The Coen Brothers

 

© 2011 by John Varley; all rights reserved

 
 

I stumbled across a list of the 50 Best Directors Working Today at the IMDb. It looks like it was compiled by one person (screen name michaakchoti) and he ranked them in order. Here are his first 10:

1.

Steven Spielberg

2.

Terrence Malick

3.

Martin Scorcese

4.

David Fincher

5.

The Coen Brothers

6.

Francis Ford Coppola

7.

Darren Aronofsky

8.

Steven Soderbergh

9.

Clint Eastwood

10.

Ridley Scott

Itís not a bad list. Surely movie buffs could argue endlessly about it (and the other 40; only one woman?). For myself I wouldnít put Spielberg at the top, but somewhere a little lower. I wouldnít have Fincher or Aronofsky in the Top 10 at all. Malick? Heís only made five films, and though itís true that three of them are masterpieces, thatís a mighty thin record. If I was picking Number One, it would be either Scorsese or Ö two for the price of one: The Coen Brothers.

Thereís no doubt in my mind that they are the most innovative directors (and writers and producers and editors) working today. People speak of ďa Coen Brothers film,Ē and itís true there are certain characteristics that one can point out common to their movies, but in another sense they have been all over the place. They have made comedies and dramas, and seem to be working their way though most of the well-known film genres and having a great deal of fun with them. (I eagerly await the Coen musical comedy, if they ever get around to it.) (O Brother Where Art Thou doesnít count; sure itís full of great music, but Iím talking about where characters suddenly burst into a musical number to express their feelings. The Good Old MGM Stuff.) And, yes, they have made at least one stinker Ö but so did Hitchcock, so did Kurosawa, so did Fellini, so did Scorsese, so did Spielberg, so did Bergman, so did Ö well, I canít say that about Kubrick, and Iíve seen all his films except the first, Fear and Desire. He made some lesser films and some greater ones, but never a stinker. Kubrick is God, letís face it.

I have seen all the Coen films, too. But we thought it would be fun to go back and look at them all again, sequentially. So thatís what we did Ö

 

Blood Simple (1984) Citizen Kane aside, I canít think of a more assured, confident, groundbreaking first film than this one. I mean, it had me from the opening frames and never let me go. I can almost hear M. Emmett Walsh (who got a big career boost from this movie), speaking over the shot of the bleak Texas plains:

The world is full o' complainers. An' the fact is, nothin' comes with a guarantee. Now I don't care if you're the pope of Rome, President of the United States or Man of the Year; somethin' can all go wrong. Now go on ahead, y'know, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help, 'n watch him fly. Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else... that's the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, an' down here... you're on your own.

What unfolds then is the damnedest story, one where at almost any point if someone had said something, everything would have fallen into place and two people would have lived. But thatís the whole point. They became blood simple. So might we all, in a similar situation. The movie is bloody as hell, and not one drop of the blood is gratuitous. It is gruesome. A man is buried alive, another has his hand pinned to a windowsill with a knife. And it all worked. What a script.

And what acting. Dan Hedaya is another who got a lot of good parts based on his chilling performance. And of course there is Frances McDormand. This is her first screen credit. She came out of nowhere (Chicago, actually), and just kept going. Iíve never seen her be less than great in any of her films. She married Joel Coen soon after this picture, and has been in a bunch of Coen films. Iíd have sworn she was from Texas after seeing this film, but sheís equally at ease as a Minnesotan in her Oscar-winning role in Fargo. Sheís willing to take non-starring roles, and still works in the theater when she can. One hell of an actress. IMDb.com

 

Raising Arizona (1987) If Blood Simple announced the arrival of Joel and Ethan Coen with a bang, this one served notice that you were never going to be sure what they might come out with next. Could two films by the same authors be further apart? Blood Simple was slyly funny, but very, very dark; this one is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Iíve never talked to anyone who didnít like it a lot.

