What Makes The Coen Brothers So Special?
By Ryan O’Toole
Photo: The Edge - Source
In 2017, Vulture held a poll of 40 of the top current screenwriters to vote on the 100 best screenwriters of all time. The top ranked contemporary screenwriters were Joel and Ethan Coen at number 2 all time — only Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard) was ranked higher. The writer-director pair behind movies like Fargo and No Country for Old Men are celebrated as two of the best to ever do it. But what makes them worthy of the top spot on this list? What makes them so special?
Over the years, the Coens have carved out their own corner of the movie making industry and have always stayed true to themselves. They seemed impervious to trends of the era and consistently made patently Coen Brothers movies, which makes their filmography easy to comprehend — it makes sense that the same people who made Blood Simple would go on to make The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Coens got their start in independent film around the same time as others in their generation, with their debut Blood Simple an analog for Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead or Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape. But while Raimi and Soderbergh later graduated to making studio blockbusters like Spider-Man and Ocean’s Eleven, the Coens have continued to operate in their own little section of Hollywood.
Blood Simple (1984)
Photo: Indiewire - Source
The Coens started their film career in the early 1980’s, writing the script for the neo-noir Blood Simple in 1980 and subsequently raising funds for the movie in 1981. Joel and Ethan made an investor trailer for the movie and went door to door, scraping together money from various investors. In a Rolling Stone profile on the Coens, David Handelman writes “Joel scraped “up pledges of $550,000 from sixty-eight investors in bits as small as $5000. (The final budget was $855,000 plus $187,000 in deferred costs.) To get by, the boys bummed endless loans from friends.”
And from this humble beginning, we can see the Coens that went on to become the Oscar winning duo and greatest contemporary screenwriters. Blood Simple is a genre film almost by necessity, with a budget so low and needing to drum up interest in small investors, they leaned into the exploitation subgenre, loaded with sex and violence. From the early investor trailer, these themes and striking images were already being formed, with light streaking in through bullet holes in the wall or the headlights of a car shining on a man crawling, trying to escape from his captor. But the Coens’ mixed exploitation and film noir elements to craft something truly unique. Although they were seeped in genre, they can never not make a Coen brothers movie (Although, at the time, this was seen as a downside. When Joel and Ethan were looking to sell the film, “Nobody wanted to distribute Blood Simple. The word was it was too gory to be an art film, too arty to be an exploitation film, funny but not quite a comedy.”) However, Blood Simple was still able to catch a few eyes when it was released. The dark atmosphere and slower character moments in Blood Simple tipped viewers off to something truly special happening.
And this would be the case for their entire career. Joel and Ethan would often work within well-worn genres, whether it be the mafia movie Miller’s Crossing, the classical film noir The Man Who Wasn’t There, the screwball comedy Intolerable Cruelty, the western True Grit. They can also run the entire spectrum of tone ranging from goofy comedy to intense thriller. And they can switch between them effortlessly, either between separate films like the zany comedy of Raising Arizona or the edge of your seat, slow-burn thriller in No Country for Old Men. Or, they even transition from one to another within the same film, whether that’s in the multiple segments of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, or, more often than not, they combine the two to form their own genre sensibilities like in Fargo, having comedic and thriller elements within the same scene.
Photo: IMDb - Source
But even in their wide ranging genres and tones, the Coens are fairly consistent in their interests. They are largely drawn to failure, to characters who are trying to best the system, but ultimately come up short and are bested by that very system. This can be seen in The Big Lebowski, where the Dude is thrown into this convoluted plot of kidnap and ransom. Throughout the film, he is shoved from scene to scene, by forces outside of his control, like a leaf on the wind. Most of his failings come from him and Walter trying to outsmart the people around them, like taking the ransom money for themselves, a classic greedy choice in a Coen brothers movie that the film’s universe will take its karmic revenge on later. In his Guardian profile of the directing duo, Andrew Anthony wrote that “Coen characters do tend to exist within a meaningless universe.” Their main characters try to understand the complexity of the world around them and the systems in place, but always come up short. It is Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man trying and failing to make peace with the unknowability of life.
There’s a moment in A Serious Man where Larry Gopnick is going through an existential crisis and he visits his rabbi in search for answers. He asks what it means that he and the man his wife is leaving him for got into a car crash at the same instant. The rabbi tells a long parable about a dentist finding Hebrew signs in one of his patient’s teeth that seemingly has no answer to it as well. There is no satisfying conclusion or larger meaning, but eventually the dentist stopped looking for answers and found happiness. Larry responds with “Why does he make us feel the questions if he’s not gonna give us any answers?” And that same question could be asked of any Coen brothers movie.
A Serious Man (2009)
Photo: IMDb - Source
And because of that, the Coens have created some of the most memorable characters and some of the finest performances ever put to screen. And looking at the two performances they’ve written and directed to an Oscar win shows both sides of their greatness in this aspect: Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men and Frances McDormand in Fargo.
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men (2007)
Photo: Entertainment Weekly - Source
Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurgh represents the duo’s more serious side. In this case, Bardem personifies the system that the main character finds himself in the middle of. Bardem plays pure evil, out for karmic revenge against Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss after he discovers and takes the money from a drug deal gone wrong. And while Anton Chigurgh is one of the most iconic villains of the 21st century, Brolin does a great job, if undersung, at portraying this protagonist flailing in the world he finds himself caught up in. The more serious side of the Coens’ failing heroes expresses the futility of fighting against an oppressive world. Some other excellent lead performances in this vein are Oscar Isaac’s starving artist, the titular character in Inside Llewyn Davis and Billy Bob Thornton’s barber turned blackmailer, Ed Crane, in The Man Who Wasn’t There.
