As a teenager seeking to broaden his narrow cinematic horizons, The Coen Brothers were one of my doorways into independent film and their filmography played a huge part in nurturing my interest in movies into a love and eventually an obsession. Revisiting their oeuvre is always a pleasure so I thought it was time to finally rewatch and rank all eighteen of their directorial collaborations. In part one, I look at the eight film that missed out on top ten placings and examine why that was, given that most of them are excellent.
All entries contain spoilers.
18. THE LADYKILLERS
Wow! If anything The Ladykillers was worse than I remembered from the first time round. I was really hoping to find something entertaining here, hoping that my love of the original British classic had clouded my judgment and I had failed to see the Coens’ film for what it was rather than what it wasn’t. But measured by either, The Ladykillers is an absolute disaster. For the first time during my Coen brothers rewatch, I was desperate for the film to end. You need only glance at the list of character names to see one of the main issues: Weemack Funthes, Gawain MacSam, Garth Pancake, Fernand Gudge, Lump Hudson. The Coens are striving too desperately for laughs here and it has the opposite effect. Even the Marx brothers limited themselves to one crazy name per film. I mean, how can a script that has presumably been through multiple drafts still contain a character called Garth Pancake?
If Garth Pancake’s name isn’t hilarious enough for you, did I mention he also has IBS? That’s the extent of the joke here. It’s not important for the plot or anything, but it does give us the change to relish a scene of big squirty fart noises. This is the level The Ladykillers is working at. There’s nothing wrong with trying to do a big, broad comedy and fart gags can be hilarious if they’re set up right and have some kind of place in the story. But if you’re just going “And now, an interval of hilarious farts”, the desperation of the film is always going to show through. There’s also a long, lingering shot of a woman’s backside. It’s there to represent one character’s lascivious gaze but in that time-honoured predatory way that is clearly designed to please predominantly male members of the audience too. There’s a sense that the Coens are really wallowing in The Ladykillers’ stupidity here. Preston Sturges has always been the major comedy influence on the Coen brothers and his presence can be felt again in a gag involving a portrait that changes expression that is lifted directly from Sullivan’s Travels. But there’s a sense that the major influence for The Ladykillers has shifted to The Farrelly Brothers, only nowhere near as good.
For all its unbelievably crass content, my main issue with The Ladykillers involves its premise. It’s good to make changes when you’re adapting and remaking a film. No-one wants a pointless carbon copy after all. But the changes the Coens have made to The Ladykillers completely undermine what makes it comedically viable. Alexander Mackendrick’s original film is about a gang of crooks whose plan to use an oblivious little old lady as part of a heist is scuppered when she inadvertently rumbles them. When she insists they return the stolen money and turn themselves in, the crooks resolve to murder her. But in their reluctance to actually carry out the monstrous crime, they end up killing off each other and themselves instead. What makes this dark premise so funny is that the old lady at the centre of it is a sweet-natured, frail creature. She is basically at the mercy of a group of villains for whom she should be no match but her strong moral convictions and kindly disposition get inside their heads to the extent that she single-handedly brings down the whole gang. In the Coens’ rewrite, the defenceless little old lady has become a strong, imposing woman who gives the impression that she could defeat this gang of misfits with little trouble. In one scene which was used in the trailer, she repeatedly slaps one of the crooks for using foul language in her house. He cowers and complains as she rains down blows upon him. It was immediately clear from this small snippet that this woeful rewrite had completely missed the point of what makes The Ladykillers funny in the first place. It’s as if someone decided to remake Some Like It Hot and said “Hey, how about instead of having them dress as women, we just have them go on the run as themselves?”
With the heart of its central joke obliterated, The Ladykillers attempts to fall back on the eccentricities of its rogues gallery instead. But it’s clear from the off that this isn’t going to work because, while undoubtedly larger than life, none of these characters are actually funny. They are introduced in quick succession in a series of vignettes that are so broad that they don’t even really contain jokes. To go back to our old friend Garth Pancake, for instance, his vignette involves his work on an advert for dog food in which he has had the idea of dressing a dog in a gas mask. As the director of the advert pleads with him to remove it, the dog slowly suffocates to death, at which point Garth attempts to give it mouth to mouth. A final shot confirms that the dog is beyond saving. Now, my problem here isn’t the animal cruelty. To evoke the Farrelly brothers again, the dog scene in their There’s Something About Mary shows that you can absolutely get away with this type of joke if you make it funny enough. But the Coens’ version just plays as mean-spirited. The clear point where the scene should be cut off is when Garth opens his mouth and goes in for the kiss of life. Why do we need an extra beat confirming the dog’s death? This is better left as an ambiguity, with Garth’s incompetence already sufficiently established. To be honest, I’m grasping at straws here because the scene isn’t funny any way you slice it. The Coens are known for their expertise with dark comedy but they seem completely out of their depth when attempting to create a more mainstream version of it.
The Ladykillers cast includes such talented performers as Tom Hanks and J.K. Simmons but their performances are limited by the material and the way the Coens have chosen to direct them. Hanks, as the verbose leader of the gang, gets a lot of big speeches but their excessive eloquence does not ultimately amount to anything funny and he quickly becomes a boring screen presence, despite Hanks’s wild overacting. Simmons, who has a knack for being funny before he’s even opened his mouth, probably gives the best performance here, which is quite a feat given that he is saddled with perhaps the more ridiculous character (yes, that’s right, he’s Garth Pancake). And the rest of the cast have little to work with, with Irma P. Hall asked to take a tour through every old black Southern woman stereotype, Marlon Wayans directed to be obnoxious and swear a lot (a regrettable decision in a film who’s target market should surely have been pitched younger) and Ryan Hurst stuck playing an unintelligent character that is pushed to such extremes that it borders on ableist (again evoking some of the Farrelly brothers less laudable tendencies). I’m probably going overboard here, as I get that The Ladykillers is meant to be a sort of living cartoon rather than anything close to real life, but it is completely missing the charm of previous Coen cartoons like Raising Arizona or The Hudsucker Proxy and, for all its desperation to please, The Ladykillers emerges as a strangely boring film, its over-the-top events poorly paced and badly hammered together. I was hoping a second viewing would redeem it but this version of The Ladykillers, a five star film in its original incarnation, really is worth no more than the one star I gave it first time round.
17. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS
There have been a few minor turnarounds in my Coen brothers rewatch but none quite so drastic as with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. This was a film to which I gave 5 stars after my first viewing but returning to it for a second time I’ve discovered that I actually don’t really like it. There are certainly high points here but overall I was very disappointed, busting the film down a whole two and a half stars. So what changed? Well, for starters I think the context in which I first watched The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is key. Me and my Dad used to have a tradition of watching the new Coen brothers films together and this was the last time I got to do that with him before he died. Me and my Dad were both big fans of Westerns which helped, and I’ve always had a soft spot for the hit-and-miss beasts that are anthology films. So there was a lot to latch onto here for me. Returning to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs though, I’ve found that it’s a film that has aged rather poorly, or rather we’ve got better and more progressive, which only highlights some of the ideological problems here. Even setting that aside for a moment though, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is just a film with a very odd tone that this time left me completely cold.
Of the six short stories with which we are presented, there’s only one here that I really like: All Gold Canyon. This simple but effective tale of a prospector discovering a lush, green valley where he quickly identifies the presence of a rich vein of gold is one of the film’s two non-original stories. It is adapted from the Jack London story of the same name, which perhaps goes some way towards explaining why I like it more than the other sequences, most of which I felt complete detachment from. Tom Waits’ performance as the prospector may be his best screen work, given that he has to carry the majority of the segment by himself. His mumblings and bursts of singing are completely convincing and we root for him to find the riches he seeks. Though it does descend into moments of violence, All Gold Canyon is the one episode which has a comparatively happy ending, which befits its breath-of-fresh-air beauty, captured perfectly by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. Coming off the back of the film’s bleakest sequence, Meal Ticket (which we’ll get to later), All Gold Canyon is a blessed relief and the one true pleasure of the whole film.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs opens with its titular segment, the tale of a seemingly folksy singing cowboy who is actually a dangerous killer. I admit I do enjoy this opening vignette to some extent. It is like a living cartoon, a violent variation on Looney Tunes with a fourth wall breaking protagonist, a handful of musical numbers and a strange elegiac ending. For its 16 minute lifespan, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs entertains sufficiently but the tone is distinctly odd. Though the over-the-top nature of the segment is not repeated in any of its successors, the feeling of detachment it establishes doesn’t really leave me for the whole rest of the film. The fact that it is followed by the film’s other somewhat arch comedic story, Near Algodones, compounds this, although a subsequent switch in tone to the desolately bleak Meal Ticket also has this effect. My favourite of the remaining stories in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is The Gal Who Got Rattled, an adaptation of a story by Stewart Edward White. The longest of the segments, this had the feel of a classic Western about it with its striking images of a wagon train on its journey across the prairie. The main focus of The Gal Who Got Rattled is a very sweet, awkward developing romance between one of the wagon train’s leaders and a young woman who’s inept-businessman brother has just died, leaving her alone on the trail. Their polite, faltering but increasingly warm interactions are beautifully acted by Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck, and the sudden burst of action in the finale brings the story to a satisfying and moving close. There is, however, a problem with The Gal Who Got Rattled and it’s an issue that undermines a good deal of my enjoyment of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs overall. The issue is an ideological one.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs aims to recreate, often with a satirical bent, the feel of classic Western stories. This is clear in the Disney-esque device of framing the stories with images of a book, its pages being turned to reveal each new chapter. The gnarled, old-timey look of the book suggests a time period from which it comes and this is largely reflected in the content of the stories. It is this authenticity which has been cited most commonly as a defence of how the Coens use stereotypes of the savage Native American. Twice a group of bloodthirsty, hollering Native Americans (the full-on “injun” grotesques) turn up solely as plot devices: once in The Gal Who Got Rattled and once in Near Algodones. There is never any counterpoint to this depiction in any of the stories, the defence being that no such counterpoint would exist in the sort of storybook from which it has been established The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ stories are meant to come. As a fan of classic Hollywood Westerns, the atrocious depiction of Native Americans is something with which I’ve had to wrestle frequently but there is at least the context of era to take into account. While that doesn’t make it right, it sure as hell seems even more wrong to employ these stereotypes in 2018, even if done so in a satirical way (something I’m not convinced the Coens really sell, or even try that hard to sell, here). In the same way that we’ve thankfully moved away from blackface in the realisation that, even when employed as an ironic comment on racism, it is still deeply problematic, there’s no real excuse to see shrill, war-crying, indiscriminately brutal Native Americans in a modern film. It’s filmmaking of which you can imagine John Wayne approving, which is not an endorsement.
But say we do give The Ballad of Buster Scruggs the benefit of the doubt and take the stance that the Native American stereotypes are intended to subvert, critique and lampoon those reprehensible depictions of yesteryear. The only real evidence we have to back this up is the framing device of the book, which situates the stories in a bygone era. It’s a point you could potentially argue, were it not for Meal Ticket. In this sequence a young orator with no arms and legs is lugged from town to town as an attraction by a grizzled impresario, until the popularity of his act wanes, at which point the impresario is implied to have thrown him into a river in favour of a new attraction involving an intelligent chicken. Meal Ticket is immediately problematic in its casting of Harry Melling in the role of a character with quadriplegia. The story it tells falls into a couple of traps associated with less progressive depictions of disability, including desexualisation and a seemingly mandatory climactic death. While the latter is necessary for the story being told here, that can only be justified if the story has a legitimate point. There seems to be an attempt at saying something about the exploitation of people with disabilities but remember that the source of this story is supposed to be that ancient looking storybook. Such a progressive message would be highly unlikely to feature in such a tome, so if we’re going to use that excuse to justify the depiction of Native Americans in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, that immediately renders Meal Ticket contextually inviable. The only way Meal Ticket can convincingly exist in this context is as a mean-spirited, pointlessly cruel story with nothing to say. Since I don’t believe this was the Coens intention, Meal Ticket feels like an ideological and tonal miscalculation all round.