This was Holly Hunterís first starring film role and she totally nails the quirky character of police officer Edwina ďEdĒ McDunnough, who is wooed and won (entirely during the times she is taking his booking photo) by hapless, sad sack, multiple-time-loser Herbert I. ďHiĒ McDunnough, Nicholas Cage, who also hilariously narrates. They find she canít have children. (ďEdwina's insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.Ē He talks like that all the time.) Meanwhile, the wife of Nathan Arizona, the unfinished furniture king, has quintuplets. Ed reasons theyíd hardly miss one, and she and Hi set out to take one. Just one. Is that so bad?

The rest of the movie is madcap antics as Hi and Ed battle two of Hiís escaped convict friends, John Goodman and William Forsythe, and the biker from Hell, Randall ďTexĒ Cobb, and their wife-swapping neighbors, including Frances McDormand. It is all deliberately WAY over the top, with people bursting into tears without warning, yelling maniacally, spouting wonderfully philosophic lines. Texís bike leaves a trail of fire on the highway, and he seems to be invisible some of the time. Is it symbolic? Who cares? Itís funny on just about any level you want, from wry satire to out-and-out slapstick. Where else are you going to hear Beethovenís Ninth Symphony picked out on a banjo and yodeled?

And it has one of the funniest final lines of any movie I know. (SPOILER WARNING!) Here is Hiís final speech, made while a series of dream images shows on the screen, and considerably shortened:

 

That night I had a dream. I dreamt I was as light as the ether--- a floating spirit visiting things to come. Ö I saw an old couple being visited by their children, and all their grandchildren too. The old couple weren't screwed up. And neither were their kids or their grandkids. And I don't know. You tell me. This whole dream, was it wishful thinking? Was I just fleeing reality like I know I'm liable to do? But me and Ed, we can be good too. And it seemed real. It seemed like us and it seemed like, well, our home. If not Arizona, then a land not too far away. Where all parents are strong and wise and capable and all children are happy and beloved. I don't know. (short pause) Maybe it was Utah. IMDb.com

 

Millerís Crossing (1990) The gangster picture. I didnít like this one much the first time through, but I must have been in a bad mood or not paying attention. This second viewing worked very well. In an unnamed city (it was shot in New Orleans) in the 1920s, two gangsters battle it out. They are Albert Finney and Jon Polito, both of them very good in their very different ways. Caught in the middle and with his loyalties not always clear, is Gabriel Byrne. The cause of all this trouble is a real weasel, one of the more disgusting characters Iíve ever seen in the movies, played by John Turturro. At one point Bryne is instructed to take Turturro out in the woods to Millerís Crossing and kill him. All the way our the weasel pleads for his life, weeping and sniffling, crying out. Iím not going to call him a coward, Iíd probably have reacted the same way, but it was hard not to be totally contemptuous of him and his endlessly repeated plea to ďLook into your heart!Ē Itís a raw, excruciating scene. Byrne, fool that he is, lets him live if he promises never to come back. Sure, right. Very soon the slimeball is back and has the incredible gall to blackmail Byrne because he didnít kill him! This is the kind of unexpected act I consistently find in Coen Brothers scripts, and what makes them so delightful. The film is very violent, deliberately over the top with machine guns going off like firecrackers, but not actually all that bloody. IMDb.com

 

Barton Fink (1991) This one pretty much baffled me when it was new, twenty years ago. Is it a spook story? A horror about a crazy multiple murderer? A sly Hollywood satire? I guess itís all of those, and more. What I am sure is that itís chock full of symbolism, and what I usually say to symbolism is, Nuts! Some things are obvious to anyone, but some things only matter in the way an individual perceives them, and weíre all different, right? I believe your symbols may be entirely different from mine, those assholes Jung and Freud notwithstanding. So usually it just annoys me. Which is probably why I didnít have good memories of this one. But this time I just sat back and watched it, and enjoyed it, and the hell with symbolism. You can have your interpretation and Iíll have mine, okay? And mine is, who gives a shit?

