[10 March 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The review in the most recent Variety says it all – after half a decade in the cinematic wilderness, the Coen Brothers have apparently returned to their original, brilliant filmmaking forte. The movie in question is their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s drug and death thriller No Country for Old Men, and advanced word is more than favorable. Indeed, it’s the kind of unmitigated praise (with words like ‘brilliant’ and ‘masterpiece’ tossed around) that the skilled siblings once attained with surprising regularity. Fans who have long hoped for a return to form should be smiling from ear to ear, and while we will have to wait until sometime in late November to see if the Cannes screening buzz is true, any promise of their previous brilliance is worth celebrating.
You see, the Coens were, at one time, undeniable gods of quirky, unconventional filmmaking. While they never delivered a monster mainstream motion picture (2000’s O’ Brother Where Art Thou? is the closest they every came to a certified hit) they also never really hid behind a veil of independent or outsider auteurship. Instead, writer/producer Ethan and writer/director Joel have openly helmed some of the most memorable movies of the last two decades, remarkable masterworks with titles like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn’t There. In all, the nine films they made over their first 17 years in the industry represent the best that modern cinema can achieve. They even achieved that rarity for visionary artists – an actual Oscar (for crafting the screenplay for Fargo).
But something happened in 2001, right around the time that their black and white opus The Man Who Wasn’t There was hitting theaters. For a long time, the Coens had hated the idea of working outside the system. While their films had always been embraced by the studios (well, mostly), they had never really had a concrete deal to depend on. But when O’ Brother went ballistic, giving former ER star George Clooney a substantial boost into the realm of superstardom, the boys appeared ready to bathe in the limelight of legitimacy. They took a sketchy divorce comedy by a pair of unheralded Hollywood hacks (Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, responsible for Life, Big Trouble, and the horrid Man of the House), reworked the material to fit their idiosyncratic ideals, and got their pal George back on board. Suddenly, Intolerable Cruelty was on the production fast track.
When A-listers Catherine Zeta-Jones, Billy Bob Thorton and Geoffrey Rush signed on, it looked like the Coens would finally see some solid commercial returns. And they didn’t intend to totally abandon their esoteric cinematic style. As they saw it, this was a chance to meld their vision with a viable high profile product. Unfortunately, they failed both demographics. Devotees destroyed the film, seeing nothing of their favorite filmmakers in the dull, derivative mess. Even worse, audiences outside the boys’ normal sphere of influence discovered very little to like about this cobbled together collection of clipped dialogue, oddball characters, and stylized visual imagery. After a few feeble weeks at the box office, the film only earned back half of its $60 million price tag.
Luckily, the guys had already lined up their next project. Looking for something to subvert his normal nice guy image onscreen, megastar Tom Hanks provided the duo with their crumbling career safety net. He hooked up with the Coens for their planned remake of the Alec Guiness classic The Ladykillers, hoping that by playing a corrupt con man looking to rob a local bank he could win back a little of the acting credibility he once had (the man owns a pair of Academy brass, remember). The cast was fleshed out with additional faces unfamiliar to the boys’ standard acting crew (J.K. Simmons, Marlon Wayans), and while Hanks excelled in the lead, the rest of the movie felt oddly off balance. Even the staunchest Coen supporters had a hard time defending its flatness.
The result was a flop of reputational, not financial, proportions (the movie made money, believe it or not). What was happening to the brothers was something they had never experienced in the past. With the weak one-two punch of these underperforming efforts, followers began to doubt their inherent artistic acumen. At one time, their amiable aesthetic was unquestionable. The guys were geniuses and that was that. But somehow, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers showed that these irrefutable emperors did indeed have some frayed bits in their otherwise fanciful clothes. Of course, such a conclusion was only partly true, but the status carried. Suddenly, the one time deities of motion picture mastery were viewed as vulnerable, flawed, and very, very human.
Again, it’s not hard to see why. Modern writers/directors would give up their posh seats at the trendiest restaurant of the moment to claim any one of the Coens’ previous efforts. Blood Simple was such a shock to the system that mainstream critics like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were beside themselves with praise. The follow-up, the comedy classic Raising Arizona remains one of the great ensemble laugh fests ever formulated. With those two projects alone, most moviemakers would be satisfied, but the Coens continued their scorching streak of cinematic stalwarts.
During an unusual period of writer’s block, the brothers managed to salvage two scripts from the depths of literary despair. The final products – Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink – stand as the best examples of the boys’ early period works. Dense, obtuse and frighteningly fleshed out, their takes on the period crime caper (Crossing) and the Golden Era of Hollywood (Fink) function as fascinating bookends, movies that completely encapsulate and explain the Coens’ interpretation of the language of film. Both projects wallowed in excessive detail, used sequences of startling violence, and just the slightest hint of socially unacceptable behavior (drinking, death) to round out their splashy, flashy finesse.
After their massive critical success, the pair was picked up by super producer Joel Silver to make their next movie – a satiric screwball comedy about big business entitled The Hudsucker Proxy. Like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying sans the music and misguided optimism, the Coens riffed on everything old fashioned and mannered about the post-War Tinsel Town comedies, and came up with a bafflingly insular work that few outside the fanbase could cotton to. From Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mysterious Kate Hepburn brogue to a plot premised on stock market fluctuations and company corruption, it took a few years of reconsideration before anyone considered Hudsucker a worthy companion to the boys’ previous gems.
Fargo, of course, was the duo’s final coming out. When Gene Siskel declared that he was sure he would not see a better film the rest of the year – and it was MARCH 1996 when he made such a statement – you just knew something special was in the offing. Driven by an idiosyncratic setting (upper Minnesota) and equally arcane accents, the Coens created a kidnapping/murder mystery with as much buffoonery as bite. With Oscar worthy performances from William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi, and an Award winning turn by star Frances McDormand, the guys finally received the industry idolatry they so richly deserved (and statuettes for Best Original Screenplay).
The final three films in their notable nine movie run were equally important. The Big Lebowski proved that the Coens had lost none of their ridiculous razor’s edge, turning the story of a stoner and a case of mistaken identity into a fresh and full bodied farce. O’ Brother showcased the power in music, as well as the boys’ understanding of rural America revisionism. And when The Man Who Wasn’t There offered up a similar theme of flat feloniousness among small town folk, its anti-histrionic take on such acts of desperation was a revelation. So it’s no substantial shock that Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers would feel like letdowns. Neither was an original creation from the guy’s unusual perspective, and neither tried to funnel their fascinating film fusion into a cohesive or vital vision. In fact, when the quirkiest element involved remains Tom Hank’s Southern dandy accent, you know you’ve swayed from what made you famous in the first place.
So it’s great to hear the outpouring of praise for No Country for Old Men. It’s been a long time since the Coens captured the imagination of the creative community, and though they’ve only been out of consideration for a few years, their exile from importance seems infinite. At one time, they wrote the new rules on how to deliver motion pictures from the mundane and the stagnant. They catered to characterization instead of high concepts, and smoothed out their scripts with a narrative flow as fluid as a puddle of pulsating mercury. If they end up winning Cannes’ biggest prizes (as they have done several times before) or simply walk away with the word of mouth necessary to jumpstart their next few films, then all is right in the cinematic universe. The Coens used to be said cosmos’ brightest stars. It’s wonderful to know they haven’t supernova-ed, at least not yet.