How the Eccentric Coen Brothers Became American Film Icons

Christopher Karr


Think of drastically different genres. Fuse some with others and add new elements. Borrow patterns, themes and impressions from the halls of movie history and blend them with postmodern philosophy, a wickedly self-deprecating sense of humor and a heavy dose of playful ironic detachment. The resulting mixture pays homage to directors such as Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski, Sam Raimi and Preston Sturges, and writers like  William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler.


I’m referring to none other than the work of Joel and Ethan Coen, the modern American maestros of cinematic cross-breeding. They’ve written and directed 15 pictures in the last 28 years, including a surrealist Hollywood satire, a chain gang musical, a western apocalypse, a Prohibition-era gangster film, a Midwestern thriller, a stoner noir, a screwball comedy and a slapstick family drama. They have produced two bonafide masterpieces every decade for the past 20 years: “Barton Fink” and “Fargo” in the 1990s, “No Country for Old Men” and “A Serious Man” in the aughts.


Say what you will about their comedy misfires (“The Ladykillers,”— a remake of the classic 1955 Ealing comedy, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “Intolerable Cruelty”), they still offer plenty of laughs along the way, though lack the narrative unity that make their most adventurous comedies (“Raising Arizona,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Burn After Reading”) so much more effective. The one possible exception to this generalization is “The Ladykillers,” which is, strangely enough, one of their most structurally cohesive pictures. It might suffer from sluggishness, redundancy and a kind of uneven comic excess, but the plot offers the kind of expected surprises that we want from the cinema: even if you know what’s destined to happen, you’re still surprised by how the outcome is executed.



That’s the Coen brothers’ most exemplary gift: the element of surprise. More specifically, it’s their mastery of manipulation. “Fargo” famously begins with a message that insists the film is based on true events, a claim that was proven false upon release. The Coens embrace every opportunity to play with the audience’s perception, and it’s not without reason. In a 1996 interview with Michel Ciment and Hubert Niogret, Joel Coen said “By telling the public that we took our inspiration from reality, we knew they wouldn’t see the movie as just an ordinary thriller.” In “Fargo,” the filmmakers offer their own unique perspective on a kidnapping thriller. Later in the interview, Ethan explained that “Fargo” evolved significantly between composition and final product: “All we know is that when we wrote the script and when the actors interpreted their roles, none of us thought of the story as a comedy.” And it’s not a comedy per se, but the bursts of black humor, and the way in which the humor intersects with graphic violence, is what sets it apart from other thrillers within the genre.


Even in their most violent films, a smartass sense of humor plays a crucial role. The Coens never take themselves too seriously. That’s partially why they’ve produced so many enjoyable movies. The Coens regularly avoid the trap that trips up many brilliant directors. While several works by Kubrick, Coppola and Scorsese are marred by post-success self-importance, the Coens have proven immune to this pitfall. They’re compulsive storytellers, constantly engaging the audience in a meta-theatrical game.


Reading their screenplays clarifies a lot of the surface-level ambiguity in their work. The scripts for the movies  “A Serious Man” and “Barton Fink” are surprisingly straightforward and explicit on the page, whereas the films themselves are implicit and even downright obscure. Their screenplays are considerably less mysterious. For instance, in “Barton Fink,” the movie wriggles away from cut-and-dry interpretation, but the screenplay confirms that the hotel is undoubtedly intended to be a depiction of hell. Charlie (John Goodman) is described as “hellishly backlit by the flame.” And before Barton (John Turturro) leaves at the end, “a horrible moaning sound — almost human — can be heard under the roar of the fire.” While the protagonist does manage to escape from the literal hell in which Charlie lives, and is a part of, Barton is condemned to a another kind of hell: a writer’s hell, where everything he writes is owned by the studio, which refuses to produce anything he writes.



The Coens imply this is a just punishment for a writer who’s so self-absorbed he’s oblivious to the truth of reality. When Barton asks (with “self-pity,” the screenplay specifies), “Why me?” Charlie responds, “Because you DON’T LISTEN!” He’s too conceited to be perceptive. When Barton insists he wrote a screenplay about “all of us,” he is severely reprimanded by the producer, Lipnik: “You arrogant sonofabitch!...You swell-headed hypocrite! You just don’t get it, do you? You still think the world revolves around whatever rattles inside that little...head of yours.”