While these issues weigh heavily against The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, sometimes the film just doesn’t work on a narrative level. Near Algodones starts off well with the excellent scene of Stephen Root covered in pans but it quickly begins to feel like all set up for a weak punchline, while final segment The Mortal Remains offers a nice, potentially supernatural twist on the characters-in-a-stagecoach set-up but the writing is surprisingly uninspired and the performances tiresomely over the top. Ultimately, to my surprise, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has fallen all the way down to second from bottom of my list. I was obviously won over initially by the film’s impressive look, the novelty of its ambitious anthology approach and, most of all, the opportunity to spend what was by then a rare evening alone with my Dad. Sadly those evenings are now less rarities than impossibilities. I wish I could’ve kept my Dad and lost The Ballad of Buster Scruggs instead.
16. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY
Back when it came out, Intolerable Cruelty was the first Coen brothers film I didn’t like. I’d been nervous about it after not finding the trailer particularly amusing and my concern was compounded by the fact that this was the first Coen film not based on their own original idea. Instead, Intolerable Cruelty was a screenplay by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone that had been doing the rounds in Hollywood for some time. The Coens wrote the final draft of the script but even with the brothers in place as directors, there was still a different feel to this film than the other Coen films before it. Driven by my dedication to the Coens, I went to see Intolerable Cruelty at the cinema and left distraught, wondering if that was the end for my favourite directors (I was more overwrought back then). In the intervening years, I remember watching Intolerable Cruelty once, resulting in a 2 star Letterboxd rating and a resolution that I was pretty much done with it. I entered into this third viewing with low expectations but at least a smattering of intrigue and, while I wouldn’t go as far as to call Intolerable Cruelty a particularly good film, it is much better than I remembered it being. Obviously that’s not saying much but still, I did laugh in places, I did enjoy some of the story and I did bump up that rating from a dismal 2 stars to a respectable 3, so it was worth the rewatch.
A twist on the screwball classics of old Hollywood, Intolerable Cruelty tells the story of two sociopathically self-centred individuals, a divorce lawyer and a serial bride who lives on divorce settlements, who seem to find the spark they’ve been missing in life when their respective “professions” bring them together. But complications involving multiple prenuptial agreements complicate their tentative steps towards a relationship. Ramsey and Stone’s plot is a clever little merry-go-round of deceptions and double-crosses and the Coens have peppered it with some good dialogue: a Mae West style quip here (“I assume you’re a carnivore?” “Oh Mr. Massey, you have no idea!”), an Abbott and Costello style routine there (a lovely bit of business about “sitting before” and “arguing before” judges). In George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, the film has two stars who can match the comic timing and striking beauty of the Hollywood icons who’s work is being emulated here. Watching them spar with each other is often delicious and brings out the best elements of the sometimes witty screenplay.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of downsides to Intolerable Cruelty that kept dragging down my rating. Though another fine cast has been assembled, most of the supporting characters are obnoxious grotesques who becomes wearing within seconds of screentime. Billy Bob Thornton, so wonderful in the previous Coen film The Man Who Wasn’t There, is pretty funny here as an over-enthusiastic oil millionaire and Richard Jenkins is good as a frazzled lawyer. But the likes of Jonathan Hadary’s preening Baron, Tom Aldredge’s barely alive company bigwig and Irwin Keyes asthmatic hitman are all tiresome the instant they hit the screen. The whole hitman plot is a last minute example of desperate third act madness and leads to some of the least funny slapstick capering of the film, although I’ll admit the payoff joke of that strand is macabrely inventive. Chief offenders in these secondary roles are Geoffrey Rush and Cedric the Entertainer as a cuckolded TV executive and a sleazy private investigator respectively. Pretty much everything involving these two characters is abysmal and while they do both have minimal screentime, scenes focusing on these characters bookend the film, which doesn’t help the lasting impression viewers take away.
Given some broad but not unintelligent material to work with, the Coens seem to have made the decision to amp things up as far as they will go. But the pedal is intermittently planted too firmly on the metal, so that the film lurches awkwardly. Unlike Raising Arizona, in which the head of steam kept building once it really got going, Intolerable Cruelty struggles to mix frantic thigh-slaps with droll scenes set in offices and boardrooms. The spectre of Preston Sturges is at the feast once again, notably in a scene in which Clooney’s romantic overture is interrupted by a hungry poodle, but the Coens seem to have determined to outdo their idol here and things are pitched at too screwy a level. Carter Burwell, so brilliant a composer for other Coen projects, is dragged down with the film’s worst excesses, turning in a wholly appropriate but obnoxiously wacky score.
It’s beginning to sound like I hated Intolerable Cruelty but in fact I rather enjoyed it. The crass elements are too numerous but there is a good amount of genuinely funny stuff here too and the film is a very easy watch, even accounting for its twisty plot and loathsome characters. These elements are both assets in fact, with the film’s gleeful amorality providing a satisfyingly wicked alternative to Hollywood comedies that descend into schmaltz. I’d even go as far as to say I’ll probably watch Intolerable Cruelty again down the line, which is quite a comeback considering I’d totally washed my hands of it after a second viewing. I’m glad I went back and while I’m still not convinced I’d call Intolerable Cruelty a good film, neither is it a bad one, and it’s certainly an entertaining one.
