Why the Coen Brothers Are Our Most American Filmmakers
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen—affectionately known to cineastes as the Coen Brothers—have been making some of the absolute best modern American movies for 32 years. From Jeffrey Lebowski to Marge Gunderson to Anton Chigurh to Llewyn Davis and countless supporting parts in between, the brothers Coen have created some of the most indelible and original characters ever committed to film. But for me, it’s a small role played by one of their regular players, John Goodman in Inside Llewyn Davis, who best personifies their filmmaking identity.
In Davis, Goodman plays Roland Turner, a jazz musician who needs two canes to get around and a valet to get him from gig to gig while he nods off in the back seat, mouth wide open. When Turner is awake, his mouth is a motor; he’s dissects Llewyn’s (Oscar Isaac) Welsh name due to his lack of Welsh features and tells quick stories that span the United States. In a few exchanges he’s mentioned that he’s not welcome back to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, that a cheese sandwich poisoned him in Seattle, that he practiced Santeria in New Orleans and that the Brooklyn Bridge is the proper place to kill one’s self. During this exchange, Turner, Davis, and his valet are en route to Chicago. In the span of a car ride, virtually every region of America has been mentioned or visited. Yet in the car where these discussions occur, they are passing by an expansive nothingness.
In a DVD commentary for Fargo, Joel Coen calls the brothers’ home state of Minnesota, “Siberia with family restaurants.” But this is how the Coens not only look at the North Star State, but how they look at America: as a massive place with pockets of kitsch and pockets of different cultures that can be met only by stopping. Even within their city-set films—like The Big Lebowski and Davis—the Coens focus on the smaller pockets within them, like bowling leagues and a folk music cafés.
Llewyn Davis sings that he’s “been around this world” but the Coen Brothers—who are no doubt probably very well traveled—have never set a feature film outside of the continental US (emphasis on feature-length, they did film one short film in Paris as part of the omnibus film Paris, je t’aime). Let’s take a look at where the films that they’ve written and directed have been set:
- Blood Simple (1984) rural Texas
- Raising Arizona (1987) Tempe, Arizona
- Miller’s Crossing (1990) Undetermined; filmed in New Orleans, Louisiana
- Barton Fink (1991) Hollywood, California
- The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) New York City
- Fargo (1996) Fargo, North Dakota; Brainerd, Minnesota; Minneapolis, Minnesota
- The Big Lebowski (1998) Los Angeles, California
- O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) Itta Bena, Yazoo City and Tishomingo, Mississippi
- The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) Santa Rosa, California
- Intolerable Cruelty (2003) Los Angeles, California
- The Ladykillers (2004) rural Mississippi
- No Country for Old Men (2007) Terrell County, Texas; U.S./Mexican border
- Burn After Reading (2008) – Chesapeake Bay, Virginia; Washington, D.C.
- A Serious Man (2009) – St. Louis Park, Minnesota
- True Grit (2010) – modern day Oklahoma; Fort Smith, Arkansas
- Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) – New York City; Chicago, Illinois
- Hail, Caesar! (2016) Hollywood, California
You can disagree, but when you look at their filmography, and the expansive regions that they’ve explored—peppering unique characters, musical selections and attention to regional detail throughout—I do think that the Coen Brothers are the best American filmmakers of the last 30 years. The emphasis in that statement is “American”.
Their overall filmmaking success lies in their playful dialogue, their immense detail to mis-en-scene (most frequently and gloriously captured by Roger Deakins), and their ability to make almost every film feel like a small tragedy of Biblical proportions. But their career looks most akin to those huge anthologies of Best American Short Stories released every year.
Most of their tragedies stem from greed, which is applicable to every US region, but received differently by the Coens. The American Dream that the Coens pick apart is usually something that could be worked for with more effort, yet their characters continually take shortcuts and suffer immense consequences. It’s trying to own a dry cleaning business in The Man Who Wasn’t There, asking a father in law to fund a real estate venture in Fargo, raising a child in Raising Arizona, finding a partner who matches your (warped) sensibility in Intolerable Cruelty, and wanting a fitter body in Burn After Reading; all of which have disastrous (and sometimes hilarious) outcomes from the illegal shortcuts the characters take.
So how do the Coens approach each region differently?
Their native Midwest receives kind strokes. Joel Coen told Postif that city-dwellers tend “to ignore all of those cultural ‘pockets’ those micro-societies with their idiosyncrasies and peculiarities in the Midwest.” Ethan Coen told the same publication, during a recent Cannes interview, “All the exoticism and strangeness of that region comes from the Nordic character, from its politeness and reservations.”
That Nordic politeness tests the pregnant police chief Gunderson (Frances McDormand) in Fargo and makes a modern day Job out of Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) in A Serious Man; but it also produces bafflement at the impolite, whether it be murderous thieves in Fargo or a bribing student in A Serious Man. There’s so much established order in these Midwestern tales that anything that disrupts the order, whether it be a kidnapping or a divorce, creates a rippling effect that tests the resolve of the entire community.
Similar to Fargo, the violent, rippling chaos and bafflement at the ease of taking life is a repeated theme in the southwestern tales of No Country for Old Men, True Grit, and Blood Simple. There is a distinct lack of politeness in these films; which is obvious in No Country’s Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), as studies have determined that the tracker with a captive pistol (and no conscious to speak of) is the most realistic psychopath ever committed to film. But it’s also present in Matt Damon’s switch-beating of a teenaged girl (Hailee Stanfield) for insisting on saddling up with the rearin’-to go men in True Grit. It’s in the southwest where the roads (and hills) harbor, aide and abet the killers in these films; they provide the ease of a getaway. In this region, outlaws are made more ruthless because the manmade lines of states, counties and territories provide temporary reprieve in remote areas where America has yet to expand and settle.
