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The Films Of The Coen Brothers: A Retrospective

by The Playlist Staff
December 4, 2013 11:32 AM
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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]

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  • Alex Krajci | December 31, 2013 3:37 PMReply

    1996's Fargo And 1998's The Big Lebowski Are Two Of My Favorite Films.

  • Pavan | December 13, 2013 1:40 AMReply

    There are the Coens. And then there's the rest.

    It's odd that A Serious Man is my favorite movie of the Coens. There are much better movies of course, but, A Serious Man just stuck with me.

    Cannot wait to watch Inside Llewyn Davis. I'm especially curious to watch the classy Carey Mulligan in a Coen movie. I'd never thought anything like that would happen.

  • Jason | December 8, 2013 12:22 AMReply

    I feel like the writer of this retrospective purposely ignored Steve Buscemi. He was in Barton Fink, Fargo and The Big Lebowski and is fantastic in all three. How can anyone forget "Shut the f**k up, Donny! You're out of your element."? He only played a pivotal role in Fargo but he certainly made a significant impact on all three films.

  • Serena | December 5, 2013 11:09 PMReply

    To add to the Big Lebowski cult, in Reykjavik, Iceland, there's the Lebowski Bar. They really went all-out, with a sideways bowling alley on the walls, stills from the film, a food menu corresponding to the characters (I think the chicken wings are called The Nihilists) and of course a White Russian menu of drinks. All the Americans plus the Game of Thrones crew went there.

  • alphabet | December 4, 2013 9:03 PMReply

    Special recognition must be given to the 13-minute prologue in Raising Arizona, an amazing work in its own right, and perhaps the greatest all-time whistlin-dixie use of Beethoven's 9th via banjo.

  • wes | December 4, 2013 7:46 PMReply

    Raise Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and The Ladykillers.
    Lower Miller's Crossing.
    Then it's good.

  • Trevor | December 4, 2013 6:50 PMReply

    It's "A Serious Man." Not "A Simple Man."

  • hank | December 4, 2013 6:13 PMReply

    regarding those "clowns at the academy" ... they actually gave the coens a couple of those silly statues years earlier for writing FARGO.

  • scott taylor | December 30, 2013 1:57 PM

    if you have to ask who the clown is usually yourself

  • Liam | December 20, 2013 12:16 AM

    Dios mio man - don't you know a Lebowski reference when you see one?

  • hank | December 4, 2013 6:15 PM

    whose the clown.

  • Brad | December 4, 2013 4:33 PMReply

    The Coen's have always been between my favorite filmmakers but reading this list and catching "O Brother Where Art Thou" on Amc by coincidence a couple of days ago made me realize how great they are. I think my favorite 3 films are "A Serious Man", "No Country for old men" and "Fargo". I can't wait to see " Inside LLewyn Davis"
    Great Retrospective!!!!

  • Cory Everett | December 5, 2013 1:59 PM

    No, Sanjuro. Just no.

  • sanjuro | December 4, 2013 5:17 PM

    Ladykillers is a brilliant film. Their 2nd best film of the last decade after No Country for Old Men.

  • gee i wonder who wrote this comment | December 4, 2013 3:08 PMReply

    Climates was Ceylan's fourth feature.

  • FYI | December 4, 2013 7:02 PM

    They called it his 2nd in the short, fyi.

  • Jake Bart | December 4, 2013 2:25 PMReply

    I may be crazy, but I think BURN AFTER READING is worthy of much higher than a B. I think it's funnier than O BROTHER, HUDSUCKER, and even RAISING ARIZONA.

  • jonnybon | December 5, 2013 7:09 PM

    Burn After Reading is my favorite Coen comedy. A+

  • cory everett | December 4, 2013 3:01 PM

    You are crazy. RAISING ARIZONA 4ever.

  • Xian | December 4, 2013 1:33 PMReply

    "clowns at the Academy" = Their peers.

  • Rob | December 4, 2013 12:19 PMReply

    A near perfect career. That's why they're the best.

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