Cinema of the Coens: Part III

Screenshot of Billy Bob ThorntonIf the Coens’ previous three films (Fargo, Lebowski, O Brother) can be seen as a trilogy of success propelling them through the ranks and prestige of filmmaking, the next three are a trilogy of forgetfulness. None of the next three films are bad. In fact, two fall in the top half of my Coen favorites (well…I haven’t compiled that list, yet, so we’ll see – it’s difficult). There are no problems with writing or acting (there are never problems with these things). It’s just a matter of there not being anything spectacular or memorable. I enjoyed them. I was impressed by them, but I moved on. They aren’t award winners or box office bombs or rockets. They’re just movies made to give you a break from reality for two hours. The Coens are good at that.

This is the Cinema of the Coens, Part III.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

Set in 1949 California and starring Billy Bob Thorton, James Gandolfini, Tony Shaloub, Scarlett Johansson, and Frances McDormand, Thorton plays barber Ed Crane, a man who finds himself in the craziest mid-life crisis you can think of. It’s the typical Coen storyline: he tries to do something for good reasons and everything falls apart around him. The main plot is a series of events that lead to Crane killing someone, for which his wife is blamed. Yet no one will believe he is the guilty one. Shaloub, in particular, does an awesome job in the role of a slimy defense attorney who isn’t afraid to stretch the truth and the law to win his case; for a hefty fee, of course.

When I started on my Coen marathon, this was the first one I watched, and I mistakingly thought it was one of their earlier films. I enjoyed it at the time, but when I discovered it was made in 2001 I was a bit disappointed. The reasoning is the same as what I presented in Part II: after their success of the previous “trilogy,” The Man Who Wasn’t There doesn’t quite fit. The film is still good, despite my above disappointment. It’s snappy and well written, things the Coens never let you down on. Designed as a neo-noir, the black and white cinematography is excellent and does a lot for pulling you into the atmosphere. While it was nominated for an Oscar, it wasn’t the biggest success at the box office. Man Who Wasn’t There ends up being one of those nuggets of the Coens that people don’t always remember, but never regret watching.

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

I didn’t expect to like it. I like George Clooney, but it seemed a bit off for the Coens. A romantic comedy. Eh, maybe.

Cruelty stars George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Billy Bob Thorton, and Cedric the Entertainer. It is the tale of Miles Massey (Clooney), a world-class divorce attorney who, naturally, finds himself in love, and all the struggles that come with it. Zeta-Jones plays a gold digger wife who marries wealthy men only to divorce them and take everything, with Rush, Thorton, and Cedric there as the supporting cast.I loved it. It’s strange, because there isn’t anything spectacular about it. It’s the usual progression of events with that extra Coen flair, but the two mix perfectly. I wasn’t amazed by the lighting or acting and I didn’t necessarily laugh the whole time, but I never found myself bored. I was enjoying every second of it, entertained from start to finish. Clooney does a fantastic job, as expected.


You can tell by looking at the cast how, by this point in their’ career, getting the chance to work with the Coens was less a paycheck and more an opportunity. Now they had people coming to them, and “no” was a word they heard less and less. Even the strangest of projects can get funding and support simply because the Coens are trusted. What’s interesting is that Cruelty is their first film to not be an original idea. It was based off a screenplay that already existed and was attached to Ron Howard at one point, before finally landing on their desk. Howard’s partner, Brian Grazer, still ended up producing.

The Ladykillers (2004)

**Interesting Fact: The Ladykillers is the first film where both Joel and Ethan are credited as directors. It was only now, on their eleventh film, that the Directors’ Guild of America finally allowed them to do so. They continue to alternate top billing on writing, both produce, and they edit their films together under an alias, Roderick Jaynes**

Ladykillers Poster

I suppose after coming up with so many ideas, Joel and Ethan Coen deserved to enjoy the job for a while. Cruelty, though very much rewritten by them, was not originally them. They followed it with The Ladykillers, a remake of the 1955 British comedy film of the same title, starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, even! The Coens’ version features Tom Hanks, JK Simmons, a cast of characters in an ensemble piece based around a group of criminals attempting to tunnel their way into a casino vault, all from the basement of an innocent old woman.

It’s funny; funnier than Cruelty, for me at least. It’s one of those films where the greatness of it comes from the actors. If you try to imagine someone not Tom Hanks playing Professor Dorr, it just isn’t fun. Same goes for the other four members of his criminal gang. It’s an ensemble piece and successful at it. As usual, there’s a lot of money involved and everyone is on different pages with what’s going on. The best part about the film (indeed, something the Coens excel at, in my opinion), is the ingenious ways in which the characters are killed. They are antagonists acting as the protagonists, and you both love and hate them. Some of them, however, have to go, and they go out in style. It’s a dark comedy, and lives up to the name. Critics were split, and it was successful in numbers but not hugely so. I enjoyed it, and would watch it again if I came across it, but I would not go out of my way to find it. It’s one of those “good, but not their best,” pieces.

I think that we, as viewers, can tell when watching a movie by the Coen Bros. just how much love and effort was put into it, and it makes us love it, too. From writing to directing to all the crew, the atmosphere shows itself. We pick up on how much fun the actors are having, on how dedicated every crew member is. We can tell these people are working not just for money but because they enjoy it. No one can be revolutionary all the time. The unfair thing would be to expect each film they make to be better then all their others. It’s unrealistic. It means you’re constantly having to work to outdo yourself, and sometimes that simply isn’t fun. The Coens work in this industry because they have fun doing so, and you know by watching their work that everything they do is because they have fun doing it.

Sometimes, that’s what movies are about; not changing the world or sending a message to millions of people around the world, but pure, simple fun.

Cinema of the Coens: Part IPart II


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