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“Squint against the grandeur!”- The Pop Spiritualism of the Coen Brothers

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve seen one or more films by Joel and Ethan Coen. This isn’t to shame anyone who hasn’t, but let’s be realistic here- the Coens and their films inhabit a very large space in the popular consciousness, and with good reason. Their creative path is both envious and precarious, a story with as many ups and downs as one of their own films. They were able to parlay early indie success into decades worth of distinctive studio cinema, and their mid-2000s critical stall-out set them up to rebound with some of their best work yet.

Given their popularity, it’s easy to think there isn’t a ton of fresh ground to cover. Attracting all this attention the way they do, the Coens have been called a lot of different things that are untrue. In various articles, reviews, tweets, Letterboxd comments, etc, I’ve seen them referred to as: secretly racist, secretly right-wing, hacks, the best filmmakers of all time, the most American filmmakers, etc etc. I’m not really going to engage too much with these claims, as I don’t see them as either the saviors of cinema nor the downfall of it, and honestly, I’m not super concerned about what their politics are (although they are pretty transparent about them).

What I do think is true about the Coens is that they are mean as snakes. Their films are populated by morons of such magnitude that you could make the argument the Coens have complete contempt for all humans. I don’t think they have contempt, I just believe they’re pragmatic in showing how inept and evil people can really be. The cruelty that befalls most of the characters in their films often feels completely excessive yet utterly appropriate, whether at the hands of man, God, or circumstances.

I tend to view the Coens films through three different lenses- farce, mystery, and tragedy. If you’re new to the Coens, I hope this guide gives you a good path to enjoying some of the better pop films of the last 30 years. If you’re well-versed, I hope this gives you a new prism to look through when evaluating these films.

Farce: The Big Lebowski and Hail, Caesar!

Being the great screenwriters they are, the Coens are often looked at as examples for how to craft tight and straightforward scripts. However, their comedies are generally exempt from this. Their two best comedies feature big ensemble casts, esoteric references and constant cultural landmarking, and loose odysseys through moral tests.

The Big Lebowski is just as shaggy and confused as its central character, Jeff Bridges’ The Dude. A movie so dense it’s inspired philosophical treatises and so convoluted that the plot falls apart as soon as you try to explain it, this is for my money the best Coen brothers comedy and one of their best movies. They decided to follow up the minimal battle of good and evil of Fargo with a rambling two hour excursion through Los Angeles that takes the model of decades of noir and flips it inside out with stoner logic and incredibly rich side characters.

Twenty years later, Hail, Caesar! came along with an even bigger cast and an even more disconnected set of vignettes to riff on old Hollywood and the way we portray God on screen. In the protagonist Eddie, the Coens explore their well-trod ground of monotheism and the general struggle with it, with maybe the funniest exploration of it in one particular scene with three preachers and a rabbi. Eddie’s own inability to experience God through anything other than the films he helps create drives home the central idea behind the film itself- that Movie Magic can be a saving force all its own.

Mystery: No Country for Old Men and Blood Simple

In 2007, the Coens bounced back from a couple of unsuccessful studio pictures with their most resounding success. No Country for Old Men is their only film to win either best picture or best director, and its place in the canon was immediate. The stark, dry noir makes the Texas desert look like a foreign planet, and Javier Bardem’s savage performance elevated the film from a typical literary adaptation into the realm of modern masterpieces.

But the Coens were no strangers to noir- in fact it was really more a return to form. Their first film, 1984’s Blood Simple, lays the groundwork for their love of mystery and cat-and-mouse thrillers. Frances McDormand (frequent collaborator and Joel’s wife) is running from her abusive husband, and the film contains the same blend of horror aesthetics, silent stretches, and the creeping bleakness of certain death that made No Country an instant legend. There’s few debut films that so clearly contain the seeds of everything to come for a director, and if you’re more interested in smart and earthy mysteries, Blood Simple is a stellar step into that space.

Tragedy: Inside Llewyn Davis and A Serious Man

In their tragedies, the Coens allow the violence and insanity of the worlds they create to inspire confusion and angst in their characters more than they are played for laughs or dramatic effect. These films feel more like being beaten down slowly, and they steer clear of any easy resolution.

Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen film I was most personally affected by on first watch. Tracing the story of a middling folk singer in early-60’s New York, it’s tough for me to not see myself and the people I work with in this story of busted dreams and washed up music careers. Shifting away from the neat lens of usual cinematographer Roger Deakins, Bruno Delbonnel paints the film in inky grays and smeared visuals. Oscar Isaac sells the film with a performance that mostly smolders, increasing the power of his outbursts. The film loops back on itself at the end, using more abstract storytelling devices than typical for the Coens. The punishing end hammers home the film’s thesis- there’s no escaping your fate.

If there’s any film where fate is utterly inescapable, it is A Serious Man. It seems hard to top the absurdity of their minor comedies like Raising Arizona or Burn After Reading, but A Serious Man goes there, and with entrancing results. It’s become a meme in a way that a straight comedy typically would not; the film’s humor is only because it portrays all the unrealistic bad fortune as completely serious, and Michael Stuhlbarg’s confused gaze is the film’s anchor- there’s not much sense to be made of it. The film also engages with the Jewish faith the most explicitly of any Coen film. They approach their heritage with a questioning eye, lambasting religious institutions for their lack of answers and the way the Rabbis refuse any meaningful assistance.

The Coens’ tricky relationship with God and man animates much of their films, but I don’t want you to leave thinking of them as simply cynical. Even the biggest cynics have a soft side, which the Coens prove over and over again. As obsessed as they are with death, they’re equally concerned with the beauty of life, specifically new life that’s brought into the world. Some of their best characters beam with an honest glow, and they constantly argue in favor of doing what’s right over what’s easy. Even the death and violence that occurs always leaves room for the characters to mourn; nobody dies without leaving an impact on someone. It’s this belief that keeps me coming back to the brothers. As absurd as they think everything is, they’re even more committed to a deeply humanist method- if the people are interesting, it’s always a story worth telling.