Cinema of the Coens: Part IV

The cast of No Country for Old Men had a few things to say about what it’s like to work with the Coen Bros. Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones and company mentioned how this is the way sets are suppose to be. They talked about how the level of professionalism is surpassed by none. Sets are quiet and productive. They’re the ultimate team with the same clear vision of where they want to go with the story, but at the same time they are open to collaboration. There are never any fights, least of all between Joel and Ethan. Working with them, they said, isn’t so much like being directed by two people as it is a person with two heads. Perhaps this is why, in 2011, they were awarded the $1 million Dan David Prize for being “a creative partnership unique in the history of filmmaking.”

This is the Cinema of the Coens, Part IV.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Their previous three films weren’t bad, but weren’t great. That’s ok, since they followed them with No Country for Old Men. Start with an all-star cast of Jones, Brolin, Bardem (though he wasn’t well known in the U.S. at that point – thank you, Coens), Woody Harrelson and several cameos. Add the unique style of Cormac McCarthy’s novel as source material (the only difference between book and screenplay is the formatting, it’s amazing). Now throw in the unique filmmaking style of the Coen Bros., and you’ve got something truly remarkable.

The Ladykillers was their first remake of an older film, and No Country would be their first full adaptation of a novel. It’s a crime thriller, which they’ve done, and there are moments of very dark, low-brow comedy, but that’s not what the film is about. The film is a cat and mouse chase following three characters: Llewelyn (Brolin), the average man who discovers a large sum of money and stupidly takes it; Ed Tom Bell (Jones), the wizened sheriff who has seen enough in his time; and Anton Chigurh (Bardem), the psychopathic hit man chasing after the money and killing anyone in his way.

Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.

It’s such an intensely real story. Set in 1980 New Mexico, the characters and set-ups constantly keep you wondering what’s going to happen next. Bardem is the obvious antagonist, but Brolin and Jones share protagonist credit – each serving different purposes. Brolin represents the generation of people growing up in a world with a new set of principles, against Jones, the older sheriff from an older land. It’s one of those stories that lives up to its promise, delivering a world that’s no country for old men.

It’s incredibly powerful, but only if you’re able to make it through. The film was an overwhelmingly critical success (it’s the type of film that would be) and a smash at the box office, but it isn’t your typical Friday matinee. To start with, there’s only sixteen minutes of score throughout the entire piece, much of that during the end credits. It’s a very quiet picture, set in the west with nothing but the open prairie or hustle and bustle of city, but isn’t that what the real world is like? Everything in the film is quiet, from the sound to the acting and placing of the camera. There’s nothing obnoxious or showy. Everyone, from cast to crew, delivers the job that’s expected of them and doesn’t make a big deal of it, and it shows on screen.

These are the reasons No Country became the Coen Bros’ first huge hit, by way of their Oscars for not only Screenplay and Supporting Actor (Bardem – deserved), but their first as Best Director and Picture. It was a big moment in the Coens’ careers – that point where all of Hollywood and critics agreed they are filmmakers to remember; filmmakers to read about in textbooks and learn from. After twelve films, they had hit that point where everyone not only knew who they were, but knew what to expect. They expected something new. Something different.

Burn After Reading (2008)

Perhaps my favorite Coen film, Burn After Reading is what I would define their style as. After having worked from adapted material since 2001, the Coens finally returned with a screenplay wholly their own, and you can tell. By now you can probably guess what it’s about: dark comedy involving lost money and an ensemble of characters in which none of them understands what’s going on; an awesome cast (Clooney, Malkovich, Pitt, McDormand, Swinton, Simmons); and a story that at times is so crazy and twisting you marvel at the intelligence it would take to think of it.

This is probably the hardest of their films to summarize: it involves the CIA, present and retired, idiotic gym workers who think their smart enough to con someone out of money…that doesn’t actually exist, and then there’s the hopeless romantic (Clooney again, actually). It’s just…funny. A strange sense of funny, to be honest, and some may have trouble keeping up. If you’re able to pierce the genius that is the Coens, though, you’ll find a unique story of some of the most original characters. You love them, but at the same time could care less what happens to them, and that gives the Coens a lot of options. The story is so insane that you stop trying to figure out what’s going to happen and just go along for the ride.

Another critical and box office success, though not where awards were concerned (not that that’s a defining factor for any movie), Burn After Reading can easily be interpreted as the Coens having fun. After so many years of working to cement their position in the industry and, in my opinion, create product more mainstream, this was a passion project. A successful one, but one made for the fun of working with all of these people again, and who wouldn’t want to do that?. After winning their Oscars, the Coens could relax.

A Serious Man (2009)

Their next film was another passion project. Starring Michael Stuhlberg as Larry Gopnik, it is the 1960s tale of the Jewish community within the suburbs of Minnesota, and one man’s stressful, empathetic mid-life crisis. Not to make it sound like a Jewish culture piece, it’s a dark comedy straight along the lines of Coen cinema, but it carries a different style. It’s similar to Barton Fink and Man Who Wasn’t There in that Gopnik is at a point of settlement in life when everything is thrown upside down (his wife wants to divorce him yet nothing is wrong in their marriage, which confuses him).

It’s actually kind of frustrating to watch because you feel so sorry for Gopnik and really want him to win, but it seems like he gets screwed at every turn. You see the elements of comedy, very subtlety, but feel as if you shouldn’t laugh. The film isn’t about the Jewish people, but it represents them very strongly. It also isn’t about the Coens’ childhood, but it represents elements of it respectably. It’s one of those stories you expect the Coens to make, and they do a great job with it. Well received by critics and successful (though not a blockbuster), it’s a film to be proud of. There’s nothing to dislike about it. It’s just a matter of looking at everything they have to offer and asking whether you want to be entertained (Burn After) or analyzed (Serious Man).

With one film left (for now), this is where we find the Coens. After a career 25 years in the making and fourteem films (some hits, misses, but none embarrassing or bad), the Coens find themselves at the top, with the golden statues and net worth to prove it. They never do a project they don’t want to, but there are certain projects directors are expected to do. No Country is that Oscar-winning hit, and while it certainly won’t be their last, it is that first bump that must be hurdled. It’s like finally giving Scorsese or Eastwood or Nolan an Oscar. Everyone knows they deserve it, but this was finally their year.

There are a lot of things the Coens could have done after their success in 2007: stopped making films, sold out on big budget movies where the names carry more weight then the story, grow addicted to the attention and just try to repeat it. Instead, they did the best thing they could: kept doing what they were good at. They made two of their most original films, each aimed at different audiences. They showed Hollywood that the Coen Bros. are not one size fits all. They can do a wide range of topics within a wide range of genres and demographics, yet at the same time hold true to the style that makes the Coen Bros…Coen.

Cinema of the Coens – Part One, Two, Three

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