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O Coen Brothers, Where Art God? A Conversation Between Matt Zoller Seitz and Jeffrey Overstreet

Press Play By Jeffrey Overstreet and Matt Zoller Seitz | Press Play March 31, 2013 at 2:36AM

Do the Coens believe in God? Can we even say that for sure? Do they believe in the non-rational, the supernatural? Or are they just pranksters pulling our chains and hoping to spark conversation pieces like this one, while they sit there snickering?
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The whole "white hats versus black hats" view of the world
 
MZS: It's very elusive, very tricky, very coy, I guess you could say -- the way they deal with these issues, or don't deal with them.

From Blood Simple onward, the Coens have offered up plot after plot after plot wherein good and evil square off, but both good and evil are as comical as they are formidable. Good is noble but rather dull, or conventional and predictable. Evil—or corruption—is more exciting, I suppose, or at least superficially sexier than good, but kind of pathetic in the long run. Anton Chigurh is distinguished by his isolation and his grotesqueness. The crooks in Fargo bang prostitutes in hotel rooms after a Jose Feliciano concert, and seem to last all of ten minutes before Johnny Carson comes on; meanwhile, Marge Gunderson and her husband seem truly satisfied in their "boring" suburban home, in their shared bed.

In the Coens’ work, the settled, slightly boring but essentially satisfied "good" collides with the evil, the chaotic. And the fate of the world, or at least these characters’ own little world, is at stake.

Irma Hall Ladykillers

But here's the really interesting part for me: in a Coen brothers film, you can never be entirely sure if good really defeated evil or if evil destroyed itself, through overconfidence or inattention or just plain bad luck.

Luck is such a huge factor in the Coens’ work. Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, Barton Fink, Burn After Reading and so many other Coen brothers films have plots that seem driven by mysterious clockwork forces that could either be weighted in favor of "good" or not . . . . But then again, you kind of can't tell. And while I think I know what the Coens think of their bad guys, I can't be entirely sure if what I'm seeing onscreen is a condemnation, however comic, or merely a presentation.

Are they moralists, or are they anthropologists?

JO: I think they're out to subvert the whole "white hats versus black hats" view of the world. I think they do believe in good and evil, but they seem to see all of humanity as having one foot planted in both camps. Their character cannot be “the Good,” but the more they "lean in" toward love, the more peace and hope and goodness they find.

Think of H.I.'s final dream, the one about growing old with a family and feasting. Think of Marge and Norm celebrating the 3-cent stamp and the upcoming baby. Think of how the most moving and inspiring moment in True Grit comes not when Cogburn blasts the bad guys, but when he carries Mattie across miles and miles trying to save her. The more these characters try and crush evil, or to diagnose it with the intellect, or try to make themselves better through the sheer force of will, the more hopeless and sick at heart they become.

True Grit

Think of poor Barton Fink, who rants and rants about intellectuals who want "to insulate themselves from the common man, from where they live..." And what is Barton doing? He's recoiling from his neighbor, trying to insulate himself from a "common man." But the wallpaper keeps peeling away, and he will eventually have to deal with the ugliness, the corruption, that is common to everyone. His only hope for relief, it seems, comes when he learns to carry his "box of corruption" with him, rest, and look around at what beauty he can find in the midst of the world's seeming-absurdity. (And what is that diving pelican in the final moment but an affirmation that there is something absurd in the sublime, and something sublime in absurdity?)

In the same way, Sheriff Bell in No Country, for all of his efforts, must sit at the table with his wife, confess to a sense of hopelessness and futility, and "lean in" to a dream, to a sense that maybe there is a glimmer of hope, but it exists beyond our control.

O Brother

That is why I think there is profundity in Delmar's baptism in O Brother, Where Art Thou? It's grace. A fool like Delmar, and maybe even a fool like Ulysses, can "be saved" when he accepts grace. When these characters have a sort of Damascus-road encounter with something greater than themselves, and allow the gravity of that to draw them away from their wicked ways. "Well," he tells his friends, "as soon as we get ourselves cleaned up and we get a little smellum in our hair, why, we're gonna feel 100% better about ourselves and about life in general." That doesn't work. But he will begin to feel better about himself when grace inspires him back toward the straight and narrow, when love “cleans him up.”


Even Mattie Ross, for all of her righteous anger, pays a heavy price for trying to fix the world by force. After she is "disarmed," she seems to realize that the greatest reward of her adventure was not justice achieved by violence, but the mysterious bond that formed between her and Cogburn, who strove so mightily to help her.

The Coens' paint a picture of a world botched beyond belief, and beyond humanity's capacity to repair. But there is something transcendent about what those characters who know love enjoy. They touch something that operates in, through, and beyond the human sphere.

Hey, even Private Detective Visser in Blood Simple has a sense of it. He's preoccupied with Russia, where "everyone pulls for everyone else." But in Texas... "you're on your own."  

This article is related to: Jeffrey Overstreet, Matt Zoller Seitz, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen


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