Rating The Coen Brothers: From The Pretty Good To The Truly Great

July 12, 2016
With Hail, Caesar! hitting Digital, DVD and Blu-ray this week, we rank the past movies of The Coen Brothers, filmmakers with the rare distinction of boasting a resume with no honest-to-god duds.

Intolerable-Cruelty-1INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003) The Coen Brothers go commercial? After a career filled with dark, baroque and idiosyncratic cinematic classics (Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo), Joel and Ethan Coen came up with the far brighter Intolerable Cruelty, the first film that they directed from someone else’s screenplay. Though pithy and blackly comic, this was essentially a romantic comedy, and also a perfectly tuned star vehicle for the very photogenic George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who face off as a highly successful divorce lawyer and the gold digger who wants to take him down. Not surprisingly, love gets in the way, and Intolerable Cruelty saw The Coen Brothers delivering their own very funny take on the big screen swoon. “We’ll gladly enter the mainstream any time the mainstream will have us,” Joel Coen giggled to The Guardian. “I don’t know if we’re capable of entering the mainstream, but it’s not for want of trying!” Though an entertaining soufflé of a movie, Intolerable Cruelty proved that The Coens are better when they’re playing in the shadows.

gggggggggggggggggggggggggggTHE LADYKILLERS (2004) Seen by many commentators and fans as the true career low point for The Coen Brothers, The Ladykillers still has much to offer, and would sit in pride of place on the metaphorical mantlepiece of many filmmakers. Its status as a remake of a beloved classic (the film is adapted from the Alec Guinness-starring Ealing Studios classic from 1955) doesn’t help, and for some, the casting of All-American-Hero, Tom Hanks, was seen as a trip too far down the Hollywood route for the kinky Coens. The underrated Oscar winner, however, gives one of his goofiest and most inventive performances here, playing a southern professor masterminding a robbery from the basement of the house owned by sweet old southern Christian lady, Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall). But despite the loopy humour and the strong supporting cast (J.K. Simmons and Marlon Wayans are also on board), this is essentially Coen brothers-lite. Going for overt laughs rather than their usual trademark black comedy, The Ladykillers is certainly good for a few chuckles, but when you dig down a little deeper, there’s not much more going on than that.

kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkBARTON FINK (1991) In this Coen Brothers cult curio, Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a Broadway playwright who takes pride in writing for “the common man”, doing away with overly-intellectualised pretentiousness. Hot off his latest Broadway reviews, he’s offered the chance to write for Hollywood producer, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), and moves to Los Angeles. Early attempts to get a handle on his new writing brief – to script a nuts and bolts wrestling picture for movie star, Wallace Beery – meet with limited success as Fink gets hit with writer’s block. Soon, the tortured writer starts to slide inexorably towards the terrifying sinkhole of lunatic producers, shattered illusions, and the stifling unreality that is Hollywood, with his only anchor a seemingly grounded travelling salesman (John Goodman) who embodies the demographic at which Fink aims his idealised writing: the working stiff. Ironically, considering that it’s about a writer shooting for populist glory, Barton Fink remains The Coen Brothers’ most frustrating and inscrutable work. Its visuals, however, are stunning in their baroque glory, while the performances are flawless. But as storytelling, this still highly regarded effort is nothing more than a beautiful mess.

auYNaUmh02RrdkPBpQpLAlY605pTHE HUDSUCKER PROXY (1994) With their cult cache truly high, The Coen Brothers teamed with bigshot producer, Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard), for their biggest film up to that point: the lavish period fantasy, The Hudsucker Proxy, which starred Tim Robbins, Paul Newman and Jennifer Jason Leigh. A strange screwball comedy about corporate greed that played like a demented salute to Hollywood’s Golden Age, the film was met with stony disappointment, and crumbled at the box office, but it boasts abundant charms. A regular criticism of The Coens – that they have a seemingly uncaring quality with regards to their characters – would rear its head here, but The Hudsucker Proxy is not without warmth (Tim Robbins’ naïf hero is particularly charming) and feeling, while visually, it’s a triumph. It also didn’t deter the brothers from working in the big budget arena. “Oh, we had a great time with Joel,” Joel Coen said to The A.V Club of working with producer, Joel Silver. “We’d work with him again.” Ethan concurred: “Yeah, he’s a lot of fun. He’s the last movie mogul, in the old sense. The old cigar chomping mogul.”

