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 2 we’ll look at the top 10, although there are some pretty amazing films that missed out. You can read about those ones in Part 1.
All entries contain spoilers.
10. MILLER’S CROSSING
The Coen brothers take on the Gangster film emerged in a year dominated by films of that genre. Scorcese’s Goodfellas, Coppola’s The Godfather Part III and Abel Ferrara’s King of New York all inspired much buzz and discussion, both positive and negative. But while all this was going on, the elegant, intelligent and beautiful Miller’s Crossing somehow slipped through the cracks. Although it was not a success at the time of release, Miller’s Crossing has come to be seen as one of the Coens’ best, most mature films. Perhaps its commercial failure could be attributed to the acquired taste that is the Gangster genre but also to the fact that, this being only their third film, the Coens had not yet built up their loyal fanbase and the intentional chasm that seperated the tone of their previous two films, Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, had left audiences completely unsure of what to expect next. The tone of Miller’s Crossing is an unusual one, both morbidly grim and vibrantly comedic, and this crucial complexity of mood certainly wouldn’t have come across in promotional trailers. At an uninformed glance, Miller’s Crossing could well have looked like just another crusty period Gangster film. It was anything but.
Influenced by, (though not officially ‘based on’) two Dashiell Hammett novels, The Glass Key and Red Harvest (the latter of which had also provided them with the title for Blood Simple), Miller’s Crossing tells the complex story of Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), right hand man of corrupt political boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney). When Leo refuses to allow gangster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) to kill bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) for double-crossing him, it sparks a full-blown war in which Tom must carefully choose his allegiances. Complicating matters further are Bernie’s sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), who is conducting affairs with both Leo and Tom, not to mention the murdered Rug Daniels and Caspar’s psychotic henchman Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman).
Armed with a slightly larger budget, the Coens put it to good use, giving Miller’s Crossing an authentic and polished look and securing Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney in pivotal roles. Byrne is hardly ever off-screen as we follow Tom from one camp to the other, never 100% sure of his real motives. It’s a strong performance in a role that requires an ongoing stoicism and Byrne maintains this beautifully, allowing his co-stars to steal scenes as he quietly and calculatingly observes them. Finney was brought in at the last minute when the Coens’ original choice for the role of Leo, Trey Wilson (who played Nathan Arizona in their previous film) died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage. I used to think Finney was miscast as an Irish-American mobster but this time round I found his performance to be very engaging. Not only does he look the part, scoring big in a wordless setpiece in which he singlehandedly takes on a barrage of would-be assassins without even a moment’s loss of dignity, but he brings a real sense of emotion to the quieter moments. There’s a palpable vulnerability in an early scene where he comes looking for advice from Tom, and another scene where he learns of a betrayal is expertly played, as he switches from hurt and confusion to bruised and bruising brutality.
But it is the supporting roles that really bring Miller’s Crossing to life, populated as they are with soon-to-become-Coen-regulars getting their teeth into memorably larger-than-life characters. Jon Polito overacts appropriately as the hot-headed Italian mob boss Johnny Caspar, making him indelibly grotesque by way of involuntary tics and grunts, as well as an overwhelming sense that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. Other Coen regulars include Frances McDormand and Steve Buscemi in tiny cameos but the film is stolen completely by the marvellous John Turturro. He embodies the oily, snickering bookie Bernie Bernbaum so completely that this loathsome creature, hated by almost everyone and only alive by virtue of a sister dating a mob boss, becomes the most memorable part of the whole film. It’s a pitch perfect portrait of a man who can never achieve anything even akin to dignity or self-respect and opts instead to plumb the depths of snivelling smugness and self-serving amorality. The scene in which he begs for his life is one of the greatest in the whole Coen canon. These indelible caricatures are balanced by Marcia Gay Harden’s quietly brooding performance as Verna, Bernie’s protective sister who shifts from sincere to manipulative so smoothly that it’s hard to see the join. In a film featuring very few women, Harden makes her mark forcefully.
