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is undoubtedly the Coens’ masterwork, rightfully rewarded with their biggest box office take at the time, as well as golden statues for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards.
It was a perfect synergy of the cultural zeitgeist, the Coens’ unique directorial style, and the national mood. The film’s tagline, “you can’t stop what’s coming”, proved to be true on untold levels. Its success was an unstoppable juggernaut, and its barren, desert setting hinted at the economic wasteland and devastation that, much like the terrifying specter of Anton Chigurgh and his fateful coin, was traveling from some unknown place to arrive at our front door.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN concerns a briefcase full of money, and the wrath it incurs on those who possess it. A gruff man, Lleweyn Moss, comes across it when he finds the aftermath of a drug deal gone south. He takes it back home with him, only to learn that its original owners, a dangerous gang of Mexicans, are after him to take it back. Meanwhile, a fundamentally unsettling assassin known as Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is relentlessly stalking closer to Moss, also in pursuit of the briefcase.
He kills anyone who gets in his way, utilizing a variety of macabre techniques: strangling a police officer with his handcuffs, using an air-powered bolt pistol to punch holes in the head of unlucky fellows, or savagely gunning down Mexican gangsters with a silenced shotgun. One step behind both players is Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a weary police officer who, in his old age, has become deeply troubled by the realization that existence could be meaningless.
These three figures pursue each other across the Texas countryside, and their encounters with each other will change their lives forever.
The calibre of acting talent on display is simply staggering. Although Bardem was the only cast member to be nominated for an Academy Award, Jones and Brolin are just as eligible in their respective turns. Sheriff Bell was the role that Jones was born to play– both men hail from the same area of West Texas, and Jones imbues his aging lawman with a haunted, wanderer’s soul.
As he enters his twilight years, spirituality is beginning to enter his life– but not like he imagined it. What he expected to be a sudden swelling of faith in Jesus Christ instead gave way to a philosopher’s forlorn musings on a world where human life is snuffed out as inconsequentially as if it were a household fly. It’s a towering performance by Jones, one that reminds us why he’s one of the best actors working today.
Brolin, who before this point was a relative unknown, found his career kicked into high gear after having to fight to secure the role of Llewelyn Moss. His performance is gruff, quiet, and tough– but he doesn’t take himself so seriously that he’s one-note. Moss is a stubborn man who thinks he can outsmart the unstoppably evil force that draws closer, but he must pay the price of his hubris with his own blood.
Another unknown to US audiences, Javier Bardem was a pants-shitting revelation the minute he stepped on-screen with that unnervingly creepy haircut. As Anton Chigurh, he’s one of the most indelibly terrifying monsters in cinematic history, right up there with Dracula or Heath Ledger’s Joker. He’s whip-smart, efficient, and deadly quiet. When he speaks, the low monotone timbre of his voice suggests nothing less than Lucifer incarnate. It was a hell of an introduction for Bardem, easily netting him the Best Actor Oscar that would kick off one of the most acclaimed careers of any actor ever.
The supporting cast is equally great, starting with Woody Harrelson as Carson Wells, a dandy bounty hunter tasked with finding Chigurh and the briefcase. Harrelson’s screentime is brief, but his casual drawl and relaxed tough-guy attitude makes for a highly memorable appearance. Kelly McDonald, a pretty Scottish actress, defied any doubt about her ability to portray a timid Texan girl with her performance as Moss’s wife, Carla Jean. She pulls off a heavy West Texas accent effortlessly, and her feminine presence is a welcome relief in a film that is otherwise dominated by brutal machismo.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is unique in that almost none of the Coens’ regular actors make an appearance in the film, save for Stephen Root. Root makes a brief cameo as a big-city boss that hires both Wells and Chigurh, only to find himself on the receiving end of Chigurh’s silent fury. Root plays his character as appropriately sleazy, but it never feels over the top or out-of-place within the stark tone that the Coens have cultivated.
Roger Deakins, serving once again as Director of Photography, effortlessly creates one of the Coens’ best-looking films. The 35mm film image, limited to a 2.35:1 aspect ratio so as to give the film a bigger cinematic punch, is spare and stark. Highlights are blown out, suggesting a place where hard men toil under the intense beating of a vengeful sun.
Colors are desaturated to reflect the arid desert climate that surrounds them, and blood (of which there is a copious amount) stands out as a creeping, dark crimson fluid that stains the earth and seeps into cracks in the floorboard. The Texas nights are as hot as the days, represented via warm amber tones in place of the more conventional moonlight-blue. The austerity of Deakins’ images are complemented by reserved camerawork that uses imperceptibly slow, creeping dolly shots that add an air of foreboding and malice to slow-burn suspense sequences.
For their twelfth feature film, the Coens bring on a new Production Designer in the form of Jess Gonchor. Like Dennis Gassner before him, Gonchor creates a tangible world for McCarthy’s characters to inhabit. West Texas in 1980 is a dusty, color-less place that’s still somewhat stuck in the decade that preceded it. Walls are wood-panelled, motels are dingy, clothes draw from the earth tone palette that defined fashion in the late 70’s, etc.
The film’s editing, done by the Coens under their Roderick Jaynes persona, is spare and allows their compositions to breathe. This low-key approach pays off in spades in some of the film’s most suspenseful sequences. Instead of using quick cuts to ratchet up tension, the Coens wisely opt to dwell on their shots for an inordinate amount of time, allowing the sound effects to pull us to the edge of our seats.
One example is this masterful shootout sequence that occurs halfway through the film. Note how Chigurh is barely glimpsed as he attacks Moss. No tricky camera angles, no fast-editing, no thumping music– just the compressed explosions of Chigurh’s shotgun and fleeting footsteps bouncing off wet concrete:
Speaking of music, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is infamous for its lack of music throughout the entirety of the film. Carter Burwell, the Coens’ regular music man, is credited for his score, but you wouldn’t know it upon a cursory listen to the film’s soundtrack. Burwell’s score does exist, albeit in a radically imperceptible way.
Comprised mainly of ambient tones, it buzzes low under select sequences, giving a palpable ominousness to them that registers on a subconscious level. It’s an effective approach to score, especially for a film that already achieves such a powerful atmosphere without it. The only blatantly musical notes we hear come in the diagetic form of a mariachi band that plays over Moss as he wakes up wounded in a Mexican town square.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN ironically finds the Coens working in top form, while simultaneously adopting a stylistic approach markedly different from their previous films. Many of their directorial signatures— beginning the film with a regionally-accented voiceover musing over establishing shots of the setting, traveling point of view shots, and wry humor– are all present, to varying degrees of subversion. The violence is sudden and brutal (and often occurs offscreen), as it always has been with the Coen Brothers, but there’s considerable more malice this time around.
The image of a storm of scuff marks on linoleum– the aftermath of a savage murder by strangulation– is haunting by the slow, torturous death said marks imply. Quirky Coen characters abound, but they’re grounded in the harsh, sun-baked reality that the story demands. If their fondness for influences like Buster Keaton and Preston Sturges were evident in their previous films, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN finds the Coens swinging towards the other side of the pendulum, channeling the likes of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah.
An air of pessimism abounds throughout the film, implying a weary hopelessness to life that can only be soothed by a woman’s grace. Thematically, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN’s nihilistic viewpoint has much in common with the Coens’ previous masterpiece FARGO (1996), as well as their pitch-black debut BLOOD SIMPLE (1984).
It’s interesting to note that the Coens’ biggest cinematic successes have been when they indulge in darker subject matter. For all their worth as intelligent tricksters and comedic stylists, perhaps their greater voice is that of documentarians of our own inhumanity towards each other.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is an unmitigated highlight in the Coens’ development as filmmakers. The stripped-down aesthetic allows them to channel the best of their craft into the proceedings, making for an unforgettable experience. The Coen Brothers are lucky enough to have a great deal of films that they’ll be forever remembered for, but NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN stands above them all as a staggering achievement.
It is one of my personal favorite films of all time, inarguably one of the very best films of its decade, and a reference-grade masterwork that raised the bar for all filmmakers to come.
BURN AFTER READING (2008)
Hot off the career highlight that was the dual Oscar wins (Picture and Director) for 2007’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, Joel and Ethan Coen found themselves the subject of lofty expectations regarding their next project. While a short contribution to the TO EACH HIS OWN CINEMA anthology project entitled “WORLD CINEMA” (2007) is their true follow-up, it is unavailable on these shores. This brings us to 2008’s BURN AFTER READING.
Written in tandem withNO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, (alternating between scripts every other day), the Coens’ thirteenth feature film was a paranoid satire of spy genre conventions that featured an impressive lineup of A-list talent and first-rate execution.