burn_after_reading02BURN AFTER READING (2008) How do you top an Oscar winning masterpiece that redefined the crime film and picked up a truck load of Oscars? With something equally epic and daring? Not if you’re The Coen Brothers. For their follow up to the much loved No Country For Old Men, Joel and Ethan chose the goofy screwball comedy Burn After Reading, which spins around the cycle of idiots (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand) who come into play when a disgraced alcoholic ex-CIA agent (John Malkovich) loses the disc containing his supposedly explosive memoirs. Silly, inventive, politically incorrect, and decidedly broad in its humour, the often hilarious Burn After Reading proved – not that it really needed any more proving – that The Coen Brothers truly are American filmmaking royalty. And the fact that a film this uproariously funny, incredibly daring, and strangely moving could sit outside The Coen Brothers’ top ten titles further indicates what a truly impressive resume they have.

a-serious-manA SERIOUS MAN (2009) After the star studded Burn After Reading and the multi-Oscar winning No Country For Old Men, the Coen Brothers dropped a big surprise with the wry comedy, A Serious Man, which was cast with highly regarded but little known stage and television actors. This was also the first film from the celluloid siblings to really embrace their Jewishness, and comes filled with cultural comment and amusingly presented stereotypes in its story of a harried college professor who watches his life unravel when his family becomes too much to bear. There might be a blinding shortage of big names, but A Serious Man was more prime – if highly unexpected – filmmaking from The Coen Brothers. “We were actually a little worried,” Joel Coen admitted to FilmInk of the film’s subject matter. “When you make any movie about any place or religion, somebody gets upset, and Jewish sensibilities are easy to bruise.” “Occasionally people would ask, ‘You’re not making fun of the Jews, are you?’” added Ethan. “We’re not. From our point of view, A Serious Man is a very affectionate look at the community, and is a movie that will show aspects of Judaism which are not usually seen.”

ooooooooooooRAISING ARIZONA (1987) “I’ve been lucky to work with some of the most creative people, and it’s true that I enjoy filmmaking and I’m an enthusiast,” actor, Nicolas Cage, told The Talks. “I’d seen Blood Simple, and I really wanted to work with The Coen Brothers. I must have auditioned for Raising Arizona ten times.” As well as showing admiral resilience and tenacity, Cage also demonstrated fine taste in campaigning so hard for the co-lead in Raising Arizona. The meeting would prove a boon for both parties: The Coen Brothers found the perfect actor to essay their beleaguered anti-hero, H.I. McDonough, and Nicolas Cage got one of the best roles of his career. Unable to conceive, McDunnough – a goofy, good natured ex-con – teams with his cop wife, Edwina “Ed” McDunnough (Holly Hunter in her first truly eye catching role), to, well, steal one of a wealthy family’s quintuplets. Goofy, cartoonish (the cinematography of future director, Barry Sonnenfeld, is a cock-eyed wonder), over-the-top, and utterly absurd, Raising Arizona is also surprisingly moving, with H.I and Ed the kind of couple that you really want to see succeed. As smart as it is funny, this is one of The Coen Brothers’ most unjustifiably under-celebrated works.

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o-brother-where-art-thouO BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000) “Our films generally don’t break any records at the box office, but we don’t pose any huge financial risk either, so companies are usually happy to back us and studios don’t interfere,” Ethan Coen told FilmInk in 2009. The Coen Brothers were once again given sufficient money and left alone on the wondrous O Brother, Where Art Thou?, their very own down-home, 1930s-set restaging of Homer’s Odyssey, which sees three escaped convicts (George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson) hunting for hidden treasure in America’s Deep South while a relentless lawman pursues them. Complete with sirens and, yes, a cyclops (of sorts), it’s a typically ingenious use of classic storytelling and thematic tropes from The Coen Brothers, and it also adds up to one of their most flat-out entertaining films. The design and look of the film are impeccable, while its T-Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack filled with bluegrass, country, gospel, blues, and folk music became a huge hit. It also marked the beginning of their fruitful collaboration with George Clooney. “The bigger stars that we’ve worked with have been without the movie-star vanities or meshugaas that you read about and dread,” said Joel Coen “George Clooney, for example, was the opposite. He has no entourage. He’s a big movie star, but a nice guy.”

