They came out of St. Louis Park, Minnesota in the heart of the baby boom, endowed with a deep love of classic Hollywood film noir, a passion for image and idea, and the quirky sense of humour that seems the purview of the northern end of the mighty Mississip. Initially, the older brother directed, the younger produced, and they shared screenplay credit. But after a while, they found it simpler to just share everything. Since 1984, they have collaborated on 16 feature films (14 original stories and two remakes), with their 17th, Hail Caesar!, due out in 2016. They have won just about every award filmmakers can win.
With many great directors, you can begin to categorise. Leo McCarey was best when he kept things light. When he tried to get serious (with Once Upon a Honeymoon in 1942) his fall was so precipitous that he never made a good movie again. Alfred Hitchcock was at his best when he let his wicked sense of humour bleed into his suspense stories. When he went for straight comedy (as in The Trouble with Harry or Mr. and Mrs. Smith) he tended to lose his magic. But with Joel and Ethan Coen, no such categorising is possible. Both frivolous comedies and serious morality tales have been among the best and worst of their efforts. They have prodigious talent and have made some outstanding movies, but the biggest compliment I can think to pay them is that they remain, after more than thirty years, impossible to pigeonhole.
Here then, is an assessment of their career up to this point. In order, from least successful to best. As in past similar countdowns, I will include the IMDB rank of each movie as a mainstream gauge. We begin with the bottom half.
16. Intolerable Cruelty (2003, IMDB rank – 15)
The Coens have routinely bounced back and forth between tones. Serious movies followed by comedies. Dark followed by light. It’s no surprise then that they followed what is arguably their darkest film, The Man Who Wasn’t There, with their frothiest. George Clooney (who will make his 4th appearance in a Coen movie with the release of Hail Caesar!) plays a high-powered divorce lawyer for whom truth is whatever he says it is and beauty is an ironclad pre-nup. He meets his materialistic match in Catherine Zeta-Jones’ uber-gold digger. They double cross each other. They fall in love. They do it all over again.
Intolerable Cruelty isn’t the Coen’s worst movie because it is frivolous. It is the worst because it is misguided on so many levels. The characters are rich and powerful, and spend most of their time complaining about the things they don’t have. They’re not even evil, which would have been better than the empty greed that defines them. There’s just no way to root strongly for or against anyone in the movie. After all, taking a satiric poke at divorce lawyers is kind of like shooting fat cats in a Ferrari. The Coens are better than that.
And the most intolerable thing about Intolerable Cruelty is the way the normally stellar musical contribution for Carter Burwell falters. Come on, acoustic Simon & Garfunkel folk rock in a movie about glitzy divorce brokers? Mr. Burwell is better than that.
15. Burn After Reading (2008, IMDB – 13, tie)
More frivolity, coming on the heels of their Oscar winning No Country for Old Men. The performances by the likes of Clooney, Brad Pitt, and John Malkovich, are all quite good. They seem to be having a good time playing mostly unlikeable idiots. The plot, which involves a classified disk falling into the wrong hands, is absurd and coincidental. J.K. Simmons sums it all up very nicely when listening to the recap at the end with a “that was weird” shrug of the shoulders.
Burn is somewhat better than Intolerable Cruelty in part because it is funnier. There are enough laugh-out-loud moments to entertain. But it is also a much better subject, one that could have been turned into fine satire. As the plot unfolds, government bureaucrats are shown to be territorial jerks while free market capitalists are revealed as greedy sons-of-bitches. In other words, it might have been a perfect encapsulation of the political debate that has defined 21st century America. Unfortunately, the brothers didn’t seem to have it in them … after the soul-draining pessimism of No Country… to swing for the fences.
14. A Serious Man (2009, IMDB – 13, tie)
To me, the Coen Brother’s movies can be broken down into three categories. The Great, the Frivolous, and the Indulgent. If the movies that began this list were frivolous, this is their most indulgent. Normally, I would prefer frivolous, but I can appreciate that they were going for something here. The movie was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar so it apparently scored with some people. I’ll admit it right up front: I didn’t get it in the least. It is a Job story without the rewards of faith, and it no doubt says more about the Coens’ views on religion than any of their other movies. But Job stories are not easy to coordinate, and here, a decent man is surrounded by supremely unpleasant people at every turn. It probably would have been better titled “Curse God and Die,” but I’m not sure it would have gotten its Oscar props had that been the case.
Michael Stuhlbarg, largely unknown at the time, gives a stand-out performance, imbuing the title character with a dignity and genuine human emotion that is lacking in virtually everyone else in the story. Of course, there are trademark touches of dark humour, along with disjointed and ambiguous passages. The Coens drew on their own adolescent experiences which may account for the dead-on portrait of Danny (Aaron Wolff), a Jewish teen who prepares for his Bar Mitzvah by smoking pot and blasting rock & roll.
13. Barton Fink (1991, IMDB – 6, tie)
Barton Fink may not have been very successful, or even very good, but it is a crucial movie in the development of the Coens as filmmakers. After three successes to begin their career, they made a movie about an idealistic writer coming to Hollywood and getting dragged into Hell. No one is a good guy here. The nicest character in the movie, Judy Davis’ muse-like secretary, is brutally murdered. The other nice guy, John Goodman’s sympathetic neighbour, turns out to be a rough approximation of the Devil himself. And they are both preferable to Michael Lerner’s effusive martinet of a studio head, and to the whiny, self-important Barton himself.
Almost nothing happens for the first half of Barton Fink, then outrageous things play out in rapid succession. It is boring, then unbelievable, which doesn’t exactly translate to box office gold. Fans of surrealism will enjoy it, but it is very much an acquired taste.