This is a stunning movie. John Turturro is the guy who frequently appears in CB films: the hapless fellow in way over his head, without a clue what is going on. (Just like me.) Or what to do about it. Heís a serious playwright, convinced he can change the world through his writing, and he has almost no conversation beyond that. On the strength of a hit play in New York, he is offered a job in Hollywood (Iím crying out donít! Donít!). He checks into a hotel reminiscent of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in Disneyland. Though the long, long corridor has shoes put out at night for every room, we never see anyone but his neighbor, traveling salesman John Goodman.

They hired him for his social conscience, so what do they assign him to write? A wrestling picture, naturally. Well, they did it to Faulkner, and there is a Faulkneresque character here, nicely played by John Mahoney. The wonderful Judy Davis is his lover/secretary. Poor John has absolutely no idea how to write a boxing picture. He is totally dominated by the studio head, Michael Lerner. (His office is perfect; the offices of the Thalberg Building at MGM, where I had many a meeting, are exactly like that.) He got an Oscar nomination.

But the picture is totally dominated by John Goodman. He is physically dominating simply by his size, but itís more than that. His weird personality strikes you right in the face, and you never know from one scene to the next what heís going to be like. Iím not going to get into the end, which is shocking, but will say that it involves a gruesome murder that happens off camera, revelations about Goodman, and a spectacular fire in the hotel. I was totally mesmerized this time around, and to hell with symbolism. IMDb.com

 

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) Now the CBs tackle a ďscrewballĒ comedy, with results that are a little uneven, but successful. Itís a bit of a hybrid between His Girl Friday, complete with tough, wisecracking, fast-talking Jennifer Jason Leigh in the Roz Russell role, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, with Tim Robbins in the overnight success role played by Robert Morse. Only Tim is hired right out of the mail room by scheming Paul Newman, as the chairman of the Hudsucker corporation, to completely screw up the company and drive down the shares so he and the board can scoop them up quickly.

Only Tim has an idea. He always shows it to people as a simple circle dawn on a piece of paper. His only explanation: ďYou know Ö for kids.Ē They figure this for a sure-fire loser, and make millions of them. Trouble is, itís the Hula Hoop.

So hereís a reversal. With some previous CB films, I didnít like them much on the first viewing, and liked them a lot later 20 years down the road. With this one, I recall liking it quite a bit Ö but not so much now. I still laughed a lot, and was wowed by the sets and camera work and such, but the characters never really came alive. I still enjoyed it, but it is far from the Coensí best. IMDb.com

 

Fargo (1996) So many of the Coen films are so damned good that itís a real challenge to pick a favorite, but if held to the wall with a lethal electrified clapboard at my chest, Iíd have to say itís this one. Close contenders are No Country For Old Men and True Grit, but both of those were adapted from novels. This one was wholly fabricated in their minds, including the solemn, lying declaration at the beginning that it was based on a true story. Itís not. Every nuance of this film is perfect, and Iím sorry if Minnesotans were offended, thinking they were being made fun of. The Coensí first film was Blood Simple, which treated Texans pretty harshly. Iím from Texas, and it didnít bother me at all. So get over it, eh? Yah, okay.

The only possible reason I can see for not liking this film is the violence. It is there, certainly, and some of it is gruesome, but no one ever makes a feast of it, as is done in so many movies now. I remember being stunned at the scene when Steve Buscemiís psycho partner puts a bullet in the state trooperís head, and Steve just sits there with the copís brains all over him, muttering ďOh, daddy. Oh, daddy.Ē That was closely followed by another scene no other director would have done. A car chase at night on an icy road, and all we see are the distant taillights. Suddenly theyíre gone, and soon weíre driving past an overturned car, headlights still on, engine still running. Come on, really? Can you imagine any other director not making a huge deal out of that? Probably with slomo and multiple camera angles? Been there, done that. This is so much more effective.