BURN AFTER READING has a zany energy that calls to mind the Coens’ previous work on RAISING ARIZONA (1987) andO BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000). When Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a low-ranking analyst in the CIA, is unceremoniously fired, he deludes himself into the idea that a book of his memoirs will be both his meal ticket and delicious revenge on his former employers.
The digital files containing his notes inadvertently find their way into the bumbling hands of Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), an inept pair of fitness trainers who believe they’ve stumbled upon juicy state secrets. When their plan to extort money from Cox in exchange for returning the files goes south, they then try to sell the information to the Russians.
Meanwhile, Cox’s wife (Tilda Swinton) carries on an affair with the sex-obsessed Harry Pfarrer (George Clooeny), who grows paranoid when he becomes entangled in the complicated machinery of the plot and begins to suspect he’s the subject of government surveillance.
If the plot sounds ridiculously convoluted, that’s because it was meant to be. The Coens’ chief aim in creating the film was to lampoon the spy and political thriller genres by orchestrating a complex, lurid plot that ultimately was meaningless by sheer virtue of the worthlessness of the central macguffin. This makes for extremely silly moments that stretch the bounds of believability, but the Coens have a strong enough command of their craft to keep the tone consistent and the action clear.
The cast is remarkable in that it is comprised primarily of A-list talent that willingly subvert their self-serious images to great comedic effect. Clooney’s third appearance in a Coen film acts as the capstone to what the directors have informally dubbed the “trilogy of idiots” (the other two being O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? and INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003)). Clooney’s Harry Pfarrer is handsome, but a schlub nevertheless. His increasing paranoia over the events of the film provides ample opportunity for him to ham it up.
Malkovich, a character actor celebrated for his oddball performances, also parodies his “thespian” conceits as the disgruntled, violently confused Osborne Cox. His character is an intelligent, well-educated man who has effectively weaponized his genius against those he considers to be intellectually inferior, wielding it with an ultimately-murderous intent.
Frances McDormand, who hasn’t been seen in a Coen Brothers film since THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE (2001), is a sight to behold in her incarnation as Linda Litzke. McDormand, no longer the fresh-faced lass we saw in 1984’s BLOOD SIMPLE, embraces her middle age and channels it into her performance of a vainglorious woman with fading looks and sagging skin.
Litzke is probably the most emotionally pure of all the narcissistic characters in the film, as she spends most of the film desperately looking for love before it’s too late. Ultimately, her relative innocence makes her the only character that gets away scott-free.
Undoubtedly, the film’s highlight performance is Brad Pitt as Chad Feldheimer. Feldheimer’s personality is perfect for his profession as a personal trainer. Pitt bounces around like a hyperactive spazz with bad hair and a worse sense in clothing. His air-headed performance is so great because of the unfettered familiarity he conveys– how many of us actually knowsomeone like that? I certainly do. Pitt’s character is responsible for some of the biggest laughs in the film, like the infamous“Security of Your Shit” sequence (embedding disabled, sadly).
The remainder of the cast is filled out with more A-list names, like Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, and JK Simmons. Swinton plays Katie Cox, Osborne’s unfaithful and unsupportive wife. Jenkins plays Ted, the manager at the gym where Linda and Chad work. Ted is a pitiable character, hopelessly in love with Linda even though he’s romantically invisible to her.
Simmons, who appears in his second Coen film with a small cameo, is highly memorable as the CIA boss who finds himself baffled by the inane plot developments and unmotivated to intervene. His omniscience is a handicap, leaving him scratching his head over the bizarre events as they unfold. However, it’s in his confusion and indifference that the Coens’ core message resides.
The Coens’ regular cinematographer, Roger Deakins, was unavailable to shoot BURN AFTER READING due to already committing to shoot Sam Mendes’ REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (2008). Instead, the Coens turned to Terrence Malick’s current cinematographer, the supremely gifted Emmanuel Lubezki. Lubezki does a great job appropriating the Coens’ signature visual style, while putting his own subtle stamp on the material. Shot on 35mm film, BURN AFTER READING is one of the most gorgeous-looking comedies in memory.
The 1.85:1 frame complements the crisp coldness of autumnal New York (subbing in for Washington DC and its environs) by adopting a palette of desaturated pastels. The contrast is deep, with highlights that take on more of a cream cast (rather than a solid white).
The camerawork, consisting of dolly and handheld-based moves and predominantly low angles, evokes the seriousness of hard-hitting political thrillers– a visual device that only heightens the overall joke. The more seriously the characters take themselves, the funnier the film becomes; a conceit that the film echoes in its own construction.
This self-seriousness is matched by the film’s score, crafted by regular collaborator Carter Burwell. In an attempt to match the characters’ delusions of grandeur, the score takes on a bombastic energy. Comprised of booming war drums and swelling strings that are reminiscent of the work of Phillip Glass, the score’s overt seriousness is the perfect companion to the Coens’ established tone, helping to communicate the sense of self-importance these characters have.
In their eyes, the stakes are life or death– but as outside observers, we get to be in on the ultimate joke: all their efforts and trials amount inherently meaningless.
BURN AFTER READING is a first-class comedy that builds upon the formidable skillset the Coens have established. The Coens have made a career of doing the exact opposite of what people expect them to do, and this film certainly continues that legacy. Their affection for pitch-black humor is on full display, as well as their sudden, brutal treatment of violent acts. Some moments (like Chad’s ultimate fate) are shocking in their abruptness (and messiness), while other violent moments are left offscreen entirely.
It’s refreshing when filmmakers feel that they don’t have to show you everything, allowing imagination to fill in the blanks. The Coens’ ability to subvert genre expectations while still delivering a satisfying experience is rivaled only by a few filmmakers, all of whom could be considered to be in the top tier of great directors.
Any Coen Brothers film released after the sheer phenomenon that was NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was bound to be a letdown. While it’s not their strongest film, BURN AFTER READING limits the possibility for disappointment by being genuinely hilarious. It’s as good as any film the Coens made in the first decade of the new millennium, bested only by its immediate predecessor.
While it was met with middling success upon its release, I suspect that BURN AFTER READING’s stature in the Coen canon will only grow with time.
A SERIOUS MAN (2009)
In the late 2000’s, Joel and Ethan Coen were experiencing a career resurgence in the wake of their Best Director win at the 2008 Academy Awards. After shooting BURN AFTER READING (2008), a comedic palette-cleanser of sorts, the Coens again defied expectation by tackling subject matter they held very close. Their fourteenth feature film, 2009’s A SERIOUS MAN, is arguably the Coens’ most personal and autobiographical film to date, by virtue of its dealings with Judaism and midcentury suburban Americana.
A SERIOUS MAN is a film about a man’s struggles with faith, a topic that most everyone can relate to. Coming from a pair of filmmakers who are infamously guarded about their private lives and influences, it’s a curious inclusion in the Coens’ canon. For instance, not a single well-known actor appears in the film (let alone any of the Coens’ regular repertoire of performers).
By taking our attention away from who is in the film, we are able to more clearly focus on what the film is trying to say. But, what is it trying to say, exactly? In a good way, the film itself doesn’t seem to know. What is there to say when confronted with the unknowable force of a higher power?
Reading like a modern-day retelling of the Biblical story of Job, A SERIOUS MAN is about Larry Gopnik, an ordinary man whose faith in God is put to the test on an almost daily basis. Throughout his ordeals, he tries to a good and righteous Jew, but he finds it increasingly hard to be a good role model in an old-fashioned community, especially when the world around them is modernizing at a rapid pace.
While the story is based on the Coens’ own experiences and notions about their Jewish heritage, people of any belief (even atheists) can sympathize with the hard questions that the film asks. But make no mistake, A SERIOUS MAN is a deeply personal film for the Coens, made even more so by the 1967-era Midwestern suburban setting that they themselves are a product of.
The cast, while comprised mostly of unknowns, thankfully doesn’t fail to deliver the Coens’ unique brand of quirk and characterization. Stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a mild-mannered physics professor who is growing frustrated with his increasing ineffectiveness. He haggles with his students over grades, he can’t control his kids, and trying to salvage his marriage to his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is a lost cause.
Stuhlbarg’s non-celebrity is a blank slate, giving him an everyman quality onto which the audience can project their own existential crises. Lennick runs the risk of being the “evil, cheating wife”, but her own convictions and sincere charms work well in her favor. As Judith’s new beau, Sy Ableman, actor Fred Melamed steals the show. He’s an overbearing presence with no conception of personal space. His cool, calm demeanor makes his invasion into Gopnik’s family all the more evil.