15. RAISING ARIZONA
After the success of Blood Simple, the Coen brothers decided to make a conscious effort to make their second film, Raising Arizona, as different a beast as possible. Superficially, they achieved this, creating a fast-paced, often broad-humoured living cartoon with deliberately exaggerated performances and ludicrous situations. But deep down, Raising Arizona also shares many characteristics with Blood Simple, from its crime-based themes to its carefully constructed, farcical plotting. While Raising Arizona strives to make its oddball characters sympathetic, they talk in similarly idiosyncratic ways to their colder counterparts in the Coens’ debut. This ability to switch genres but retain an underlying directorial presence became key in making the Coen Brothers’ catalogue such a satisfyingly diverse but unified body of work.
So long have I been in love with the Coen brothers filmography that I’ve retrospectively overrated quite a few of their films. Part of the point of this rewatch was to assign their films more accurate ratings than the endless string of 5 star scores that nostalgia has led me to impose. I knew I would be downgrading a few and I had a pretty strong inkling that Raising Arizona would be one of them. While I’ve always enjoyed the film, there’s a self-consciousness about some of the broader moments that can feel like too much, such as a moment of casual transphobia early on that is disappointingly typical of the era’s attitudes or a moment when Nic Cage’s protagonist Hi is tidying away a copy of Playboy in anticipation of the arrival of his new (kidnapped) son but can’t resist one more quick look through it. Though they retained a knack for goofy comedy that served some of their later films well, in Raising Arizona it still feels like the Coens have some crass tendencies to iron out.
Conversely, some of the more unusual humour in Raising Arizona scores big with me. It was the artificial way in which the characters converse that so annoyed Roger Ebert in his 1 and a half star review but this is the funniest thing about Raising Arizona to me. In particular, the difference between the faltering eloquence of Hi’s voiceover narration and what actually comes out of his mouth when he talks to people often makes me laugh out loud. What Ebert viewed as a flaw, I see as one of the strongest weapons in the film’s arsenal. For instance, in his narration Hi describes his wife’s infertility thus: “Edwina’s insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.” But when he finds himself face to face with his new son, after a brief silence the most profound thing he can come up with is “What, are you kidding me? We got us a family here!” A heartbreaking, though still funny, scene in which Hi writes a letter to his wife telling her why he must leave confirms that there is a deeply buried eloquence within him that only surfaces when he takes the time to really get his thoughts organised. Though there is deliberately little that’s realistic about the characters in Raising Arizona, the Coens have taken care to create a protagonist who can believably engage all of them with his deceptively multifaceted personality.
While the verbal and character comedy are, for me, the strongest parts of Raising Arizona, the wild slapstick is the more defining feature and the film would fall flat if that didn’t work. While I’ve never found it hilarious, the physical comedy here is often so well constructed that it amuses me beyond the demand to tickle ribs. The most famous moment is a lengthy set-piece in which an impulsive attempted robbery results in a long chase involving gun-toting store clerks, police officers, hordes of neighbourhood dogs and multiple packs of nappies. It escalates in the way classic farce is meant to and the results, while not necessarily that funny, are nevertheless impressive. When the kidnapped baby starts changing hands regularly (along with his instruction manual), the main plot also picks up a head of steam for a suitably manic climax. The earlier set piece prepares the audience for the subsequent mania in a way that prevents them finding the denouement too daft. We know by this stage just how out of hand things can get in this world.
Not all the comedy in Raising Arizona works so well. In particular, its attempts at a sort of mainstream cutesiness, with shots of the baby covering his face when things go wrong, etc., feel out of place in such a wilfully strange film. Babies displaying adult-like-reactions has always been up there with live action talking dogs as one of my least favourite comedic clichés. There’s also an early set piece in which Hi attempts to kidnap one of the Arizona quints and ends up chasing all five of them around the room as they get up to dangerous mischief. It seems to go on forever and there are no real gags or moments of tension to relieve the boredom. It’s just Nic Cage blundering around with babies for minutes on end. Speaking of Cage, his performance as Hi is often amusing but it can become wearing across an hour and a half. This role was pivotal in establishing the over-the-top schtick with which he has become so closely linked and Raising Arizona is a film with the right kind of world to contain these hijinks. But Cage is consistently upstaged by Holly Hunter who is hilarious as his wife Ed, a former police officer who’s desperation for a child makes her into an obsessive kidnapper. The supporting cast is largely strong too, with Trey Wilson’s obnoxious but ultimately soft-hearted furniture magnate, John Goodman’s brusque, manipulative escaped convict and Randall “Tex” Cobb’s softly-spoken but terrifying apocalyptic motorcyclist standing out. Sam McMurray and Frances McDormand also relish the chance to go completely over the top in small roles as Hi’s boss and his wife, who’s offer of friendship comes with some surprising strings attached.
Another apparent flaw that bothered Roger Ebert was how Raising Arizona couldn’t decide whether it took place in the real world or some kind of otherworldly fantasy. Again, I see this not as a downside but as a plus. Rather than being indecisive, I think the Coens deliberately keep the line blurry here. We don’t know if Hi’s visions are dreams or premonitions, or whether the terrifying biker Leonard Smalls is real or was somehow summoned from the bowels of Hell by Hi’s guilt at what he has done. This rejection of realism but refusal to go full-madcap allows Raising Arizona to exist in a sometimes disturbing hinterland. It also allows it to just about get away with blatantly unrealistic scenes such as the sentimental moment in which Nathan Arizona finds his son being returned to him by his kidnappers and instantaneously forgives them. There’s something unsettling about the offhanded way Nathan responds to the return of his offspring, not rushing to tell his wife and leaving his son in a dark room while his kidnappers make their exit, but the fact that the Coens also have Nathan wield a gun that is often pointing directly into the crib throughout the scene suggest that this isn’t meant to be taken as an entirely saccharine sequence. This technique is also used in the brilliant closing monologue, to offer a flash of pseudo-spiritual hope and then undercut it with a bathetic punchline.