But what really sets this movie apart is the character of Marge Gunderson, as written by the Coens and brought to brilliant life by Frances McDormand. Yah, yer durn tootiní! She has pointed out something people tend to forget: that her character doesnít appear until far into the film. The main story is really about Macyís character, the world-class loser Jerry Lundegaard. And he is brilliant. But Marge steals the picture. Totally against what you would expect, this pregnant small-town police chief is one sharp cop, way ahead of everyone else every step of the way. And she is so darn nice! I love her, you love her, everyone loves her. Every question is followed by a brilliant smile. You could call her a clichť, I guess, but sheís such an attractive one. She is listed at #33 on the AFIís top 100 film heroes.

This is one of the finest movies ever made. Every scene is a classic, there is no way it could have been improved. It was much better than the Oscar winner that year, The English Patient, which is already pretty much forgotten while Fargo lives on, and Bill Macy was better than Cuba Gooding, Jr., and should have won. Iím glad McDormand won, and the Coens for the screenplay. And Iím so happy it was the break-out role for Macy, who after finally coming to the attention of the casting directors after almost 20 years in the business, suddenly found himself with more work than he could handle. He is currently listed as having no less that nine projects in the works, and Iíd see any of them, just on the strength of his name.

There was an excellent short on the DVD, called ďMinnesota Nice,Ē where all the principle actors and the Coens tell their stories about the movie. Joke: Whatís the best way to get four Minnesotans out of a swimming pool? Say, ďWould you please get out of the pool?Ē William H. Macy declares that his life changed after Fargo. Suddenly he was offered parts he knew he never would have gotten, and his career really took off. IMDb.com

 

The Big Lebowski (1998) Hereís another one that I didnít appreciate enough the first time around. I console myself by knowing Iím in good company. A fair number of critics either roasted it or dismissed it, then came back later with a reassessment. Hereís an example, from Wiki:

Peter Howell, in his review for the Toronto Star, wrote, "It's hard to believe that this is the work of a team that won an Oscar last year for the original screenplay of Fargo. There's a large amount of profanity in the movie, which seems a weak attempt to paper over dialogue gaps." Howell revised his opinion in a later review, and more recently stated that "it may just be my favourite Coen Bros. film.

Thatís quite a turnaround. I recall many people doing similar about-faces for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Bonnie and Clyde, films I loved instantly. We all make mistakes.

This is the story of Jeff ďThe DudeĒ Lebowski, who early on is mistaken by some seriously dumb thugs for a very rich asshole of the same name. He and his bowling buddies, including Steve Buscemi and John Goodman in one of his patented scary maniac roles, set out to Ö well, Iím not really sure, and neither are they. Their misadventures pile on each other and are very funny. And thatís basically it.

Who knew it would turn into a giant cult classic? The story is only the surface. It all revolves around Jeff Bridges and his amazing performance as the laid-back Dude. He slouches through the role, looking half asleep most of the time, and itís perfect. He really just doesnít seem to want to be bothered by life and its strife. Heís content to bowl every night, smoke sweet dope, and make it through the day moderately unscathed, taking it easy, going with the flow. Did you know there is a semi-joke religion now, called Dudeism, or The Church of the Latter-Day Dude? I didnít, either. They claim over 100,000 ordained priests. Holy Cow! All from one little film! IMDb.com

 

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) There are not many films that are as much fun as this one. It sparked a revival of ďrootsĒ music, which is really just old-timey country and folk and gospel. Itís music from before country got glitz, back when the Grand Old Opry was a lot of hicks standing on the stage a-pickiní and a-fiddliní and a-pluckiní, people who really did grow up hardscrabble in the hills and the mines.

Yes, itís based on the Odyssey (which the Coens admit they never even read) with Ulysses Everett McGill trying to find his way home to his wife Penelope (Holly Hunter) and daughters, encountering Cyclops (John Goodman) and a group of sirens along the way, but thatís the least of the pleasures here. He and his trusting companions John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson also ride with Babyface Nelson for a while, and pick up Robert Johnson at a crossroads where he has just sold his soul to the devil. They later break him out of a Klan lynching that is at the same time both one of most chilling and funniest scenes I have ever seen. Like in Raising Arizona, the dialogue is deliberately more poetic and educated than these characters are likely to speak, and it works very well. Donít expect the story to make much sense, or to get anywhere. Like the Odyssey, it is a series of adventures on the road (well, the sea is a road, when youíre trying to get somewhere). And the title Ö well, when I first heard it I was overcome with joy, and knew I would see it, no matter what. Thatís because it was brazenly stolen from one of my favorite films by the great Preston Sturges, Sullivanís Travels. In that picture, Joel McRae as Sullivan was tired of making stupid comedy movies like Ants in Your Pants of 1938. He wanted to make a serious picture about poverty and human suffering (things he knows absolutely nothing about). So heís bought a book called O Brother, Where Art Thou? The movie was never made by the fictional director Ö but now it exists! Hurray!

