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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.
No Country For Old Men

“No Country for Old Men” (2007)
On one very basic level, “No Country For Old Men” is the Coens’ attempt at a full-throttle action chase picture. No one would have guessed that the men behind “Barton Fink” had such classical suspense chops, and the way they shoot action sequences involving dimwitted opportunist Llewyn Moss (Josh Brolin, a career-peak) suggests the sorts of genre smarts that are borderline extinct. But ultimately, the title of this Cormac McCarthy adaptation reveals that, for all the menace of Javier Bardem’s award-winning turn as philosophical creep Anton Chigurh, the main character is Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). A salt-of-the-earth sheriff, Bell is the latest in a long line of lawmen, but what he sees in the Coens’ ongoing trail of violence and spiritual desolation is a terror, one that haunts his dreams and won’t let go. This adaptation eventually becomes the corrective for these types of films, where a law enforcement officer has to “buck up” and face a new threat, instead observing how there’s a delicate humanism involved in staring the devil in the face and turning the other way. The core of “No Country For Old Men,” which finally earned the Coens a couple of statues from the clowns at the Academy, is ultimately about the strength inside one to escape the specter of violence, to avoid the escalation involved in humanity’s decision to disrupt its own very existence, and about the lack of guidance that darkens that very same path. People argue over which is the Coens’ best, but if this were to be the title offered, few would complain. [A]

World Cinema Coens

"To Each His Own Cinema" - segment "World Cinema" (2007)
Created as a means to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival, "To Each His Own Cinema" was a 2007 French anthology film that collected short films by 36 acclaimed filmmakers like  Lars Von Trier, Jane Campion, Gus Van Sant, David Cronenberg and many more. The Coen brothers' contribution to the collection was "World Cinema," a playful riff/quasi sequel to "No Country For Old Men" starring Josh Brolin (ostensibly as the same cowboy character, but he actually has different name, suggesting they are only superficially similar) and producer Grant Heslov (known for his constant collaborations with producing partner George Clooney). Brolin plays a Southern Texas cowboy who walks into a cinema arthouse and starts a conversation with the cinephile-loving concession man (Heslov). He wants to see a film and there's two options: 1) Jean Renoir's 1939 comedic social masterpiece "The Rules of The Game" and "Climates," Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's sophomore feature.  As the cowboy tries to decide what to see, the cineaste describes to him what each film is about in a comedic back and forth ("Is there any livestock in any of them?" Brolin's character asks at one point). A brief, deadpan and absurdist little piece, it's not must-see viewing by any stretch, but definitely an interesting curio for Coen bros. completists.  [C+]

Burn After Reading

“Burn After Reading” (2008)
After the exhaustive critical lauding and box office success of "No Country," it's fair to say the thoroughly dark lampooning that is "Burn After Reading" came as a bit of a curve ball. Leave it to the Coens to stick to their guns, shepherding a cast of big-time regulars (McDormand! Clooney! Jenkins! Music by Carter Burwell!) and equally seasoned A-listers (Malkovich, Swinton, and especially Pitt, clearly relishing the opportunity) through a tangled web of jealousy, lust and, above all, violent stupidity. "Burn After Reading" feels like an unfussy lark, a way for the Coens to revisit the mind games of "Barton Fink" and the sudden bursts of violence peppered throughout their work, all the while generously parodying the spy genre. The film is chock-full of emphatic scenes with hilariously low stakes, characters puffing out their chests and shifting their eyes. Pitt's personal trainer is a highlight: the actor, whose early roles were tinged with a pretty-boy vacancy, presents a tightrope performance, suggesting an innate idiocy at odds with an all-consuming ego. The general cast shares the same symptoms and although you may get the feeling the brothers are engaging in cinematic sadism by placing these characters in the same vicinity, stick with it. "Burn After Reading" is an oddity that remains irreparably in the Coen's wheelhouse. [B]

A Serious Man

“A Serious Man” (2009)
“Accept the mystery” might as well be the mantra of all Coen brothers characters. It’s the kernel of a case that The Dude inaccurately pursues at the heart of “The Big Lebowski” and blank-faced takeaway at the conclusion of “Burn After Reading,” and Coen protagonists are usually undergoing a mission while wondering if there’s any sort of order to their chaos. It wasn’t until “A Serious Man” where the Coens soberly addressed the issue head-on, chucking away any A-plots and dealing away with the fantastical elements of some of their work to travel back to 1960’s Minnesota. It’s there where over-stressed Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is undergoing a litany of crises. If it’s not bad enough that his socially-maladjusted brother has moved in, now his wife is having an affair. If it isn’t his son’s struggles with local drug-dealer classmates, it’s his own adulterous thoughts of a sultry neighbor. By the time a student offers a generous bribe, Larry begins to feel that he’s being tested, though why, by whom, and how he can pass said tests escapes him. The Coens capture each ensuing meeting with a potential leader, whether it be a generous attorney or opaque local rabbis, as a nightmare maze where one man has twisted himself in pretzels attempting to find a system with which to adhere. The Coens reached far off the grid for Stuhlbarg, a little-known stage actor who is wonderfully funny and intense as the put-upon suburbanite. And he’s absolutely perfect, nailing the sensation that the walls are closing in on him philosophically, trapped to live an everyman’s hell, where being a community figure holds more weight than settling a marriage with an unhappy wife. [A]

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

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