As is so often the case with a Coen brothers film, the immaculate screenplay plays a big part in the success of Miller’s Crossing. Their scripts are well known for being rigidly adhered to, every intricacy of character and plot set down as they intend it to appear on screen. It is this attention to the tiniest details that make even their smallest characters so vivid and well-rounded. Johnny Caspar, for instance, is obsessed with “ethics”, even though his take on the subject is somewhat skewed. This subtle little trait is apparent in everything Caspar does and, while it gives us a good laugh whenever it comes up in the dialogue, it also plays quite an important role in where the story goes. There’s also a real ear for period slang and gangster parlance that gives Miller’s Crossing an instant identity of it’s own, even as it tips its hat to previous examples of the genre (most noticeably The Godfather, in its opening monologue). First time round this dialogue can be overwhelming as we’re immediately thrown in at the deep end, with a lengthy, wordy sequence that gives us a lot of key information before we’ve quite acclimatised to the speech patterns. But the richness of this dialogue makes Miller’s Crossing infinitely rewatchable, as well as highly quotable.
The Gangster genre is generally known for its machismo, hordes of men sleeping with a succession of women while trading homophobic insults and wielding Freud-bothering machine guns. But Miller’s Crossing makes a major plotpoint out of the well-known homosexuality of several of its main characters. Arguably, the whole film is a love story between Tom and Leo, the woman who divides them merely a distraction from the repressed emotions they hold for each other. While this is a debatable reading of the film, the gay plotline between several of the other characters is overt and results in no raised eyebrows or limp-wristed stereotypes. Likewise, the Gangster genre can have a tendency to take itself too seriously and Miller’s Crossing eschews this with its numerous comedic asides and even throwaway gags. One very striking example is the moment when a young boy steals the toupee of a murdered gangster, which leads Leo to speculate “They took his hair Tommy. Jesus, that’s strange. Why would they do that?” The reply: “Maybe it was injuns.” Amongst the various double-crosses, backstabs and deceits that make up Miller’s Crossing’s twisty plot, there’s also a key misunderstanding that casts the whole thing as a farce. It’s easy to miss this priceless moment in initial watches but listen for a dialogue towards the end in which the initiating action in an entire gangland war is casually dismissed as “just a mixup.”
Watching the Coen brothers’ films chronologically has also given me an appreciation for the cinematography of Barry Sonnenfeld and the scores of Carter Burwell. Both men adapt their styles as fluidly as the Coens genre-hop, with Sonnenfeld giving Miller’s Crossing a classy, painterly look and Burwell’s gentle, traditional-Irish-inflected music capturing the mood as beautifully as his more frantic banjo-picking score for Raising Arizona did. Burwell’s music is first highlighted by a calming opening credits sequence in which Tom’s hat blows gently through a deserted woodland. Like the focus on objects that was prominent in Blood Simple, the hat is established early on as an important symbol. I’ve never quite pinned down what its meaning is, and the Coens’ canny refusal to ever clarify these things allows for the satisfying experience of numerous theories. I’ve always thought the hat was tied to dignity, as Tom seems to lose it when he’s at his lowest. It pops off his head on all the many occasions he gets punched, for example. “There’s nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat”, Tom tells us, and yet the first thing we find him doing after the opening credits is setting off to retrieve his hat after he bet it in a card game. The fact that he retrieves it from Verna, who says it is hers now, suggests to me that the hat is also linked to Leo himself and Tom can’t stand to be without it, even as he uses it to hide his emotions in the moving final image. In death, Rug Daniels loses his hair. It seems there’s nothing more undignified than an exposed head in the world of Miller’s Crossing.
As you may have grasped from the fact I’ve rabbited on about a hat for a whole paragraph, Miller’s Crossing is another densely packed screenplay from the Coens but, like all their films, it can be enjoyed as a straightforward story too, without having to plunder the layers of meaning if you don’t want. It took the brothers several runs at the script to get it all worked out and it can be that way for the viewer too. The more you watch Miller’s Crossing, the easier it becomes to untangle. But even on the first viewing, if you miss key details there’s still enough to draw you in and encourage those repeat viewings. Though it has a greater cult following now, I still feel like Miller’s Crossing remains a surprisingly undervalued masterpiece of the Gangster genre.