But the real attraction is the music, always. We go from one lovely set piece to another, each one showcasing a different aspect of this wonderful music. I bought the soundtrack as soon as it came out, and listened to it over and over. And many of the musicians on it got together for the ďDown From the MountainĒ tour, which did very good business and brought some of these people a new career and revived the careers of others, Iím happy to say. For that alone the Coens should be thanked, but they have also made a sweet and astounding movie that Iíll be happy to see over and over again. IMDb.com

 

The Man Who Wasnít There (2001) So hereís the Coen Brothers take on a Ď40s film noir. And what a sight it is to see. Itís in glorious black and white, of course, and in many shots it might as well have been filmed in 1949, when it is set. They go so far as to deliberately make the scenes in cars look phony, like they did back then, with the exterior obviously a back projection. The set design is perfect. Though I was only 2 in 1949 thatís old enough to recall when things looked like this, felt like this; in some scenes I felt I could even smell what the world was like back then. Everyone smoked. Billy Bob Thornton, as a colorless (itís B&W, but in every scene he is just gray, from head to toe), nearly invisible barber making one last hopeless attempt to change his insufferably boring life, lights a cigarette or has one dangling from his mouth in every scene. Even when heís cutting hair. There are shots that are awesome in their stark beauty and angularity, almost like German Expressionists from the 1930s like Fritz Lang or Robert Wiene. They were so interesting that I frequently paused the DVD so I could study the scene more closely.

So all the technical stuff works fabulously. The story is a humdinger, too, sordid and ironic as noir should be. Acting is uniformly first-rate, with Tony Shalhoub as a fancy city lawyer, and several others weíve seen in previous Coen movies, including Joe Polito as a sleazy and improbably gay man selling dry cleaning franchises. (Dry cleaning was one of those post-war ďmiracles,Ē like television and TV dinners.) Scarlett Johannsonó16 at the timeóis very good. The wonderful Frances McDormand appears in her sixth Coen film (she has said that sleeping with the directoróher husband Joel Coenóhasnít hurt in getting parts in Coen films), and is as good and different as usual. She sees herself as a character actress, even though she frequently stars, and sheís right. She can become almost anything. Billy Bob gives a performance so motionless, emotionless, and restrained that you almost want to fit him for a casket. This works Ö most of the time. If the film has a flaw it is that the deliberately slow pace sometimes felt just too slow. Here and there I wanted to hurry it along a bit. I also wasnít quite sure of the choice of music. Itís almost entirely Beethoven piano sonatas, most often the Pathťtique. I love the music, but I sometimes didnít think it fit that well with the noir story. It would have been interesting to see it re-scored by one of the big Hollywood composers of the era, who would certainly have written something more dramatic. But thatís a quibble. This movie continues the Coensí streak of brilliance to nine. Are they heading for a fall, like Pixar finally did with Cars 2? Tune in next week for the next exciting episode. IMDb.com

 

Intolerable Cruelty (2003) Billy Bob Thornton returns in a supporting role here, as a Texas oil millionaire. Itís a role he is supremely comfortable playing, and heís very good at it. Geoffrey Rush is also good in support. But the main players here are George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Are there two more attractive people working in films today? I canít think of any. These people could have been played by Clark Gable and Gene Tierney, except the story is maybe a bit too cynical for their time.

