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
- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) The American West
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.