At the midpoint of each month, we feature a figure or theme within the film community and share our thoughts about related works. Each of our critics chooses a particular film to write about (sometimes two!). Our choice for a Retrospective Roundtable might be inspired by a recent event in the film community, an exciting new release, or from a common interest shared between our critics.
Known for their dark crime movies (that usually involve black comedy), the Coen Brothers are perhaps the most well-known directorial pairing in America. But even in this decade alone, the two have delved into the musical drama (Inside Llewyn Davis), the Western (True Grit) and comedy (Hail, Caesar!), genres proving the two to remain just as versatile today as they have ever been. We celebrate their work this month as a reminder of where the pair first made a name for themselves: the Sundance Film Festival in January ’85 where they were awarded the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) for their debut Blood Simple.
Blood Simple (1984)
Alex Sitaras– As the Coen Brothers’ first film, Blood Simple is both wildly entertaining and tense in equal measure. The film is about a bar owner who discovers his wife is cheating on him with one of the bartenders. When he tells his detective to kill his wife and her lover, everything goes awry as you might expect in a Coen Brothers film.
Although Blood Simple is most often classified as a film noir, the film shares much in common with the B-movie horror films of its time. Grisly murders, the dead ‘coming back to life’, the dragging of a shovel on pavement, and dream sequences are just a few horror-esque qualities that are utilized as characters within the film attempt to outwit each other but end up confusing a third party instead. Taking place in Texas, the film provides a caricature of justice that could only be found there. In the final line of the film, The Coen Brothers share their first laugh of their illustrious career and announce themselves as harbingers of a new darkly comic view of the crime genre.
Barton Fink (1991)
Kevin Jones– Telling the story of a playwright arriving in Hollywood to try his hand at screenwriting, Barton Fink is one the Coen Brothers’ more densely written films. Packed with references to classic literature and a variety of themes that span from Hollywood to religion and politics, Barton Fink is an early demonstration of the nuance and skill the Coens possessed in creating genre-less and truly mesmerizing character studies. However, the lingering moment and memory from Barton Fink that still sticks with me is John Goodman. Initially just an average guy before he turns out to be the devil bringing the fires of hell with him to this seedy hotel, Goodman’s masterful performance against typecasting is a performance of a lifetime. With Goodman’s tremendous supporting turn and the Coen’s knowledge of Hollywood and writing that colors the problems of the titular character (portrayed by the equally excellent John Turturro), Barton Fink’s display of writer’s block and the way in which writers are treated in Hollywood may be just as terrifying as the film’s descent into hell in the final act. Weaving together a series of influences from the world of cinema, literature, and politics, into a chilling and thrilling portrayal of a man just trying to break into Hollywood, Barton Fink continues to be one of the more confounding and studied works by the Coens, standing as an early example of their skill while being a great film in its own right.
Ben McDonald– Fargo is the Coens at their most comfortable, a crossroad of quirky characters, bloody violence, and a serious moral questioning of American values. It was one of the first Coen films I ever saw, but one whose value continues to dawn on me. The story follows a bizarre series of murders in Minnesota from the perspective of both sides of the law.
Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is having money troubles. To circumvent this, he hires two hitmen (Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife (Kristen Rudrud) and ransom her to his wealthy father-in- law (Harve Presnell). As in most Coen movies, the plan soon turns spectacularly south, involving local pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand).
In my eyes, what Fargo really gets to the heart of is the clash of morality in American culture. On one side of the story, you have the evil and greedy with Jerry and the hitmen, representing the rampant avarice that has plagued America since the Industrial Revolution. On the other side is the average citizen, the normal everyday American bounded by their sense of community and purpose in life. The overly-friendly manner in which Minnesotans are portrayed only highlights the difference between these two factions.
I think what I love about Fargo so much is that its narrative richness allow such incredible thematic depth. The film stands on its own as an eccentric crime story, but also a moralistic exploration. Subplots that seem like superfluous detail on a first viewing reveal themselves to be just one more thematic nail the Coens hammer into their thesis. The benign conversations that Marge has with her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch) show the softer, empathetic side of American life, while her interactions with Jerry and later the hitmen highlight the uglier criminal underbelly of the same location. It’s this absurdity that such polar opposites can coexist in the same place that the Coens toy with so well. The excellent television show of the same name by Noah Hawley harps back to and doubles down on these motifs. While the battle between good and evil is still (and will always be) raging on, the Coens conclude that good has already won. “There’s more to life than a little money, ya know.”