But thatís the problem, I thought. Is there anyone in the world more cynical than a divorce lawyer? Anyone more grasping than a woman who marries for nothing but money? The movie is very good while it keeps these characters true to their nature. Then George becomes infatuated with Catherine, shows his weakness. Thatís great, but when she makes a fool of him, he behaves uncharacteristically. And she does, too, and thatís where it feels false. It would have remained funny if they had continued to joust with each other, instead of the sappy ending we get here. I didnít believe a roomful of divorce lawyers applauding Georgeís epiphany, and I didnít like Catherine softening. They were both con artists, and it should have remained a duel of wits until the end. And beyond. That would have been a decent Coen movie; this is not. It shows none of the real strengths of the brothers, and in the end is nothing but an okay, but routine, romantic comedy. That may be because they never intended to direct this picture in the first place. They had rewritten it from the original writers eight years before, and others were set to direct, but dropped out, and they took over. Not a good idea.

Donít misunderstand me, though. I laughed a lot, I had a good time. But it hadnít stuck with me. A second viewing was like the first, in that I had no idea what was coming up. It wasnít a Coen Brothers film. IMDb.com

 

The Ladykillers (2004) When we set out to view all the Coen Brothers films in order, I had forgotten about The Ladykillers. For their first foray into re-make city, they chose a classic Ealing comedy from 1955, starring Alec Guinness. And they came a cropper. The wonderful old Ealing comedies relied on a peculiarly British sensibility, a sense of black humor with a light touch. Whatever other qualities the Coens are known for, a light touch isnít one of them. The black part they understand. Tom Hanks was all wrong for the role, and is about the worst Iíve ever seen him in this movie. It depressed us enough that I decided to exempt us from this one. No sense punishing ourselves again. You want to see The Ladykillers, do yourself a favor and rent the old one. IMDb.com

 

No Country For Old Men (2007) Iím the farthest thing from a Cormac McCarthy fan you could ever find, except possibly for my friend Spider Robinson. I hated, hated, hated The Road. I donít know how I finished it. That hatred was a pale thing compared to my reaction to Blood Meridian. I only managed about 70 pages before throwing it across the room. I would have burned it, but it was a library book. I thought about burning it anyway (and paying for it, of course), just to save some poor soul from picking it up by accident, like syphilis. That the man is so widely honored is a continuing wonder to me. I donít know another writer whose work makes me want to either slit my wrists in despair, or grab a machine gun and go out and just start shooting it into a crowd because of the sheer vileness of the human race.

However, he did write one good book, and thatís this one. Itís a good story, skillfully told, and has some decent people in it. All is not despair, though, of course, itís a long way from cheerful. Thatís not a problem; I read a lot of books that explore the uglier sides of life. This one does, and there seems little hope, but at least there is the country sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones, totally superb in the role) who, though dumbfounded by the new levels of violence he sees around him, still does his best against the rising tides of anarchy and despair.

There will be some SPOILERS here.

This book might have been written with the Coens in mind. As in so many of their movies, nothing goes as planned, and the plot doesnít unfold as expected. Iíll quote once more from Detective Loren Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) in Blood Simple:

ďNow I don't care if you're the pope of Rome, President of the United States or Man of the Year; somethin' can all go wrong.Ē

Those were the very first words spoken in the very first Coen Brothers movie, and they could serve as the theme of most of the ones that followed. Here a man (Josh Brolin) comes upon a drug deal gone bad in the West Texas plains. Dead men and dogs and weapons all over the place. A pickup full of heroin. A briefcase full of money. He canít resist. Takes the money back to his double-wide and his mousy wife (Kelly McDonald, and who would guess sheís really a wee Scottish lassie?). But one man had been still alive, and had pleaded for agua, which Josh didnít have. He canít sleep, goes back with a gallon of water Ö and is ambushed by people looking for the loot. He barely escapes. The irony is that, had it not been for his humanitarian impulse, he probably could have gotten away clean. Still, you never know. Something can all go wrong Ö

