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All their films are noir, especially the Westerns.
Joel and Ethan Coen — co-writers, co-directors, co-producers, co-editors, co-Coens — are the leading contemporary practitioners of the noir genre. Their first film set the tone. Blood Simple takes place in a triple-cross universe straight out of Sam Spade: Cheating wife, private detective, noble sap, shadowy murder, murder in the shadows, bad things done for a little bit of money.
Their other films follow suit. Sometimes the noir trappings are obvious: The lawless Prohibitioneers of Miller's Crossing (pictured, top), the monochrome universe of The Man Who Wasn't There. Sometimes they take the genre sideways: Exporting a genre built on big-city skullduggery to the snowy plains of Fargo, or reimagining Raymond Carver as the pothead-delirium circus of The Big Lebowski.
Occasionally, they make movies that look like Westerns. This is a knowing deception. No Country for Old Men (pictured, bottom) and True Grit are set in wide open spaces that evoke frontier imagery. (You could throw in the Bonnie & Clyde riff Raising Arizona.) But looks can be deceiving. The Coens deny the old Western myth of the boundless frontier. In both films, the frontier is simply a landscape for a more extreme version of the moral negotiation at the core of all film noir.
You could say that the Coen brothers make Westerns about characters trying to turn their lives into film noir. I don't know why you would say that, but you could.
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All of their films are Westerns, especially the noirs.
Ethan and Joel Coen are the leading contemporary practioners of the Western genre. Their first film set the tone. Blood Simple takes place in a lawless environment where life is cheap. There are shallow graves, and the only law is the Way of the Gun, and M. Emmet Walsh's ruthless Visser is dressed like a gone-to-seed rodeo cowboy.
Their other films follow suit. Sometimes the Western trappings are obvious: Think of the last-ride duel in True Grit or the border-hopping drama of No Country for Old Men. Sometimes they take the genre sideways: The Big Lebowski begins with a blowing tumbleweed and the voice of the cowboy-deity narrator Sam Elliott, while Raising Arizona (pictured, top) features a demonic bounty hunter who seems to hail from the side-tradition of dystopian Westerns.
Occasionally, they make movies that look like film noir. This is a knowing deception. Fargo and The Man Who Wasn't There (pictured, bottom) feature the kind of twisty-turny plotlines that defined the lost era of pulp crime thrillers. (You could throw in A Serious Man, where the universe itself appears to triple-cross the characters.) But the films focus on characters who hail from the Western tradition. Police chief Marge Gunderson is a force for good, a pregnant Gary Cooper.
And The Man Who Wasn't There is their boldest deception, a film that evokes the look of film noir. But the film is set on a frontier that is chronological if not geographic: A California suburb at the dawn of the suburban era, with Billy Bob Thornton's Ed Crane as a postmodern version of the taciturn cowboy attempting to bring some element of moral clarity to his world.
You could say that the Coen brothers make noir films about characters trying to turn their lives into Westerns. I don't know why you would say that, but you could.
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It's usually a period piece.
The Coens have covered just about every decade of the 20th century in their filmography. The Prohibition of Miller's Crossing leads to the Depression of O Brother, Where Art Thou? Barton Fink moves from New York to Los Angeles in 1941; eight years and several hundred miles North, Ed Crane meanders through the postwar suburbia of The Man Who Wasn't There. In The Hudsucker Proxy, Tim Robbins (pictured) arrives in New York to invent the hula hoop in 1958. Three years later, a folk singer struggles to peddle his trade downtown in Inside Llewyn Davis. A Serious Man takes place in middle America in the late '60s. Josh Brolin plays a Vietnam vet in the 1980s Texas of No Country for Old Men.
That film features Tommy Lee Jones as a retiring sheriff. Chronologically speaking, he hands off lawman duties to Marge Gunderson, who solves the mystery of Fargo in 1987. The Dude struggles to solve the mystery of whatever while the first President Bush sounds off about Kuwait in The Big Lebowski's early '90s. Even Burn After Reading feels like an instant period piece for post-9/11 D.C., a dystopia drowning in information and security clearances.
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Or maybe all their films are comedies, especially the serious movies.
