This week’s release of Hail, Caesar! marks the directorial return of Ethan & Joel Coen. Arguably two of the greatest filmmakers of their generation, the Coens have sprinkled the past three decades with a host of characters and stories that will live long in the memory. But which one of their many landmark features burns brightest?
To debate this thorniest of issues, we’ve once again assembled a crack team of writers – Sian Brett, Eddie Falvey and Conor Morgan fight the case for their favourite Coen film, with Patrick Taylor on moderator duties. Enjoy!
Patrick: So what’s everyone gone for?
Sian: I’ve chosen Burn After Reading. It manages to be a slick character driven drama whilst still being a functioning, funny, clever comedy that doesn’t cheapen either its jokes or its gravitas as a piece of film. It’s a perfect marriage of the two.
Eddie: Beyond the existential angst, dark humour, and potent satire, the Coens’ films are first and foremost about losers, and Llewyn Davis is their greatest yet (yes, even greater than you, Dude). Inside Llewyn Davis is a beautiful, affecting, mournful odyssey into a wracked soul and into the heart of the human condition, tackling a familiar, inherent desire to destroy ourselves as a means of staving off defeat or failure. In a career littered with masterpieces, ILD sits at the very top.
Conor: I’m just going to preface this by saying that although my personal favourite Coens’ film, and possibly favourite film ever, is Fargo, I believe that their best film is without a doubt A Serious Man. It’s the Book of Job as written by Kafka, a man having his faith tested by God, seeking advice and getting no help whatsoever, stuck in a maze where everything goes wrong for him. Or, it’s a completely unrelated set of admittedly unfortunate coincidences because God doesn’t exist, nobody ever knows what the right thing to do is and everybody is totally winging it.
Patrick: That poses an interesting first question. Sian, Eddie, do you differentiate between your favourite Coen brothers’ film and which you think is their best?
Sian: Definitely – I’m coming from more of a comedy mindset, and that’s why I’m such a fan of Burn After Reading. It works perfectly as a piece of comedy, the characters manage to be that precarious balance of funny and incredibly heartbreaking. The sequence where Frances McDormand goes on her first date with a man she met online, and there’s no conversation and only some very boring sex is heartbreaking, but it’s also funny because she’s such a well developed comic character, who’s inherently flawed and wrong and ridiculous, but also very, very human.
It works as a perfect farce as well, in its identity confusion and jumping to conclusions about who the shadowy men in cars following you are. And that’s a ruddy hard thing to do well, let alone as stylishly as they do it.
Eddie: It’s nice to see Burn After Reading feature in this debate as it’s great evidence of the sheer breadth of their filmography; it works well beside Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and the upcoming Hail, Caesar! as a great example of their sense of humour. It must be down to my own pretensions that I automatically gravitate towards their ‘weightier’ films when their out-and-out comedies are also quite excellent. (In terms of ‘weightier’ Coen, it is interesting that No Country For Old Men hasn’t been mentioned here?)
I find it hard to distinguish between favourite and best as I feel that both are entirely subjective debates, although the ‘best’ debates tend to substitute subjectivity for a(n illusion of) reasoned objectivity. In light of that personal gripe against ‘best of’ lists, I am obliged to say that ILD is both my favourite and their best. More than a loser, Davis is an asshole (perhaps another reason it resonates), and the circular structure has no qualms about dumping him back where he started, only a little more broken and looking a little more like an asshole. It makes a striking point that talent does’t speak for much and that often we deserve our lot.
Sian: The fact that the comedies are seen as lighter, or not as weighty, or important (both generally in cinema as well as in terms of the Coens specifically) is interesting. What the Coens always do really well is make comedies that still work as pieces of drama, and still have that edge and tension. The dramatic moments manage to be funny without losing their currency – Brad Pitt getting shot in a wardrobe is somehow a really great piece of physical comedy. I think that comes from character writing, and the slightly surreal but still very recognisable quality of the characters they create.
Patrick: Eddie makes a good point about No Country for Old Men. If you look on the Coens’ IMDb page, the films they’re ‘known for’, it read as follows: No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and True Grit. Why is this do we think, and what do your films have that these don’t?
Conor: I think it’s interesting that those are the ones they’re ‘known for’, as No Country and True Grit are more straight-faced, Lebowski is more on the comedy side and Fargo is sort of in the middle. It’s quite a good spread of what they do. And I think A Serious Man almost takes those elements and boils them down to their most condensed form.
Eddie: A Serious Man is a masterpiece, no question.
Conor: It’s one of their funniest films. Not in quite such an out and out way as Burn After Reading, but it’s hilarious, no doubt. It’s also, for lack of a better word, serious as hell. The turmoil that Larry is put through is more existential than any of their other characters, even more than Llewyn I would say.
Patrick: Sian, would you agree that ILD and A Serious Man are masterpieces?