9. TRUE GRIT
I remember when I went to see True Grit at the cinema, I left a little disappointed. It didn’t help that the person sitting next to me had snack-planted a whole tray of cheesy nachos onto their chest at exactly the moment the lights went down, blighting the early scenes with a blind struggle against the shattered maize and stringy dairy that had beset their torso. But even when this struggle against Dayglo curd was over, I somehow never really settled into the film. I think this was because it never felt like a Coen brothers film to me. None of the telltale elements I was all primed to enjoy seemed to be in place and I ended up watching the film for what it wasn’t, rather than what it was. Still, my love of the Coens led me to buy a copy when it was released on DVD and it didn’t take more that a couple of viewings for me to completely fall in love with True Grit. It helped being able to watch it in the comfort of my own home, away from strangers wallowing in cheese, but I also quickly realised I was wrong about this not seeming like a Coen brothers film. I was working from too narrow a playbook, reducing my favourite directors to a series of superficial quirks to be idly checked off. This chronological viewing of all the Coen brothers films has highlighted the folly of those assumptions even more clearly.
The Coen filmography is far more diverse than it is often given credit for being and with True Grit they made a classic Hollywood Western, faithfully adapted from a novel which had previously been brought to the screen in a more compromised fashion. While it is often called a remake, the 60s version of True Grit has no influence over the Coens’ film, which returns to Charles Portis’s novel as its inspiration. The result is a darker film which still retains a sense of adventure and crowdpleasing cinematic verve that make it comparable with the classic Westerns of the Golden Age. Many compared it with No Country for Old Men but, apart from them both being faithful adaptations of a source novel, I think True Grit and No Country for Old Men are really quite different. While the latter is a bleak, meditative and deliberately paced film, True Grit has the forward drive of a great adventure story, with little vignettes lining the trail of a governing throughline and an underlying warmth uniting its characters in a way that is the antithesis of the cold emotional solitude that kept No Country’s characters separated. Although it is darker and occasionally more violent than the average Hollywood Western, True Grit, with its quest narrative and wide open spaces, still works as an afternoon matinee in a way that No Country for Old Men doesn’t. No Country for Old Men is the better film but True Grit is one I could happily throw on anytime and enjoy immensely.
I was also wrong about True Grit not seeming like a Coen brothers film. Though it at first seems to contain very few of their idiosyncrasies, there are many clear moments when the Coen sense of humour shines through, albeit a slightly less arch version of it. A fantastic early scene of literal horse-trading, an encounter with a bearskin-clad dentist and a farcical cornbread shooting contest all have the mark of the Coens about them, while the layered depiction of the characters humanises them in a way the broader John Wayne film was less adept at. Wayne may have won his Oscar in the role of Cogburn but his clean-shaven, sanitised version of the character is not nearly as convincing as Jeff Bridges’ bearded, mush-mouthed wreck of a man. Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf is brilliantly insecure, flashing his Texas ranger badge like a proud child but rising too easily to provocation and regularly falling foul of foes through his own prideful carelessness. Josh Brolin, in a small role as a villain, was listed on the poster as the film’s third lead but the real revelation of True Grit is 14 year old Hailee Steinfeld, Oscar-nominated in her debut role as Mattie Ross, the formidable young girl who enlists the help of Rooster Cogburn in avenging her father’s death. Though Steinfeld was nominated for Supporting Actress, I’d argue that Mattie is the lead character here and Steinfeld’s extraordinarily poised performance is the highlight of the film. Her Mattie is headstrong and persistent, but we never forget that she is essentially still a child. She is vulnerable to the whims of those around her, although her disarming intelligence means she rarely falls foul of them, and in certain moments she lets the little girl she all-too-recently was resurface, as in a delightful moment when she diffuses an escalating spat between Cogburn and LaBoeuf with an offer of a campfire ghost story.
Blessed with a bigger budget, True Grit looks absolutely fantastic, with Roger Deakins’ cinematography providing a sepia-tinted classicism without ever looking artificially mannered. Carter Burwell has also turned in another extraordinarily effective score, inspired by 19th century church music. Burwell’s use of specific hymns as the basis for a good chunk of the music meant it was ineligible for the Oscars but it is a magnificent work of adaptation, the use of Leaning on the Everlasting Arm as a main theme being particularly inspired. Iris DeMent’s 2004 version of the song plays over the end credits to devastatingly moving effect.