Those kooky Coen kids are comedians of the highest order. Their first film set the tone. At the climax of Blood Simple, Frances McDormand's Abby shoots Visser, but she thinks she's shooting her villainous husband Marty (Dan Hedaya). Abby says, proudly, ''I'm not afraid of you, Marty!'' On the other side of the door, Visser — who killed Marty earlier in the movie — starts laughing. ''If I see him, I'll sure give him the message!'' he says, still cracking up. Because, hey, sometimes you have to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Their other films follow suit. Sometimes, the screwball trappings are obvious: Think of the lackadaisical banter of The Big Lebowski (pictured, top) or the desperate Preston Sturges homage Intolerable Cruelty or the elaborate web of cuckoldry that twists through the live-action political cartoon Burn After Reading.
Occasionally, they make movies that seem very serious. This is a knowing deception. A Serious Man (pictured, bottom) and No Country for Old Men both seem like bleak and depressing narratives: The former about the breakdown of a man's life, the latter about the breakdown of the whole idea of morality. But the films take light pleasure in that breakdown, garnishing the bleakness with a willfully goofball spirit. Javier Bardem's Chigurh has that goofy haircut. A Serious Man has an ancient rabbi quoting Jefferson Airplane. Both films end terribly, but you have to laugh. What else can you do?
You could say that the Coen brothers make comedies about characters struggling to be serious. I don't know why you would say that, but you could.
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Perfect murderers exist.
The Coens at this point have an imposing reputation that comes from regular trips to the Oscars. But their films often feature characters who come straight out of the action-movie genre, killers who rampage through their films like comic book supervillains. They usually look ridiculous and have ludicrous names, which makes them seem even more iconic. Chubby Visser in Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men's unpronounceable man-from-everywhere Chigurh with his cattle gun, Euro-sociopath Gaear Grimsrud in Fargo (pictured, top to bottom). And the Coenography is replete with similar visions of all-consuming malevolence, like Sherrif Cooley in O Brother or ex-boxer Tex Cobb as the motorcycle bounty hunter in Raising Arizona. Typically, these killers are so powerful that they can only be brought down by pure chance: floods, car crashes, Frances McDormand's eerily good aim.
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But people always die hard.
The mechanics of murder fascinate the Coens — especially when the mechanics break down. Dan Hedaya just can't die right in Blood Simple (pictured, top). The whole downward spiral of No Country for Old Men occurs because one of the Mexicans survives a bloody shootout long enough to ask Josh Brolin for water (pictured, bottom). True Grit is probably the Coens' purest examination of the imprecise science of killing. In the climactic shootout, Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn takes down several men all by himself?until his horse is shot out from under him, trapping him. Meanwhile, Hailee Steinfeld's Mattie Ross gets to take her bloody vengeance?but the force of the rifle knocks her into a pit filled with rattlesnakes.
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There definitely is a God, and a higher power that ensures justice comes to all the characters.
All of the Coens' movies constitute inquisitions into the nature of faith and the human condition, and the ultimate conclusion is quite positive. O Brother concludes with George Clooney praying for salvation — which arrives in the form of a flood and a long-prophesied cow on the roof (pictured, top). A Serious Man (pictured, bottom) comes from a different tradition — Jewish faith, not Greek mythology; the Book of Job, not The Odyssey — but it also makes a coherent argument for some form of higher power, with a near-Biblical ending. Like Michael Stuhlbarg's poor Larry Gopnik, we never really understand what that higher power wants?but that higher power's presence is felt throughout the movie, in coincidence that can only be fate.
Even the less openly existential films have the sense of curious justice. In Blood Simple and The Man Who Wasn't There, people are punished for crimes they did not commit — but they did commit crimes. The scales always balance.
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Or maybe there definitely is not a God, and any higher powers are woefully incapable.
All of the Coens' movies constitute inquisitions into the nature of faith and the human condition, and the ultimate conclusion is quite negative. There is no God, no deeper meaning to life. There are deities in the Coen Brothers' movies: The omniscient CIA agents in Burn After Reading, Sam Elliott's cowboy in The Big Lebowski (pictured, bottom). But their lofty perch doesn't give them any clarity. If anything, they find the actions of the other characters even more confusing. ''What did we learn, Palmer?'' asks J.K. Simmons (pictured, top) at the close of Burn After Reading. ''I don't know, sir,'' his subordinate responds. It's an echo of Elliott in The Big Lebowski: ''Sometimes, there's a man. Sometimes, there's a man. Aw, I lost of my train of thought here.''
