in Retrospecticus

Retrospecticus: The Coen Brothers

For over twenty years, Ethan and Joel Coen have defied modern conventions with some of the most unusual, bold, and inventive films around. They’ve tackled countless genres and reinvented themselves time and time again, making them some of the most innovative filmmakers of their era. In preparation of True Grit i have assembled this list of the duo’s complete filmography, which I will discuss in varying lengths. Just remember that these are like, my opinions man, so don’t take it too seriously.

Blood Simple (1984)

Where it all started, the eerie, neo noir, thriller, that is Blood Simple. It’s an impressive first film in many areas. The Cinematography (By future director Barry Sonnenfeld is increasingly ingenious), the score by Carter Burwell is excellent , the cast featuring; Frances McDormand, John Getz, Dan Hedaya and M. Emmet Walsh (easily the best) to name a few are thrilling, and the suspense is never ending. The perfect film to begin a career of masterful filmmaking.

Raising Arizona (1987)

After their brooding debut, the Coen’s took on what would be their first of many genre blurring films, the dark comedy Raising Arizona. In any other hands this film could of been a huge misfire, but instead it went on to be one of the Coen’s most enduring comedies.

It’s a great setup when ex-con Hi McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) and ex-cop “Ed” (Holly Hunter) decide to kidnap one of the five sons of a wealthy furniture salesman, Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson). I mean in any other hands this project would sound like an instant failure, but the Coen’s were ahead of the curb with this one. From the dialogue, to the setting, to the supporting cast of nuts (John Goodman, William Forsythe, Randall Cobb) this film still stands out as a delightfully different comedy.

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

One of my rare departures from the general consensus, I find Miller’s Crossing to be a challenging film. Inspired by the hard boiled fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Miller’s Crossing is an intricately woven mystery thriller, but I find the dense plot hard to get into.

Though I’m definitely in the minority on this one, as the critics really fell for this gangster flick. One thing I think everyone can agree on is the performances. A shining moment for character actors like Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, and John Turturro as apposed to casting bigger names.

Barton Fink (1991)

I don’t know how the hell you’d classify this movie, but man what an experience. John Turturro is hilarious as the young and nervous title character, stressing over a script while inhabiting a dreary L.A. hotel that seems to have a life of it’s own. John Goodman is equally amusing as the mysterious insurance salesman Charlie and what follows is chaos of the best kind.

Masterfully layered, acted, and photographed. The ambiguity of all the visual symbolism leaves you with a lot of questions, but I like that. It gives you the opportunity to personally dissect all the details and make your own connections, very compelling.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

I think when people heard the Coen’s were taking on the absurdities of the business world they were anticipating something a tad, well smarter. Possibly a razor sharp satire or something more insightful, not an over-the-top, screwball comedy that knows no bounds. It’s penchant for being silly is in my eyes both it’s gift and curse. Either you’ll laugh at quirks like Jennifer Jason Leigh’s fast talking delivery and Tim Robbin’s air headed demeanor, or you won’t.

I can see why some dislike it’s silly nature, as it does tend to hamper the latter half of the film. Though I think it’s style and humor saves it, how could you not like Tim Robbins as a bumbling mail clerk who becomes the CEO of a big whig company? Anything with Paul Newman can’t be that half bad either, ooh or Coen Brother’s pal Bruce Campbell. The Coen’s probably didn’t win any new fans with this one, but they definitely furthered their reputation for being unconventional.

Fargo (1996)

If you could take one film to sum up the Coen’s entire career, it would probably be Fargo. For no other Coen film features the duo’s trademark humor, suspense, and atmosphere as well as this classic dark comedy. Frances McDormand stars in the role of her life as the likable, humble and humorous police chief Marge Gunderson and shines in almost every scene. The supporting cast is equally impressive with the likes of William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi and the very creepy Peter Stormare.

The laughs are big, the thrills are nonstop, the setting is beautiful, and the story is timeless. This film is more or less the definition of dark comedy and never fails at entertaining, while giving you something to think about, oh ya you bet cha.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

I don’t think many would argue that this is the Coen’s most popular film and why not? The characters are refreshingly unique and ridiculous and are constantly put into completely unpredictable situations. It’s the little details more than anything that fans remember; The Dude’s interests, Walter’s stories about faith and war, Donnie’s incessant questions and all the other quirks. It’s spawned an entire culture of swanky fandom and burrowed itself deep into pop culture with it’s quotes and overall style.

The Big Lebowski essentially plays out like a stoner mystery movie. It’s a dysfunctional, rambling, series of events that perfectly suits it’s dysfunctional characters. You never know what The Dude will encounter next and although that results in a bit of a sloppy storyline, it’s a whole bag of fun to watch. Jeff Bridges is arguably in the role of his life and yet he’s still almost upstaged by the immensely talented John Goodman. There’s so much to talk about with this film that I won’t even try. Just kickback with a White Russian, blast some Creedence, and then watch The Big Lebowski

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Homer’s Odyssey meets the Great Depression in the deep south? Now that’s a recipe for a comedy of epic proportions. O Brother Where Art Thou may have been and still may be the most daring Coen production assembled. A period piece set against such a vast setting, would mainstream audiences be ready to see the Coens take on such a big Hollywood project? Thankfully they did and more! George Clooney leads a great cast of misfits, the visuals are jaw dropping, and the story has a timeless feel to it.