While I can’t quite believe I ever rated Raising Arizona the full five stars, it’s still a solid four star film for me. The Coens have created such a fascinatingly strange comedy here, mixing several different types of humour in a big, colourful package that masks a dark heart. This is, after all, a film about infertility and child snatching, but it is never once grim or depressing. Perhaps the price of that is that it never really emotionally engages the viewer either, a problem that many people have with the Coens at their broadest, but the clash of themes, moods, ideas and performance styles are quite mesmerising enough to ensure that’s not much of an issue. And that infectious banjo-and-yodelling score by Carter Burwell is just the icing on the cake.
14. O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?
O Brother, Where Art Thou? was quite a big deal at the time it came out. Not only was it a decent sized box office hit but its soundtrack, which won the Grammy for Best Album of the Year, became a minor sensation. As with The Big Lebowski though, critical opinion was still mixed, with many bemoaning the film’s episodic structure and broad comedy. The Coens’ comedies had often been influenced by Preston Sturges, a director I came to via them, and with O Brother, Where Art Thou? they made that influence overt, naming the film after the fictional epic about the Depression that Joel McCrea’s director John L. Sullivan wants to make in the classic Sullivan’s Travels. While the slapstick moments in O Brother, Where Art Thou? are fewer and more restrained than Sturges tended to employ, the overall tone of a light satirical touch being used to tackle serious subject matter (in this case racism, poverty and politics) makes it feel like their most Sturges-indebted creation yet. As with their previous The Hudsucker Proxy, there are moments when the Coens’ own identity seems threatened by their sleeve-worn influences, but ultimately their directorial voice is always strong enough to shine through even their most pronounced pastiches.
Loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? follows three convicts who break free from a chain gang in order to seek a fortune in buried treasure. Along the way they have various run ins with authority, a murderous bank robber, a bedevilled guitarist, a villainous Bible salesman, a group of irresistible temptresses, manipulative politicians and the Ku Klux Klan. Oh, and they also inadvertently become the biggest musical stars in the state. O Brother, Where Art Thou? at first seems to have an episodic structure which bothered many critics. Given that every episode has something to enjoy, it really didn’t bother me, but accusations of distracting fragmentation ignore the fact that the Coens deftly pull most of the plot strands together for a terrific finale that involves a terrifying Klan rally and a joyous impromptu concert. It is then topped off with an epilogue featuring one of the best Deus ex Machinas I’ve ever seen.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is certainly a flawed film. Though its broadly-drawn adventures have an undoubted charm, they can occasionally err on the side of overly-cartoonish. This is also true of the performances. The characters are less well-drawn here so the performers play them to the hilt. George Clooney received a lot of praise for his lead role of Ulysses Everett McGill, the vain, motormouthed leader (by his own appointment) of the group and he is undoubtedly enjoyable to watch, but there’s not a lot of depth to the character and he can become wearing, especially in moments when the Coens’ writing grapples for laughs over credibility. Witness, for instance, the moment when, under the guise of trying to impart business advice, the cycloptic John Goodman bludgeons Everett’s friend with a tree branch. Everett sits unmoved, simply claiming he doesn’t get what the lesson is meant to be, until he himself is inevitably branched into unconsciousness. It’s just that little bit too goofy, especially in a film that then heads to a Klan rally, and Everett becomes too emotionally elusive to fully invest in. As fellow convict Pete, I’ve always felt that John Turturro is miscast here, his accent feeling far too obviously affected in a way that distances me further. It falls to Tim Blake Nelson, the most overtly comic of the trio, to carry the bulk of the emotional involvement. His sweet-natured Delmar starts out seeming like the classic third-banana dolt but ultimately becomes the heart of the film, especially after he is “saved” by an impulsive baptism.
Of course, one of the main attractions of O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the music, and it is terrific. It was conceived as a major component of the film right from the writing stage and, though I would stop short of calling O Brother, Where Art Thou? a musical as some would have it, music is definitely to the fore here. There are scenes where music is played by bands in recording studios, on stages and on the backs of political campaign wagons, and there are scenes where the music feels more spontaneous such as the siren song of the women doing their laundry or the a cappella religious chant of the baptism scene. Crucially, there’s a feeling of authenticity to the soundtrack which never falls foul of that Coca Cola advert aesthetic that dogs so many self-conscious attempts at retro that can’t quite let go of their contemporary gloss. The old-time atmosphere is enhanced by Roger Deakins’ striking Oscar-nominated cinematography and the sepia colour correction that tints the whole film. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a film that never looks or sounds less than the million dollars its protagonists are hoping to hunt down.
When ranking O Brother, Where Art Thou? I knew instantly that it was a matter of deciding how it stacked up against Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy, its closest cousins in the Coen canon. Ultimately, I’ve sandwiched it between the two. I think O Brother’s weaker attributes are displayed more heinously in Raising Arizona’s worst moments and, while O Brother may be more consistent than The Hudsucker Proxy, I think Hudsucker hits much greater heights in its best moments and is much funnier when the comedy works. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is yet another very good film that is dimmed only slightly by its directorial association.
13. THE HUDSUCKER PROXY
I still remember the first time I watched The Hudsucker Proxy. I was in my early 20s, I’d just recently started to get into the Coen brothers and was on a quest to see all their films. I’d already seen Fargo, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing and Blood Simple but The Hudsucker Proxy offered something different: an out-and-out comedy based on the classic films of Preston Sturges, Frank Capra and Howard Hawks. I loved it and found it immediately accessible, whereas the other Coen brothers films I’d seen had taken me a few viewings to fully appreciate. Though I wasn’t yet familiar with Sturges and Hawks, I’d at least seen some Capra at this stage and had some knowledge of the sort of fast-talking, small-town-hero films that served as the basis for The Hudsucker Proxy just from how embedded they are in the culture. Over many viewings, my love for The Hudsucker Proxy never dimmed and until this rewatch I’d had it as a 5 star favourite. Though I still think it is, in many ways, a great film, I did find myself slightly less enamoured with The Hudsucker Proxy this time round, downgrading it to a respectable 4 stars.
