The 10 Best Performances in a Coen Brothers Film

5. John Turturro in “Barton Fink” (1991)

barton fink

Set in the 1940s, “Barton Fink” centres on a fresh and exciting New York-based playwright played by John Turturr. He is talked into relocating to Hollywood with the promise of writing screenplays for the movies, and in doing so, he discovers the nightmarish truth of the LA lifestyle. As he takes up residence in the eerie and rundown Hotel Earle, with the task of writing a motion picture based on wrestling, Fink encounters not only severe writer’s block but a handful of peculiar and curious individuals as well.

No doubt depicting the Coens’ own experiences with writer’s block, the film focuses on the struggles of writing as well as the culture of the filmmaking industry, and despite the irony of the film being unsuccessful commercially, it has since found a home as a cult classic. Initially noticed by international film critics, “Barton Fink” picked up a number of high calibre awards during festival season.

Written with John Turturro in mind for the role, he has since been an essential figure in a number of the brothers’ films. As the star of “Barton Fink,” Turturro attended classes to learn how to use a typewriter efficiently. His character Fink is outstandingly illustrated by the actor as the self-righteous writer who feels he is too important and a long way above the unsatisfied production studio for which he is having to dumb down his abilities.

Memorable Quote: “I don’t believe good work is possible without great inner pain.”


4. George Clooney in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000)

O Brother Where Art Thou

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was a monumental success, adored by audiences and critics alike. The film is deep South adventure road movie that follows George Clooney’s Ulysses Everett McGill, a lawyer convicted for the crime of practicing law without a license, as he escapes from a chain gang with two other men, convincing them with the promise of a great hidden treasure.

Accompanied by the two felons, Pete and Delmar, played by John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson respectively, Ulysses must overcome several obstacles, including crazed gunmen, politicians, the KKK, and officers of the law that will stop at nothing to track down the three escapees.

Set during the Great Depression in Mississippi, and loosely based on Homer’s “The Odyssey,” the film was a commercial and critical success. The superb supporting cast included John Goodman, Charles Durning, Holly Hunter, and Chris Thomas King.

The film stands as one of the most quotable and adored entries in the Coen brothers’ catalogue, not only visually stunning thanks to its incredible cinematography work by Roger Deakins, but also managing to produce a Grammy Award0winning album due to its folk and bluegrass inspired soundtrack.

George Clooney is a mesmerising leading man, an actor who flaunts charisma and magnetism in his performances so easily, and despite only occasionally indulging his comic side on screen, he gives the impression that he has worked on comedy pictures for his career. Full of heart and depth, stopping at nothing to reach his goal, his character Ulysses is by far, one of the finest creations in a Coen brothers’ film.

Memorable Quote: “I don’t want Fop, goddamnit! I’m a Dapper Dan man!”


3. Jeff Bridges in “The Big Lebowski” (1998)

the big lebowski

“The Big Lebowski” is one of only two Coen brothers’ films to feature Academy Award-winning actor Jeff Bridges, the other being 2010’s Western remake “True Grit.” Here, Bridges managed to create one of the most unique and iconic characters in comedy movie history, starring as the film’s lead character, Jeffrey Lebowski, also known under the self-proclaimed title of The Dude.

A slacker and avid bowler, he ends up caught in an ever-spiralling world of mystery and madness due to mistaken identity: he shares his name with a wheelchair-bound millionaire whose wife has been kidnapped for ransom.

Jeff Bridges is truly unforgettable as The Dude, a man without a care in the world as long as he has a White Russian, a joint, and his bowling ball, smoothly moving from location to location with a never ending supply of quotable catchphrases. It would be hard to picture anyone else in the lead role. Jeff Bridges, wearing most of his own clothes, is fully immersed in the role, flawlessly portraying the laid back mannerisms of his character.

Jeff Bridges believably slips into the lead role not only as a stoned bowler and cocktail connoisseur but as a loyal friend and object of desire throughout every scene. In a film full of famous faces and inexplicable spectacle, Jeff Bridges shines as the piece’s strongest aspect, the most unlikely hero to appear in a film with neo noir aspects, and a timeless character that will be remembered for many years to come, man.

Memorable Quote: “Careful, man, there’s a beverage here!”


2. Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men” (2007)


Often considered the Coen brothers’ seminal work, “No Country for Old Men” is a masterpiece, based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name. It picked up the award for Best Picture, as well as other accolades, at the 80th Academy Awards.

Set in West Texas, it is a gripping story that is unbearably intense and deeply troubling, revolving around a suitcase full of money, Mexican drug dealers, and an unstoppable hitman. At its core, Josh Brolin’s character, Llewelyn Moss, is a man caught up in a brutal and unforgiving world that he knows nothing about, and one from which there is no turning back.

What follows is a tale of cat and mouse between Brolin’s character and the man that will stop at nothing to retrieve the suitcase, Anton Chigurh, played flawlessly by Javier Bardem, a man of very few words and a very strict, if mysterious, moral code. He takes any life that stands between him and his job. One of the most terrifying and unforgettable villains of the past few decades, Bardem is captivating as the ruthless killer.

In a film full of incredible performances from Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, and Woody Harrelson, Javier Bardem stands out from the rest, going on to deservedly pick up the award for Best Supporting Actor at The Oscars. Wielding two unforgettable weapons in the form of a silenced shotgun and a captive bolt pistol, Bardem’s psychopath causes chaotic horror at every location he visits.

The Coens, not shying away from the source material’s blood-soaked imagery, show the character performing endlessly horrifying acts, all while hauntingly void of human emotion. The cold-blooded Anton Chigurh is cruel and merciless with the demeanour of a sadistic bully, expertly portrayed by Javier Bardem in arguably his best performance to date.

Memorable Quote: “What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?”


1. Frances McDormand in “Fargo” (1996)

Fargo (1996)

Without question, one of the most memorable and irreplaceable roles in a Coen brothers’ film, this is an exquisitely accomplished performance from none other than Joel Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand. Having worked on the majority of the brothers’ films up to this point, she is a firm fixture on their casting list, most notably bringing the unforgettable Marge Gunderson to life.

As Marge, the distinctive and loveable officer of the law, she is full of her own wisdom and unique mannerisms, undertaking her police work while heavily pregnant. As the law woman of a sleepy town in Minnesota, she is provided the rarest of encounters, following the appearance of several dead bodies, brutally shot down after a string of criminal acts gone awry.

Throughout the crime caper, Frances McDormand is profoundly relatable, giving Marge Gunderson a very thoughtful and compassionate back story, accompanied by her loving husband Norm, played brilliantly by John Carroll Lynch. The pair are an endearing and very real life couple. Highly charming and consistently humorous, Frances McDormand provided her finest work in “Fargo” as Marge Gunderson, a determined and affectionate woman, who quite simply wants to make the world a better place prior to the arrival of her baby.

Memorable Quote: “I’m not sure I agree with you 100% on your police work there, Lou.”

Author Bio: Dan Carmody, born and raised in Doncaster, England, an area with very little in the way of film connections (The Full Monty was filmed down the road). When not working full time as a Civil Engineer, his one true passion is cinema, relating back to the early 1990’s when his mum showed him a lot of horror films way before he should have been allowed. An avid follower of all genres, both classical and modern. Also enthusiastic about video games, making lists and cheese.