This is a film you can enjoy on many different levels. One, you could just enjoy it as a comedy about three bumbling convicts (George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson) running into a series of misadventures, or two, as something rich with visual metaphors and parallels to classic literature, it’s surprisingly complex. Can’t forget that soundtrack arranged by T-Bone Burnett either, classic.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

The fact this film is constantly overlooked and perhaps the least known Coen film is almost too perfect. It’s a subtle film and title practically sums up the whole thing. A subdued Billy Bob Thornton plays barber Ed Crane, a simple man who inexplicably becomes involved in both blackmail and murder. Set against the back drop of 1940s Santa Rosa, California and filmed in stunning black and white, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a chilling tribute to film noir. The mood is quiet but unnerving and I have to say this may be my favorite Carter Burwell musical score for a Coen Brothers movie.

It’s pacing is slow and its payoff may not bewhat you’d expect, but the story is compelling and the acting is pitch perfect. Thornton doesn’t even have to say anything to bring you into the scene and seasoned pros like Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, and my favorite Michael Badaluco as Ed’s overly talkative brother-in-law, keep it very interesting.

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Sometimes it seems like the Coens wont rest until they’ve tackled every genre. Intolerable Cruelty just happens to be the duo’s stab at the romantic comedy, often considered one of their weaker efforts, it’s fluff but it’s fun. George Clooney turns up the Clooney charm as divorce attorney Miles Massey, infamous as the inventor of the “Massey Prenup”. Though things get messy when he starts to fall for his clients wife Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jone), which only further tailspins into deception.

The story that develops here is actually fairly original, for it’s not so original premise. The twists and turns are well devised and it’s two beautiful celebrities are entertaining to watch. The supporting cast is a mixed bag, I mean I love Edward Herrmann as Miles’ client and Geoffrey Rush is fine, though his role feels small, but Cedric the Entertainer wasn’t doing it for me and Billy Bob Thornton is okay, but his character is a little hard to swallow. Intoelrable Cruelty is easy on the eyes, but no more than a footnote when looking at the rest of the Coen filmography.

The Ladykillers (2004)

Even when the Coen’s misfire, they do it with style. The Ladykillers is easily the duo’s worst film; the characters are broad with one note personalities, the laughs are far too few, and there doesn’t seem to be much heart to it. Really it was hardly necessary as the original 1955 heist film is considered a classic. That all said this film still has the pleasure of being coated with that Coen shine. Roger Deakins cinematography is top notch, Carter Burwell and T-Bone Burnett’s score is befitting and it’s just approached with such a unique manner. Plus it’s got Tom Hanks, and even Hank’s in a bad movie is fun to some extent.

No Country For Old Men (2007)

Razor sharp thriller, faithful literary adaptation, Oscar winner, what else is there to say about No Country for Old Men? It’s a modern American classic that goes for the jugular while simultaneously operating on a philosophical level. It’s talented novelist Cormac McCarthy’s words brought to life in such a thrilling way, that it actually surpasses his original work. The Blue collared banter between Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) and his wife Carla Jean (Kelly McDonald ) is priceless and Tommy Lee Jones is strong in the role of the old school Sheriff Tom Bell. Although it’s Javier Bardem who steals the show, in his academy award winning role as villainous hitman Anton Chigurh, gives me the creeps just thinking about it.

This has quickly become the Coen brothers film dearest to my heart. It doesn’t quite have the humor of past Coen works, but it’s one of the best thrillers of it’s era and my favorite film of the 2000s, god I wanna watch it right now!

Burn After Reading (2008)

Following up their big Oscar Win, the Coens returned to form with the typical, quirky, dark comedy that is Burn After Reading. More or less a spoof on the espionage thriller genre, Burn After Reading features all your usual Coen collaborators, playing your typical oddball Coen characters. It’s hard to pick a favorite when you have so many talented stars acting so silly. You got George Clooney as the sickeningly smug former U.S. Marshall, Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt as a pair of bumbling gym employees, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton as the icy cold couple, it’s all the stuff you love to see in a Coen Bros. flick.

A Serious Man (2009)

Perhaps the most personal work from Ethan and Joel yet, set in their homestate of Minnesota during the 1960s, A Serious Man is an offbeat comedy about life, death, sex, faith and everything else that can go sour when you’re simply trying to live a just life.

Michael Stuhlbarg gives an unforgettable performance as professor Larry Gopnik, who despite his efforts, always seems to get the short end of the stick. His wife (Sari Lennick) wants a traditional jewish divorce, his reckless brother Arthur (Richard Kind) wont leave the couch, one of his students maybe blackmailing him and Larry can’t seem to get any answers to his woes on life.

Upon first viewing I was actually disappointed by this film. I loved the humor and style, but the ending seemed so abrupt and dark, but as I’ve come to understand more of what’s under the surface, I’ve really come to love this film. It’s so unlike any other comedy about dysfunctional families, with it’s rich metaphors and meanings permeating through the tension of it’s characters. It just goes to show that even after 20 odd years, the Coen’s haven’t skipped a beat.

What Lies Ahead?
True Grit is the latest from the duo and I’m sure it will be another interesting entry in this diverse filmography. Look for a review from Colin coming soon.

I’m yet to see the Coen’s short for the the film Paris, je t’aime, but not for long, Otteni out.

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