The best thing about the Coen Brothers is their ability to mold whatever subject matter their presented into something that is certifiably stamped with their own, unique style. For most filmmakers, this generally pigeonholes them into specific genres or thematic tendencies that don’t always work (I’m looking at you, Wachowskis!) The Coen’s are like a perpetual hit making machine, holding a finger down on the pulse of an industry that tends to shun filmmakers who can appeal to the wide audiences, while keeping a woefully indie vibe seen on all failed film school reels everywhere.
The latest Coen Brothers incarnation comes in the form of Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies. Co-written by the Coens and virtually unknown screenwriter Matt Charman, the Steven Spielberg directed film has been receiving early praise, marking a new chapter in the type of films the Coens are attaching their names to. From earliest work Blood Simple, to next year’s Hail, Caesar!, the sheer weight of the subject matter covered by the two is stunning. That’s why choosing five exemplary films by the two was an arduous, but necessary task.
Blood Simple (1984)
The first feature film for the duo, Blood Simple set the tone for the type of work we could look forward to from the pair in the years to come. Acting as a hyped up version of a neo-noir classic, Blood Simple played not only on the storyline, but the characters as well. The cool thing was that characters were not limited to those toping the bill. Instead, they came in the form of tropes (MURDER), inanimate objects (THE GUN), and eventually an almost unanswered question. A fact that would plague the viewer, who unknowingly took on a responsibility they would continue to shoulder regardless of the circumstances surrounding their movie experience. Starring Joel Coen’s rampantly talented wife Frances McDormand, Blood Simple acts as a touch stone for the Coens; it’s almost like they created their own source material to look back on when they needed an edge.
Raising Arizona (1987)
It’s hard to explain Raising Arizona to someone who has never seen the film before. It’s a very particular kind of comedy, born out of sheer need for an unexplored style of dramedy. Though Blood Simple had its moments of dry humor within the sphere of the serious subject matter (something we would see mirrored later in Fargo), Raising Arizona was the first time we got the signature Coen humor, timing, and paced out resolution. Taking something that’s a plausible part of daily life (i.e., following a couple who are unable to produce a biological child) and making it into a ridiculous satire, a new genre was born. It was a movie that took itself seriously where it needed to, yet let go long enough to set up moments for people to get blown up due to a careless mistake. Nic Cage was in his prime, something the Coen brothers took note of, directing his character in a way that will never be matched in his career. Arizona had a dry wit and pacing that’s perfectly indicative of the Coen’s style, yet remains unmatched by later films and copycats throughout Hollywood .
Barton Fink (1991)
Barton Fink was both terrifying and exhilarating, using one giant art piece to convey what the Coens described as a “buddy comedy”. The art-deco feel of the period piece kept the movie about making movies (one of Hollywood’s favorite go to storylines) from feeling too self-indulgent. Like most of the Coen’s films, Fink was not designed to fit into any one genre, instead dabbling in surrealistic horror while maintaining a comedic disposition. Fink was a man who needed to find himself in a time where he didn’t belong. The washed out feel of the Hotel Earle, along with the sparse decoration was meant to keep Fink connected to his roots, or “the everyman”. Fink acted as a film that teetered the edge between reality and fiction; the blurred line was heavily omnipresent in the second part of the film. What is real? What is in Fink’s head? What’s in ours? Fink was critically acclaimed, taking home best film as the Cannes festival. Fink was never commercially successful, but its importance remains in the mind of the true Coen believer, as well as film/lit students everywhere.
Aside from the fact that Fargo has sparked a hit television show (produced by the Coens), the film was a work of modern art. Both critically and commercially praised, Fargo cemented the genre bending style of the Coens as its own bit of thematic genius. Again working in the detective, neo-noir, dark comedy subsects, Fargo was a new sort of film for the Coens. Where in the past they flawlessly delivered crime riddled stories with heavily intricate characters and arcs, there was a certain magic present that makes the film stand out. Again starring Francis McDormand, the film’s main focus was on crimes that were touted as “true” investing the viewer deeper into the fold. No one can help the draw towards true crime, so while it remains to be seen whether or not the film was based on real events (speculation has revealed nothing but denials) the story stays strong. Some of the best moments in Fargo were also the most shocking. Mrs. Lundegaard’s body toppling down the stairs, the heavy sing-song Minnesota accents, Carl getting shot in the jaw, and later the infamous wood chipper scene. All framed against a pale winter background, Fargo remains timeless.
No Country For Old Men (2007)
If ever there were a dream match-up come true, it would be in the form of the Coen brothers and Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy’s writing style includes a severe lack of punctuation, a noticeable trait that would be distracting were it not for his mesmerizing storytelling abilities. Monologued asides from his main characters generally pepper the third person narrative, keeping the reader on their toes and paying attention. The out of the box stylistic choices played well for the Coens, resulting in a new genre and film type that they hadn’t yet covered. Like Fargo, No Country for Old Men was also critically and commercially praised, and won four Oscars. The heavy western tone paired with an utterly terrifying Javier Bardem resulted in a new peak in the Coen’s careers. Though it wasn’t their own material, the Coens would be able to translate their new found success in the adaption of novels into remakes and historical fiction films like True Grit, Inside Llewyn Davis, Unbroken, and even this year’s Bridge of Spies.
See our review of Bridge of Spies tomorrow!