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Top Five Coen Brothers’ Films
With a career spanning thirty years, Joel and Ethan Coen have brought us some of the most memorable plots and characters from The Dude, Marge Gunderson, Leonard Smalls, Tom Reagan and many others. They have also managed to bag four Oscars and gain plaudits for their work among Hollywood’s greats.
With their latest feature Inside Llewyn Davis picking up two academy nominations, and their Fargo TV series due to air on the 15th of April, there is plenty of new material from the Coens’ coming in the months ahead. So to prepare, I thought I would count down my personal top five Coen brothers’ movies to date.
WARNING, FULL SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THESE MOVIES, SO IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THEM – YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.
5. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
In 2000 we were introduced to perhaps, the Coen Brothers’ barmiest picture to date, with cows being mowed down by Tommy guns, a gigantic flood wiping out half of the State, and oodles of ‘Hair Jelly’.
The plot was set in the Deep South during the 1930s, where three escaped convicts (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson) search for hidden treasure while a relentless lawman pursues them.
What’s so brilliant about O Brother, Where Art thou is not only the sheer stupidity of the lead characters, which could have easily just been a flat caper, but the film carries a deeper meaning. Clooney’s character Everett McGill leads the other two escaped convicts through the South to a reunion with his children and wife. It’s a simple plot, but on their way they are faced with many temptations such as, robbing banks with the cow killing and highly energized George “Baby face” Nelson, or the temptation of the three sirens, which leads two of the convicts to believe their friend has been turned into a toad! However, they do not give in to these temptations and continue on their journey as they think their sins have been washed away by the earlier Baptism sequence.
With all the characters’ flaws and incompetence they seem to be unable to unleash their real and only talent: singing, which finally, by the end of the film, turns the three convicts into stars and redeems them as men. It holds a message that if you do not give in to the bad, you will eventually prosper. However, who knows what that final flood meant though? Maybe God had handed them another chance at life after staying true to themselves, but, unfortunately only the Coens know. One thing begs a deeper question though: How did the cow get on top of that house at the end? Anyway, one thing’s for sure, this movie is a riot to the end.
Highlight: When the three convicts are trapped in a fiery barn, surrounded by the police officials, Clooney’s character keeps repeating “Damn… we’re in a tight spot.”
Quote: “Oh George. Not the livestock”
In 1996, this dark comedy became the Coen brothers’ most renowned film. The film took all of us by surprise, with its seemingly quiet, snow-covered Minnesota, where simple folk weren’t tempted by the greeds of life, apart from one man: a sales manager named Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macy). We watch as his inept crime falls apart due to his and his henchmen’s bungling, and the persistent police work of the pregnant Marge Gunderson (Francis McDormand).
What made this film of one their best is that the comedy and drama could come from the most imaginative places, for instance, the infamous wood chipper scene where Peter Stormare’s character chooses a rather elaborate way of disposing of evidence. It’s safe to say, this scene set the bar high.
I liked to think it was the setting of Fargo that gave it weight though. The town’s folk spoke in a smooth, relaxed manner, giving each situation a fresh perspective with the laid back approach to life, rather than characters shouting and mouthing off at each other (even though there is some of that!)
The simple life of the characters was summed up perfectly at the end by McDormand’s character Marge, when she finally catches one of the kidnappers: “So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.”
Fargo undoubtedly had a perfect balance between drama and comedy, leading some critics to hail it as not having one single cliché in its script. Fargo, simply could not have been written by anybody else than the Coen brothers.
With a fantastic performance by Frances McDormand, which won her the Oscar that year, McDormand’s acting in Fargo launched the film on to the high status it is seen in today, with the film still living in the memory of others; with the evidence of a Fargo TV series beginning on FX in April.
Highlight: This chilling shot of the never ending fence …
Quote: Hooker No. 1: Well, the little guy was kinda funny-lookin’.
Marge Gunderson: In what way?
Hooker No. 1: I dunno… just funny-lookin’.
Marge Gunderson: Can you be any more specific?
Hooker No. 1: I couldn’t really say… He wasn’t circumcised.
3. Blood Simple
Thirty years ago, no one had heard of the Coen brothers, until their first feature film that is still, in my opinion, one of the best debut pictures to date; in the form of neo-noir thriller, Blood Simple. The plot is about a rich but jealous man who hires a private investigator to kill his cheating wife and her new man – but, when blood is involved, nothing is simple.
With such a low budget, the Coens had to rely on acting talent from the likes of John Getz, Francis McDormand, Dan Hedaya, and M.Emmet Walsh. While they all acted superbly, it was the tight writing with a compact plot that gave the film a lasting memory.
There were twists and turns at every corner, with a darker tone than the rest of the Coen brothers’ work, it felt like a separate world from the one we know. A merciless world where you can be double crossed at any time. With the slimeball characters headed with a sly, but terrifying, performance by M. Emmet Walsh whose character, private ‘Dick’ Loren Visser, was the meanest of the mean characters. Visser even leaves the flies that are buzzing around him, because he has no time to brush them off his grease-ridden forehead; he’s too busy tracking down Mcdormand, who plays an unfaithful wife that leads Visser on a game of cat and mouse. It’s a thrill to the end, and the suspense could kill.
