Directors’ Top 5: Joel and Ethan Coen

Something you will find yourself hopelessly attracted to when you write about film is making lists. Not only is ranking movies that are somehow connected a great exercise in comparing and contrasting different works, it also leads to interesting discussions with other cinephiles. That is why I will try to introduce a new series to our beloved online newspaper: every once in a while I shall post a – purely subjective – top 5 or 10 concerning any subject. I expect the common ground to be mostly directors because it’s probably the most obvious one. So let’s get started!

Joel and Ethan Coen are amongst my favourite directors working today, right alongside masters like Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese. I love their unique style, their sense of tradition whilst still being hugely original, their unmistakable dry humour, and their unassuming way of making movies. They have given us fantastic stories and indelible characters, and are an essential part of modern Hollywood. So after watching their films over and over again, writing lengthy reviews about them and even analysing them in my matura paper (“U.S. 20th Century History Through the Lense of the Coen Brothers”), I feel that it’s time to list my personal favourites from their œuvre.


5. No Country for Old Men and Fargo

I know that this is technically cheating. But while preparing this list I kept interchanging those two movies because they’re both dear to my heart and I thought that it would be unfair to omit one of them. I finally decided to tie them because they are, in many ways, very similar to each other. Both films are about a police officer chasing a criminal; both feature an average everyday person who is trying to make a fast buck; both take place in remote geographical settings; both are set in the 1980s; and, of course, they’re the only films by the Coen brothers that ever won Oscars – Fargo won Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress (Frances McDormand), No Country for Old Men won Best Picture, Best Direction, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem).

Fargo is about a Minneapolis car salesman (William H. Macy), who hires two small-time crooks (Peter Stormare and Coen regular Steve Buscemi) to kidnap his wife. The plan backfires, which calls a pregnant state trooper (McDormand) into action. No Country for Old Men, the Coens’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant novel of the same name, in turn centers around a Texan (Josh Brolin) who comes across the remains of a drug deal gone wrong. He soon finds himself chased by the seemingly psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh, played by the frightening Bardem, and an aging Texas sheriff (the outstanding Tommy Lee Jones), who wants to save him from the mysterious killer’s wrath.

Both these films are, first and foremost, vintage crime thrillers with a touch of film noir and a Coen-esque spin. Fargo is often considered to be the brothers’ breakthrough as well as their trademark opus. It came out in 1996 when they already had five critically more or less acclaimed releases under their belts but had not quite found their style yet, which at this point was basically oscillating between surreal comedies (most saliently Raising Arizona) and violent thrillers (Blood Simple). Fargo was the first of their films which radically combined the two tones. It remains a movie with the ability to shock the more sensitive moviegoer because it pleasurably approaches serious issues like kidnapping and murder with incredibly dark humour while still being extremely violent (we all remember the wood chipper). The film was inducted into the American National Film Registry in 2006 – to date, the “youngest” film to achieve this – and rightly so. It certainly marks a paradigm shift, a move towards the post-postmodern in recent American cinema, even more so than 1994’s Pulp Fiction, because Fargo retains the inimitable realism that Quentin Tarantino’s film lacks.

No Country for Old Men, on the other hand, is another type of significant. It is less influential in terms of cinema itself, but rather a big step in the Coens’ filmography; it’s the first time they have “properly” adapted literary source material, and they did it marvellously. Their interpretation of McCarthy’s story is much like Stanley Kubrick’s film version of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange; it stays true to the original work, maintains its intention and subtext, but adds a personal note to it. No Country for Old Men perfectly captures the novel’s diligent portrayal of the evolution of violence and evil – not only are Chigurh’s deeds disturbing, they are (and this is what makes him such an enigmatic and therefore terrifying criminal) completely incomprehensible to anyone else. The film also keeps the poignant social commentary – the illusion that pointless violence is a new phenomenon – intact. But at the same time, Joel and Ethan Coen incorporated their eccentric romanticism and distinctive humour into the story. Moreover, there are the film’s undeniable formal merits; the lack of any real soundtrack adds to the already sparse dialogue, Roger Deakins’ cinematography is gorgeous as always, the casting is pitch-perfect, and the ingenious ending catches you off-guard.

If pressed to choose between the two films, I would most likely go for No Country for Old Men because it tells in its own strange way a more human, less constructed story. Despite its unapologetic graphic violence, it is the more enjoyable, more “re-watchable” film, not least because of its elegant, naturalistic flow and complex subtext. However, I won’t take anything away from Fargo, partly because it has become such an essential film of the last 20 years, but also because of its many assets; be it acting, writing, or the brilliant balance between gritty crime tale and black humour.