However, this was the first huge experiment the Coens undertook. They played with pacing and imagery far more than they had in their first three movies. From the moment that Barton sleeps with Davis’ character and the camera takes a journey away from the bed, into the bathroom, and down the drain into the sewer and sludge of Hollywood, we are in a truly surrealistic world that is open to multiple interpretations. If the imagery seems forced at times, if the ending seems a little too La Dolce Vita-ish, I can accept that. The failed experiment of Barton Fink would lead to much better things down the road.
12. The Ladykillers (2004, IMDB – 16)
Though American Noir has influenced the Coens more than any other film style, you can see many other impulses throughout their work. The subtle, witty comedies from England’s Ealing Studio in the ‘40s and ‘50s permeate their own comedies. This was the brothers’ first remake, and it is often considered their weakest effort.
It is important to consider something about the source material. The original Ladykillers (1955), is generally adored by critics, in part because of its outrageous premise, and in part because it starred both Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, among the two most gifted comic actors of all time. But it is not a very good movie. The reserved Ealing wit, so evident in their best work is blown all out of proportion here. This is broad farce and it stands as one of the most overrated of all classic movies.
The Coen Brothers may not agree with that, but the way they treated the material suggests that they knew something was wrong with the original. For what they did was take the Ealing model and strip away all sense of understatement. They ran with the exaggeration. Unfortunately, they got it about half right. Three of the six principals – Tom Hanks as a cultured and pompous Southern gentleman thief, Irma P. Hall as boorishly unwavering Christian lady, and Tzi Ma as a chain-smoking, taciturn killer – are fine creations. The other three, played by Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, and Ryan Hurst, are simply cartoonish. The result is a mostly uneven movie, but more entertaining than it is generally given credit for.
11. Raising Arizona (1987, IMDB – 10, tie)
The Coens established a career-long pattern right at the outset. After creating a dark and serious debut feature, they followed it up with an outlandish comedy. As would generally prove to be the case, subtlety was not a trademark of Coen comedy. The premise, involving the kidnapping of a baby, juxtaposed the social and anti-social which would be at the heart of so much of their work. They would get funnier in later work. And they would do crime better. They would master of the art of blending humour and crime as well. But what Raising Arizona did have – what elevated it above other broad absurdist comedies and announced that these two guys were serious movie makers – was a genuine love for its misfit characters. There may be a few cheap laughs, but there is nothing cheap about the love H.I. and Ed feel for each other. There is nothing cheap in the feeling the thuggish Snoats Brothers have for each other. Even the potentially throw-away Nathan Arizona reveals depth and nuance. There was a maturity in the treatment of the characters that isn’t often found in filmmakers just out of their 20s.
Raising Arizona was also significant in that it introduced two important actors to the Coen team. Holly Hunter, who had done some uncredited voice work in their first movie, is one of the leads here. Though she only appeared onscreen in two of the brothers’ movies, she became a crucial female voice – trying to rescue men of shady character by forcing the joys of domesticity upon them. And John Goodman, who would play key roles in five of the Coens’ best work, appears here as a larger-than-life brute. They would shape that persona over the course of their later collaborations.
Raising Arizona also featured Hunter’s Yale Drama School friend Frances McDormand, but more on her later.
10. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994, IMDB – 12)
Though The Ladykillers is a direct remake, Hudsucker is the Coens’ movie most influenced by Ealing. It shares a number of elements with the Ealing classic The Man in the White Suit, but there are also references to a wide range of classic comedies, from Meet John Doe to Christmas in July to The Flintstones (the episode where Fred trades places with a look-alike chairman of the board). Hudsucker got very mixed reviews when it came out, and it is true that it does not end as strongly as it begins. The exaggerated staccato of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s tough girl newspaper reporter begins to wear thin, and Tim Robbins’ innocent business pawn careens from homespun wisdom to churlish self-importance a little recklessly. But Hudsucker has actually grown over the years as a good satire on corporate lunacy.
The comparison to Christmas in July is crucial. Christmas is another corporate satire, written and directed by another of the most gifted comic filmmakers America has ever produced. Preston Sturges made the movie in 1941, and it does not approach his best work. But it is very good nonetheless. It’s just that his best work tended to elevate the human being over the satire. The same can be said the for Coens and for Hudsucker. But it is still well worth watching, if only for Paul Newman’s turn as the dead-hearted puppet master. It also has a nice twist at the end of the second act, featuring the actor Bill Cobbs, who plays an all-seeing black man, a figure the Coens would return to a few years later.
9. Blood Simple (1984, IMDB – 6, tie)
They came on big with their debut, a tightly plotted and nasty little noir. Blood Simple was nominated for five Independent Spirit awards, winning for Joel’s direction and M. Emmet Walsh’s lead performance, and losing out on Best Picture to After Hours. In both plot and look, this is classic noir, and Walsh really shines as the gloating private detective/hit man Loren Visser. John Getz is adequate, if a tiny bit stiff, in the other lead role, but it doesn’t really detract from the overall impact.
Blood Simple is a small movie, and over time, the Coens would widen their scope, broadening both the entertainment their movies would provide and the thematic ground they would cover. But Blood Simple remains a small gem. It helped spawn a resurgence in high quality noir, with movies like Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, as well as several of the Coens’ own titles, following in its footsteps.
It also began the brothers’ long collaboration with composer Carter Burwell, who would prove so crucial to many of their best movies. It also was the beginning of the aforementioned collaboration with Frances McDormand, but you still have to wait for more on that.
That does it for part one. As you can probably tell, I am not a big fan of the bottom three, but this is hardly a hateful eight. Numbers 9-13 may be lesser Coens, but they are still strong movies that would be right at the top of the list for many lesser filmmakers.