Character actor Richard Kind also appears as Uncle Arthur, Larry’s idiot savant brother who is continually laid low by the cyst growing on the back of his neck. The remainder of the cast all perform admirably, but it’s upon these four principals that the weight of the story really rests.
Roger Deakins returns as Director of Photography, adopting an earth-toned color palette that fleshes out the late 60’s setting that has been meticulously recreated by returning Production Designer Jess Gonchor. Highlights within the 1.85:1 frame often take on a greenish-blue tinge while primary colors are desaturated and dull. On paper, it sounds visually dull, but Deakins’ expertise makes for a rather handsome 35mm film image. The Coens’ use of classical camera movements like dollies continues, and is supplemented with punches of handheld camerawork and canted angles that serve to illustrate Gopnik’s increasing disorientation.
Carter Burwell again composes the score, using a lilting harp to add an air of mystery to the proceedings. It also recalls the ancient heritage that serves as the film’s focus, alluding to Old World sensibilities while retaining a traditionally cinematic sound. Such sensibilities are also illustrated through the use of various opera cues. Additionally, the Coens use period-appropriate psychedelic rock throughout, most notably the recurring musical motif of Jefferson Airplane’s “Want Somebody To Love”.
Other bands like The Velvet Underground and Jimi Hendrix serve as encroaching voices of modernity that threaten to penetrate this ancient culture from the outside. This is illustrated in the scenes where Larry’s son, Danny, listens discretely to rock music on a walkman during his Hebrew classes.
The opening of A SERIOUS MAN is worth mentioning, notable by sheer virtue of its inclusion. Presented in an old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, the prologue depicts a (probably made-up) piece of Jewish folklore concerning a man who has invited an old family friend into his humble home for soup and shelter from a cold winter’s night. The man’s wife is shocked to learn the identity of the old friend, who she is convinced died of disease three years earlier.
When the old man enters their home, the wife tries to prove that he is a dybbuk, or the malevolent, spiritual manifestation of a dead person. She even goes as far as stabbing the man, who laughs off the wound as he bleeds to death. He wanders back out into the night, while the married couple ruminates on the spell of bad luck that surely awaits them. While some take this sequence as a prologue showing the genesis of the Gopnik family’s bad fortune, the Coens publicly insist that it has no bearing on the overall plot.
Instead, it is meant as a callback to an older time when short films played before features. This short introductory sequence (spoken entirely in Yiddish with subtitles) sets the mood for the ensuing story, while also introducing the audience to some of the more arcane, superstitious tenets of Judaism.
It stands to reason that the Coens’ most personal film will have the most distinct bearings of their directorial aesthetic. This is more or less the case. The Coens’ distinct sense of character quirks seems to manifest itself from the deeply-rooted idiosyncrasies of their cultural upbringing. By this, I mean that the characters in A SERIOUS MAN are purer, more-distilled versions of classic Coen character archetypes.
A fundamentally Jewish sensibility courses underneath each of the Coens’ character creations and plots, an observation that seems obvious now upon reflection, but didn’t really make itself known to me until A SERIOUS MAN. Other elements of the Coens’ aesthetic– period settings, sudden/brutal violence and the withholding of onscreen deaths for prominent characters– are all present and accounted for.
There’s even the occasional in-joke acknowledging a self-contained universe across the Coens’ body of work (for instance, a callback to Tukman/Marsh, the fictional law firm mentioned in BURN AFTER READING).
The Coens don’t strike me as particularly religious, but Judaism– arguably more so than any other major religion– is as much a cultural and ethnic heritage as it is a belief system. Even if they’re not ardent observers of their own faith, their upbringing in that particular culture informs their filmmaking style and view of the world. By tackling their religion head-on, the Coens are sharing more of their intimate selves than they ever have before.
But don’t try to look for these insights too hard– even their most nakedly personal moments ultimately reveal themselves as red herrings under intense scrutiny. The film was released to middling box office success, but met with strong critical acclaim. It went on to be nominated for Best Picture at the 2010 Academy Awards, and has ever since enjoyed a comfortable standing among the Coens’ best films.
A SERIOUS MAN asks hard questions, and provides little in the way of answers. And rightfully so, for a film that concerns itself with vague concepts of God, fate, and destiny. Everything about the film, including its knockout ending, defies easy explanation. So it is with such an unknowable, ultimately un-proveable thing as a religious belief. In the end, all you have to go on is faith, and only when it is is tested will your strength of character make itself known.
COMMERCIAL WORK (1995-2009)
Over a career spanning nearly three decades, Joel and Ethan Coen have built up one of the most impressive bodies of work in cinematic memory. Their feature work is often held up as the gold standard of directing excellence, made all the more special by their independent roots. So color me surprised to learn (when I’m nearly at the end of my examination of their work) that the Coens have racked up an astonishing number of commercial credits since 1995.
But I’ll be damned if that isn’t the defining nature of the Coen Brothers– once you think you’ve got them figured out, they have one more trick up their sleeve that changes all your perceptions.
*Embeds and links to spots are made when publicly available. The rest of these spots are available to watch via the paid commercial archive site, Source Ecreative.
OLYMPUS: “TOURIST”- 1995
What appears to be the Coen Brothers’ first commercial is an exercise in genre subversion. In the spot, a young man finds himself the subject of a harsh interrogation in some foreboding underground bunker. The dramatically-lit, cobalt-blue 16mm film image is the result of a collaboration between the Coens and Director of Photography Daniel Hainey, who, like Roger Deakins in their theatrical work, would become the Coens’ regular commercial cinematographer.
The production design recalls Ridley Scott’s “1984” Apple spot in its moodiness, but the Coen’s signature comedic sensibilities make the spot something else entirely.
HONDA: “OFFICE”- 1996
A year later, Honda enlisted the Coens’ help to realize their spot for “OFFICE”, which features a young man rushing through his place of work and ignoring the frantic pleas of his co-workers so he can reach his “special place”– a white room that holds his beloved Honda sedan. The piece is shot in black and white, and uses relentless dolly movements and outsized characterization to create a high-energy piece in line with the Coens’ comedic sensibilities.
PARISSIENNE CIGARETTES: “PARISSIENNE”- 1999
This commercial, from European cigarette brand Parissienne, is a riff on old Hollywood silent vampire films like NOSFERATU (1992). As old-timey horror music plunks over the soundtrack, a wiry vampire approaches a sleeping woman and feeds. In his post-feeding stupor, he lights a cigarette to calm his nerves.
Curiously enough, the Coens go to great lengths to replicate the wide, proscenium-style shooting aesthetic of early Hollywood films, yet they shoot in color. They add another modern touch by slowly trucking the camera to the side as the vampire staggers back towards us. This is a great example of Coens subverting genre expectations (modern techniques applied to silent film aesthetics).
HONDA: “FAMILY NEGOTIATIONS” CAMPAIGN- 1999
In 1999, the Coens once again went to work for Honda, creating a series of four spots built around the comedic concept of a family using individual lawyers to haggle with each other over who gets what features in the new family car. Out of the four spots created, I was only able to view two, but I imagine my observations equally apply to the remaining spots.
The Coens employ their standard black/brown color palette to reflect the relative generic-ness of their surroundings. This places a greater emphasis on the larger-than-life characters as they argue vociferously amongst each other. The Coens use canted camera angles and circular dolly movements to add visual punch to the proceedings, which emphasizes the off-kilter nature of the comedy. All in all, this is a clever campaign made all the more memorable by the Coens’ skillful helming.
ALLTELL CAMPAIGN- 1999
1999 was a busy year for the Coen Brothers on the commercial front. They also tackled a small campaign from Alltell. The conceit of the campaign is simple enough: two characters stand against a white background and argue with each other. The hero eventually convinces his opponent that switching to Alltell will solve his problems.
The first spot, “CFO”, features a typical Coen archetype: the cigar-smoking, fat-cat boss. The second, “PUPPET”, is a little more bizarre in that the opponent can only interact through his hand puppet. It’s not exactly the most clever thing in the world, but hey, it’s a commercial.
Both spots were shot by the Coens’ regular commercial cinematographer, Daniel Hainey, who lights the 16mm film frame with the Coens’ signature black/brown color palette. The execution of these spots speaks to the Coens’ affection for screwball comedy.
The black/brown color palette returns in earnest with the Coens’ 2002 spot “DESK”, made for tax firm H&R Block. The commercial features a mass of people slaving over their ledgers while the man in charge monotonously reads from a gigantic tome. It’s a joke about the massive amount of boring work that goes into doing your taxes, which H&R Block is all too happy to help you with.