4. The Man Who Wasn’t There

One of the things the Coen brothers have been called over the years is “fatalistic”, which is not altogether unjustified. Many of their stories have a tendency to revolve around characters who try to break out of something – a mindset, a way of life, or even physical  (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) – but eventually end up where they have been heading all along. Although I do not subscribe to that school of thought – the Coens are known to nearly always hint at some form of redemption in such cases – I can understand the reasoning behind it, especially when 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There is involved.

The past is a crucial element in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen; the vast majority of their movies take place in a bygone era. But while most of them may not be period pieces per se, but rather an exercise connecting historical events and periods to the brothers’ cinematic motifs, they do manage to capture the essence of their chronological setting fairly well. The Man Who Wasn’t There is a fantastic example of this. Set in 1949’s California, we follow the story of a frustrated barber (Billy Bob Thornton) who gets himself tangled up in criminal plots and fishy business schemes attempting to break away from his dull, ordinary life. Although it’s not its main objective, the film excellently analyses and dissects – almost subliminally – the rise of American Suburbia and individualism during the early post-war years.

Formally, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a masterpiece of original storytelling as well as paying homage to Hollywood’s golden age. The screenplay, filled to the brim with references to film noir by the likes of Billy Wilder or Howard Hawks, is full of twists, misunderstandings and tragedies to an almost comedic degree – the film is indeed, at its core, a sardonic human comedy – and the final scene is a perfect balancing act poising cynicism, pragmatics and philosophy. The cherry on top is, once again, Roger Deakins’ (Oscar-nominated) camera work. The Man Who Wasn’t There is shot in sharp breathtaking black-and-white, with just the right dose of stylisation.


3. True Grit

If there’s anything the Coens have a knack for, it’s undermining a seemingly earnest story’s seriousness. So when the two announced they would refilm Charles Portis’ 1968 novel True Grit, whose 1969 adaptation by Henry Hathaway starring John Wayne in his Oscar-winning role, the word “defamation” worked the circuit. Of course, this scepticism proved to be totally pointless; 2010’s True Grit ranks as one of the best “revisionist” westerns, on a par with masterstrokes such as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven or Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.

In 1870’s Arkansas, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) is out to avenge her father’s death. His killer (Josh Brolin) fled to the Indian nation to join an infamous gang of outlaws, so she begs for the help of the rogue U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and the pompous Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). Although the 1969 version followed Portis’ book for the most part, it never really was intended as a faithful adaptation but rather as a respectable western vehicle for the iconic John Wayne to star in. It does have its merits and should definitely be watched but it shouldn’t be considered an attempt of transferring Portis’ words to film.

This, on the other hand, was the task the Coen brothers set themselves. Very much like No Country for Old Men, their True Grit is an ideal adaptation; close to the source material but by no means shackled to it. Traces of the directors’ narrative stylings are abundant, including the incorporation of some truly memorable side characters, most prominently Ed Corbin’s bear-skin dentist, who’d perfectly fit in with the maverick people featuring in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. The Coens also succeed in creating an atmosphere which is just as romanticised – maintaining genre tradition – as it is drearily realistic. They paint a vivid picture – visually and setting-wise not unlike the westerns of Anthony Mann – of an America still recovering from the Civil War, peopled by disillusioned characters like Cogburn, La Boeuf, and even Mattie. The film is carried by the actors’ standout efforts, most notably Jeff Bridges’, who delivers one of the strongest performances in recent years. He delves into the Cogburn character and shows him as what he is; a lost soul with a good heart who is trying to give meaning to his life and, often failing that, yearns for “his” time when he rode with Confederate guerilla fighters like William Quantrill and William “Bloody Bill” Anderson. It’s a shame that this film will go down in history as one of Oscar’s big losers (ten nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Writing, and not a single win). But on the other hand, the Coens are a prime example of the tenet that quality isn’t measured in awards.


2. A Serious Man

Joel and Ethan Coen have never made a secret of their Jewish background. But they always kept their in-jokes in the background and contented themselves with writing some stereotypically Jewish characters into their films – right until 2009’s A Serious Man, which radically split audiences. A lot of people felt alienated by the film unabashedly focusing on archetypal Jewish issues and people. They throw around words like dybbuk, goy, shul and aguna without ever fully explaining them. Needless to say that this film is by far their most personal one, many elements being memories from their childhood in the mostly Jewish Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park.