The Hudsucker Proxy is the tale of enthusiastic college graduate Norville Barnes, a mailroom worker at the gigantic Hudsucker Industries who is improbably promoted on his first day to Company President. What Barnes doesn’t know is that, in the immediate aftermath of the former President’s suicide, he has been hired as part of a stock fraud scheme by the board of directors in order to temporarily depress the stock to allow them to cheaply acquire a controlling interest. Norville is also blissfully unaware that the new secretary he has hired is actually a newspaper reporter sent to write a story about him. The scene seems set for disaster but Norville has a big idea up his sleeve… you know, for kids!
There’s a real charm to this pastiche of classic Hollywood and The Hudsucker Proxy sees the Coens working with their first significant budget, which allows them to create a feast for the eyes. The gargantuan office sets are really something, with Roger Deakins cinematography making certain scenes among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Hudsucker Industries is an incredible creation, with a cavernous mailroom, sterile, half-empty offices and a magical clock tower. A warehouse filled with newly manufactured Hula Hoops is an image that has particularly stuck with me throughout the years, their garish colours contrasting magnificently with the drab greys of the dowdy backroom. The Hudsucker Proxy is filled with ingenious little set pieces, in particular an extended sequence which incorporates the manufacture, marketing, initial failure and sudden phenomenal success of Norville’s Hula Hoop. The Coens use newsreels, public information films, images from the boardrooms where the product is created and the streets where it is enjoyed, in order to create a concise, unforgettable montage.
The screenplay for The Hudsucker Proxy, co-written by the Coens and Sam Raimi, is often hilarious and features some clever wordplay and a predominant thematic hook of circles and things that go round. The slapstick comedy is more of a mixed bag and, as with the previous Raising Arizona, is occasionally less funny than it needs to be. But then the same was often the case of the slapstick frequently employed by Preston Sturges himself, so perhaps this is a result of the Coens emulating their influences too closely. This is definitely a problem elsewhere in The Hudsucker Proxy, in particular where performance is involved. The film aims for pure pastiche, meaning that depth of character is often traded for superficial imitation. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s broadly Katherine Hepburn style performance as reporter Amy Archer is fun to watch for a while and she does ultimately bring some heart to the character but, even in this exaggerated world, it’s hard to see her as a real person. I used to find Jim True’s performance as Buzz the obnoxious elevator operator hilarious but this time round it grated through overuse. I felt like he nailed his first scene but this character would’ve been far more effective if it’d been kept to just that. The actors aren’t to blame here. They seem to be giving the Coens exactly what they want, the Coens just don’t seem to be asking for enough.
Though his tradition-dictated corruption by money and power is ultimately unconvincing, Tim Robbins fares better as Norville Barnes and the character is better written, with his superficial naïvety being cleverly undercut by several moments of evident ingenuity, some of which take even Norville himself by surprise. Robbins combines the boyish charm and determination of classic Hollywood leading men with a few moments here and there that acknowledge the inherent sexism of the era. I’m not sure how I feel about these moments, particularly a rant he has about how the reporter who wrote a critical article about him must be a bitter, ugly, masculine woman. He receives a slap in the face for this but any sense that this is justice being meted out is undermined by a later scene in which Amy vulnerably asks a colleague whether her clothes look mannish. Since Amy is portrayed as learning a lesson in humility from Norville, folding in this aspect of the dialogue makes it feel as if the Coens have pinpointed acknowledging her lack of traditional femininity as part of that lesson. While we’re talking ideological issues, a more widely acknowledged one is Bill Cobbs’ character of Moses, an angel-like operator of the Hudsucker clock who serves as narrator and falls squarely into the Magical N**ro trope, with his folksy wisdom, fourth wall breaking and stereotypical patois. It’s always felt to me as if the Coens created this character with their tongues firmly in their cheeks, as a satirical acknowledgement of the trope rather than an endorsement of it. But even if that is the case, it’s not really the place of two white directors to be critiquing this trope, let alone in such an ambiguous way.
One of the most promising aspects of The Hudsucker Proxy seems to be the presence of Paul Newman in the role of villain Sidney J. Mussburger. Newman obviously enjoys himself in the role but I’ve always thought the performance falls strangely short. It’s a one-note, gravel-voiced caricature (again, probably what was requested) and Newman sometimes sounds like he’s spouting the lines with no consideration of context. There’s a scene early on in which a nervous Norville enters Mussburger’s office. Mussburger is taking multiple phone calls simultaneously and he occasionally breaks off to address Norville too. But the intended humour of what should be an intricate, well-timed interweaving of various conversations is lost because Newman doesn’t so much perform it as recite it. There are genuinely moments where it’s hard to tell who he is addressing, even when the context clues are obvious. As a big fan of Newman, I’ve always found it disappointing that his one collaboration with the Coens didn’t amount to more. Clearly then, The Hudsucker Proxy is a film with many flaws but that’s not to say I don’t still love it. A common criticism of the film is that the Coen brothers are approaching the material with a nasty sarcasm that is critical of the sources on which it its based and the people who enjoy them but it seems very clear to me that The Hudsucker Proxy is a product of a deep affection for its Golden Age predecessors and that love and respect for the source material is obvious throughout. Another critical misconception, and a mistake that I made myself, is that The Hudsucker Proxy is a more commercial Coen brothers film. While its bigger budget undoubtedly makes it more akin to commercial hits of its era, The Hudsucker Proxy is a good deal stranger than I initially gave it credit for being. Its theme of suicide, its cutaway non-sequiturs, its fantasy elements that go from ambiguous to crucial in a finale that becomes a tangential battle between good and evil that directly impacts the main character. All of these things are unlikely to be found in your average mainstream movie. Again, these oddball elements don’t always work (a throwaway gag about double-stitched pants takes a long time to tell for a weak and nonsensical payoff) but more often than not they land brilliantly, creating the sort of fascinatingly off-kilter reality we’d previously seen in Raising Arizona. Though many critics felt The Hudsucker Proxy was a formalist exercise that lacked heart, I find it has enormous heart if you focus on the reverent affection for its influences rather than the artificial nature of the characters. And even if you don’t connect beyond the surface, the surface is still a hell of an achievement on its own.
