I Watched Every Coen Brothers Movie
Here's what I learned.
And I'll keep watching all the rest of the Coens' movies, too, which have an odd way of illuminating each other. It's a matter not just of "recurring motifs" (Tricia Cooke and William Preston Robertson have identified six of those in the Coen oeuvre, including "howling fat men," "vomiting," and "peculiar haircuts") but of persistent thematic interests—sometimes expressed by recurring motifs. By my count, at least 12 of the Coens' 15 films feature scenes with (mostly old, usually rich) white men sitting behind desks; as symbols of power, these men are not sympathetic characters. More than half of the Coens' movies include at least one hulking menace, an embodiment of some malevolent force in the universe, like the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse or Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men—or less obviously demonic men like Eddie Dane (Miller's Crossing), Tom Chaney ( True Grit), and Mike Fagles (A Serious Man). At the mercy of these unpleasant men are our heroes and antiheroes: Fink, Larry Gopnik, Hi McDunnogh (Cage's character in Raising Arizona), and so on.
These relatively powerless men (and they are, for the most part, men; manhood is itself one of the Coens' most common themes) move through a world ruled by uncertainty (Heisenberg's principle makes notable appearances in two Coen movies) and chance (recall the repeated coin toss in No Country for Old Men, the wind in Miller's Crossing, the many wheels of fortune in TheHudsucker Proxy). This world often seems bereft of inherent meaning (though several of the movies take a measure of comfort in simple human decency: The Coens are not nihilists), and it is haunted by evil and death. It's also a world rife with misunderstandings and poor decision-making—hence, frequently, comedy. (This outlook, by the way, also informs Ethan Coen's fiction, drama, and poetry—and perhaps, judging from the descriptions I've read, his undergraduate thesis as well: "Two Views of Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy.")
Importantly, for me, this world the Coens have created is not as far removed from the one we actually live in as some critics seem to think. (The phrase "hermetically sealed" pops up in reviews of their films nearly as often as the word "nihilism.") The movie that won me back to the Coens almost a decade after I discounted them was No Country for Old Men. Like Fargo, it's about an officer of the law, an ordinary citizen who wants something that isn't his, and a few criminals. While Fargo (1996) concerns the selfishness and greed of a middle-class car salesman (William H. Macy) trying to live beyond his means, No Country (2007) examines the reactions to an evil man (Javier Bardem) who operates according to his own nihilistic logic. The chief of police in Fargo (Frances McDormand) serves as a contented counterpoint to the grasping Macy, while the sheriff in No Country (Tommy Lee Jones) is troubled and scared, and ultimately gives up, pondering the generations that went before him and "how they would have operated in these times." I find in these two movies reflections, intentional or otherwise, of the moral and political landscape of the United States in the 1990s and the 2000s, respectively—the cold, creeping materialism of the former decade dominating Fargo; the failure, in the latter decade, to bravely and legally confront a baffling form of evil reverberating in No Country.
Going through their back catalog a second (or, in most cases, a third or fourth) time, I found that the Coens have always kept their eyes and ears alert to the broader social climate. Their first film, Blood Simple, opens with a monologue contrasting America and the Soviets: "In Russia," M. Emmet Walsh's private detective says, "they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else—that's the theory, anyway." In Texas, on the other hand, he says, setting up the selfish follies to come, "you're on your own." In Raising Arizona, a movie partly about unequal distribution (a wealthy couple has five kids, thanks to fertility treatments; a poorer couple can't have any), Hi says he "tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn't easy with that son of a bitch Reagan in the White House." (In the previous scene, a portrait of Arizona's own Barry Goldwater looks down on Hi's parole hearing.) The Big Lebowski is a buddy picture about a bellicose, self-righteous Vietnam veteran and a left-leaning former protester, united against an old white man living off the wealth of his dead wife while spouting up-from-your-bootstraps clichés. Burn After Reading (2008) not only sends up the idiocy of Hollywood spy movies but also depicts the ruthlessly efficient incompetence of the CIA—and the widespread loneliness of our shallow, paranoid age. (It's probably the Coens' darkest movie, and one of their funniest.)
I don't mean to suggest that the Coens' movies are narrowly political, just that Joel and Ethan, as storytellers, have a wide scope—and a broad range: Few filmmakers have a body of work that is at once as varied and as unified as theirs (something delightfully demonstrated by this well crafted YouTube montage). Their movies are fables, really, cinematic folktales that draw on the familiar conventions of Hollywood genres to tell morally charged although often ambiguous stories. And, happily, the Coens seem determined to push themselves each time: Although they never got to make their nearly wordless James Dickey adaptation (To the White Sea—you can read the script online), their most recent film, True Grit, considered safe by some, has, in Mattie Ross, a protagonist unlike any they'd previously attempted: young, female, utterly self-possessed. Like Miller's Crossing and The Big Lebowski, it's largely about friendship. Like No Country for Old Men and Fargo, it's partly about the law. As with all the Coens' movies, it's mostly about wonderfully realized characters, who, as is also typical, verge on caricature yet have a vivid particularity that makes them hard to forget and easy to return to. Unlike most Hollywood heroes and heroines, we're not expected to identify with these characters, I don't think. But we should see in them many of our own flaws and foibles, as well as those of the crazy-making, capitalist country to which they unquestionably belong.