Placing True Grit in my ranking has been another tough task but in the end poor old Miller’s Crossing got bumped down. Both are excellent genre exercises and ultimately the decisive factor may have been my preference for Westerns over Gangster films, although I do think that True Grit displays a more convincing overall atmosphere. I placed True Grit below A Serious Man because, unlike that film, I didn’t come away with endless things to think about. True Grit is more an example of a ripping good story than a deeply cerebral exercise but that is to its credit as the Coens have made the source material into exactly the kind of film it should be. I loved every minute of it and can’t wait to watch it again. Though intelligently mounted, True Grit is one of the simplest and purest pleasures in the Coen catalogue.
8. A SERIOUS MAN
Following Burn After Reading, a film in which the A-list cast reportedly made scheduling difficult, the Coen brothers made a very different type of comedy with A Serious Man. A small scale story that asks big questions, A Serious Man explores themes of religion and superstition, coincidence and predetermination, moral and familial responsibility and the potentially devastating consequences of human actions. Given that it has been frequently compared to the Book of Job, one of the ugliest and most sadistic stories in the Bible (or from any source for that matter), it’s not surprising to find that A Serious Man is quite a tough watch but it is leavened by a healthy dose of the Coens’ trademark sense of humour. But while they undoubtedly mine plenty of comedy from the rapid collapse of their central character’s life, it never feels like we are being asked to laugh at the increasingly overwhelming tribulations of Larry Gopnik. Unlike, say, Fargo’s Jerry Lundergaard, who ends up in a nightmare of his own making, Larry is, as far as we know, innocent of any wrongdoing. The terrible things that befall him are used to explore questions of great existential weight and the figures of fun here are the absolutely useless religious leaders to whom he turns for guidance. Their offerings, vapid observations of the world’s beauty and vague parables with no clear moral, make the apocalyptic conclusion the film reaches seem almost inevitable, and in some cynical way almost a blessing.
Though it dares to openly question and critique religion, A Serious Man is nothing so glib or straightforward as an anti-religious diatribe. Instead, the film is like an endlessly fascinating puzzle box of existential angst and, in asking the viewer to wrestle with this puzzle, the Coens seem to be acknowledging the impossibility of solving it completely and the inherent smugness of anyone who claims to have done so. From its opening prologue, a Yiddish folk tale of the Coens’ own invention, through Larry’s persistent plea that he “didn’t do anything” to deserve what is happening to him, A Serious Man seems to advocate for a proactive approach to existence and a willingness to take a certain level of responsibility for one’s own actions or inaction. But the film also avoids didactic finger-wagging by acknowledging that living this way is no guarantee that life will go smoothly. It may be possible to paint A Serious Man as a nihilistic work but I instead take it to be a deeply humanistic one. Though it bears a very strong Jewish identity, its depiction of lost souls looking for meaning is across-the-board relatable. Some critics suggested the tone was sneering and superior but I don’t think for a second that the Coens exclude themselves from the implied wider subjects of the film. The making of this film seems to be the Coens’ own attempt to wrestle with the puzzle box and its conclusion an acknowledgement that, whatever path we choose, sometimes chaos reigns. Even more troubling, sometimes that chaos is disguised as meaning.
After the big-name heavy Burn After Reading, the Coens took a different approach with A Serious Man. The cast here is largely devoid of big stars or Coen regulars. Though some of the cast have since become more recognisable, particularly Michael Stuhlbarg and Fred Melamed, they have rarely appeared in lead roles, while the already familiar faces like Richard Kind and Adam Arkin are generally known for supporting performances too. Previous Coen collaborator Michael Lerner has only a fleeting, wordless cameo. The most famous face in the cast is probably Simon Helberg, whose biggest success came from television rather than film. This deliberately unshowy cast helps keep the attention trained where it should be, on the film’s themes, and the subtlety of performance across the board is laudable in an often acclaim-hungry business. Even a grotesque like Sy Abelman is rendered with appropriate ambiguity by Fred Melamed’s hysterically funny, controlled performance.
It still amazes me that a film as cerebral and esoteric as A Serious Man managed to get itself nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, although it seems to have faded from view a little in the interim. There’s a definite coldness to this unforgiving tale that is bound to keep some viewers at arms length and while watching it I did occasionally question my original 5 star rating. But its feelbad nature combines with sometimes laugh-out-loud moments of awkward humour to create a uniquely unsettling viewing experience. And the length of time I spent thinking about A Serious Man after the credits had rolled quickly convinced me that it was worth every one of those five stars. That final image and abrupt ending lingers particularly long in the mind.