The Coens use classical camera movements to add scale to the room, which adds to the overbearingness of the situation. Daniel Hainey collaborates with Daniel Pearl on the cinematography, while the Coens’ sometime-feature-editor, Tricia Cook, lends her cutting talents in post production.
For a bunch of number crunchers, the characters have well-developed personalities that are efficiently established within the spot’s 30 second running time. This is further proof of the Coens’ great love for the characters they create, as well as their attention to behavioral detail.
GAP: “TWO WHITE SHIRTS”- 2002
In 2002, the Coens directed what is arguably their most well-known spot. Shot by Daniel Hainey in stylish black and white, their spot for Gap– “TWO WHITE SHIRTS”– features Dennis Hopper and Christina Ricci engaged in a low-key game of chess as they lounge by the pool. A classic rock song blasts over the image. The camera starts in close on Hopper’s calm, emotionless face. Gradually, it dollies back to reveal an idyllic southern California setting and an equally emotionless Ricci advancing one of her chess pawns before retiring to her lounge chair.
The spot exudes an effortless cool, using the contrast between black and white to great effect (white letterbox bars are a nice touch). Gap has always been known for their stylish commercials, so their choice of the Coen Brothers as directors is somewhat curious. However, it’s a well-made spot, and easily my favorite commercial of theirs.
PARISIENNE: “PARISIENNE PEOPLE”- 2003
A few years after their “PARISIENNE” spot for Parisienne Cigarettes, the Coens shot another spot entitled “PARISIENNE PEOPLE” (not exactly the most imaginatively-named set of commercials, is it?). This spot plays off the dichotomy of a stone-faced man smoking a cigarette as he sits in the audience, watching a hyperactive man belt out showtunes on stage.
The commercial employs simple camerawork, relying on an alternating shot/reaction shot execution to sell the comedy. Daniel Hainey again serves as Director of Photography, casting the backgrounds into deep shadow while handsomely lighting the two characters.
Like their feature that year, INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, “PARISIENNE PEOPLE” finds the Coens in pure screwball mode. Short, little-known works like this help to paint a picture of the brothers’ larger mindsets during particular eras of their career.
REALITY COALITION/ALLIANCE FOR CLIMATE PROTECTION CAMPAIGN- 2009
The Coen Brother’s most recent commercial work is a pair of PSAs for the Reality Coalition/Alliance for Climate Protection. The spots, “AIR FRESHENER” and “LAUNDRY”, feature fake household-cleaning products that are hailed as wondrous scrubbing agents that ironically pollute the environment around them.
The tongue-in-cheek nature of the concept is perfectly suited to the Coens’ sensibilities. Each spot is done in the robotically cheery tone of midcentury cleaning commercials, while a genetically perfect Aryan family with plastered-on smiles extolls the virtues of the miracle cleaner as they gleefully choke on the black smoke it emits.
As shot by cinematographer Daniel Hainey, the image is low-contrast in the sterile way that many commercials are now shot in (a trend I find extremely distasteful). Pastel color tones complement the blandness of the suburban setting, and the animated graphics of the cleaner in action recall the cutesy cartoons seen in similar commercials back in the 50’s.
True to the Coens’ nature, the oddball comedy hints at a darker truth– that there’s no such thing as a wonder chemical that doesn’t pollute. It’s easy to see why the Coens were attracted to the concept, and their mark is immediately distinguishable from frame one.
As the Coens’ film career continues to develop, I don’t doubt that we’ll be seeing more commercial work from them as well. Features take a long time to develop, and shooting a commercial or two is a great way to generate extra income during those fallow in-between years. That’s not to say the Coens need that extra money– they do seem to be rather selective in regards to what work they take on. Some may say that commercial work makes sellouts out of respected auteurs, but let’s be honest: anything that enables the Coens to put more work out there for us to enjoy is a good thing.
TRUE GRIT (2010)
Joel and Ethan Coen’s most recent film, 2010’s TRUE GRIT, also happens to be one of their best. Positioning itself as a second adaption to Charles Portis’ original novel (as opposed to a remake of the 1969 film starring John Wayne), it would go on to become one of the Coens’ best-received films. The instantaneous acclaim resulted in yet another Best Picture nomination as well as their first box office gross over $100 million. It is generally regarded as one of the more superior westerns ever made, besting the cinematic original and even the source novel.
But something else happened along the way. In their execution of TRUE GRIT, the filmmakers left behind two of their most-defining characteristics: subversion of genre expectations and an ironic point of view. Oddly enough, the absence of such directorial stylings only bolsters the Coens’ craft. As it stands, TRUE GRIT is an earnest, optimistic story firmly rooted in the traditions of the western genre.
It’s not a deconstruction, but rather an embrace of genre tropes, brilliantly rendered with the same effective minimalism that propelled 2007’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN to similar success.
Taking place in the Arkansas territories in the winter of 1880, TRUE GRIT follows the exploits of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a precocious fourteen year-old girl who has arrived in town to transport her murdered father’s remains back to her family’s homestead. She also has other, bigger plans– finding Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father, and bringing him to justice.
She enlists the help of a cantankerous old bounty hunter, Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) as well as a vainglorious Texas Ranger named LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) to act as her guides and accomplices during the hunt.
The cast, comprised of faces both old and new, performs at the top of their game throughout. Bridges made Oscar history when he was nominated for his performance as Cogburn (it was the first time an actor had been nominated for taking on a role that had earlier earned another Best Actor nomination for its originator, Wayne).
In his second Coen Brothers outing, Bridges completely disappears underneath his scraggly beard and eyepatch, adopting a husky growl of a voice that’s at once both intimidating and endearing. Damon fully embraces the inherent silliness of his character LeBoeuf by wearing his spurs and strange facial hair with pride. It’s an involved, dedicated performance that sees Damon bringing a new dimension to his pretty-boy physicality.
But by far, the performance deserving of most acclaim, is that of Steinfeld as Mattie Ross. A complete unknown beforeTRUE GRIT, Steinfeld was only thirteen years old at the time of filming. Her Ross is confident and stubborn, with a wit and vocabulary light years beyond her age and small stature.
The story’s events find Ross hardened by the end, but it’s by no means a loss of innocence tale. Steinfeld came out of left field to deliver one of 2010’s most iconic performances, and her Best Actress nomination was well-earned. It will be interesting to see what fruit her talents bear as her career unfolds.
Of the supporting cast, only Josh Brolin has had any experience in a Coen Brothers film before (save for a voice cameo by JK Simmons as Mattie’s lawyer). Having served as the lead in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, Brolin trades in screen time for meatier character work. As the fugitive at the center of the hunt, Brolin’s Tom Chaney is a grizzled, dirty scoundrel with an unusually high-pitched voice that hints at an undiagnosed psychopathy and dangerousness.
Interestingly enough, he’s not the leader of his particular posse– that honor belongs to Lucky Ned Pepper, played with reckless abandon by Barry Pepper. Pepper relishes the chance to be a vicious miscreant, barking his lines through a mouth caked in spittle, dirt, and gingivitis. The sickly-looking Lucky Ned proves to be an even more ruthless antagonist than the surprisingly cowardly Chaney.
Roger Deakins, having been absent for 2009’s A SERIOUS MAN, returns to his rightful place as Director of Photography. As befitting the genre, the 35mm film image is framed to the panoramic 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The color palette deals in varying shades of worn brown and desaturated primaries. Deep shadows stand in stark contrast to the bright, slightly overexposed highlights, which gives a sun-seared patina to the image.
The Coens add a great deal of scale to the picture by framing returning Production Designer Jess Gonchor’s period-authentic details and set dressing with elaborate dolly and crane camera moves. The Coens are well aware of the sweeping, romantic nature of the western genre, which is reflected in their own work here without the slightest trace of irony.
TRUE GRIT also benefits from the talents of major Hollywood backers like Scott Rudin and Megan Ellison. Their clout and resources contribute significant production value to the film, and the slightest of cursory looks is all that’s needed to see that all that money is up there on-screen. The sweeping edit by Roderick Jaynes (aka the Coen Brothers) also adds considerable excitement and substance to the picture.
Carter Burwell returns for scoring duties, crafting one of his most iconic works in the process. The swelling music, comprised of traditional orchestra instruments, is both rousing and elegiac. The film’s point of view is that of Mattie’s, twenty five years later as she reflects on how those events shaped who she is today. As such, there’s an air of melancholy and longing in Burwell’s score– not just for Mattie’s youth, but for the once-open promise of the West as it became settled and incorporated into modern society.
