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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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“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]

"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” (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” (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]

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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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