While it is one of the Coens bleakest and most disturbing films, A Serious Man is also somehow one of their most beautiful, not only because of Roger Deakins’ exceptional cinematography (and it is exceptional. Look at the way he shoots that angular, sterile suburban environment) but because of the meditative aftermath it encourages in its audience. If you think this film is mere mean-spirited smugness then you’re not appreciating its resonant beauty. Look at the car park, Larry!
7. HAIL, CAESAR
Hail, Caesar! has always been seen as a minor Coen brothers work and though critical reviews were generally positive, its place in the Coen filmography tends to be minimised and its fans disparaged. But damn it if I don’t absolutely love it! When I started this Coen rewatch I knew that I’d been overgenerous with 5 star ratings and I wasn’t surprised to have reduced a few along the way, including Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy and Inside Llewyn Davis. But, even though I knew I loved it, Hail, Caesar! was the film I was most expecting to reduce from 5 stars, just based on the amount of lukewarm or outright hostile reviews I’ve read in the years since its release. But this rewatch only reaffirmed my opinion that Hail, Caesar! is a film with a lot more to it than most give it credit for having. I emerged with my 5 star rating intact and Hail, Caesar! riding high in my Coen top 10.
In many ways I feel like the perfect target audience for Hail, Caesar! Not only am I a longtime Coen brothers fan, as an obsessive lover of classic Hollywood movies and someone with a great interest in the McCarthy era, the content of this film seems aimed at me directly. And as a particular fan of comedy too, Hail, Caesar! scores big on every level. Although it is sometimes characterised as zany and broad, there’s great wit to this film’s screenplay which is easily at least the equal of the Coens’ previous comedies. Just look at that scene of the four religious leaders squabbling over the depiction of God in a Biblical epic. Or those scenes of George Clooney’s oblivious film star learning about communism from a group of blacklisted screenwriters. The dialogue is playful but dense with ideas and character beats. The plot itself, meanwhile, has numerous symbolic parallels with the life of Christ, a marginalised figure in the Biblical epic from which Hail, Caesar! takes its name. In a typically clever gag, the actor portraying Christ, while still up on the cross, is asked by the lunch guy whether he is a principle or an extra. “I think I’m a principle” replies the uncertain ersatz Christ. Meanwhile, Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran, an actress with a squeaky clean public image who happens to be pregnant with a child of uncertain parentage, becomes part of a plot in which a guy named Joe will briefly take on the child as a foster parent, after which DeeAnna will discretely adopt it back. The virgin birth happening before us onscreen, with the help of a guy named Joe!
Not all the comedy of Hail, Caesar! is so verbose and esoteric. Though it is given depth and drive by the Communism plot and the central figure of Eddie Mannix, a real life “fixer” from Hollywood’s Golden Age dropped into the middle of the Coen’s fiction, Hail, Caesar! never pretends that its loose narrative isn’t subservient to its numerous Hollywood pastiches. While some found this gave the film a lack of shape, to me it feels absolutely freeing. Though Mannix is ostensibly our protagonist, the story moves around from character to character, with famous faces cameoing all over the place in much the same way as they used to in real Biblical epics. Through this process, a secondary protagonist emerges in the shape of Alden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy Hobie Doyle. While Josh Brolin is very good as Mannix, it is Ehrenreich who emerges as the true star of the film. He’s the absolute heart of the picture, bringing a sweet innocence that is first played for laughs in the famous “Would that it were so simple” routine and then shown to be the source of much charm and skill in the knockout scenes in which he dates Veronica Osario’s Carlotta Valdez (a reference for all the Hitchcock fans out there). Their date, a publicity stunt at first, goes incredibly well as they enjoy Hobie’s new film together and then he impresses her in a Chaplin-esque moment in which her does rope tricks with spaghetti. It’s one of the most disarming stretches of film the Coens have ever directed and the perfect answer to those who accuse Hail, Caesar! of being sneering and superior.