The story is remarkable in that the three main charactersósheriff, thief, and hired killeróhardly ever meet. The killer relentlessly tracks the thief, and they shoot at each other, but thatís as close as they get. And the thief, who we are rooting for, or at least I was, dies Ö off-screen! This hardly ever happens in a movie. Iíd say never, but someone would probably come up with another instance. In a brilliant scene, the sheriff hears a lot of gunfire as he approaches the motel where he expects to find Brolin, sees gunmen fleeing in a truck, and comes upon the aftermath of a big gun battle. A dead woman by the pool, a badly hurt man crawling away, and Brolin, shot to pieces. Like the night-time car crash in Fargo, any other director would have made a big deal of this scene, showing every bullet hit in loving detail. This is so much more effective.

Some have said that Tommy Lee Jones is the center of this movie, but I think it is the killer, Anton Chigurhócalled ďSugarĒ by most of the cast in the fascinating DVD extrasóplayed by Javier Bardem. (He won the Supporting Actor Oscar.) He has been compared to Hannibal Lecter, but I think heís better. I never believed in a man like Lecter. Heís fun in the movies, but no way, no way. Sugar is real, a psychopath with a twisted set of rules, a man who seems indifferent to pain, and not conversant with anything we would think of as humanity. He is so chilling he could give you nightmares, with his sleepy eyes, his weird haircut, his low, emotionless voice. He smiles once, and itís a frightening thing to see. Itís a real accomplishment for Bardem. Anybody else and you would expect a sequel, like that awful Hannibal book and movie. After all, heís still alive at the end.

And we never know what happened. We donít see Sugar kill Brolinís wife, though weíre sure heís done it. The sheriff doesnít get his man. He retires, fed up with it all. The thief doesnít get away with it. Woody Harrelson shows up as the cocky bounty hunter only long enough to get blown away. Good does not triumph, but neither does evil. I wasnít even clear on who got the money, but it wasnít Chigurh. Little is resolved, there is no neat little package all tied up. Itís sort of like Ö well, like real life. IMDb.com

 

Burn After Reading (2008) You could call this the Coen Brotherís take on the spy thriller genre, but youíd be stretching a point. It has a few spies in it, and the chief thing that distinguishes them from the civilians is that they are not quite as dumb. But itís a close call, especially the Department Head played wonderfully by J.K. Simmons, who never quite understands whatís going on out there in the real world, but just wishes it would stop. John Malkovich gets canned from his analyst job at the CIA, while his wife Tilda Swinton is planning to divorce him. Hunting for financial information, she inadvertently downloads the book he is writing, and it inadvertently gets left at a gym where Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt work. Frances desperately needs four plastic surgeries for her total makeover, and Bradóchanneling his inner knucklehead, as one of the Coens puts it in a DVD extra, and doing a swell job of itóis willing to go along with a harebrained scheme to blackmail Malkovich, and when that fails, sell it to the Russians. Meanwhile, Tilda is having an affair with George Clooney, who says he wants to divorce his wifeóyeah, right, you know this cowardly dork will never do itóand in a stunning coincidence, heís having a fling with Frances.

Itís all very funny, very sly, and as so often in Coen movies, hardly anybody does anything very smart. They are all more or less average people in way over their heads. Not a James Bond or a Jason Bourne anywhere in sight. It is unexpectedly violent here and there, including one scene so startling we had to back up the DVD and watch it again to be sure just what happened, but itís really all played for laughs, and it all worked for me. Great acting, great writing, unconventional story, but not really top-notch Coen. IMDb.com

 

A Serious Man (2009) The Coen Brothersí film Fargo begins ďBased on a true story.Ē Itís not. This one begins with a vignette that has absolutely nothing to do with the main story. The Coens like to mess with your head like that, and they make films like no one else, and 90% of the time I love them. This is one of those times. It takes place in about 1967, a time I recall fondly, and they have really nailed the look of the suburbs of the era.