Even the less aggressively meaningless films have the same sense of circle-the-drain emptiness. True Grit flashes forward several decades for its epilogue, with the lead character concluding, ''Time just gets away from us.'' The Coen Brothers are nihilists. They believe in nothing, Lebowski.
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Or maybe the only higher purpose is money, and nobody ever gets the money (besides the lawyers).
Money! Everyone loves money. Everyone needs money. Characters in the Coenography make very bad decisions to get more money. Barton Fink moves to Hollywood for the money. Blackmail schemes run throughout The Man Who Wasn't There, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man. Frequently, the endless pursuit of money ends in ellipses. The money eludes the crooks in Fargo (pictured, top)) and The Ladykillers; the money destroys Moss' life in No Country — almost from the moment he finds it.
This might sound like money is bad: A tantalizing prospect that leads good people to their doom. And that's true. But at least the lawyers turn out okay. Lawyers occupy a unique position in the Coens' portrayal of power: They negotiate the very idea of morality, bridging the gap between the higher power that might not exist and the common people whose lives might not mean anything.
In The Man Who Wasn't There, Freddy Riedenschneider conceives up several convincing alternate realities to explain his client's innocence; he also lives the high life with his massive expense account, consuming all the money Ed Crane made off his blackmail gambit. And although Intolerable Cruelty is probably the Coens' most flawed film, it does conjure up an addictive world rules by lawyers like George Clooney's Miles Massey (pictured, bottom), the inventor of a prenuptial agreement so airtight it might as well be magic.
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Or maybe they just really like music.
Because music is fun! O Brother, Where Art Thou? (pictured, top) as a movie turned out to essentially be a feature-length advertisement for the ludicrously successful soundtrack. The trick didn't work with the gospel choirs of The Ladykillers (pictured, center), but that didn't scare away the Coens, whose new Inside Llewyn Davis (pictured, bottom) dives deep into the Greenwich Village folk scene.
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Or maybe the more you look the less you know, so the whole point is don't look so hard.
The Coen Brothers work hard and think harder. They develop radical new aesthetics for every film and lace their movies with symbolism that comes from a wide variety of sources. They are smart fellows. Ethan went to Princeton. He wrote a thesis about Wittgenstein. I barely knew who that is, and I'm impressed.
But considering how every detail in their movies is often considered in microscopic detail, it's interesting how many of their movies ultimately conclude that, all in all, it's best not to think about these things too hard. You don't want to reduce the Coenography to a single defining moral. But in the showiest scene of The Man Who Wasn't There (pictured, top), Freddy Reidenscheider delivers a soliloquy on Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. He concludes: ''The more you look, the less you really know. It's a fact, a true fact. In a way, it's the only fact there is.'' Heisenberg pops up again in A Serious Man, when Larry teaches his class that the principle ''proves we can't ever really know what's going on.''
Even so, we always run the risk of taking the Coens at their word: On the DVD commentary for The Man Who Wasn't There, they giggle about how Freddy's speech is absolute gibberish, a ridiculous interpretation of the Uncertainty Principle. Perhaps it's best to remember the words of Fargo's Marge (pictured, bottom), probably the most sincere human being in the Coenography, who chastises the last remaining criminal for all the death and destruction he has caused: ''For what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don't you know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well, I just don't understand it.'' The fact that she doesn't understand could be her salvation.
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But if you do want to look hard, Roger Deakins will at least be there to make sure it looks good.
After their original cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld left after three films to pursue his own directing career, the Coens have worked almost exclusively with Roger Deakins (pictured, right, on the set of O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Together, they've created some of the most gorgeous movies of the past 20 years. Besides Burn After Reading and the new Inside Llewyn Davis, he's been the brothers' director of photography on every film since Barton Fink. And he's kept busy away from the Coens, too: He competed against himself in 2007 with No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.