Joel and Ethan Coen are two of the most prolific directors working in Hollywood today, known not only for box office success but creating a unique artistic style that makes them stand out. Coen Bros. cinema falls into many categories, but it indisputably makes up its own. In our new multipart feature, I will be running through the history of the Coen Bros. on screen. What factors make a movie a Coen movie? At the same time, how have their films changed in the nearly thirty years and fifteen films they have under their belt?
A few facts to start us off: Joel, the taller one, is also the older one, and until 2004’s The Ladykillers is the only one credited as director. This was because the Directors’ Guild of America refused to allow two directing credits on a film, and only after the Coens were irrefutably successful was the ruling overturned. Despite this, the two brothers have always written, produced, directed, and often edited their films together, a collaboration well known to those who have worked with them.
Blood Simple (1984)
Their feature film debut, Blood Simple is the tale of a bar owner who hires a detective to kill his wife and her lover. As expected, things go wrong, creating a neo-noir dark comedy that starts many of the themes that will follow us throughout this journey. Blood Simple isn’t a bad movie, but it is very much an 80s one, from the way it’s shot, cut, acted, and most of all scored. To a viewer today, it seems more like a made-for-TV movie then something shown in theaters.
It sees the introduction of Francis McDormand (who would not only succeed in Hollywood but also marry Joel Coen). Like many Coen films, it involves the search for stolen money that inevitably puts characters in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a story where everyone thinks something different is going on, and like any dark comedy it results in the death of many. Together, it’s a strong start for new filmmakers that not only granted them critical success but enough of a box office profit to give them a future.
Raising Arizona (1987)
A lighter comedy, Raising Arizona gives us a story of a stolen baby by a couple who wants nothing more then to raise a family. Nicholas Cage, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, and of course McDormand all add to an excellent ensemble cast that makes the film shine. All the characters are over the top extreme examples of their type, adding to the comedy of their situations. It’s another case of someone doing a bad thing for good reasons and all the trouble it gets them in, but this time without everyone dying. The baby is particularly funny as the silent third party observer without a care in the world as all hell brakes loose around him. A strong box office success, Raising Arizona further solidified the claim that the Coens had a vision to share.
Set during the Prohibition Era and starring Gabriel Byrnes and Jon Turturro (who will go on to feature prominently with the Coens), Miller’s Crossing, like Blood Simple, isn’t bad, but it doesn’t really do much for me. The cast is strong. This statement is true for every Coen film, no matter the success. They know how to cast and they do it well. There are parts of Miller’s Crossing that are really enjoyable, but it missed the hook that keeps me interested. At the end of it, I’m sort of left wondering what the point was. The score, in particularly, annoyed me because of how boring it was. The movie just doesn’t go that extra inch. Along with this, it was, at the time, a box office failure, though it has since remade its budget in home video.
Barton Fink (1991)
Starring Turturro in the titular role, Barton Fink is strong. Costarring John Goodman as salesperson Charlie, it tells the tale of a playwright contracted to write in Hollywood and the psychological turmoil that comes with his writer’s block. It’s a comedy, but a very dark one. Creatively, it’s a masterpiece, and a fairly blatant one at that. It’s just…good. The viewer has the same questions Barton has and you’re constantly wondering how it’s all going to work out, like it’s supposed to in the movies. Around halfway through, a plot twist really heats things up (literally), but it ends very abruptly. Abrupt endings will happen several times with Coen films, and it’s always done for metaphorical reasons. What those reasons are, though, is left to debate. Barton Fink is perhaps the first of the Coens’ films to do what they do so well: inspire discussion. It’s filled with visual and audible symbols and metaphors that twist your thinking until you don’t know what’s going on. Turturro and Goodman do fantastic jobs in their roles and make you truly feel for the character and the troubles he goes through. It’s a 1941 Hollywood that makes you cringe under the hypocrisy, and Fink is only an honest man trying to make something out of his life.
Three years later, they would follow their “edge of success” breakthrough with a total bomb. I think one problem with Hudsucker Proxy is that, to me, it’s very much a Christmas movie, with all the cute character development you expect. Yet, it was released in March. That’s not so much the Coens’ fault, but I think it would’ve done better if marketed properly. It was the Coens’ biggest budget (over $25 million), and was an important step in their career after the success of Fink. Roger Ebert praised it but complained that “everything is style.” There was no substance. On surface level, I agree. It’s a very stylistic comedy, set in late-50s New York and highly satirizing big business almost to the point of annoyance, depending on your views. Still, I enjoyed it. I looked at Proxy as meaning to entertain, and I was, thoroughly. Tim Robbins and cast, as always, do a great job (Jennifer Jason Leigh, particularly, in the role of a snappy journalist), and the production design is amazing. It’s a fun movie. No award nominations or major ticket sales, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Hudsucker was important for the Coens’ careers, and in many ways it failed. The studio lost big time at the box office, and even critics split on whether it was worth watching. By the end of ’94, the Coen Bros. had been working in Hollywood for ten years, with a strong five films (along with several non-directed collaborations) under their belts. Yet still they strived for success. Still they found themselves hanging on the edge of a cliff, desperately wanting to climb to safety, knowing that at any moment they could fall into obscurity.
Soon, those fears would be vanished.