Thoughts on the Coen Brothers

I recently (ish) completed my viewing of all the Coen Brothers’ films and have been meaning to write some thoughts, but life has been crazy, so it hasn’t happened (I started this in mid-November and am just now finishing in late January, so it’s been awhile). I decided to adopt the strategy used by Christopher Orr at The Atlantic and lump the films into tiers. My favorites among the first tier have shifted around as I’ve watched and every time I sit down to write my thoughts I think of a different order. But I feel pretty good about those six being my favorites for a variety of reasons.

Anyway, here’s the ranking. The tiers are more important than the ranking within each tier. Some of these I’ve only seen once and could shift after watching again (either up or down), but here’s where I’m at now:

Tier 1 (1-6)

Hail, Caesar!

A Serious Man

No Country for Old Men

Inside Llewyn Davis

Miller’s Crossing

Barton Fink

Tier 2 (7-11)

Fargo

O, Brother Where Art Thou?

The Big Lebowski

Blood Simple

Burn After Reading

Tier 3 (12-15)

The Man Who Wasn’t There

True Grit

Raising Arizona

Intolerable Cruelty

Tier 4 (16)

The Hudsucker Proxy

Tier 5 (17)

The Ladykillers

I love the Coens. Their films are beautiful and hilarious and remarkably well-crafted. The play with meaninglessness in a moving and meaningful way (as paradoxical and odd as that sounds). Perhaps that’s a reflection of my desire to find and make meaning more than it is an accurate reading of their films, but regardless, I find engaging with their films a meaningful experience confronting meaninglessness (yes, I fully recognize the irony of finding meaning in explorations of meaninglessness) or at least chaos, disorder, and an ambivalent universe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my Tier 1 is largely composed of dramas, with many of the comedies making up Tier 2. There are some exceptions (Hail, Caesar!, Fargo, and Blood Simple notably). I find quite a bit of humor in the Coens’ dramas too (and it’s more suited to my often kind of bleak, absurdist, dry humor sensibilities). The dramas typically have a tighter construction that I appreciate (though Hail, Caesar! is definitely pretty loosely constructed and I adore that one, so my trends are not absolute).

After watching the first season of Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There is looking better and better (given Billy Bob Thornton, but I still think the movie wasn’t one of the Coens’ best, so I’ll leave it where it is). I think it’s worth noting that The Ladykillers is the only film from the Coens that I’d consider a genuinely bad film. Hudsucker isn’t great and has a weird, inconsistent vibe (similar to Intolerable Cruetly), but neither of those are genuinely bad films.

Now, here are some observations, things I learned, and other miscellaneous thoughts based on watching all of their films:

  1. Style. The Coen Brothers undeniably have a strong sense of style in their films. Some directors are less strong stylistically, but the Coens have some shared stylistic elements across their films regardless of genre. There’s a sense of humor and the absurd as well as similar musical styles (Carter Burwell frequently does their soundtracks), shared visual styles (they collaborate with cinematographer Roger Deakins on most of their films), and obviously some actors that frequently appear in their films. Some of this shared style is due to the collaborators that they work with, but it’s also due to the extremely tight control that the Coens maintain on production (writing, editing, producing, and directing their own films).
  2. Suffering. Some of the style and distinctive “Coen” vibes for the films comes from shared thematic elements. One of these is a fascination with suffering. I might write more extensively later about how they create a theodicy of their own in their films (particularly A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Barton Fink), but think it’s worth noting here that they seem intrigued by how characters respond to suffering and particularly in subjecting normal and relatively innocent characters to immense suffering. I think that this is linked to the next two ideas that I was struck by as I watched all the Coens’ films.
  3. Meaninglessness. The Coen Brothers (perhaps better and with greater frequency than any other filmmaker) play with meaninglessness. They are fascinated with a universe that seems to not be governed by normal rules of meaning. The narratives are structured in a way that eschew easy understanding and frequently suggest something along the lines of there being no inherent meaning, while maintaining a sense of morality and ethics.
  4. Morality. While some find the Coens to be amoral filmmakers, I don’t really see that being the case. There seems to be strong judgments enacted against characters and while many “innocent” or good characters also seem subject to suffering and pain, the films seem to look on that suffering quite differently than the suffering of the guilty ones. The Coens’ morality may be difficult to pin down and figure out exactly, but I think there is one. And one that is worth thinking about and teasing out. I’m open to my own fairly strong sense of morality and ethics coloring my reading of their films, but I don’t think that’s happening here. Concerns with the Coens’ morality may be linked to their efforts to show the meaninglessness of the universe, where sometimes characters seem to get away with their evil, but I don’t think the Coens’ representation of that is necessarily advocating that that is a moral or right or good outcome—it simply is.
  5. Characters. The Coens seem to love focusing on characters that are not quite likable. Or perhaps better put, most of their protagonists are deeply flawed and sort of weak, even if we like them. The characters feel at once like caricatures and like someone that lives next door to your aunt in Minnesota. There’s this interesting larger than life, yet deeply human aspect to them. They aren’t quite real, but the universe that the Coens create is also not quite real. It’s too self-aware, too reflexive, and too finely crafted to really be reality. So, the characters match that. It’s sort of like the reality that you craft in your mind where you can replay events and control every element of them. But I like that they play with characters that are complicated and less likable.

So, that’s a bit on why I love the Coens. They’re definitely some of my favorite filmmakers (Wes Anderson probably still occupies my top spot, but the Coens are right up there). Their films are hilarious and some of the most finely crafted of any director (perhaps too finely for some people). I appreciated the Coens prior to watching all their films, but I’m blown away by their skill after watching their entire filmography.

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