If you’re any kind of modern cinephile, you’ve probably watched at least one film by the Coen Brothers: they’ve become two of the most respected and admired auteurs in contemporary film. A Coen film is typically written, directed, and even edited by the duo. Joel and Ethan consistently work with the same actors, music supervisors and cinematographers, talents which allow their work to become a true showcase of cinematic vision and style.
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of their first feature film, so what better way to celebrate than with a retrospective viewing list? If your Coen knowledge is limited random conversational quotations of “there’s a beverage here!” or “the Dude abides”—phrases that have worked their way into the parlance of our times— then you’re missing out on a complex body of work and a consistent, quirky ethos that truly reflects our complex and quirky society. And this list is for you.
The two draw on their complimentary educations (Joel in film and Ethan in philosophy) to construct film worlds and characters that are deeply flawed, yet uncompromisingly eloquent in their presentation. What makes their films so unique is somewhat more difficult to put a finger on. Their scenarios tend to err on the side of realism, though realism sometimes stretched just to the point of most extremity and sometimes the most unbelievable bad luck.
We might say the same for their characters: thought variously dim, conniving, menacing, sweet, or oblivious, what unites them might be their universally believable nature. In settings as diverse as the old West, the Deep South during the Great Depression, and the interior acid trip of a burned-out hippie, the Coens consistently show us both the depth and the shortcomings of the human animal.
Though it’s useful not to engage in total hero-worship when studying the films of specific directors (or sibling tag-teams, in this case), it’s hard not to consider the Coens work as some of the best that contemporary film has to offer. The following is not a comprehensive list of their films, but some of the most representative films of the Coen Universe. Enter at the risk of being thoroughly entertained.
1. Blood Simple (1984)
The Coen’s first feature rests on merging the style of neo-noir with a set of characters that have become truly “blood simple”—a bit intellectually dulled by the frequency of violence, suspicion, and revenge in their lives. Frances McDormand takes the lead role as Abby, wife of a Texas bar owner who suspects she is having an affair. Over the course of the film, frequent miscommunications, marvelously inept decision-making and incorrect assumptions lead to much murder and mayhem, and an ironic twist ending.
Although certainly significant because it came first, Blood Simple also introduced the Coen’s thematic concept of being, as Rotten Tomatoes puts it: “brutally violent and shockingly funny” all in the same film. Though their twisted sense of humor and actors’ often deadpan deliveries of almost epically foolish characters may not appeal to every viewer, this complicated tone is one of the trademark stylistic notes that will come to characterize many of their films. The film took the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1985.
2. Raising Arizona (1987)
Meant to be a farcical departure from the dark seriousness of Blood Simple, Raising Arizona saw the Coen’s first foray into out-and-out ridiculousness and a particularly wild story. Their talent for merging heavy material (such as murder and kidnapping) with comically exaggerated situations (such as inept criminals fighting over a kidnapped child) is evident here.
A somewhat different cast also contributes to this film’s divergence from the tone of Blood Ssimple, featuring Nicholas Cage as the criminal hero “Hi” McDunnough, Holly Hunter as policewoman Ed, and John Goodman and William Forsythe as McDunnough’s escapee prison buddies Gale and Evelle Snoats. Because Ed is infertile and Hi a criminal, their dreams of parenthood seem to be dashed—that is, until they learn of the Arizona Quints: five babies born to a wealthy furniture salesman. They resolve to kidnap one of the babies, and their commitment to raising him puts them at odds with a number of the other equally devious characters.
Because Arizona was so wildly different from Blood Simple, yet still retained a good portion of the sarcastic humor that could be said to infuse both works, the critical reception of the Arizona was mixed. But its exceptional performances and its comedic tone early in the Coen canon make it essential viewing.
3. Barton Fink (1991)
Now that the Coens had two films under their belts, each which displayed their signature twisted sensibility and yet seemed to come from two vastly different genre traditions, viewers of a retrospective might be able to see their distinctive style begin to emerge. In 1990, they produced Miller’s Crossing, a period piece set in the Prohibition era and rife with 1920’s hoods intent on double-crossing one another. Barton Fink stayed in the past, set in New York in 1941, and while the Coens assured viewers that Fink’s trials in Hollywood weren’t meant to dramatize their own experiences making films, it’s been reported that Fink’s writer’s block is representative of the directors’ difficulty with Miller’s Crossing in the years before.