The story is a very loose adaption of the Book of Job; a middle-aged teacher (the sensational Michael Stuhlbarg) is faced with countless disasters and setbacks, so he starts seeing his hometown’s rabbis in order to find out why HaShem (God) is apparently punishing him. A Serious Man is clearly a product of Judaism’s debating nature. The film indirectly takes up the ancient problem of theodicy; it demonstrates the crushing futility of confronting life with the word “Why?”; and, using an ingenious running joke concerning St. Louis Park’s rabbis which peaks in the recitation of a Jefferson Airplane lyric, it directly questions the authority of any earthly religious entity. But the Coens don’t do this via a stale, depressing narrative. A Serious Man is a seriously funny – no pun intended – film that luxuriously puts its pitiable main character through the worst of crises without even granting him an explanation, adhering to the biblical source material.

Of all the Coen brothers’ films, this is not only their most heartfelt but also their most enigmatic and profound one. This is a movie where looking below the surface is indispensable. If you’re not frustrated by the film’s quirks and its very Jewish content – you’ll know right after the opening scene, which is set in an Eastern European shtetl around 1900 and stars Yiddish-speaking characters – you can talk for hours about scriptural and other imagery, hidden meaning(s), and connections to the directors’ childhood.


1. The Big Lebowski

Calling The Big Lebowski the Coen brothers’ best film is about as original as ranking Casablanca, Gone with the Wind or The Godfather as your favourite movie of all time. But you cannot argue with this little gem of quirky-absurdist, surrealist, grotesque neo-noir cinema. It is one of the funniest and iconic movies ever made; it has gained a cult following over the years after originally having received no more than lukewarm critical response; and it has revolutionised modern comedic filmmaking. It’s practically impossible to write anything about it that has not been said before.

For some bizarre reason, a 1998 crime comedy, about a Los Angeles slacker named Lebowski who prefers to be called “The Dude” – or “El Duderino”, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing – has struck a chord with audiences worldwide, in the long run at least. The Dude (Jeff Bridges in what is probably his defining role) and his friends Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi) usually spend their days bowling. But when two thugs ransack the Dude’s home because they think he is a millionaire called Lebowski, things get awry; the deadbeat stoner entangles himself in a network of embezzlement, fraud, kidnapping and pornography. Although the story eventually ends up being fairly inconsequential, it is worth noting that the idea of this complicated, convoluted and confusing scenario isn’t even an original one. Joel and Ethan Coen knowingly based The Big Lebowski‘s chaotic plot on Raymond Chandler’s detective story The Big Sleep, which, famously, continues to puzzle readers and viewers of Howard Hawks’ 1946 movie adaptation alike.

But the primary point of The Big Lebowski is not to see through every twist and turn of the plot, which does unravel itself in the end. The film is pure absurdist mantra, a weird stream of consciousness, seasoned with a generous amount of references – a favourite among film scholars being the renowned, and hilarious, dream sequence which is based on a dance revue in 1933’s 42nd Street by Llyod Bacon and Busby Berkeley. But ultimately, it’s the characters who hold together the pandemonium of this kaleidoscopic movie. They may all be crazy in one way or another – which might well be the reason we love this film so much because, in a way, aren’t we all? – but at least the protagonists share a Coen-esque humanity, so even someone as choleric as Walter (“Shut the fuck up, Donny!” / “This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!”) comes across as someone we can relate to and, sometimes, even grow to like, in a strange way.

If you aren’t familiar with The Big Lebowski, I urge you to watch it as soon as possible. This is a movie that turns pederast Hispanic bowlers and German nihilists into antagonists, one that features the planning of an interrogation while attending an avantgarde theatre performance starring a man dressed as a tree, and one that displays a truly heart-wrenching funeral accompanied by an equally misguided and tenderly warm eulogy. Go watch it and laugh, scratch your head, enjoy the fabulous soundtrack (Bob Dylan, Kenny Rogers, Townes Van Zandt, Elvis Costello) and – as The Dude would say – “take it easy”.


It wasn’t easy picking five, or even six, films for this particular list because there are still several I would have wanted to see on here as well. But that’s the curse of ranking movies. So to give you a rough idea of what I think of the rest of the Coens’ œuvre, I’ll list the films with their respective ratings (out of six) below.

Barton Fink – ★★★★★½

Blood Simple – ★★★½

Burn After Reading – ★★★★★½

The Hudsucker Proxy – ★★★★★½

Intolerable Cruelty – ★★★★½

The Ladykillers – ★★★★½

Miller’s Crossing – ★★★★☆☆

O Brother, Where Art Thou? – ★★★★★☆

Raising Arizona – ★★★½

One thought on “Directors’ Top 5: Joel and Ethan Coen

  1. Pingback: The Best of 2011 – Film Edition | The Zurich English Student

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