Despite an overtly optimistic and straightforward tone, TRUE GRIT still bears the unmistakeable stamp of the Coen Brothers. Their love for wry characterization informs a great deal of interactions, giving each actor ample scenery to chew. The story still begins with a compelling, poetic voiceover. The violence still packs the same kind of punch as their other films, but the absence of substantial blood and gore allows them to get away with a lot under the film’s PG-13 rating. The Coens’ mastery of tone allows them to consistently surprise us without breaking any genre rules.
As I mentioned above, TRUE GRIT is the Coen Brothers’ most recent work (as of this writing). In terms of overall excellence, it’s easily in their top three (the other two being NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and 1996’s FARGO). While the Coens’ singular voice has stayed the same since BLOOD SIMPLE’s debut in 1984, each successive release has found their craft steadily improving.
The Coen Brothers, as a unified entity, can easily be considered one of our era’s greatest living filmmakers– a notion made all the more impressive considering their truly independent roots. In their wake, the Coens have inspired countless other filmmakers and liberated them from the notion that drama and comedy are separate conceits. It turns out, they actually are the same… it just depends on who’s telling the story.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013)
Any aspiring artist can tell you the long, sad, often-frustrating story of their attempts to break through in their chosen medium. The pursuit of making art as one’s primary means of income, while incredibly exhilarating and fulfilling in its victories (both small and large), comes with living in a constant state of self-doubt, second-guessing, what-ifs, and seething envy for colleagues more successful than you.
Being an artist means pouring your blood, sweat, and tears into your work, oftentimes for no one else’s benefit but your own, and rarely with any kind of financial reward for your trouble. Being a part of an artistic community, while oftentimes a source of great encouragement and strength, can also be a source of great heartbreak when you’re surrounded by constant reminders that there will always be someone more talented, more connected, or more popular than you.
It takes a very specific kind of courage and character to persevere in such an environment, which the directing team of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen capture so beautifully in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013), their intimate portrait of Greenwich Village’s burgeoning folk scene circa the early 1960’s.
Like its sister piece O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000) before it, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS springs forth from the rich heritage of American folk music. The Coens have often turned to our distinct musical flavor in finding inspiration throughout their body of work, and with INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS they turn their attention to the folk scene in Greenwich Village at a specific point in history—the moment just before Bob Dylan came around and fundamentally transformed it.
The Coens used folk musician Dave Van Ronk’s life as a jumping-off point, fictionalizing his plight in such a way that it would become our window into this insular, long-forgotten world. To accomplish their vision, the Coens teamed up with Scott Rudin, the super-producer behind their previous film (2010’s TRUE GRIT). At this time, Rudin had been dabbling in independent experimental works from well-known auteurs, like Noah Baumbach and his 2012 feature FRANCES HA, so another round with the Coens seemed only natural.
Despite the runaway success of their previous pairing, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS floundered around somewhat in securing distribution, and while it received great reviews from the critics, it never found solid footing and support aside from the most hardcore of Coen fanatics (of which, admittedly, there are legion).
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS tells the story of its eponymous protagonist (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk singer trying to make a dent in Greenwich Village’s crowded music scene in 1961. He is essentially homeless, bouncing around from couch to couch and becoming increasingly reliant on the generosity of like-minded artist within the scene as well as his adoring (and only) fans, a well-to-do older couple. Oftentimes, his inability to get his life in order results in animosity from his closest friends, which the thick-skinned Llewyn seems to be mostly oblivious to.
The film as a whole doesn’t boast much in the way of a traditional plot, opting instead to follow Llewyn during a somewhat eventful week that begins with his contentious friend and fellow folk singer Jean (Carey Mulligan) secretly announcing that she might be pregnant with his child—- a rather shitty development for her considering it might also be her boyfriend Jim’s (Justin Timberlake) baby and she actually would want to keep that one.
While Llewyn scrounges for whatever change he can in order to take care of the situation, he meets with his manager who, in as many words, reminds Llewyn of his depreciated musical value following the suicide of his partner, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge a few years prior.
A little bit later, Llewlyn records a song with Jim and fellow folk singer Al Cody (Adam Driver)—a song of Jim’s own making that Llewyn personally finds distasteful and embarrassing. Assuming this naked attempt to sell out won’t actually result in success, Llewyn accepts the one-time session recording payment without having the foresight to secure any future royalties—an ill-advised decision that hammers home when Llewyn discovers that, ironically, the song is actually going to be quite popular.
And finally, in a last-ditch attempt to secure new management, Llewyn hitches a ride to Chicago. He hopes to audition for a famous manager out there, only to again hit a wall that he can’t quite break through.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS manages to capture a certain time and place in the calm before the storm… before a groundbreaking voice (Bob Dylan) came along like a megathrust earthquake and fundamentally changed the scene. To hammer this point home, we even see a cameo of a young Dylan sitting down to perform at the famous Gaslight venue, home to the Village’s folk community.
With the film, the Coens paint a portrait of a starving artist that’s utterly heartbreaking in how true it rings for any creative person caught in that hard, agonizing place between obscurity and success. However, the Coens use INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS to argue a heartfelt point—that the best art comes from a place of deprivation and the human condition of wanting and needing something; a fact that Llewyn has to understand and absorb if he’s ever going to take off. His art must be a product of passion and survival.
In his first true headlining performance, Oscar Isaac proves himself every bit a leading man. As the failing singer Llewyn, Isaac assumes a stymied, disorganized and neurotic persona. He’s fed up with the folk scene that seemingly exists only to mock him, along with his inability to rise to the level of success that his friends and colleagues seem to be experiencing. Isaac’s performance here is undeniably his best so far, fashioning a character that is inherently relatable even if he’s not exactly likeable.
Carey Mulligan, in her second collaboration with Isaac after Nicolas Wending Refn’s DRIVE (2011), dyes her hair jet black so she can disappear into the angry and confrontational character of Jean. She absolutely nails the Coens’ biting sense of humor, made all the more hilarious considering her sweet, youthful countenance. Justin Timberlake continues his run of surprisingly well-acted appearances for prestige directors in the character of Jim. He’s handsome, successful and charismatic—basically, he’s a folk version of himself in real life.
The Coens’ supporting cast is equally eclectic, with GIRLS’ stars Adam Driver playing Al Cody— a goofy performer dressed up in cowboy attire— and Alex Karpovsky playing Marty Green, a bookish and put-together departure from his usual “frazzled/neurotic” guy roles. Longtime Coen collaborator John Goodman makes his requisite appearance as Roland Turner—a lethargic, Kentucky-fried bastard and successful jazz musician— again proving himself a master of characterization, despite his limited screen time.
Garrett Hedlund, a much-maligned young actor for reasons I can’t quite comprehend, plays Johnny Five—Roland’s valet and chauffeur. Hedlund pulls off a quiet, intense performance as a James Dean greaser type, possessing an effortless cool that stands in stark contrast to Llewyn’s anxious aggression.
The Coens’ regular cinematographer, Roger Deakins, was unavailable to shoot INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS due to his commitments on Sam Mendes’ SKYFALL (2012), so instead, they turned to French cinematographer Bruce Delbonnel, who had previously worked with the Coens on “TUILIERIES”, their short contribution to the 2006 omnibus film, PARIS J’TAIME.
Delbonnel’s cinematography on INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS was nominated for an Academy Award—the film’s sole nomination, which is interesting given that the Academy usually falls all over itself to throw the Coens as many nominations as they can. Delbonnel and the Coens shot INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS on a 35mm film stock with very low grain; so low, in fact, that one could be mistaken for thinking the film was shot digitally.
As has been a mark of their work since O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?, the Coens give INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS a unique look via substantial color grading that desaturates primary hues while emphasizing a creamy, teal/grey palette. The look reflects the cold, depressing winter that envelopes the film, but there’s also a hint of romance to it, signified by a hazy, dreamlike soft focus. The Coens use the camera mostly in an observational, minimalist sense, keeping it static and unmoving (save for the occasional dolly glide).
The Coens’ regular production designer, Jess Gonchor, returns with a low-key, lived-in aesthetic that’s accurate to the period in its closer resemblance to the late 1950’s instead of the pyschedelic, go-go 60’s look that the period usually engenders.
In eschewing a traditional score, and by extension, another collaboration with their regular composer Carter Burwell, the Coens must subsequently rely more on their frequent music supervisor, T-Bone Burnett. Burnett’s legendary ear has been responsible for the compilation of several amazing musical soundscapes that give their respective movies and TV shows a distinct aural identity. His collaboration with the Coens reaches back to O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, and in many ways, the soundtrack to INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS becomes a spiritual successor to that film.