The film brought back John Turturro as the title character, a playwright who is hired to write screenplays in Hollywood. The film also saw the return of John Goodman as Charlie, the insurance salesman who lives next door in the decrepit hotel where Fink toils a la Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Through Fink’s problems with Charlie, his issues with writing, and some unsolved mysteries, the film addresses tensions between high and low art, between art and business, and between the “common man” and the intellectual.
The film was a critical smash, winning the Palme d’Or, Best Actor and Best Director Awards at Cannes that year, and was nominated for three Academy Awards. By contrast, it was a financial disaster, ending up a third of the budget in the hole. But it’s become one of the Coen’s most admired films, clearly ramping up the thematic clout that characterizes many subsequent Coen movies.
4. Fargo (1996)
A breakout popular and critical hit that gained seemingly instant cult status, Fargo also starred Joel’s wife Frances McDormand, in perhaps her most iconic role in the Coen lexicon. As pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson, she navigates a frigid Minnesota/North Dakota landscape dotted with troubled souls such as William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, a used car salesman attempting to coordinate his wife’s abduction in order extort a million dollars from his father-in-law; an impulsive and oddly silent killer played by Peter Stormare; and his ever-aggressive boss Carl, played by Steve Buscemi. When the characters’ storylines intertwine, what viewers get is a darkly-inflected film exploring greed, suspicion, and some infamous methods of disposing of bodies.
The film is important in the Coen filmography mostly because of its success; anyone at a party talking about the Coen Brothers will inevitably mention Fargo. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, the film won both Best Original Screenplay and a Best Actress for McDormand. This notoriety has translated into a television reboot based on the film, debuting in 2014 and starring Billy Bob Thornton (see entry on The Man Who Wasn’t There), with the Coens serving as executive producers.
5. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Following the success of Fargo, The Big Lebowski continues the Coen’s presentation of strongly inflected ‘characters;’ films populated with people who are so indelibly drawn that they become larger than life. In the capable hands of Jeff Bridges, Lebowski almost becomes a verb. He portrays Jeffrey Lebowski, aka The Dude, a white-Russian swilling faded hippie with an identity crisis: he shares a (pretty unusual) name with a wheelchair-bound millionaire with some complicated criminal connections, played by David Huddleston (his assistant, Brandt, is an unforgettable small part played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman).
There are acid trips, bowling, and many interesting turns of events as The Dude attempts to navigate the ‘other’ Lebowski’s world and get his favorite rug replaced. Another amazing cast includes John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and Julianne Moore—even an appearance by the great Sam Elliot as The Stranger— compliment The Dude’s signature worldview. His lines and his outlook have become iconic for cult film enthusiasts everywhere.
The Big Lebowski might not be the most respected or highly decorated of the Coen’s work, but it is an important stylistic diversion; its dream sequences, odd dialogue, and even its soundtrack edge out the realism of their previous work and give the film its distinctive flavor. Reception in subsequent years has been positive as the film gains respect for its unconventional style.
6. O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000)
O Brother, on its release, was one of those films people couldn’t stop talking about. Its contagious music brought folk and bluegrass music back into some kind of mainstream, and its unique color palette made it a visual standout; like a feature-length, folksy history lesson, O Brother immersed viewers in the Deep South of Mississippi in during the Great Depression, just with signature Coen touches.
This is the first of what I’ll term the Coen’s “somewhat musical”: a film that’s certainly got music at its core, and which features musical performances, but in which the characters don’t spontaneously burst into song to express themselves in a Fred Astaire-esque choreographed number. These directors are known for their subversion of straight genre conventions, so this adaptation of a beloved movie type should come as no surprise.
George Clooney helms the cast of this period drama as Ulysses Everett McGill, who leads a group of escaped convicts on a quest to find a treasure he claims he stole and buried. In the course of their adventures, they record a song, “Man of Constant Sorrow” posing as a group called the Soggy Bottom Boys. Loosely based on the Odyssey, the film contains a number of set-pieces parallel to the original poem, though the Coens have famously joked that they’ve never read the thing.
The film’s importance doesn’t just stem from its success—it was nominated for two Oscars, and Clooney won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Everett. Technically, O Brother was also the first film to be entirely digitally color-corrected, turning the lush vegetation of its Mississippi setting into a sepia-toned, golden-hued epic. T-Bone Burnett contributed his talents as music supervisor on this film and Inside Llewyn Davis, both films that had a serious musical component.