Sian: Totally, and I think Eddie was right when he said about the subjectivity of deciding what’s best. I kind of feel that because all three are inherently Coen-esque, all three are masterpieces
Eddie: There are few wrong answers when determining what the best Coen bros. film is. The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty, The fucking Ladykillers: OK, these are examples of wrong answers, but for the rest it really comes down to a matter of taste. I’d happily hear arguments for Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit as their best, and these aren’t even featuring directly in this debate. The fact is the Coen brothers are arguably the best living American directors (a bloody grand claim, I know); they are master filmmakers who time and time again produce deeply cinematic, intellectually funny, and existentially profound films unlike anyone else working in American film today.
Sian: That’s partly why it’s so hard to determine what a ‘best’ is – what they make is so sprawling and all-encompassing whilst still managing to focus in so much on what makes us human or what it means to be a person, that each film is a world completely unlike the next.
Conor: And that’s why I think A SeriousMan is their best. It does all the elements that regularly appear in their films better than they’ve ever done it before.
Patrick: So are we saying that there is a group of films that are sort of on a level, and that despite their only Best Picture Oscar win coming for No Country, all the above are equally as deserving
Conor: There’s no doubt that all their films are great. That’s a given, but the questions that A Serious Man throws out are their weightiest and most piercing. Even more so than ILD and other ones that examine what it is to be human and to make your way through the world. It takes that common theme of Coen films, where in the end it kind of turns out that nothing really happened, much like BAR explicitly says at the end, and ILD makes clear by bringing us back to the opening scene. In A Serious Man, Larry must say a dozen times each “what’s happening”, and especially “I didn’t do anything”, which feels like the Coens making a comment on some of their own work, especially some with a looser, more exploratory narrative.
Eddie: To answer Patrick’s question, I actually think they got lucky with their win for No Country. I think that’s why I don’t consider No Country among their real greatest. The characters just aren’t Coenesque enough. That and True Grit are arguably their only films that satisfy the ‘Oscar fodder’ descriptor, and, interestingly, neither are based upon their own original material. As discussed in a previous debate, I think No Country should have lost out to There Will Be Blood (PTA is another master, no doubt) but I can’t help but think that it was a good time to hand them Oscars. McCarthy’s material was ‘weighty’ enough for the major awards, and it was just a good time. But their very best films I think often go unnoticed. Perhaps this is because, at heart, the Coens really are independent filmmakers – ILD and ASM were criminally overlooked at the Oscars.
Sian: It’s also interesting to note that the BAR screenplay was written at the same time as No Country.
Conor: Well, ASM was nominated for best picture at the Oscars. It’s so far away from Best Picture material, I doubt it would have happened if their last film hadn’t won the award. Michael Stuhlbarg deserved an acting nomination. Again, I think that’s one of the best performances they’ve got out of an actor, right up there with Javier Bardem and Frances McDormand in Fargo, both of which they won for.
Sian: Well following on from what Conor said about the high standard of the performances the Coens get out of their actors – one of the best things about BAR is seeing Clooney and Pitt play these awful, ridiculous, completely unlikeable characters. Because they’re so attractive, and so Hollywood Movie Star, it makes it so much funnier that they’re so horrible and stupid. There’s just something about imagining someone who looks like George Clooney having a dildo chair in his basement that’s genius. Apart from Tilda Swinton, they wrote the roles for the actors, and for me that’s what makes BAR so great. The unexpected characters, and the web of lies, strewn across the film. Also, any film that has JK Simmons saying “clusterfuck” in it is okay by me.
Eddie: As the last few minutes have no doubt proved, this is a nearly impossible debate. Without question, the Coen brothers produce spellbinding cinema that represents the very best of what American film has to offer. That I think ILD is their best should not discredit an all-round exceptional filmography. But ILD does edge it. It is an uncompromising film that might leave some viewers feeling cold, but it touches upon a truth that lies at the heart of their films: the world is a cold, and cruel place and sometimes things just don’t work out (ASM, Fargo, No Country and others continue this theme). Llewyn Davis is their greatest character, a downtrodden, unforgivably bitter asshole who deserves everything he gets. Through him, however, we can see glimpses of ourselves as the complex beings we so often are: competitive, envious, self-destructive, fools. It is a perfect existential drama that negotiates the narrow path between artistic brilliance and personal nihilism. Not only is it the Coens’ best film, it is one of the best films of the 21st century. A masterpiece, truly.
Conor: Like I said earlier, ILD and ASM are very similar films, but I do think ASM is just that bit better. The question as to whether Larry is actually being tested by God, visiting Rabbis who give him no useful advice whatsoever is so compelling – even the advice he is given feels like a test. As Larry sits immobilised in this modern Job story, you reflect on your own life and your own trials and tribulations in a way that Llewyn doesn’t quite evoke in such a strong and long lasting way – after watching ASM, you’ll still be reflecting on your own life for days afterwards. And in the end, with both the question of whether Larry is being tested or if it’s all just coincidences we will never really know the answer, but that doesn’t matter.