While the film boasts several live performances, a lot of the music was pre-recorded by the cast prior to shooting, who were joined by modern, prominent folk artists like Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons (his main contribution being the film’s theme track, “Fare Thee Well”). Burnett and the Coens close out the film with Bob Dylan’s “Farewell”, which serves not only as a comment on Dylan’s profound effect on the folk scene following his debut, but also as wry commentary on how similar it is to Llewyn’s own “Fare Thee Well”.
Make no mistake, this isn’t an oversight on the Coens’ part; it is a deliberate move that highlights the almost-nonexistent dividing line between successful and failed artists. The line itself is not talent, as one would naturally think—it’s luck.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS possesses a sensibility that places it directly in line with the Coens’ prolific body of work. The story is laced with pitch-black humor and acerbic characterization, treating the Gentile/Anglo culture of folk music with a distinctly Jewish mentality. The placing of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS’ story in a concrete time period apart from contemporary trappings is a trait shared by the majority of the Coens’ previous work, giving their filmography a truly timeless appeal.
Signified by the bitter, oppressive winter that surrounds the film’s characters, the specter of death looms large in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS—but not in the sense that the Coens have traditionally applied it in films like FARGO(1996) or NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), seeing as this is the first Coen Brothers film where nobody dies. Rather, death is equated with obscurity by INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS’ characters. They work tirelessly to succeed as artists, because failure means obscurity—and to them, obscurity is a fate far worse than death.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS was well-received by critics (as was expected), but wasn’t given enough of a marketing push to enable a healthy box office run. After a long time in post-production with a constantly shifting and unpublicized release date, it was quietly released in time for the 2013/2014 awards season, netting only the aforementioned cinematography nomination at the Oscars.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS will most likely be remembered as a minor film in the Coens’ canon—but even the most minor Coen work still stands as a sterling example of cinema at its finest. The film is a strong, passionately realized work that competes with the best of 2013’s releases while continuing the Coens’ long tradition of excellence in both craft and storytelling.
HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)
There’s a saying in Hollywood that goes: “you’re only as good as your last movie”, and while we all would like to think that’s really not the case, it’s unfortunately been proven true time and time again in the court of public opinion. Directing team Joel and Ethan Coen are well acquainted with this sentiment, as well as the erratic career momentum of seesawing from disappointment to triumph– the latest swing resulting in an unbroken string of four well-received prestige pictures in as many years.
The Coens hoped 2013’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS— their intimate and tenderly-woven portrait of artistic struggle– would continue this hot streak, but underwhelming box office returns promptly iced those plans. They kept a low-profile for the next couple years, quietly writing the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s Cold War drama, BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015), while also developing a long-gestating idea about a troupe of actors in the 1920’s putting on a play about ancient Rome called HAIL, CAESAR! (3)
First pitched to George Clooney in 1999 on the set of O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, HAIL, CAESAR! was officially announced in industry trade journals in 2004, but active development didn’t officially start until 2013 when Clooney aggressively pushed them to make it as their next project. Nearly two decades in the making, HAIL, CAESAR! finally arrived in 2016, trading in its theatrical origins for a loving, yet bitingly satirical portrait of Hollywood studio system during its Golden Age.
The film, set in and around the bustling studio lots of 1950’s-era Los Angeles, affords the Coens ample opportunity to romp through the various popular genres of the time– pulpy westerns, lavish costume dramas, patriotic musicals, and biblical epics, to name just a few.
It’s a time of great transition in the movie business: the precisely-tuned machinery of the studio system and the very concept of “celebrity is beginning to break down and reveal its engineered artificiality, the Supreme Court has recently ruled that the studios must divest themselves from owning theater chains, and television is looming on the horizon like a foreboding storm cloud (2).
In response, Hollywood doubles down on money-making escapist fare. As an omniscient narrator (played by Michael Gambon) sets the stage, the Coens show us the trouble lurking in the wings– namely, a gang of Communist intellectuals who have managed to kidnap Hollywood superstar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of his new biblical epic “Hail, Caesar!” and turn him into an agent for their cause.
Their successful heist is only one of the many headaches that Capitol Pictures executive Eddie Mannix has to deal with throughout HAIL, CAESAR! Played by Josh Brolin in his third appearance for the brothers, Mannix is all business and stubborn persistence in a fictionalized version of the real life MGM producer of the same name (1). An elite blessed with a working-class attitude, Mannix acts as something of a fixer for the studio, shuttling around the various productions and ensuring his unruly stars fall in with the studio line all while trying to decide whether he wants to move on to a cushy new job at Lockheed Martin.
This being a Coen picture, however, HAIL, CAESAR! isn’t necessarily concerned with Mannix’s emotional trajectory. Like so many Coen protagonists before him, Mannix is, rather, the steady rock that grounds a surrounding ensemble of oddballs, misfits, and all-around idiots. The title of King Idiot goes (naturally) to Clooney in his fourth character within the brother’s so-called “idiot trilogy” (which just goes to show that idiots never know when to stop).
As the dense and impressionable movie star Baird Whitlock, Clooney leans into his natural, old-fashioned charm to project an appropriate “Hollywood Golden Age” essence. Alden Ehrenreich plays Hobie Doyle, a heroic hayseed whose folksy swagger and plucky persistence lends him just as well to uncovering Baird’s whereabouts as it does to performing in swashbuckling western pictures.
Ralph Fiennes mixes the essence of Laurence Olivier with his M. Gustave character from Wes Anderson’s THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014) in his performance as Laurence Laurentz, a stuffy and pretentious film director who delivers obtuse stage directions with a put-upon aristocratic accent.
Scarlett Johansson, who hasn’t been seen in a Coen picture since she was a young girl in 2001’s THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, shows she’s emerged into full-fledged womanhood in her role as DeeAnna Moran, a feisty silver screen diva with an abrasive Transatlantic accent and a history of poor impulse control. Tilda Swinton pulls double duty in her second performance for the Coens after 2008’s BURN AFTER READING, playing identical sisters Thora and Thessalay Thacker.
The Thacker Sisters are flip sides of the same increasingly-competitive coin: one fancies herself a serious journalist while the other is a bubbly vulture for celebrity gossip. The aforementioned gang of Communist intellectuals consists of familiar faces like A SERIOUS MAN’s Fred Melamed and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS’ Alex Karpovsky, as well as Coen newbies like Dave Krumholtz and Wayne Knight. As Burt Gurney, a star of fleet-footed patriotic musicals and the secret leader of the Communists, Channing Tatum turns in an expectedly charismatic performance.
The script provides ample opportunity for Tatum to exercise his natural flair for dance and old-fashioned showmanship– indeed, his tap dancing ability seems so natural that it’s hard to believe he had to learn it for the film. Jonah Hill and Jack Huston turn in brief, yet memorable cameos as a bookish fall-guy kept on studio retainer and the star of Laurentz’ Merrily We Dance melodrama, respectively. Finally, longtime Coen repertory player (and Joel’s wife) Frances McDormand tops off HAIL, CAESAR!’s eclectic ensemble with a small role as a dowdy, chainsmoking editor under Mannix’s employ.
After his brief absence from the Coen fold for INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, cinematographer Roger Deakins returns to his rightful place at their side. During press interviews for that film, the brother signaled their suspicion that it might be their last shot on actual celluloid, but HAIL, CAESAR! delays that transition for another day, owing to their belief that film was the format to best evoke their intended period vibe.
Once again shooting on 35mm film in their usual 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the Coens and Deakins infuse HAIL, CAESAR! with warm, golden tones that project a certain nostalgia for Hollywood’s Golden Age, as well as bright saturated colors reminiscent of the early days of Technicolor. Unlike the somber observationalism of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, HAIL, CAESAR! possesses an exaggerated theatrically apropos of its subject matter, sweeping over returning production designer Jess Gonchor’s sets with classical dolly and crane-based camera movements.
The Coens show a particular stylistic zeal in their treatment of the various movies within the movie, effortlessly weaving in and out of “edited” movie sequences and actual narrative while changing their lighting setups, pacing, and even their aspect ratios to reflect the current genre they find themselves in.
These sequences are where the brothers’ heartfelt love of Old Hollywood and the visual grammar of midcentury American cinema are most realized, balancing their biting satire of film as a commercial product with an ode to the art form’s natural magic and effervescence– a miraculous medium that’s closer to the realm of dreamscape than business.
Assembled together under the guise of their editing pseudonym, Roderick Jaynes, these moments are held together with a musical cohesion that harkens back to the big-band orchestral scores of yesteryear thanks to the sprawling range of its faithful composer, Carter Burwell.