The Big Lebowski (1998)
No Country For Old Men (2007)
Ben McDonald– One thing I always enjoy about the Coens is how much their work subverts expectations, even when you know they’re behind the director’s chair. No Country For Old Men is somewhat of an unexpected oddity within their filmography, and couldn’t be more tonally and stylistically different from a work like Fargo. While the latter has a sweeping orchestral score, witty and comical dialogue, and a clearly optimistic moral ending, the former has practically no music, long stretches of film with no dialogue, and a nihilistic ending. Even the way both films present their violence is completely different; Fargo shows nearly every bloody detail while No Country is much more detached, showing very little, even when it concerns main characters. Puzzling enough however, Fargo actually bears the most similarity to this film in terms of basic plot and themes. The two just differ in the directions they take.
The film follows Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a simple man in 1980 Texas who stumbles upon the aftermath of a heroin deal gone wrong. Llewelyn flees the scene with the suitcase of cash, while a psychopathic hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) tracks him, leaving behind a trail of corpses. Meanwhile, an aging police sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones), struggles to comprehend the senseless violence left in their wake.
Perhaps what’s most striking upon a first watch of No Country For Old Men is how deeply unsatisfying it is. The film is an incredibly effective cat-and- mouse thriller, building tension across its well-edited runtime as Llewelyn continues to believe he is control, even as he continues to just barely makes it away from Chigurh with his life. In the end, we don’t even see his unfortunate end, nor that of his wife (Kelly Macdonald). The only retribution Chigurh receives for his actions is a broken arm from a random car accident while leaving a murder. This is what the Coens are getting at, not that evil goes unpunished, but that the universe is random. In this film, there is no good or evil, just actions that may or may not have repercussions based on chance. No Country For Old Men is these two masters of film at their most nihilistic, and happens to be one of their finest works along the way.
Burn After Reading (2008)
Kevin Jones– While the Coen Brothers consistently deliver great films and stand as two of my favorite working filmmakers, one of my biggest problems with them is their comedy. Often taking a few watches to really have it click or with their black comedy-dramas, such as Fargo- being the films I find the funniest as opposed to films such as Raising Arizona or even the cult classic The Big Lebowski. However, with Burn After Reading, there was no need for multiple watches to appreciate the humor. Easily the funniest film by the Coen brothers by my own estimation, the film is a black comedy about a pair of morons who wind up ensnared in an international incident due to their attempts to sell what they believe to be government secrets to the Russians. At their most irreverent and delivering a wealth of physical comedy and the trademark wit of the directing duo, Burn After Reading is not quite high-brow cinema, but it is instead a pair of auteurs taking aim at the paranoia thriller subgenre with an eye towards making a silly satire of its trademarks, with fantastic results. Providing Brad Pitt with one of his few opportunities to play an entirely dimwitted and goofy character – one that does not necessarily capitalize on his charm, but rather his comedic talents – while giving Frances McDormand a similar chance to blow off steam, Burn After Reading is an often shocking, silly, and off-the-wall black comedy, but it is one that holds a special place in the Coen brothers filmography for me due to the way it can make me laugh with relative ease.
A Serious Man (2009)
Matt Schlee– A Serious Man is one of the blackest comedies in the Coens’ oeuvre. It really wallows in the misery of its protagonist, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). It’s also a particularly interesting case study in Jewish culture. Growing up in a Jewish family, I’ve always enjoyed the way that it plays with deep, historical Jewish heritage as well as somewhat shallow ideas of what Jewish culture is like from an internal perspective.
Like many other Coen Brothers works (Inside Llewyn Davis and O Brother, Where Art Thou? come time mind), A Serious Man takes a heavily allegorical approach to dealing in myth and mysticism. It does so in a way that is meaningful, deeply tragic, and weirdly hilarious. The ambiguity and suddenness of the film’s ending may be jarring for some viewers, but it seems a perfect conclusion to the calm chaos of the rest of the film’s body.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Matt Schlee– In my view, Inside Llewyn Davis is really the masterpiece of the recent part of the Coen Brothers’ career. It’s a brilliant balance between dark comedy and drama, and the soundtrack is positively perfect. The more I see it the more I find myself picking up on the subtleties of its humor. It’s truly a hilarious movie, particularly the scenes with John Goodman. Yet it still has a lot to say about its period and about poverty and the struggling artist.
Oscar Isaac gives perhaps the best performance of his career thus far playing the titular Llewyn Davis. I really think that this role solidified him as one of Hollywood’s best working actors. His character is cynical, and he’s also not necessarily the hero of his own story. The whole film is a philosophical parable, or rather some collage of parables, and Inside Llewyn Davis is equal parts sympathetic and alienating as our protagonist.
The movie may not be as easily accessible as something like The Big Lebowski (which, don’t get me wrong, is a masterpiece in its own right), but it has tremendous value both in regards to the power of its message and pure entertainment. It is beautifully photographed, and is ripe for dissection on repeat viewings.