12. BURN AFTER READING
Burn After Reading is generally considered one of the weaker Coen brothers films but I’ve always really liked it. Though it is a bit slighter than the majority of their films, it played an important part in reestablishing the Coens as effective comedy directors. Despite having directed some of the funniest films of the 90s, after the patchy Intolerable Cruelty and the abysmal The Ladykillers it felt like the Coens had lost their comedic touch and that maybe their future lay in darker material like No Country for Old Men. After that brooding masterpiece, some were disappointed to see it followed up with a silly comedy but Burn After Reading felt significant in that it was the first Coen film in some time that wasn’t based on someone else’s material. For long term fans, the prospect of an entirely original Coen brothers script was exciting and the fact that it was clearly not intended to be a major statement did nothing to reduce that excitement.
Burn After Reading is immediately recognisable as a Coen brothers comedy in that it combines a lightly farcical air with some extremely dark developments. In classic Coen style, a series of events that leads to death and destruction is set in motion by the most trivial of incidents: a pair of opportunistic gym employees finding a disc containing a combination of a disgruntled ex-CIA analyst’s rough draft memoir and his own irrelevant financial records. When they take this basically useless information for something of great importance, their attempt to both blackmail the analyst and sell the information to the Russians brings down hell on themselves, their employer, the analyst, his wife and an adulterous U.S. Marshal with paranoid tendencies. Burn After Reading’s fairly ingenious plot takes quite a bit of setting up and the pacing is a tad slow to begin with, making me wonder if my four star rating should be reduced to a 3.5. But as the story unfolds and the misunderstandings pile up, Burn After Reading gets better and better. Unlike O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which I found beginning to wear across its runtime, Burn After Reading improves as it goes along. Ultimately, I really appreciated the time the Coens took setting up in that first act because it results in far more well-rounded characters than we’ve seen in a Coen comedy since The Big Lebowski. Witness, for instance, a small detail like George Clooney’s character having a habit of misspeaking. This is set up in his first appearance and resurfaces later when, on a date, he asks if a meal contains “shellfood.” It’s a tiny detail but it adds significant colour to Clooney’s character in a way that fleshes him out beyond being just a surface sleazebag. It’s like a telltale loose thread that the Coens are then able to tug on until the character unravels. Compare this to the characterisation, or lack thereof, in The Ladykillers, which attempts to set up a group of characters quickly in short, broad vignettes before proceeding to do absolutely nothing to flesh them out.
Burn After Reading is sometimes seen as mean-spirited and there is a hint of that in how the Coens set up a group of characters, none of whom are particularly sympathetic (save, perhaps, for Richard Jenkins lovelorn gym owner), in order for us to then be able to relish their often brutal undoing. But there is an undoubted wicked joy in seeing people destroyed by their own ridiculousness and the Coens add a particularly inspired twist with a couple of scenes in which two befuddled CIA officers who are monitoring the situation attempt in vain to untangle the plot. These two sequences, expertly played by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, are my favourite moments in Burn After Reading, as the film itself seems to take a step back to try and thrash out its own developments, with its failure to do so ultimately resulting in the film just ending.
There are little jokes and moments sprinkled throughout Burn After Reading that really enhance the experience. My favourite joke in the whole film is the fact that Tilda Swinton’s character, portrayed throughout as utterly cold and unpleasant, is revealed in the closing scenes to be a paediatrician. On the flipside of this, there’s an unusual scene early on in which John Malkovich’s CIA analyst, a ball of barely repressed bitterness and fury throughout, quietly discusses his decision to quit the CIA with his catatonic father. This small moment, never undercut, humanises Malkovich’s monster enough for there to be a hint of tragedy amongst the black comedy, especially since his father’s state preempts his own ultimate fate.
One rather odd decision the Coens make late on in the film is to explicitly link it to Fargo. While there is a comparison to be made between the two films’ depictions of rapidly unraveling chains of events, it’s not a particularly helpful parallel to draw. A scene in which Malkovich attacks Richard Jenkin’s gym manager with a hammer seems to be a visual allusion to Gaear’s attack on Carl with an axe, while giving Frances McDormand the line “For Pete’s sake” immediately evokes the spirit of Marge Gunderson, a character with no real links to this vain, naïve creation beyond a shared actress. Still, if Burn After Reading has no chance of rising to the heights of the Coens’ 90s masterpiece, it does go to some similarly dark places which it cloaks in a more lighthearted approach that can make it all the more disturbing. There’s a truly shocking moment involving George Clooney, Brad Pitt and a closet (I remember audible gasps when I watched it at the cinema), and Clooney’s descent into paranoid delusional madness is bleakly hilarious. Amongst the cast, Clooney and McDormand stand out (listen for the perfect delivery of the line “and that’s just a taste” from the latter) but the undoubted star here is Brad Pitt as the overeager gym employee turned blackmailer Chad. Pitt nails the physical and verbal comedy with equal skill. Witness the scene of him dancing in a car before awkwardly scrambling over a wall, the initial phone conversation he has with Malkovich about his “shit”, and their in-person encounter in which he attempts to convey gravitas by narrowing his eyes. It’s an absolutely terrific comedy performance.