Blood Simple is simply a ‘must see’ debut picture.
Highlight: M. Emmet Walsh has never portrayed a scumbag so well on the big screen.
Quote: Marty: I got a job for you.
Private Detective Visser: Uh, well, if the pay’s right, and it’s legal, I’ll do it.
Marty: It’s not strictly legal.
Private Detective Visser: [Thinks for a second] Well, if the pay’s right, I’ll do it.
2. The Big Lebowski
This movie has inspired many. It has garnered a cult following since its release in 1998, and it’s not hard to understand why so many college students look up to the character of ‘the Dude’ (bum, who is more than comfortable with not working and being lazy) as a role model. In the film, “the Dude” Lebowski (played by Jeff Bridges) is mistaken for a millionaire. Lebowski seeks restitution for his ruined rug and enlists his bowling buddies to help get it.
It’s a plot at first glance that would warrant the question: how did this film become a cult classic?
Aside from the easy answer: “Well it’s made by the Coen brothers,” the other answer would be its deeper themes of masculinity and femininity. It’s not entirely obvious until you realise that all the male characters in the film are portrayed as incompetent, such as the Dude failing in life and becoming an unemployed bowler who feels comfortable walking around in a robe all day. There’s also Jesus (a memorable cameo by John Tururro) though very funny, he is a sex pest: another failed male character, with the other one being John Goodman, who portrays Walter Sobchak, a retired Vietnam vet, at first glance, a strong, single minded man, but underneath is controlled by his wife as she forces him to look after her pet dog. So, in fact, it is the women who are moving the plot forward and dominating the male characters; for example, Julianne Moore’s character Maude, uses Jeffery because she knows he won’t be around much but she wants to have children and raise them on her own. Tara Reid’s character Bunny Lebowski is another example. She tricks her husband and kidnaps herself so she can get the money and run off. The themes and rich, inner layers make the Big Lebowski the timeless classic we all know.
The film’s legacy still lives on today, with a festival in a bowling alley in LA that encourages fans to meet up with other fans dressed in Lebowski attire, taking part in a Lebowski quizzes and watching a special screening of the film. There are even books dedicated to the film, one of them is about the Dude’s philosophy and religion.
Another way the movie has been praised is that the Dude has no character arc; he stays the same throughout the movie, and no matter what obstacle is thrown at him he stays true to himself. He is confident to not change himself through the endless dangers of life. That is where his philosophy lives on.
Highlight: The Dude dancing to Creedence Clearwater Revival after drinking a drugged White Russian.
Quote: “The Dude Abides.”
1. Barton Fink
For me, Barton Fink is their most underrated film, but their greatest. It sums up the Coen brothers’ talent and understanding of the common man’s writer who is pushed outside his comfort zone.
Nominated for three Oscars, the film stars John Turturro; he plays Barton Fink, a renowned New York playwright who is enticed to California to write for the movies and discovers the hellish truth of Hollywood. The Coen brothers commented, saying the film was written while battling writer’s block when writing Miller’s Crossing.
Barton Fink was initially criticized for taking a surreal and bizarre turn in the final act; however, it made perfect sense to the story. The film is subtle at first glance, requiring repeat viewings to garner exactly what the Coens’ really meant by Barton Fink. For those who have not seen it twice, let me explain: Barton Fink is a playwright who writes about the common man and his small, common problems – he does not wish, or know how, to write generic films for Hollywood, but is persuaded to write a wrestling picture by his boss Jack Lipnick. Barton soon after finds himself suffering writer’s block.
Going back to his hotel (where we see hardly any guests – to symbolise the loneliness he suffers from because of Hollywood) he tries to create ideas for the film. Barton finds himself distracted by the constant peeling wallpaper, symbolising his unwillingness to look underneath the surface. This leads to the introduction of John Goodman’s character: Charlie Meadows, who is a seemingly friendly salesman staying next door, who helps Barton, at first.
Barton also meets a woman named Audrey, who he relies on in the end for help with his picture; however, as he gives in to the temptation of help, she is killed by the hidden devil figure in the film, Charlie Meadows. “Where there’s a head there’s hope” a telling quote. Barton is left with the head of his lover, and to make matters worse his “artistic” wrestling picture is thrown out by Lipnick. With that, Barton leaves with the bad memory of Hollywood, and taking his failings with him in the form of a head.
A story probably echoes of the Coens’ own experiences with Hollywood (minus the head).
In the end you can’t make a writer write outside of his genre. Talent is precious, why try and ruin it?
That is why Barton Fink, in my opinion, is their greatest movie to date.
Highlight: John Goodman running down the flaming hallway with a sawed off shotgun screaming “I’ll show you the life of the mind.”
Quote: To Barton Fink before he leaves New York “The common man will still be here when you get back. Who knows, there may even be one or two of them in Hollywood.”
Lets hope in the years to come the Coen Brothers will give us plenty more to talk about. Let me know below what your top five Coen brother movies would be.