The idea that Hail, Caesar! looks down on cinema seems absurd to me. Its handful of wonderful pastiches and parodies clearly come from the minds of people who have devoured such content, who are aware of its flaws but who adore it anyway. This is reflected in my own desperate desire to see all of the films of which we see snippets in Hail, Caesar! in their entirety. I don’t care if they’re fictional. Gimme! While Channing Tatum’s horny sailors musical is generally chosen as the highlight, I was particularly impressed this time round by Scarlett Johansson’s Busby Berkeley style aquatic dance routine. Just look at Johansson’s mannerisms, especially her expression as she emerges from the water. That little flick of the eyebrows captures every cloyingly cute moment of classic Hollywood exhibitionism that’s ever delighted me despite myself. Hail, Caesar! is a film of small but perfectly-formed performances like this. The Mannix throughline provides a solid foundation on which to hang cameos from the likes of Robert Picardo (perfect as a prickly rabbi), Tilda Swinton (having a ball as twin gossip columnists), Ralph Fiennes (an absolute highlight as a frustrated but polite director) and Frances McDormand (who gets one of the best throwaway gags in the film).
It’s easy to see how Hail, Caesar! is taken for a more trivial Coen brothers film, or even a directionless mess, but if you’re tuned in to its numerous references, inside jokes, historical touchstones and generic impersonations, it actually reveals itself as a hell of a delicately structured comedy masterpiece. Fans of classic American cinema will be most delighted, especially if they like it served with a side order of political context, but Hail, Caesar! has enough charm and broadly accessible bits of business to please most people. That it didn’t seem to please most people is a shame, although those of us who love it seem to really love it. I wasn’t sure how high to rank this one and initially placed it at number 10, the bottommost of my 5 star ranked Coen films. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I feel I’m being influenced by a consensus with which I emphatically disagree and by dropping all pretence or pretension, I’ve concluded that Hail, Caesar! belongs at position number 7. I absolutely love it.
6. THE BIG LEBOWSKI
Although it was a reasonable size box office hit, The Big Lebowski initially confused audiences and critics who had so loved Fargo. Fargo was a concise, well-plotted black comedy thriller with absolutely no flab on it at all. The Big Lebowski was another black comedy with crime themes but it’s approach was quite different. A sprawling, two hour L.A. odyssey partially inspired by the work of Raymond Chandler, in which the labyrinthine plot is purposefully hard to follow in a way that dares the audience to either try or care. Like so many Coen brothers films, the plot does become clearer the more you watch it and this does ultimately enhance the experience, but even on that first potentially perplexing viewing it really doesn’t matter. Being confused by the story is part of the joke here, and each time yet another little side mystery or superfluous character pops up to add to the maelstrom, it just gets funnier. Jeff Bridges as the protagonist, The Dude, is amazing at playing exasperated confusion in a way that gives the audience the perfect point of entry. So when the Coens decide to not only throw in a red herring about a teenage car thief but also include, for seemingly no reason, his father who is in an iron lung, before further muddying the waters by adding a detail about how he wrote the bulk of the Western TV series Branded, The Dude acts as a calming anchor, even, or especially, when he is as confused as we are.
There were reviewers at the time who suggested that the escalating complexity of The Big Lebowski was its only joke but this is patently untrue. It may be true to say that this structural gag overrides the plot itself (which, when pared down to the basics, is a lot simpler but still sufficiently clever), but to say it’s the only joke ignores an absolute barrage of character comedy and hilarious dialogue, not to mention honest to goodness proper jokes! One of the opening scenes, in which The Dude is attacked in his home by confused heavies, has about four or five of them alone. While its humour may be an acquired taste, for those with whom it chimes The Big Lebowski is a very, very funny film indeed. The scenes of The Dude and his buddies Walter and Donny talking to, over and at each other are beautifully orchestrated. Like everything in a Coen film, they are written down to the last syllable but the three actors make them seem completely naturalistic, even with the often incredible subjects they are discussing.