r1fxu1tlu4p1nlpajlo0w4teofpMILLER’S CROSSING (1990) Baroque and bizarre, The Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing did to gangster movies what The Wild Bunch did for the western and Touch Of Evil did for film noir. Both were the last nails into their respective mythologised movie coffins, and Miller’s Crossing similarly salutes and obliterates a great American genre at the same time. Revisionist in every sense of the word, the film stars Gabriel Byrne as an Irish mobster sleeping with his boss’ (Albert Finney) mistress (Marcia Gay Harden), and forced to assassinate her slimy brother (John Turturro). Yes, it’s unquestionably an in-your-face Coens classic, and a work of twisted genius, but the film’s chilly tone, highly specific nature, and impenetrable narrative see it placed a little lower here than some people would probably like. “I asked the Coens what their inspiration was to write the film,” Gabriel Byrne reflected to The Hollywood Interview. “And I forget whether it was Joel or Ethan who said to me, ‘You always see gangsters in the street, but you never see them in a forest.’” That kind of logic perfectly distils both the successes and the failures of Miller’s Crossing.

the-man-who-wasnt-thereTHE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE  (2001) The Man Who Wasn’t There could very well be the perfect summation of the work of Joel & Ethan Coen. All of their concerns are expressed here, and they’re cut with a fine, almost diamond-sharp precision. Though languidly paced, the film is tight and strangely economic, never meandering or veering off on inexplicable tangents, as some of their films do. The film has all of their hallmarks: a labyrinthine plot; a perfectly judged sense of mood and atmosphere; endlessly fascinating, deeply flawed characters; and the creation of a sublimely self-contained universe. Its 1950s-era story of a smalltown barber (a brilliant Billy Bob Thornton) who gets caught up in a blackmail scam is grim and evocative of the best American pulp fiction. Shot in stunning black & white by Roger Deakins, the film’s look and style is so vital that it gains substance itself, but its story is also packed tight with all the best thematic through-lines: murder, betrayal, desperation, redemption, and self-realisation. The Coens don’t waste a second with this film: every moment locks perfectly into the next to create a dense, funny, and grippingly intelligent film that runs like clockwork.

inside-llewyn-davis-featurette-the-music-2013-coen-brothers-movie-hdINSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013) Proving to have an uncanny, almost unnatural knack of turning out instant classics, Joel and Ethan Coen followed up their 2010 western masterpiece, True Grit, with the almost equally stunning Inside Llewyn Davis, a frosty, downbeat paean to the folk music scene of New York in the late sixties. At the heart of a fine cast (Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Adam Driver, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman) doing top notch work was star-on-the-rise, Oscar Isaac, who hit comic and dramatic heights as the eponymous fictional folkie. A highly accomplished singer himself, Isaac admitted to FilmInk that he was relieved that Inside Llewyn Davis didn’t require him to play a known folkie, like Bob Dylan. “It’s not to say that Dylan didn’t have his struggles, but in a way, it was empowering that I didn’t have to be that guy,” he said. “I could be the guy that opened for him!” Funny, insightful, and often deeply sad and emotional, Inside Llewyn Davis is certainly a Coens comedy in a minor key, but it truly sings.

qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqBLOOD SIMPLE (1984) Winning The Grand Jury Prize at The Sundance Film Festival is as good a way to start your career. Taking the noir thriller trope as a starting block, The Coen Brothers deconstructed the genre and re-assembled it to suit their particular world view with the masterful Blood Simple. “We’ve always been big fans of James M. Cain, who was an American hard-boiled pulp fiction writer of the thirties and forties, so it was the kind of story that we wanted to do,” remarked the brothers. The plot – a rich jealous husband hires a seedy private eye to kill his cheating wife and her boyfriend – is nothing new, but The Coen Brothers infused the standard plot with a level of emotional involvement and a building of genuine suspense rarely seen. The narrative, seemingly complex but actually a model of streamlined efficiency, speaks of a control far in advance of a movie debut. A small but perfectly formed jewel, Blood Simple is one of the best American films of the eighties, with The Coen Brothers of course effectively building on this remarkable start to create a canon of work that grows in stature as the years pass.