Another Coen film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? was broadly based on The Odyssey, and this one seems to have been inspired even more broadly by the Book of Job. It concerns a good man who bad things happen to. Larry Gopnik spends most of the picture trying to understand what it is Hashem (God) wants from him. He is your archetypal schlemiel. A schnook. (Isnít Yiddish a wonderful language?) He consults a rabbi, then another, and the best they can come up with is, ďWho knows?Ē

And, oh, brother, the people heís surrounded with! Within the first thirty minutes I got a better understanding of why somebody might suddenly grab a pistol and start killing everyone in sight. His permanent houseguest brother is a whining crybaby, a total loser. His daughter spends all her time washing her hair, if she can liberate the bathroom from its permanent occupation by the brother. (ďOut in a minute!Ē he shouts a dozen times.) His son cares about nothing but adjusting the TV antenna so he can see ďF TroopĒ and getting seriously fucked-up on grass. Heís stoned at his Bar Mitzvah. His wife is cold and angry about something he doesnít understand, and is leaving him. She wants a gett. (ďA what?Ē everyone asks. A ritual divorce. Oh, a gett.)

Sheís leaving him for Sy Ableman (Sy Ableman, that putz? everyone asks), brilliantly portrayed in one of the most teeth-grating performances Iíve ever seen by Fred Melamed. I mean, thirty seconds after he appeared I wanted to drag him out to the parking lot, kick him in the nuts, break both his arms, and knock out all his teeth. Now do you want to hug and talk it all over, you loathsome putz? And Iím not a violent man! Iíve never done any of those things to anybody! But this is the mid-sixties, and heís one of those touchy-feely gumballs who wants to give you a hug, who invades your personal space, whose every statement is so goddam reasonable that youíd be an ingrate to disagree with him. This, from the man your wife is divorcing you so she can be with him!

This may be the most Jewish movie Iíve ever seen, including some from Israel. These are not the funny-hat Jews (clothing is a good rule of thumb for judging how weird, ingrown, insular, and stupid a religion is, particularly hats; with Mormons itís underwear), but they are orthodox, and a lot of their lives revolve around religion. Some have accused the Jewish Coens of ridiculing Jews. Well, so what? They kidded Texans, Minnesotans, and plenty of others. Why not Jews? From my perspective as an atheist they are pretty silly. As are, I hasten to add, all other religions.

As always, every character has something quirky about him, and as in most of their films, they donít care about what other people consider the right timing for a scene. This annoys some people, but I find it a welcome change from cookie-cutter directing and editing. I can see why actors love working with them; it gives them a chance to stretch out. Itís not their best film, but itís up there in the top 20%. With the Coens, that means itís better than 99% of Hollywoodís output. IMDb.com

 

True Grit (2010) This is so rare a thing that I canít even recall another example. How often does someone remake a great film Ö and improve on it? I can think of some times where a bad film or an okay film has been improved the second time around, but never a great one. The Coen Brother have managed it. I loved the original True Grit movie. It contains one of the all-time classic scenes from a westernóďI call that bold talk from a one-eyed fat man.Ē ďFill your hand, you son of a bitch!Ē I had read the book and thought it was reasonably faithful. And while I detest John Wayne the man (the two-fisted action hero who, when it came time to fight for his country, had ďother priorities,Ē like the traitor Dick Cheney), I am a big fan of his better films, and this is his best. (Except maybe for The Searchers. And Red River. And She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. And Ö okay, so it was one of his dozen best.) So how did they do it? How did they top a classic? By not trying to out-do it with unwanted technology or anything else, and by being even more faithful to the book. This is a straight western, no Coen-esque embellishments. It is beautiful to look at. It is exciting. It feels authentic. Iím sure that in rough places like ďDeadwoodĒ people did fill their speech with expletives, but remember, this was 1878, and Queen Victoria was firmly on the throne. Flowery speech was the norm, just read novels from that period. The way these people talk is a delight to listen to, as distinctive in its way as Shakespeare. Jeff Bridges is outrageously good. Hailee Steinfeld really is 14, just like her character Mattie, and she just owns this movie. I canít find a single thing to complain about, and so much to praise. I will see this movie multiple times in the future. IMDb.com

 

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