The Big Lebowski’s large ensemble cast contains many brilliant performances, including Julianne Moore who has a ball as the precise Maude, Philip Seymour Hoffman who is hilarious as the awkward Brandt, David Huddleston who is suitably overbearing as the Big Lebowski himself, and Steve Buscemi, whose sweet, soft-spoken and terminally baffled Donny (who loved surfing) is practically the antithesis of his character in Fargo. John Turturro’s tiny cameo as a pederast rival bowler named Jesus became so iconic that he eventually starred in his own (reportedly terrible) spin-off film. Sam Elliott as the incongruous cowboy narrator provides an ingenious twist on the classic Raymond Chandler voiceover, and there are cameos for the likes of Tara Reid, Ben Gazzara and David Thewlis, who barely get a chance to register before they’re gone again. But among this wealth of talent, The Big Lebowski undoubtedly belongs to two actors: Jeff Bridges and John Goodman. Goodman has the showier role and once again this vastly underrated actor nails it like no-one else could. His Walter, a Vietnam obsessed convert to Judaism who is still as in thrall to his ex-wife as he is to his own anger problem and bowling addiction, is at once a cartoon and a real person. Believe it or not, I’ve met people like this guy and Goodman has the character down to the last detail. Though his loudness and fury often take over, there’s both a vulnerability and an eloquence underneath that occasionally show through. There are wonderfully subtle moments when Goodman is about to go into another angry rant but then takes a second, checks himself, and reverts to a carefully rehearsed measured tone. It shows he is aware of his issues and has come up with ways to manage them, but these coping mechanisms rarely keep the rage at bay. But it is Bridges’ balanced, multi-faceted portrayal of The Dude that carries the majority of The Big Lebowski. Though it would’ve been easy to play this role as a stoner stereotype, the Coens’ screenplay and Bridges’ performance make him so much more than that. His naturally laidback demeanour, captured in Bridges’ impeccable body language, is thoroughly put to the test across two hours and he alternates beautifully between bafflement, frustration, irritation and disbelief, without ever losing that sense of the peaceful soul he is when people aren’t pissing on his furnishings. Bridges is phenomenal and The Dude emerges as a truly iconic figure of 90s cinema. Sometimes there’s a man…
The excesses of The Big Lebowski are something the Coens gleefully play into, supplementing their already complex plot with two dream sequences, one of which includes a Busby Berkeley style musical number. The side plots, non-sequiturs and mini-quests just keep coming, to the point where it feels like the film may never end (in a good way, rather than a Return of the King way). Even after the plot has been wrapped up, there is an epilogue which is surprisingly sad even as it retains the continued absurdity. Despite the larger than life characters, The Big Lebowski feels anchored in reality in a way that previous Coen comedies Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy never quite did. Very occasionally it gets a little too broad, such as the climactic fight with the comically juvenile nihilists, or a little too obvious. The punchlines of a scene in which a character’s ashes are scattered and a scene in which Goodman smashes up a car are both thoroughly predictable and have been done many times before and since. But amidst the kaleidoscopic melee of The Big Lebowski, these inevitabilities seem almost fitting. For all its large-scale absurdity, The Big Lebowski is a film that really creates an immersive world across its two hours. It’s another 5 star movie from the Coens and it’s ended up right in the middle of my top 10, because at this stage there are just too many classic films here.
5. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
I remember being slightly disappointed when I first heard about No Country for Old Men. Having been a massive Coen brothers fan for years, I had been completely thrown by their previous two films, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, because they had been adaptations of other people’s ideas, rather than creations from the fertile wellspring of the Coens’ own imaginations. So hearing that No Country for Old Men was an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel of the same name, I initially doubted this would be the return to form I’d been waiting for since the overlooked masterpiece The Man Who Wasn’t There fell flat at the box office. But in subsequent weeks and months, I kept hearing more and more about how brilliant No Country for Old Men was, seeing enticing clips and rave reviews. Feeling my excitement for the Coens work rekindling, I made the trip to the cinema and was so captivated by the film I saw that I nearly fell down the stairs on my way out (true story).
Three years earlier when The Ladykillers was released, few would’ve expected the Coens to end up atop the Best Picture Oscar winners podium with their next film. Though they had always been adept at switching genres and tones from film to film, The Ladykillers was such a startlingly crass low point that it was hard to imagine a way back from it. There can be few director’s filmographies with back-to-back films as completely different as The Ladykillers and No Country for Old Men. While the latter did represent a return to form, watching it for the first time didn’t feel like a simple homecoming. Though the trademark Coen brothers dark sense of humour does emerge here and there, No Country for Old Men is a much bleaker, sparser film than any of its predecessors. By sticking closely to the source material, the Coen style feels filtered through McCarthy’s grim vision in a way that adds new atmospheric strings to the directors’ bow. The closest cousin in the Coen catalogue is their debut Blood Simple, which shares a chilly atmosphere and dialogue-light approach with No Country for Old Men. But Blood Simple had a farcical underpinning baked into its narrative, something which is entirely and deliberately absent from No Country for Old Men’s despairing meditation on violence.