The various technical and thematic Coen hallmarks contained within HAIL, CAESAR! makes for an effortless addition to their existing canon. Their trademark gallows humor alternates wildly between witty character interactions and moments of exaggerated slapstick, yet never leans too heavily to one side or loses control of its fragile tone. Their love for the history and traditions of American music can be seen through the story’s inherent musicality, especially in the freewheeling “No Dames” number.
Their longtime subversion of genre expectations– especially within the boundaries of the “caper”– also continues here, with the Coens orchestrating a complicated and convoluted plot that ultimately amounts to little more than a hill of beans. The visual image of a briefcase full of money slipping away from its owner is a common one in the Coens’ filmography, popping up in FARGO, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and even NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.
Now, it re-appears in HAIL, CAESAR!, taking the form of a gift from the Communist intellectuals meant for their hopeful Soviet overlords that ultimately succumbs to the sea thanks to a bungled handoff. While HAIL, CAESAR! finds the brothers once again working in their anti-genre wheelhouse, it also finds them embracing the visual conceits of genre more fully than ever. Indeed, they figuratively rampage through midcentury cinema’s marquee genres, scratching every stylistic itch they might have ever had along the way.
Further connecting itself to the disparate strands of the Coens’ filmography is the notion that HAIL, CAESAR!’s Capitol Pictures is in fact the very same studio featured in BARTON FINK, albeit much more bustling and vibrant than the stagnating pre-war environment we had previously seen.
There must have been a regime change following Jack Lipnick’s deployment to the front, or a switching of gears away from high-minded prestige cinema in favor of candy-coated escapist entertainment– perhaps a sly critique coming from the Coens in regards to the similar collapse of the specialty prestige sector in the late aughts that gave rise to the deluge of interconnected comic book franchises?
The territory of aggressive studio brass, pretentious directors, and dim-witted movie stars proves a fertile landscape for the brothers to color in new shades to their career-long portrait of the wealthy and the elite as absurd and out of touch. In the Coen universe, this conceit can also apply to academics and intellectuals, evidenced in HAIL, CAESAR! with the group of Communist conspirators.
Also like BARTON FINK’s eponymous protagonist, these intellectuals frequently wax poetic about the plight of the Common Man but never actually make much of an effort to connect with them, let alone actually do something. The Coens bestow them with none of the dignity or grace that marks their working-class characters; instead, they are inept and ineffectual, devoting themselves entirely to thought where characters like Mannix are devoted to action.
HAIL, CAESAR! also contains a notable degree of the religious humor that gave A SERIOUS MAN its comic bite, seen here through the prism of Mannix’s Christianity. Sequences like the one in which Mannix consults with leading officials of the various major faiths over the cinematic portrayal of God and Jesus illustrate how religion fundamentally shapes the irreverent character of the Coens’ films without being overtly religious or preachy.
The release of HAIL, CAESAR! provided some small degree of relief for the Coens after the disappointing box office reception of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, scoring $30 million in domestic receipts against a budget of $22 million. The warm praise lavished upon the film, however, was not matched by most audiences save for the most die-hard of Coen fanatics. The film’s lukewarm reception (combined with its distant February release date) does not bode well for its chances as a contender in the 2016 awards season– an arena in which the Coens are a perennial presence.
If the aftermarket life of their other underappreciated work is any indication, however, HAIL, CAESAR! is bound to grow in stature over time. It may be a satire that purports to prize the supremacy of commerce over art, yet it never loses sight of that particular essence of the artistic spirit that drives the industry. The film pays service to the idea of Hollywood as a “dream factory”, with the Coens showing us the complicated and oftentimes absurd machinery behind the veil of the silver screen. Yet, they are dreams nonetheless, and HAIL, CAESAR! shows that, even after all these years, the Coen themselves are still gripped in thrall to the awesome magic of cinema.
MERCEDES: “EASY DRIVER” COMMERCIAL (2017)
In 2017, directors Joel and Ethan Coen returned to the commercial fold for a high-profile Super Bowl spot. Titled “EASY DRIVER”, the spot for Mercedes-Benz pays winking tribute to the lasting influence of Dennis Hopper’s pioneering independent film, EASY RIDER (1969), depicting a gang of goofball bikers blasting Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” in a bar tucked away out in the desert. Someone rushes in and announces that their bikes are blocked in by a fancy Mercedes parked out front, so they rush out, ready to rumble.
Imagine their surprise when the owner of that Mercedes is none other than EASY RIDER’s Peter Fonda, who espouses the same cool nonchalance he had back then as he greets them and hits the open road once more.
The Coens embrace the screwball side of their aesthetic in executing the spot, framing the bikers in medium closeups at off-kilter angles to better highlight their exaggerated absurdity. The desert setting evokes similar imagery from their back catalog, most immediately NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007).
While the rest of their artistic signatures are fairly downplayed here, the Coens’ hiring is nonetheless apt, serving as a humble nod from a pair of independent cinema’s most prominent voices to the seminal work that paved the way for their own careers.
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018)
Like the recording industry before it, the film industry has sustained a seismic shift over the past decade and change— both in small movements made gradually and in giant, abrupt leaps. While experts and armchair analysts alike feared that the advent of home video in the 1970’s and 80’s would result in the collapse of movie theaters, they should have saved their concern for the streaming age ushered in by the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime. Though cinemas are still making out okay (or barely scraping by, depending on who you ask), the economics of the industry — the inscrutable alchemy of ego, inspiration and financial calculus behind every “greenlight” — have profoundly, and perhaps permanently, shifted. Filmmakers of every stripe have had to adapt, the question of their futures rooted in an inherent compromise: do they sacrifice creative control for a large canvas, or do they choose artistic liberty at the expense of a wide theatrical release?
The directing duo of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have proven themselves to be a major force in American cinema, responsible for several unimpeachable classics, but even they are not immune to the will of the marketplace. The middling performance of their last film, 2016’s HAIL, CAESAR!, reinforced the flagging viability of theatrical for filmmakers uninterested in big budget franchises. As Marvel and other four-quadrant franchises have come to dominate the megaplex, the studios have become increasingly uninterested in making the smaller, adult-oriented films that the Coens specialize in. They could see the writing on the wall, and streamers like Netflix or Amazon Prime — where conventional success metrics like box office receipts no longer applied — offered to transform a future of compromise into one of opportunity.
Their latest project seemed like an ideal fit, being an unconventional anthology of short Western stories titled THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS. They had developed the stories in private over a span of twenty years (actor Tim Blake Nelson had a draft of the titular story in hand as early as 2002 (1)), so the Coens were understandably hesitant about producing them under such unconventional circumstances. Despite their initial misgivings, they reasoned that they owed their very careers to home video (2), having carried around their proof of concept trailer for 1984’s BLOOD SIMPLE to show to prospective investors in their own homes. A jump to Netflix, then, was only a logical extension of the same approach— only this time it was a finished product; an innovative display of the distinct quality of auteur storytelling that the streaming model is capable of when it’s not trying to emulate studio programming.
The longest film that the Coens have made to date, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS compiles six original stories that, in the aggregate, paint a fairly comprehensive portrait of the Old West and its mythical place in pop culture, as well as the brothers’ own existing filmography. Each story gets its own title, self-contained cast, and distinct visual style, allowing Joel & Ethan to stretch out into all corners of their wide artistic range. They use the image of a hardcover book — an anthology collection of stories, complete with illustrated color plates — as a framing device and transitory element between each segment. The titular episode is up first, starring Tim Blake Nelson as a singing, fourth-wall breaking raconteur and gunslinger who stumbles into a series of violent mishaps rendered in a manic screwball style similar to RAISING ARIZONA or INTOLERABLE CRUELTY. The next piece, “Near Algodones”, was shot in New Mexico alongside “The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs” and stars James Franco as a stoic cowboy caught in a loop of grim absurdities that evoke the existential irony of films like A SERIOUS MAN and THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE. “Meal Ticket”, filmed amidst the rugged landscape of Colorado, stars Liam Neeson and Harry Melling as a pair of traveling entertainers — the latter a quadruple amputee delivering historical speeches and famous stories, and the former his quiet handler. Like INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS before it, “Meal Ticket” strips back narrative flourish to create an austere meditation on the myriad cruelties of pursuing art in a capitalistic society, where a man can be dispassionately replaced by a chicken if that means more tickets will be sold to the show.
