One of the trailers for recent Coen Brothers’ release Hail Caesar! was only around thirty seconds long and most of that was simply listing some of the Coen Brothers’ previous films. You didn’t need to know what Hail Caesar! was about, the fact that it was a Coen Brothers film told you all you needed to know. And really – that’s right, they have a body of work any director would be proud of.
The Typical Coen Brothers Film…
To be blunt there is no typical Coen Brothers film, they move from knockabout comedy to incredibly tense thrillers – genre seems to mean nothing to them and is certainly no predictor of quality – they’re as comfortable making stoner comedies as gangster films. It is genuinely astounding that it is the same people who made O’ Brother Where Art Thou? as No Country For Old Men. Other directors also play with genre – Quentin Tarantino for example – but whether it’s a revenge thriller or western they are still distinctly a Tarantino film. The Coen Brothers go beyond that and I would argue that without any prior knowledge no one would suspect Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing were made by the same people. Looking at their work I split their films into three categories.
These films are tense. No Country For Old Men is a lesson in tension, what should have been an idle bit of chit chat in a petrol station became perhaps the standout scene of this Oscar-winning film. And what was causing the tension? The outcome of a coin toss. No violence, no guns, and only the barest suggestion of threat and you can’t take your eyes off the screen. That said, they are a dab hand with actual violence as well with deftly choreographed scenes of fighting in No Country For Old Men, True Grit and Miller’s Crossing.
Not only are the Coen Brothers very funny they can do different types of humour. One of the funniest scenes of recent years is the now legendary back and forth in Hail Caesar! of a director trying to coach an actor into saying a line the right way – so much is put into just the two characters repeating that line at each other. They also create fictional porn films where the Dude goes bowling with a Valkyrie in what might be best the dream sequence ever filmed. It is safe to say they have comedic range.
When they want to the Coen Brothers can make you sad. A Serious Man is one of the most tragic films I have ever seen as you watch everything good in a man’s life being drained away and how he struggles to still do the right thing. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to bring myself to watch Inside Llewyn Davis again as you see an extremely talented person just knocked around by life, his fortunes so low he has no winter coat for the freezing cold New York.
The Perfect Coen Brothers Film
They have at least one film that brings these three things together perfectly and that is Fargo. The film that won Frances McDormand her first Oscar, cemented a stereotype of North Dakota and inexorably linked Steve Buscemi to the idea of being ground up in a wood chipper. The film is funny, tragic and violent and does it all in less than 100 minutes. The story of Jerry Lundegaard hiring perhaps not the best criminals to fake kidnap his wife so he get the ransom from her extremely wealthy father is riveting from the first scene.
The tension that the viewer has for Marge Gunderson, the heavily pregnant cop who is drawn into the crime is immense and grows over time, what will happen in the inevitable showdown between cop and criminal? The criminals are perhaps more violent and conspicuous than Jerry hoped for, leaving a trail of bodies behind them, ending of course with one of them killing his partner in a famously gruesome way. As for tragedy – Jerry Lundegaard may be the most pathetic figure in cinema history with failure and idiocy dogging his every move and his inaction and incompetence only growing as his plan spirals out of control. Then there is the bizarre meeting between Marge and an old school acquaintance, of no relevance whatsoever to the plot, but with brilliant performances from both actors.
As for comedy…well it’s certainly very dark comedy, a lot coming from the very pleasant and smalltown people who find themselves as everyday characters surrounded by murder and violence. That said, Marge, who is as pleasant and smalltown as any of them is also shown to be extremely determined and capable so maybe don’t underestimate them.
The Coen Brothers – what’s next?
Of course, their real genius is that usually their films contain all three of things in varying amounts. According to IMDb their next film is Macbeth and really I don’t know what to expect – a bloodsoaked rampage, a comedy of errors or the saddest portrayal of the Scottish Play ever made.
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