Coenucopia: 10 Reasons We Love the Coen Brothers
The term "movie brats" was coined in the 1970s to describe the likes of Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg - the first generation of filmmakers that had grown up weaned on movies and TV. It fits the Coen brothers just as well. A Coen film filters life through the lens of old movies, many of them made well before they were born: the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges; the pinball wisecracks of Billy Wilder; Kubrick's chilly nihilism; Busby Berkeley musicals… They're all part of the mix.
Born in Minnesota in the 1950s (older brother Joel in 1955; Ethan three years later), the Coens grew up in an affluent, middle class Jewish household. Both parents were college professors, and while Joel studied film at New York University, Ethan took a degree in Philosophy at Princeton. (Then joined his brother to edit Sam Raimi's seminal indie The Evil Dead.)
Someone called 1984's Blood Simple the "most promising American directorial debut since Citizen Kane" - a rush of hyperbole that at least conveys the exhilaration of coming face to face with prodigious talent. Although Joel initially took the directing credit and Ethan the producer's, they've always cowritten their screenplays and co-edited their movies (under the pseudonym Roderick James). To all intents and purposes they seem to be inseparable as film artists.
Less esoteric than Jim Jarmusch and less political than Spike Lee, the Coens quickly established themselves as cult figures on the independent fringe. Although most of their movies feature stars and have been distributed by the majors, they've always kept the studios at arm's length (retaining final cut, for instance). They do their own thing, explain nothing (they're famously uncommunicative in interviews) and invite audiences to take it or leave it.
Recently, it must be said, a lot of us have found opting out is getting that much easier. Not even their most avid fan would pretend that The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty measure up to their earlier standards. They may not have lost their talent, but they no longer seemed to have anything much to say. Although there was plenty to admire and enjoy in The Man Who Wasn't There and O Brother, Where Art Thou you would have to go back to The Big Lebowski in 1998 or even Fargo in 1996 for a completely satisfying film.
That is, until now. No Country For Old Men is a brilliant return to form, a rethink that sees them toning down the screwball antics and reining in their anarchic impulses in the service of a mordant Texas crime thriller.
Even though it's a faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, the material seems tailor-made for them. No Country reminds us of the setting of their first film, Blood Simple, and the themes of their finest, Fargo.
Morality tales about small-town sheriffs struggling to comprehend the venality of career criminals - and the relatively innocent bystanders who get caught up in the mess - Fargo and No Country might be blood relatives. Even the stark, bare landscapes are a kind of mirror image, albeit in a completely different temperature.
If the new film (their 12th feature) is the closest the brothers have come to a straight genre movie (no UFOs, and definitely no musical numbers), they're still slyly toying with audience expectations, not least with what we all expect from a Coen brothers' movie. Riding high in critical esteem, and likely to prove their biggest commercial success to date, No Country For Old Men is also an Oscar front-runner. Reasons aplenty to look back and enumerate great moments from the Coens' filmography.
10 Reasons We Love the Coen Brothers
Most Coen movies feature a dream sequence: none more spectacular than the bowling fantasy in The Big Lebowski, and none more haunting than the hat in the woods that concludes Miller's Crossing. Sometimes - Barton Fink - the whole movie seems to turn into a dream. There's no dream sequence in No Country, but it does end with Tommy Lee Jones mulling over a troubling dream.
Lou Breeze. Pete Hogwallop. Ulysses Everett McGill. Lump Hudson. Gale Snoats. Shep Proudfoot. Norville Barnes. Bunny Lebowski. Barton Fink. The Foggy Bottom Boys. We could go on all night.
Leaving aside Carter Burwell's many excellent scores, who can forget the Four Tops' "It's the Same Old Song" reverberating through Blood Simple? You've gotta love that they made Kenny Rogers and The First Edition hip with "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" in The Big Lebowski. Then there's the entire best-selling O Brother bluegrass soundtrack, for many the best thing about the film.
Where do you start? M Emmet Walsh and Dan Hedaya in Blood Simple. John Polito in Miller's Crossing. Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and John Goodman again and again and again. No part is too small to make an impression in a Coen brothers' movie. And no one makes a bigger impression than Jesus, the purple-clad, fishnet-haired bowling pederast played by Turturro in Lebowski.
Sometimes visual - all those circles running through Hudsucker - but most obvious in these delicious verbal refrains:
"That rug really pulled the room together"
"You know, for kids"
"Damn, we're in a tight spot!"
"That Barton Fink feeling"
"What's the rumpus?"
"The heck do ya mean?"
The elegant opening shot of The Hudsucker Proxy is hard to top, and the dynamic pop energy of Raising Arizona has some fans, but my personal favourite: the long, sinuous crane shot along the top of the bar in Blood Simple, when the camera does a little hop over a passed out customer. In this movie the best laid plans - and the most perfect camera shots - regularly hit a bump along the way.
No Country is the Coens' first official adaptation, but they haven't been shy about paying homage to their favourite writers. Pulp crime novelists figure particularly large: James M Cain and Jim Thompson inspired Blood Simple and The Man Who Wasn't There); Dashiell Hammett (Miller's Crossing); Raymond Chandler (The Big Lebowski); even Homer (O Brother Where Art Thou) have all taken a turn. A film about writers' block, Barton Fink tipped its hat rather mockingly towards playwright Clifford Odets and novelist William Faulkner.
No Country For Old Men begins with a scene of such virtuoso violence the rest of the movie reels from its after-shock. There are elegant shoot-outs aplenty in Miller's Crossing. But how about the messy kidnapping of Jerry Lundegaard's wife in Fargo, shower-curtain and all - and the horrendously practical use of the wood-chipper in the same film. It's in these moments the Coens prove they have really thought about violence, its chaos and desolation.
Mrs Joel Coen has proved one of the most sensitive and intelligent actresses in Hollywood. Her memorable roles range from Mississippi Burning to Lone Star, Friends with Money and Almost Famous. But it was her husband who put her on the map in Blood Simple, and who gave her the role of a lifetime as the innocent but super sharp Marge in Fargo.
If you think you're up to speed in a Coen brothers' movie you can only be sure that rug is about to be pulled out from under. Few writers have concocted more fiendish plots - or delighted in such abrupt mood swings, from wacky comedy to appalling violence, often by way of surreal symbolism or an extravagant number (the KKK number in O Brother comes to mind). The ending of No Country is another audacious example of defying expectations - but that's where we came in…
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