Ethan & Joel Coen
(1957 - present; 1954 - present)
Three Key Films: Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), No Country For Old Men (2007)
Underrated: The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). Working with big studio money for the first time, the Coens delivered exactly what should have been expected of them when handed the resources necessary to realize their singular vision: a big, splashy, broadly appealing, old fashioned screwball comedy. Yet, the film was swiftly deemed a bomb and, to this day, rarely comes up in discussion of the brothers’ filmography. That neither critics nor audiences went for it is disappointing, but not at all surprising; for the critics accustomed to the eccentricities of Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, the film’s loving, blatant homage to Capra, Hawks and Sturges must have registered as painfully unhip, while to audiences, the film’s debut only a month after Jim Carrey’s runaway hit Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was still tearing up the box office put the film at odds with what the public had come to demand (or, more accurately, accept) from film comedy. A shame given what a marvel the film is both in its dazzling visuals—1950s New York as imagined via Art Deco expression—and in the gentle, good-humored whimsy of its sharp-as-a-tack script (co-written by the Coens with Sam Raimi) and note-perfect performances from Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Paul Newman.
Unforgettable: Tempting as it is to go with the famous wood chipper scene from Fargo, the emblem of the Coen’s twisted sense of humor, nothing encapsulates their appeal more than the scene that immediately follows it, as folksy police officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) lectures criminal Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) upon his arrest. “There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.” Her sweetly plainspoken way of cutting through the vicious cynicism running rampant through most of the Coens’ films reveals the genuine, if frequently muted beating heart present at the center of all of them.
The Legend: Beginning with the acclaimed 1984 thriller Blood Simple, the Minnesota born and NYU educated Ethan and Joel Coen have had one of the most fiercely idiosyncratic careers in the last 25 years of American film, jointly writing, producing, directing and even (under the alias Roderick Jaynes) editing their films, even when the credits may have misleadingly suggested a division of labor. Often working in a small handful of chosen genres, the brothers’ body of work nevertheless suggests some crazed mashup of classic film styles like film noir, screwball comedy and period dramas, all shot through with the post-modern irreverence of film lovers who have absorbed far too rich an array of cinematic history to ever properly color inside the genre lines.
If the hilarious surrealism of The Big Lebowski and the stark landscapes of No Country For Old Men seem far too disparate to have come from the same set of authors, find the links between the two, and well beyond (to the oppressively decorative atmosphere of Miller’s Crossing, the paranoid claustrophobia of Barton Fink, the antic romps of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the classic storytelling virtues of True Grit) in the ways in which the brothers’ continue to use film, and specifically genre, as a means of desperately hoping to make sense of a world thrust into chaos. In a world in which the distinct possibilities for love (Intolerable Cruelty) and family (Raising Arizona) to flourish must exist alongside the constant threat of violence, whether at the hands of betrayal (Blood Simple), avarice (The Ladykillers) or simple human frailty leading us far astray (The Man Who Wasn’t There), the Coens offer up their own form of cinematic lawlessness as a correlation to our crazy human condition. It’s what makes even their bleakest resolutions—the government cover-up in Burn After Reading, the coin toss in No Country For Old Men, the Job-like procession of events in A Serious Man—feel like hopeful grasps at something resembling a meaning in it all, and even their happiest endings—Marge offering her husband some words of encouragement in Fargo, the stopping of time to give a good man a chance at redemption in The Hudsucker Proxy, the lasting dream of domestic bliss in Raising Arizona—a series of events only arrived at by sheer accident. Jer Fairall