true-grit-5TRUE GRIT (2010) With the flat-out brilliant True Grit, Joel & Ethan Coen delivered the kind of film that they’d only previously skirted around: a big, grand, elegiac piece of work that stuck to the rules of its genre rather than tipping them on their head. Sure, The Coen Brothers’ trademark irony was there, as was their off-the-wall humour, and their uncanny facility for stylistic gear changes, but this was an honest-to-god western and not some revisionist riff. Previously adapted in 1969 by Henry Hathaway with John Wayne famously cast in the lead role, author Charles Portis’ book (as with their truly great Oscar winner, No Country For Old Men, The Coen Brothers were working from an existing novel, as opposed to their own deranged sensibilities, which serves to curb some of their more hot-wired impulses) was given far more grim and wintry treatment here. Beautifully shot and artfully framed (the Coens worked again with their regular cinematographer, Roger Deakins – a literal genius when it comes to striking, painterly images), The Coen Brothers’ visual invention was matched only by their rich, indelible characters, and the commanding performances of Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and stunning newcomer, Hailee Steinfeld.

movies_movies_n__006313_NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007) Not quite a western, and almost a crime drama, with elements of morality parable, horror, and noir, No Country For Old Men is exactly the cinematic stew long expected and appreciated from the enigmatic Coen Brothers. A culmination of a quarter century of work – from Blood Simple to Raising Arizona, from Fargo to The Big LebowskiNo Country For Old Men mixes and matches its genres, re-routing long-held filmic conventions, and producing a triumphantly unique film so roundly (and curiously) embraced that it captured four Oscars (including Best Picture), three BAFTAs, and countless other awards. The Coens were on top form here visually, and Cormac McCarthy’s excellent novel provides much of the idiosyncratic cadence and diction that makes the film’s dialogue so poetic. “What interested us was that No Country For Old Men was somebody else’s sensibility, and it was our job to take that and adapt it into a movie,” Joel Coen told FilmInk. “People sometimes laugh in places where we don’t expect, but that doesn’t bother us. It just means that the movie is working in unexpected ways.”

The Big LebowskiTHE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998) The Coen Brothers have made some truly great films, but few are as roundly and soundly enjoyable as The Big Lebowski. Borrowing the best from Raymond Chandler and sixties counterculture, this trippy, profoundly funny mystery follows The Dude (Jeff Bridges in a performance of towering comic invention), a chronically laidback LA stoner, who gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity that will momentarily shake him out of his green-scene stupor and into the orbit of a pompous feminist artist (a classic turn from Julianne Moore). Howlingly original, The Big Lebowski is not just a bona fide cult classic (now responsible for its own festival and reams of pop culture references), but also a near perfect distillation of what makes The Coen Brothers great, mixing labyrinthine plotting, a winning brand of intellectualism, and lots of off-the-wall humour. Most importantly, however, it boasts one of the greatest movie characters of all time in The Dude. “I drew on myself a lot from back in the sixties and seventies, and also from some of my own friends like that,” Jeff Bridges revealed. “But to be honest, it’s mostly just me.” But undeniably filtered through The Coen Brothers’ lens…

Fargo-1FARGO (1996) Most consider this The Coen Brothers’ greatest achievement. In terms of storytelling, characterisation, production design, and the general look of the film, Fargo shares much with their best genre-skewing work. But this 1996 crime opus is in a league of its own – it’s undoubtedly their best film because it rings so true. In fact, it starts off with the claim that the film is based on a true story, something that was later refuted as just a ploy to get the audience to go with what was happening on the screen. It’s also an example of the Coens’ playfulness. William H. Macy is a car salesman trying to swindle money off his miserly father in law by arranging the kidnapping of his own wife. Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare are the hired kidnappers who manage to screw everything up, and Frances McDormand (who won an Oscar for her amazing portrayal) is the pregnant cop on the case. And did we mention the Minnesota accents? Golly Gee! The film was a hit with critics and audiences, and also bagged Joel and Ethan Coen their first Academy Award, with the duo taking out Best Original Screenplay. When asked by The A.V Club if the Oscar win had changed their careers, The Coen Brothers were their typical wry and evasive selves. “We travel in limos now, go to fancy Hollywood parties,” said Joel. “Let me see,” joked Ethan. “We made The Big Lebowski after Fargo.” In other words, it would take more than a few Oscars to change the wonderfully unconventional double act that is The Coen Brothers.

Hail, Caesar! is available now on Digital, and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on July 14.

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