The more I think about Burn After Reading, the more I love it. While it’s not quite a five star classic, I have ended up upping my previous four star rating to 4.5 and I’ve ranked it above Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, something I was never expecting to do at the beginning of this rewatch. Not only is Burn After Reading a film that gets better as it goes along, I think it’s a film that improves with subsequent re-viewings too. After an initial watch, you may just empathise too closely with those puzzled CIA operatives who close the film. But, as with other complexly plotted Coen films, Burn After Reading is funnier and more satisfying once you have a handle on the plot and those CIA guys become as ridiculous as everyone else here. There’s definitely a mean-streak to a film that offers up a barrowful of unpleasant characters for the indulgence of our schadenfreude but sometimes it feels good to exorcise your own mean streak through a satisfyingly bleak comedy.
11. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
Inside Llewyn Davis is a brilliant film but for many it was something of a grower, taking two or three viewings to really bed in. Some who grew to love it even said they hated it or were just completely baffled on first viewing. For my part, I loved it immediately and initially awarded it a full 5 star rating. However, on this viewing (I believe only my second), while I still loved the film, I saw a few more flaws that led me to bust it down a half star. I think coming off the back of a chronological Coen rewatch, Inside Llewyn Davis suffered a little by comparison to what’s come before, although it is undoubtedly a more than worthy addition to the Coen filmography.
Some cite Inside Llewyn Davis’s perceived coldness as a downside but this is absolutely key to the film’s appeal to me. Bruno Delbonnel’s striking cinematography is all wintry muted colours and it creates an appropriately forbidding version of Greenwich Village in the 60s. Many people who were part of that Greenwich Village Folk scene accused Inside Llewyn Davis of dishonesty in how it failed to depict the warmth and vibrancy they remember but I don’t think the Coens’ intention was to accurately recreate a place and time. Rather, they modify that place and time to fit with the outlook of the prickly, malcontent protagonist they have dropped in there. Llewyn Davis, played to unpleasant perfection by Oscar Isaac, recalls Barton Fink in that he’s a man with a potentially laudable moral code which is rendered repugnant by his own sense of superiority. The film opens with what turns out to be a flashback, as Llewyn sings a beautiful Folk standard in front of a small audience, before being beaten up by a shadowy figure in an alley. At first, all we see is a man capable of achieving something wonderful who is then brutally assaulted for seemingly no reason. But as the film then works its way back to that moment, it does its damnedest to convince us that, well, maybe he deserved it.
Of course, no-one deserves to be physically assaulted but Inside Llewyn Davis presents us with a protagonist who often seems to be on a quest to invite it. Relying on a series of exploited friends or total strangers to put him up on their couches, Llewyn ambles through New York sneering at the lifestyles of others, who he views as merely “existing”, something that Llewyn himself, ironically, is barely managing to do. The loose narrative offers a small slice of life as opposed to an actual story, with a comedic throughline involving a missing cat apparently added late to give the film more structural stability. A series of musical performances, mostly recorded live by Isaac himself, also provide the film with regular intervals of warm respite, though Llewyn’s obvious talent ultimately comes to very little. In a fantastic scene in which Llewyn auditions for a music executive, we are set up to expect that classic moment from so many films in which the performer takes his one-man audience’s breath away in the same way he has the audience watching on the screen. But Llewyn’s tender serenade is met by the immediate assessment “I don’t see a lot of money here.”
The word ‘Inside’ in the film’s title is well chosen, since Llewyn’s world feels insular and claustrophobic, both emotionally and literally. He seems to repeatedly find himself at the end of narrow corridors with a choice of equally unappealing doors to pass through. He must enter some of them in order to live but he does so begrudgingly. An opportunity to make some money set up by Llewyn’s friend leads to one of the film’s funniest moments in which Llewyn ends up recording a ludicrous (though catchy) novelty space-race themed song. Another terrific scene, which sees the welcome return of John Goodman to the Coen fold, finds Llewyn embarking on a lengthy road trip with a disagreeable jazz musician. Goodman is fantastic here, abrasive and grotesque, and it is a continued source of frustration that the Academy fails to recognise him time and again. This performance would’ve made for a great Best Supporting Actor nominee. Inside Llewyn Davis is peppered with lovely small performances from the likes of Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, F. Murray Abraham and Ethan Phillips. One of the major flaws for me though was Carey Mulligan’s character Jean. Mulligan is excellent, both sad and hilarious as the married folk singer whose barely contained anger clashes with the cosy stereotype of female folk vocalists. But the character feels less well written than most, with a partially self-imposed lack of agency that may be era-appropriate but seems unlikely in the progressive world of Folk music. Perhaps her willingness to define herself as belonging to a man and her absolute refusal to accept any responsibility for her affair with Llewyn are meant to be part of her contradictory character but in a film largely devoid of other female presences I couldn’t help but wish Jean had been given more depth.
The quiet symbolism and subtlety of Inside Llewyn Davis’s overall approach does mean that a few of the broader moments clash a little. One punchline involving the cat is telegraphed a mile away and its slightly hysterical delivery, though still funny, took me out of the film’s carefully constructed world for a moment. Largely though, the consistency of this bleak world is what makes Inside Llewyn Davis so captivating. It’s like spending 90 minutes in Purgatory with a final descent into Hell. Though I initially found the cyclical structure of the plot a little unsatisfying, this time round I saw it as a symbol of Llewyn’s self-imposed Hades. Is that opening scene a flashback or is Llewyn reliving it again and again, his inability to break from his self-sabotaging misanthropy condemning him to repeated beatings and endless couch-hopping? Inside Llewyn Davis was a slow burn for many, eventually making its way into the upper reaches of critics lists of the best films of the 2010s. With a terrific soundtrack, great performances and a sustained mood of despair that doesn’t deprive us of the classic Coen sense of humour, Inside Llewyn Davis is a film I can easily imagine returning to 5 star status on future viewings. If it didn’t quite make it for me this time, it still sits atop the list of Coen brothers films I’ve rated less than 5 stars, landing just outside my top 10.
So that was part one of my Coen Brothers ranking. In part two we’ll unravel the top 10.