The back half of stories allows the Coens to indulge themselves even further with their unique brand of mythical storytelling. “All Gold Canyon”, an adaptation of a story by Jack London, stars the iconic musician Tom Waits as a crotchety old prospector who stumbles across gold in a lush valley outside Telluride, Colorado (3)— a veritable paradise that’s quickly spoiled by the inherent evil of mankind, manifest in the guise of a bandit who plans to get rich quick off the prospector’s labor. Zoe Kazan, who previously featured in another Oregon Trail film — Kelly Reichardt’s MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010) — headlines the fifth story, “The Gal Who Got Rattled”. Playing a timid would-be settler named Alicia Longabaugh, Kazan’s delicate naïveté in the face of harsh vistas brings to mind similar imagery from TRUE GRIT, while the somber irony of its ending evokes the bleak, yet poignant austerity of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Inspired by the writings of Steward Edward White and shot on the vast plains of the Nebraska Panhandle, “The Gal Who Got Rattled” puts a particularly Coen-esque twist on the archetypical Oregon Trail story, using the plot device of a small, endlessly-yapping dog whose mere presence seems to invite cruel twists of fate.
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS closes out with “The Mortal Remains”, easily the most inscrutable of the six stories. Comprised mostly of morbid conversation between Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill and other character actors inside a traveling stagecoach before arriving under cover of moonlight at a desolate hotel in the middle of nowhere, “The Mortal Remains” differs from the preceding stories in that it was shot entirely on a soundstage. No effort is made to hide its artificiality, especially where the facades of the hotel and surrounding town are concerned. Like BARTON FINK, the apparent theatricality of the piece suggests that “The Mortal Remains” should be ingested on more of a metaphysical level than its relatively-straightforward cousins. The story is consumed by the specter of death, with its characters displaying a deep-seated anxiety towards the great Hereafter. There’s a strong, perhaps even obvious, case to be made that they are already dead, and are in the process of being ferried over into the afterlife. Notice that the stagecoach drops them off at the hotel without unloading their bags, bringing to mind the ultimate triviality of our earthly possessions. “You can’t take it with you”, the old saying goes. The characters’ anxiety towards death is also reflected in their reluctance to enter the hotel, which is presented as an empty, purgatorial lobby with a grand staircase that leads up towards a blinding white light. Though the gothic, quasi-Victorian vibe of “The Mortal Remains” might seem at odds with the Old West aesthetic of the other stories, it nevertheless fills in a fuller picture of our Western myths by channeling the superstitions and paranoias of the nineteenth-century societies that produced them.
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS also serves as something of a stylistic departure for the Coens, being their first feature film to utilize the digital format. Though their previous features had been shot on photochemical film, there was very little to suggest that they shared the purist sentiment to celluloid evidenced by others like Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan. Indeed, the quantity of low-light and visual effects shots required by the script would suggest a prime opportunity to embrace the now-dominant digital format (4). Working with their INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, the Coens capture THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS on a mix of Arri Alexa and Studio XT cameras in the 2.8K Arriraw format. Presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the image was captured with a collection of Fujinon Alura and Zeiss Master Prime lenses. Along with a classical approach to its camerawork, the predominant use of the 27mm lens in particular works towards a unified aesthetic overall, even as each segment fashions its own distinct look. The titular story takes on a dusty, desaturated look awash in slightly overexposed brightness, so as to highlight its screwball affectations. “Near Algodones” takes on a kind of sepia-toned, tobacco cast while “Meal Ticket” favors a somewhat-sickly blue/green hue. “All Gold Canyon” emphasizes the staggering beauty of its surroundings with bright sunlight and lush greens. “The Gal Who Got Rattled” leans into the fading warmth of golden sunsets, and finally, “The Mortal Remains” reinforces its preoccupation with death via strong, pale blue tones.
Though THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGS’ cinematography readily embraces Western iconography like TRUE GRIT and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN before it, the film’s particular approach to production design and music distinguishes it as an altogether different animal. Working again under their editing pseudonym, Roderick Jaynes, the Coens inject a distinctly postmodern edge through the entire course of proceedings. This is reflected in returning production designer Jess Gonchor’s abstracted landscapes. Even in completely natural environments, the contents of the frame emphasize a degree of exaggeration; for instance, the film opens in Monument Valley, with its infamous towers of rock that have served as a veritable studio backlot to so many westerns before it. “Near Algodones” juxtaposes singular structures — like a tree or a bank facade — against the flat horizon line to create a slightly expressionistic atmosphere. “All Gold Canyon” finds a fertile valley outside Telluride that’s so insanely picturesque it couldn’t possibly exist in the real world; all the better to convey its allusions to the Garden of Eden.
The Coens’ frequent composer Carter Burwell strikes a middle ground between the earnest heroism of TRUE GRIT’s score and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN’s spare, near-absent approach. The music of THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS adjusts its subdued orchestral character accordingly with each segment, becoming most pronounced in “All Gold Canyon” and “The Gal Who Got Rattled”. That the score was recorded at the iconic Abbey Road Studios in London is indicative of the sweeping disruptions brought on by the rise of streamers— though they make filmed entertainment on the same scale and budget as the studios do, they take advantage of new media agreements to skirt around the full cost of working with the various unions. IATSE’s recent threatening of a nationwide strike is a direct result of this cost-cutting approach, which has inadvertently caused already-exhausted crews to work longer hours at lower pay. In the recording world, Netflix’s refusal to become a signatory to the composers union would mean that it had to conduct that activity outside of the US; the practice has contributed to the hollowing out of the business in traditional locales like New York (5). That the Coens’ move to Netflix could benefit them personally while negatively impacting the craftsmen and women who make their vision possible demonstrates just how complicated and ethically-tangled the streaming age is, even as it simplifies the movie watching experience and makes it more accessible than ever.
This isn’t to say that the decision to record at Abbey Road was particularly cheap; it’s one of the most iconic recording studios in the world, and its use for THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS appropriately reflects the importance of music in the Coens’ artistic profile. Over the course of their filmography, the Coens have explored music — particularly, American musical ideas, conventions, and traditions — as a storytelling tool. Their repeated use of folk songs throughout THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS and prior works, both in diegetic and non-diegetic contexts, is used as a worldbuilding device in the same manner as production design. It’s right there in the title— a celebration of music as a form of oral storytelling and American mythmaking. What’s made the Coens so distinctive against other myth-minded filmmakers is their divergence from the traditional focus on heroes & villains; the various misfits that populate THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS join a long list of Coen oddballs, given generous heaps of sympathy due to the brothers’ supernatural ability to cast outstanding character faces and tunnel deep down into the truth of their humanity. We get the distinct sense that there are larger fates at play, conspiring to manipulate their situations into increasingly-absurd ironies. It would be a rather large stretch to describe the Coens as “religious” filmmakers, but watching THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS and their previous work, one gets the distinct impression of an all-seeing deity with a sick sense of humor, lording over the creations he’s placed into a world that solely exists for his own entertainment.
Keeping in line with Netflix’s prestigious ambitions, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS received a splashy premiere at the Venice Film Festival and a limited theatrical release in order to qualify for awards consideration. The strategy was modestly successful, yielding three Oscar nominations in categories like Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design, and Original Song. For Netflix, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS was an undeniable success, satisfactorily advancing their unrelenting push towards Hollywood dominance. For the Coens, the outcome was more mixed. Despite a swath of positive reviews and major award nominations, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS didn’t perform well at the box office. Being a subscriber-based service, theatrical receipts are and never have been an important factor in Netflix’s revenue strategy, and the Coens don’t exactly have a reputation for making gobs of money with their films. Maybe it was lack of audience interest, or conversely, a wellspring of interest that simply preferred the ease of streaming at home instead of trekking out to the theater; either way, IndieWire would later analyze, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS would be the lowest-grossing movie of their career had it followed a traditional release model (6). It may also be the last Coen Brothers film as we’ve come to know the term— amidst rumors that he was simply tired of making movies, Ethan would sit out the production of Joel’s subsequent project, THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH. Though Joel had been credited as the sole director in their early films, it’s commonly understood that Ethan was serving in an equal creative capacity. THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, then, would be the first true instance of Joel working solo, and all signs seemingly point to this being the case going forward.
If THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS is to be the final film where the brothers are working as a pair, then its legacy as an unwitting capstone to their collaboration is fitting enough. Its continual subversion of genre tropes and wry, sometimes-fatalistic sense of humor is quintessential Coen— a sublime distillation of the multifaceted voice they’ve developed together over the decades, forged from a fundamental understanding of the inherent absurdities of American myth. Their stories are ours, reflected and refracted through the prisms of satire and irony, and yet, always rooted in genuine affection. While positive reviews for THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH portend a continuity of quality post-split, a new era of unpredictability awaits Joel and Ethan in their respective pursuits. We as an audience stand only to benefit, as we’ll gain ever-deeper insights into the individual world views and idiosyncrasies that, when combined, have gifted us with an unforgettable body of work with no equal.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———