Director Study: The Coen Brothers

I watched every movie directed by the Coen Brothers in February. Well okay, I did skip watching O Brother, Where Art Thou? because I have seen the film 3 or 4 times between middle and high school English classes. This process shows my shift to focusing directors in order to increase my film knowledge.

The Coen Brothers seem like an odd choice of filmmakers to focus on when I’ve stated that my goal this year is to learn as much about film as possible. They aren’t necessarily considered the highest echelon of directors and might no be considered essential viewing, but they have made some great films and can be brought up in a conversation with just about any casual filmgoer.

The real choice for going through the Coen filmography was predicated on the release of Hail Caesar! this month. It seemed like going to see a contemporary work of the director(s) I’m focusing on would not be a common opportunity.

I had seen the aforementioned O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, and Burn After Reading before but didn’t remember a lot about the films.

Here is the order I saw them in:

  • The Big Lebowski
  • Fargo
  • No Country for Old Men
  • Raising Arizona
  • Blood Simple
  • Miller’s Crossing
  • Barton Fink
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Hail Caesar!
  • The Hudsucker Proxy
  • The Man Who Wasn’t There
  • Intolerable Cruelty
  • The Ladykillers
  • A Serious Man
  • Burn After Reading
  • True Grit

I started with the top three most acclaimed Coen films in the order that I thought would be ramp up from good to great. This worked pretty well; as there are many themes that tie those big three films together.

The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men all involve violence, large sums of money, a main character in over their head, varying degrees of competence from their bad guys and law enforcement, and heavy focuses on cars. These are all skin-deep comparisons, but they hold true. I’m sure someone else has drawn more nuanced comparisons, so I’ll hold off on deep analysis for now.

The rest of the films mostly came at random. I just picked one and watched it. In the future I plan on watching a director chronologically. If they simply have made too many films, then maybe I’ll have to work off a “best of” list.

So the Coen Brothers make pretty good films. They are absurdly consistent, and I don’t think any of their films could be considered “bad.”

Here is the my ranking of the Coen Brother’s films from best to worst:

  • No Country for Old Men – 5
  • Fargo – 4.5
  • A Serious Man – 4.5*
  • Barton Fink – 4.5
  • Inside Llewyn Davis – 4.5
  • Blood Simple – 4
  • The Man Who Wasn’t There – 4*
  • Burn After Reading – 4
  • The Big Lebowski – 3.5
  • The Hudsucker Proxy – 3.5
  • True Grit – 3.5
  • Raising Arizona – 3
  • Hail Caesar! – 3*
  • Miller’s Crossing – 3
  • Intolerable Cruelty – 2.5
  • The Ladykillers – 2.5

The movies with an asterisk are films that I changed my rating after my initial viewing.

Hail Caesar! dropped from a 4 that I originally gave it after seeing the film. Initially the film is so full of fun characters and scenes that you leave the theater with a smile on your face. As you think back to the film over time though, you find the cynicism and lack of any real point to weigh the film back down.

I really missed the boat by not seeing Itolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers before going to Hail Caesar! – there are many similarities with the one dimensional kooky characters and straight forward plots. There is also a lot of cynicism in these films that is not balanced with the sincerity that the Coens use in other films.

A Serious Man and The Man Who Wasn’t There both get a half star bump from some time away from the films to reflect. A Serious Man rockets up to being my third favorite movie. The Coens destroy Larry all while truly caring for his progress through pain. This is an accurate reflection of a loving God who sometimes lets bad things happen to his devout creations.

The Man Who Wasn’t There may be the most concise film, thematically, the Coens have made. The story and themes all play through the title. The beauty of the performances and the use of black and white make the film a delight.

No Country for Old Men was the first movie to earn a 5 from me since I started tracking the films I watched in 2016. I was struggling to decipher what deserves a 5, and shied away from it by 4.5 at films that I loved. I’m not afraid of the 5 anymore though. No Country for Old Men is a ride filled with tension and death. It’s a brilliant look at the chaos in the world that leads men through happenstance that they only think they can control.

The Coens are hard to talk about. They have made many different kinds of films throughout their career. I’m sure others have said much more intelligent things about them, but I will share some thoughts.

  • They cast extremely well. The acting is so consistent throughout. Sometimes performances even save the weaker films from becoming dull.
    They have technical chops. Each film nails the style that the Coens set out to make. Roger Deakins is the DP on most of their films, and together they create some amazing shots.
  • They love opening with narration.
  • They don’t shy away from killing their characters. This also ties in to a consistent use of violence.
  • There is always someone plotting, a character or characters trying to better their position against the other characters. This leads to the general lack of control the characters have on their world. The Coens are the ones who are always in control.
  • The characters tend to be “common men,” at least in the eyes of the Coens.

I did truly enjoy my time with the Coens. I’m disappointed the more I think about Hail Ceasar!, but they created so many other works that will stand the test of time. What is your favorite Coen Brother’s film? Where am I off the mark? What did I miss? Come on now, teach me something.

I just realized I didn’t even talk about Fargo. I guess I’ll close with this then, “There is more to life than a little money, you know? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day.”

Photo Credit: Andrea Raffin

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