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The Films Of The Coen Brothers: A Retrospective

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 4, 2013 at 11:32AM

Are Joel & Ethan Coen the best American filmmakers of their generation? It's probably a silly question to pose, but we'll be damned if we can think of better candidates. Since their startling neo-noir debut "Blood Simple" (which turns three decades old next year), they've been behind a brace of firmly original pictures which couldn't have been made by anyone else (as every dire attempt by others to make a "Coens-esque" imitation has proven). And though there have been a few blips (most notably a patch in the mid 00s generally regarded as the duo being off their game, though the films have their defenders), they've kept up a remarkably consistent level of quality over the years, with multiple classics, of which their 16th film, "Inside Llewyn Davis," is only the latest.
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Coen Brothers retro

Are Joel & Ethan Coen the best American filmmakers of their generation? It's probably a silly question to pose, but we'll be damned if we can think of better candidates. Since their startling neo-noir debut "Blood Simple" (which turns three decades old next year), they've been behind a brace of firmly original pictures which couldn't have been made by anyone else (as every dire attempt by others to make a "Coens-esque" imitation has proven). And though there have been a few blips (most notably a patch in the mid 00s generally regarded as the duo being off their game, though the films have their defenders), they've kept up a remarkably consistent level of quality over the years, with multiple classics, of which their 16th film, "Inside Llewyn Davis," is only the latest.

Initially billed with Joel as the director and Ethan as the producer (sharing writing credits) due to guild complications, the pair have always been a tight team, and were finally able to recognize that from 2003's "Intolerable Cruelty" onwards, sharing all their credits from then on out. And although they've dealt with everything from a fairly straight-ahead star-laden Western to a 1940s magic realism Preston Sturges-homage retelling of the Odyssey to a bleakly funny present-day Washington satire, you can always tell a Coens film from a hundred paces away, from their characteristic tropes (men looking for hats, elevators, howling fat men et al), to the sharp dialogue and immaculate photography.

They have their critics, most notably those who believe that they're chilly filmmakers more interested in making fun of their characters than exploring their humanity, but while on some of their films that description might fit, the likes of "Fargo" and "A Serious Man" have a warmth and compassion to them even when they're dealing with bleaker subject matter.

"Inside Llewyn Davis" is very much in that vein, as you'll see when it hits theaters this week. It's one of the year's very best films, and as such, to celebrate it, we've done something we've been dying to do for years, and taken a look back at the Coens' complete filmography. We hope there'll be many more great films to come, but as a primer for the first thirty years of the brothers' career, this should do the trick. Take a look below, and let us know your Coen favorites in the comments section.

"Blood Simple"
"Blood Simple"

“Blood Simple” (1984)
The opening narration says it all; you can be the Pope, the President of the United States, Man of the Year — something can and will always go wrong. But the cynical philosophy of this character (played by the great character actor M. Emmet Walsh) boils down to one’s milieu: “But what I know about is Texas, and down here, you're on your own.” Murder, betrayal, adultery, crimes and punishments. While not as morally and thematically textured as some later Coen Brothers films about the same subjects would be — one could arguably call it the Cliffsnotes version of “No Country For Old Men” — as modern nail-biting film noir, “Blood Simple” is nearly as good as it gets. Violently dark, evincing a twisted sense of humor, with this startlingly assured debut feature, the Coen siblings announced the arrival of one of the most idiosyncratic and distinctive American filmmaking pairs ever. Centering on a suspicious Texas bar owner (the impossibly hirsute Dan Hedaya) who hires a private detective (Walsh) to spy on and then kill his wife (Frances McDormand) for cheating on him (with one of his employees played by John Getz), this seemingly straightforward murder is complicated by deceits, double-crosses and those looking out for their own interest in this dog-eat-dog world. If Tommy Lee Jones waxes philosophically, lamenting the moral decay of humanity in “No Country For Old Men,” then M. Emmet Walsh’s Southern brand of ideology in “Blood Simple” is akin to the smiling scorpion amiably warning the frog that in this world, you are bound to get stung. Crimes add up in “Blood Simple,” and give way to fear, guilt and fatal misunderstandings that snowball out of control. Nothing is simple in the Coens' debut, outside of the uncontestable fact that blood is red and getting away with murder is the hard part. [B+]

Raising Arizona

“Raising Arizona” (1987)
H.I. McDonough is dealing with a whole host of problems. His jailbird buddies, who just busted out of prison, are looking for a place to hide out. His wife Ed desperately wants a baby at almost any cost, and before his next few days are over, he’ll be tangling with police, a furniture magnate and oh yeah, The Lone Biker Of The Apocalypse. In their sophomore film “Raising Arizona,”, the Coen brothers would establish a motif they would return to time and again through their career: the regular, middle of the road everyman who endures a Job-like struggle to keep his head above water. The line from this film to later pictures like “The Big Lebowski,” “A Simple Man” and their latest “Inside Llewyn Davis” can be clearly drawn, but the sibling directors can thank one of Nicolas Cage’s finest performances as the reason it has continued to stand the test of time (and it’s shame the three never worked together again).  Finding the pitch-perfect tone between being overwhelmed by everything he’s forced to deal with, and being utterly devoted to his wife’s happiness, H.I. is a creation that one can’t imagine in the hands of anyone besides Cage. But what comes through, most surprisingly, is not his trademark, manic energy — of which there is plenty in this absurd tale that blends wife swapping, tunnel digging, baby snatching and more —  but real genuine heart at the center of H.I., even as he’s scrambling from the cops with a bag of diapers under his arm and a stocking on his head. While the Coens never quite got this wild again — this is probably their broadest, most cartoonish comedy (it's here that their friendship with Sam Raimi is most evident) — “Raising Arizona” is ample evidence that it didn’t take them long to display their masterful hand at combining pitch perfect tone, heightened style and their now unique, distinct sensibility that is always changing, yet always instantly recognizable. [B+]

Miller's Crossing

“Miller’s Crossing” (1990)
With "Miller's Crossing," the Coens set out to create a straight up crime movie, and they succeeded, brilliantly. Gabriel Byrne plays a low level operative caught in a gang war in an unidentified city (they shot in New Orleans, attracted by its historically intact architecture), as well as a love triangle between a big shot mobster (Albert Finney) and his gun moll (Marcia Gay Harden). The plot is too knotty to try to untangle in a brief synopsis, but the movie thrusts forward in a nearly galvanic way, with images, like the opening shot of a black hat gliding through a forest clearing (one used for executions, we'll later learn) and, later, Albert Finney assaulting a house with a tommy gun, cigar dangling precariously from the corner of his mouth, searing themselves into your brain. Byrne is the perfect Coens antihero: cool, calculating, and more than a little bit of a son-of-a-bitch; he's the kind of guy who you can imagine making all of the connections and then following through on them. "Miller's Crossing" was shot by Barry Sonnenfeld, who would go on to have a successful career as a director himself, helming the three "Men in Black" movies (amongst other things); his love of extreme camera angles and the widest possible lens available helps give the film its teetering energy. It's a gangster epic, alright, but one more-than-slightly unhinged, in that perfectly-agreeable Coens way. [A]

This article is related to: Features, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Essentials


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