Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have created critically-acclaimed films in a range of genres for the past thirty years, including The Big Lebowski, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men.
Natives of Minnesota, Joel (b.1955) and younger brother Ethan (b.1958) discovered their interest in filmmaking at an early age, earning money through mowing lawns to buy a super8 camera and make short films together. They separated for college, with Joel studying Film at New York University and Ethan Philosophy at Princeton. Upon graduating Ethan worked as a typist for Macy’s department store, while Joel became an assistant editor for Sam Raimi on such features as The Evil Dead (1981). However, his writing talent was spotted and reuniting with Ethan the pair began authoring scripts.
Joel’s directorial debut came in the form of Blood Simple (1985). Although Joel directed and Ethan produced the duo worked closely together and since 2004’s The Ladykillers they have been credited together as director, writer and producer, while editing their films under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes. Subsequent films saw them expand their forays into different genres and develop their comic sensibility with Raising Arizona (1987) and Barton Fink (1991). Then came three classics of modern American cinema: Fargo (1996), which won them a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, The Big Lebowski (1998), which has gained a cult following, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), a tale of escaped members of a chain-gang laced with references to Homer’s Odyssey.
In 2007 they delivered the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, a western set in 1980s America that saw the brothers step back from their eccentricities and adapt Cormac McCarthy’s brutal, stark tale of changing times. They were again nominated for multiple Oscars with another western, also a literary adaptation: True Grit (2010). A genre often-maligned by audiences, the film was a surprise hit taking over $250million worldwide on a budget of only $38million, making it their most successful film to date.
Careful planning, including extensive storyboarding and only shooting with a tight, finished script means their budgets are relatively small – something which lessens studio interference and gives the brothers creative freedom. Likewise, their editing is so precise that to date No Country for Old Men is their only film to last over two hours, with most clocking in around one-hundred minutes.
They do not encourage ad libs from their actors, as their language is so complex, intelligent and witty that even minor characters have depth and terrific dialogue, making their films as much ensemble enterprises as star vehicles. However, alongside their dialogue is a love of Three Stooges-style slapstick. This can be a distraction, for example, in moments of Miller’s Crossing (1990) which lose their dramatic weight when overwrought visual jokes undercut the drama. Similarly, at times their films become overly self-indulgent with farcical results, and their subversions of genres such as the rom-com in Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and the espionage thriller in Burn After Reading (2008) become confused, smug and self-congratulatory instead of showing the restraint of many of their films.
Although True Grit and No Country for Old Men were literary adaptations, they nonetheless echo the classic Coen Brothers narrative and themes. Throughout most of their films we see a downtrodden, weak or socially marginalised character decide to act – often out of desperation and usually involving violence, if indirectly perpetrated – in the hope of restoring some form of redemptive equilibrium to their lives. However, some tiny unforeseen detail means they (and others) suffer as a consequence of their actions. The brothers’ films punish selfishness, yet sympathise with the desire to escape the hardships of life.
The Coen Brothers give their films a personal signature which marks them out as true creative spirits. While sometimes their eccentricities become absurd, their films contain layers of meaning through their dialogue and visuals that frequently return to the central theme of decision and consequence.
Top 5 Coen Brothers Films:
The Big Lebowski (1998) – ‘The Dude’ sets out to find reparation for the ruining of his rug. Ever-quotable, terrific performances and a twisted sense of humour make this one of the defining films of the 1990s.
Fargo (1996) – Murder and kidnapping abound in snowy North Dakota, and the Coen’s ear for dialogue populates a beautiful, barren landscape with unforgettable encounters.
True Grit (2010) – A young girl hires a US Marshal to avenge her father’s murder. Roger Deakins’ cinematography and the Coens’ additions to Charles Portis’ novel create a staggering entry to the genre.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) – A folksinger struggles to make ends meet in the early 1960s. Musically rich with flawless dialogue, the brothers find the comedy in tragedy in an elegiac tale.
No Country for Old Men (2007) – After stealing drugs money, Llewelyn Moss is pursued by an unstoppable evil in a profound, philosophical thriller.
Where do you stand on the Coen Brothers? Do you think they’re overrated? What would your top five of their films be? Leave us a comment below with your thoughts…