In the southeast, the Coens steep load their characters with an ingrained burden from which there is no reprieve. Deeper than any of the other Coens’ films is a sense of immense American history that goes to the very beginning of America; steeped in hardship and steeped in superstition, O Brother Where Art Thou? and The Ladykillers lean heavily on a blues and gospel soundtrack and a sometimes-bizarre reverence for those who’ve passed on, or those who listen to the Lord.
Akin to how the Coens draw inspiration from Raymond Chandler for their Los Angeles tales, their southern films are drenched in a literary magical realism that is most associated with southern lit. A man is “turned into a toad” after laying eyes upon bathing beauties following the Depression-era jailbreak in O Brother, and the mantelpiece portrait of a dead husband warns, protects and accepts praise in The Ladykillers. (Aside: The Ladykillers is the most marginal of their films, but it still has some of the best scenes from that given year; such is the power of the Coens and Deakins that they can make a garbage barge feel like a drifting Candyland).
Time stands still and work is hard in the Coens’ southeast, and “the brave new world” Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) desires but cannot bring himself to leave is one free of the superstitions and backward ways that keep Southerners stuck in a constant sorrow. Time is so still and entrenched in old history in the South that even though Miller’s Crossing has no specific city, the fact that the Coens filmed there—to take advantage of the unchanged 1910’s architecture to stand in for any major American city during prohibition—reinforces the step beyond the “brave new world” that the South holds (dearly).
In the Northeast—where the Coens have resided for more than three decades— there is more movement in their communities. Upward mobility at least feels possible, making it even more agonizing when it isn’t. Dimwits and intellects sit at the same board room table in The Hudsucker Proxy, dimwits and intellects use the same gym in Burn After Reading, and a folk singer routinely accepts a hot-and-a-cot from a Columbia professor in Inside Llewyn Davis, while signing away royalties in favor of being paid immediately.
There are a lot of discussions of squares in these films, but the Coens’ use a circular cycle for these character’s narratives, and in the case of Hudsucker Proxy, their innovations, too. (In Hudsucker, Tim Robbins is the inventor of the hula hoop; and while this is another film that’s not amongst their best, it does feature one of their most whimsical scenes: after numerous hoops have been tossed from a local toy store, they barrel down the street, until the circle lands at the feet of a young boy who knows exactly what to do with it and immediately starts a craze).
Yet the region where the Coens most frequent, California (which is the setting for five of their films, including their most recent, Hail, Caesar!) the Coens have said, they feel a personal distance from. “We’re still tourists in L.A. We’ve never had a chance to develop much of a relationship.” As such, they view the city like many of us across the US do: an impenetrable conveyor belt of fads and fabulous bodies.
The Coens’ California is viewed as a place that offers instant physical delights and empty promises. Whether they’re a former playwright-turned-screenwriter (John Turturro in Barton Fink), a traveling salesman (John Goodman in Fink), a gold-digger (Catherine Zeta-Jones in Intolerable Cruelty) or a barber (Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn’t There), California chews people up and spits ‘em out indiscriminately; it’s easy to be tempted and rare to succeed in the last place that America could expand itself to.
In many ways, the Coens’ California is the apex of America: hyper-capitalist, seductive, and full of conspiracies (the Coens’ haven’t gone to outer space yet, but they do organize some breathtaking circular shots at the expense of a character’s belief in flying saucers in The Man Who Wasn’t There). Yet somehow in this picturesque place, it’s only their spacey slacker Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), who lives by his own rules, has no ambition outside of bowling and minimal feng shui, but has been able to live in peace (and at his own non-competitive pace). The Big Lebowski is their most funny film; full of noir-allusions, wordplay, and oddball characters, but there’s a reason why it’s their film with the biggest cult following: Lebowski, adrift amongst nihilists and egoists, is perhaps the only Coen character that does not harm anyone else. He just drifts. And abides.
Ethan Coen has said of their California-set films, “All the characters are emblematic of Los Angeles—all types of people that you would meet there. But the L.A. thing I also connected to Raymond Chandler.” Students of decades of American films, and the tough noir-speak of Chandler, four of their LA films dabble with the tropes of film noir; the first American cinema movement to fully utilize framing, shadows, violence and free sexuality.
Which brings us to Hail, Caesar! There are noir elements in its structure, but this is the closest to a love note we’ve gotten yet from the Coens. And it’s to cinema. A kidnapping from a 50s studio lot is the noir element that holds together their plot, but Hail, Caesar! elates as a series of old school variety films—a tap-dancing musical, a bathing beauty picture, a stuffy costume melodrama, a rodeo adventure—that exists within a Coen Brothers’ noir. It perfectly encapsulates their studious yet distant relationship with Los Angeles (and Hollywood itself).
With a love letter to the movies of the past now released (and perhaps massaging their relationship with Los Angeles) all that’s left for the Coens’ probing road map of America is a trip to the northwest. Don’t hold Roland Turner’s bad sandwich in Seattle against them, brothers Coen.
“Everything’s a lesson for America,” Joel Coen sardonically told Indiewire in 1998. The Coen Brothers have taught us a cinematic textbook already. It is truly unique that in a three-decade filmography, they’ve never left the States. Eventually all our great directors of the American experience who’ve worked for decades—like Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, for example—due begin to tell stories abroad. But obviously, the Coens feel strongly that they have so much to explore here. And what a cinematic blessing that is.
Note: This editorial was originally posted the week of Hail, Caesar!’s theatrical release.