The other side of the Coens’ leading characters plays at the comical absurdity of their worlds. Frances McDormand won the first of her three Oscars for Fargo, where, like Bardem who succeeded her, personifies the system after the over ambitious characters. However, this time, the world she lives in is less oppressive than the Cormac McCarthy described world of No Country for Old Men, and is more goofy, with bumbling fools populating the Coens’ vision of the American midwest. And this more absurdist, comic tone is perfect for many of their protagonists, with Joel and Ethan always able to tap into the comic side of so many legendary movie stars. They are perhaps the best at using George Clooney’s goofier side, replacing the suaveness of Clooney on the red carpet with the Coens’ trademark overambitious leads whose motors are always running. Part of what makes Clooney so good in, say, Out of Sight or Ocean’s Eleven is his effortless charm, but the Coens throw everything they can at him to knock him off balance and show a completely different side of the leading man. In his four collaborations with the duo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty, Burn After Reading, and Hail, Caesar!, Clooney has created memorable protagonists that are all distinct, not only from the rest of his acting work, but also from one Coens film to another. They have also pulled some great comedic performances from Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, a rare Tom Hanks villain role in The Ladykillers, Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading, Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona, and two all time performances from John Goodman in Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski.
F. Murray Abraham in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Photo: IMDb - Source
And it isn’t just the main characters that leave an impression on you. The Coens are the masters of the minor character, with character actors giving some of the best one scene performances ever captured. They write, direct, and cast actors so brilliantly that people are able to make a lasting impression with so little screen time. F. Murray Abraham is devastating in his one scene in Inside Llewyn Davis, delivering the line “I don’t see a lot of money here” with such blunt and brutal honesty after Llewyn has just bared his heart in the most moving performance he gives in the film. The coin flip scene in No Country For Old Men is a masterclass in tension and is perhaps Javier Bardem’s shining moment in the film, but the gas station attendant across from him is just as remarkable. It is the passing characters, the bureaucrats behind desks, the momentary obstacles, or the chance encounters with random strangers that give all of the character to the world of the Coens.
Writers can take their time setting up their main character and taking them through an arc. As Thomas Flight points out in his video essay on this subject, these one scene characters need to be set up in under a minute. And this is where the Coens’ expert control of humor and humanity comes into play. They are able to craft, with the help of distinct costuming, expertly casting interesting looking character actors, and their writing, they are able to fully create a personality for minor characters within a line of dialogue. They’re not subtle with any of these, but subtlety doesn’t work within a minute of screentime. As David Denby writes in his New Yorker profile of the Coens, “The filmmakers clearly had no interest in ordinary Hollywood realism.” They are always going to stylize their world, which allows for every character to leave an impact and allows them to create a world outside of our own.
True Grit (2010)
Photo: IMDb - Source
And the world of a Coen brothers movie is as important as its characters. The characters are so intrinsically linked to the world around them. It is the sparse landscapes of No Country for Old Men, True Grit, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs that isolates its characters and challenges them. It’s the juxtaposition of the greedy, gray business at the heart of The Hudsucker Proxy that gives Tim Robbins’s naive Norville Barnes all of his color. Or in the reverse comparison, the overly friendly Minnesotan is a stark contrast to the grime and violence of its criminals. David Denby writes, “The Coens’ joking is inseparable from topography. In every movie, working first with the cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld and later with Roger Deakins, they establish a specific landscape, and pull whatever eccentricities they can out of it.”
But perhaps the reason they stand out so much from their contemporary counterparts is because of their timeless style. The Coens are so indebted to the past for their work, openly taking from some of the best writers and directors of earlier generations. The Coens are the closest thing modern cinema has to the comedic stylings of Preston Sturges, with their mix of breakneck pace and focus on interesting characters. And much like their always changing use of genre, they freely take inspiration from a wide range of creators. Intolerable Cruelty plays like His Girl Friday or a Tracy/Hepburn picture and The Big Lebowski takes the jumping off point of Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep and infuses it with the same freewheeling nature as Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. David Denby describes Miller’s Crossing by writing, “The openly corrupt atmosphere and much of the slang (“What’s the rumpus?”) come out of Dashiell Hammett’s novels “Red Harvest” and “The Glass Key,” as does the hero (Gabriel Byrne), a morose, alcoholic, and mysterious loner who plays the gangs off against each other.” They are some of the most literary people in Hollywood and combine classical influences with their own idiosyncratic style to create their indelible movies.
Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Photo: The Film Stage - Source
So while they might be the last to admit this — they are described by Denby as “seemingly indifferent to both criticism and praise” and writing that they only discuss “specific and relatively trivial matters concerning their movies, avoiding comments on larger meanings or anything approaching a general intellectual outlook” — the Coen brothers are the best modern writers. It also doesn’t hurt to work with some of the greatest in their respective fields: cinematographer Roger Deakins, composer Carter Burwell, costume designer Mary Zophres, and sound designer Skip Lievsay, as well as arguably the greatest directors and editors: themselves.