The Coens take pleasure in playing God with their characters; they judge some and show wild affection toward others. They also play God with the audience by enveloping their process, and their stories, within alluringly impenetrable mysteries. They’ve been accused of using such esoteric symbolism that all significance is wholly subjective. Many of their films feature a particular object seemingly infused with meaning. In “Barton Fink,” it’s a box that goes unopened; in “Miller’s Crossing,” it’s a hat blown by the wind; in “The Hudsucker Proxy,” it’s a hula hoop. In 1991, Joel Coen told Jim Emerson that “It’s almost like a genre rule: Don’t Open The Box.” While these choices are practical in relation to the plot, they can also be mystifying, open-ended and deliberately enigmatic. They basically mean whatever you want them to mean, given the specific clues provided throughout the narrative. “‘Barton Fink’ does end up telling you what’s going on to the extent that it’s important to know,” Ethan said in 1991. “What isn’t crystal clear isn’t intended to become crystal clear, and it’s fine to leave it at that.”


As puzzling and Lynchian as “Barton Fink” is, the Coens’ most mysterious film to date is “A Serious Man,” an overwhelmingly profound and timeless re-imagining of the Book of Job. It’s an adaptation of the biblical poem in the same sense that “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is an adaptation of “The Odyssey,” meaning the brothers have taken the framework of the ancient tale and updated it with their own unique imprint. In “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men,” the cruelty of reality is presented deadpan-style with blood and gore. But the ingenious innovation of “A Serious Man” is the recognition that the ultimate depiction of the cruelty of reality is an innocent man who is afflicted for no reason. But because of their irrepressible comic sensibility, the Coens further recognize that there’s nothing funnier than an innocent who suffers for no reason. The cruelty of reality is as funny as it is terrifying.



The existential questions of the Book of Job are echoed and examined in this parable of cosmic persecution. God isn’t a character onscreen, but he’s certainly a presence. We watch as Larry, the protagonist, loses everything. By working with a character who’s forced to face life’s biggest questions, the Coens discover the similarity between people who question God’s purpose (because they don’t understand it) and critics who question the filmmaker’s purpose (because they don’t understand it). “What is Hashem trying to tell me?” Larry asks his rabbi, who admits it’s an excellent question but doesn’t have any answers. “Why does he make us feel the questions if he's not gonna give us any answers?” God — characterized in part by an impossibly old rabbi who is too busy to meet with Larry — gives an answer by not giving an answer. Likewise, the Coens reserve the right to make all conclusions mysterious.


The Coens also portray God’s counterpart — a character type that makes an appearance in most of their movies: the adversary. Their depiction here of Satan himself might be their single most enjoyable creation ever: Sy Ableman. The outwardly evil archetype (like Javier Bardem in “No Country” or Peter Stormare in “Fargo”) is shelved in order to characterize the Devil as a velvet-voiced, bold-faced liar who insists he’s your best friend. It’s a testament to the movie’s strength as a whole that Sy doesn’t steal the show. He’s a one-man showcase of a character, and Fred Melamed plays him to absolute perfection, purring with torturous condescension.


When the whirlwind finally appears, it’s of a different variety than the one from which God finally responds to Job. This whirlwind is a tornado of destruction approaching Larry’s family, indicating that the familial curse mentioned in the prologue will pass on down to Larry’s children. The grisly jest at the end of the movie is that Larry’s real test has just begun. It’s the kind of deviously nihilistic joke the Coens love to spring on their audience. Their American Job is destined to suffer the same losses as the man from the land of Uz: he will lose his family and his health — the very last things he has. “A Serious Man” paints a grim picture indeed — a black comedy almost too truthful to be funny. But the struggle to survive despite impossible adversity is the essence of drama. The awkward ugliness of that struggle can be hysterically, darkly funny.


“A Serious Man” is a sort of mini-Ulysses. Larry, a Jew amidst Midwestern Gentiles, is a wandering outsider. Like Joyce’s protagonist, Larry is drawn as an isolated modern Everyman. The movie isn’t as epic in size as Ulysses, but like Joyce’s masterwork, it includes unsearchable depth. It’s a timeless and intimately detailed story told by filmmakers working at the very height of their intelligence.


Author Bio:

Christopher Karr is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

For Highbrow Magazine


not popular
Bottom Slider: 
Out Slider