Although it does feel like new ground for the Coens in several ways, No Country for Old Men does not feel remotely out of place in their catalogue. The detached open spaces and weirdly unsettling motel rooms are immediately familiar, while McCarthy’s characters fit beautifully into the Coen oeuvre. While less eccentric than their Coen-created predecessors, it’s not hard to draw a line from the psychotic killer Anton Chigurh to Raising Arizona’s Leonard Smalls or Fargo’s Gaear Grimsrud, even if they seem to inhabit slightly different worlds. While the violence in previous Coen films was usually delivered with a comic edge, it is absolutely crucial that this not be the case in No Country for Old Men, which must retain its alienating and sickened depiction of its world’s brutality. The character of Sheriff Bell, while far from the bland everyman type that often serves as a point of entry, provides a touchstone for the viewer that doesn’t so much offer respite as validation for a sense of nauseated fear. Bell’s arc is one of trauma and quiet defeat, resulting in an ending that many felt was anticlimactic but this complaint betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of what No Country for Old Men is. While there is plenty of tension and bursts of action throughout, this isn’t a film that befits a neat resolution. McCarthy’s story, to which the Coen’s stick faithfully, takes unexpected turns that swerve further and further from audience expectations. Where we usually get confrontation, we instead get meditation, ambiguity where most films offer us closure. No Country for Old Men is the sort of film that can challenge and change the way a viewer thinks about film itself.
The cast of No Country for Old Men is terrific, with its three leads bringing a completely different energy to their strands. In accordance with these clashing personalities, the main characters rarely coincide with one another and when they do it sparks violence or the looming threat of such. Josh Brolin, as the unfortunate soul who stumbles on the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, brings a suitable stoicism to his dialogue-light role, while Javier Bardem completely embodies the terrifying Chigurh with an unsettlingly calm but ominously irritable eloquence that suggests a skewed moral code of sorts, reminiscent of Johnny Caspar’s unconventional idea of “ethics” in Miller’s Crossing. Bardem is absolutely perfect in the role, making Chigurh a borderline mythic villain who’s wearied determination, single-minded persistence and complete self-assurance make him seemingly indestructible. The famous coin toss scene is one of the greatest moments of 21st century cinema and a large percentage of the credit for that belongs to Bardem’s performance, which deservedly bagged him an Oscar. It was inevitable that Bardem would steal the headlines but I’ve always felt Tommy Lee Jones also deserves copious praise for his take on Sheriff Bell. Jones’s craggy, haunted face reflects the deepening mental scars that dog Bell on a daily basis and will follow him into retirement. Bell is a good man but he isn’t a traditional movie hero. The film isn’t interested in how he can bring down Chigurh so much as the effect his vain attempts have on Bell himself. The complexity of the effect prolonged exposure to violence can have on our psychological state ultimately becomes a greater focus for No Country for Old Men than its cat-and-mouse narrative, to the extent that the antihero we’ve been following for the majority of the film can be casually killed off in an offscreen incident. This event sends the viewer into free fall, pulling the rug out from under our every expectation and leaving us clueless as to where the narrative can go now or even how much longer there is left of the runtime.
No Country for Old Men’s negative critics reacted to its boldest narrative decisions as if they were mistakes. Why was there no clear protagonist? What was with that anticlimactic ending? How come they didn’t get the bad guy? Questions like this fundamentally misunderstand the kind of film No Country for Old Men is and the desperation for it to fit into established tropes and forms feels like a cry for a dull uniformity across all of cinema, as if filmmakers have a contract with audiences to fulfil their expectations. While No Country for Old Men refuses to do so, it doesn’t feel like a self-conscious attempt to subvert anything, but rather a narrative unfolding in exactly the way its themes naturally dictate. This isn’t a brattish rejection of commerciality so much as a laudable dedication to honest storytelling. Many adapters would probably have tagged on scenes of Bell bringing Chigurh to justice, justifying this by differentiating the demands of cinema from those of literature, but that would not only have been a cop out, it would’ve brought the whole house of cards crashing down. Many a narrative has been betrayed by adherence to presupposed cinematic requirements. It’s a good thing Cormac McCarthy’s source text ended up in the hands of the perfect directors to sidestep such detrimental conventions.
4. BLOOD SIMPLE
What a start! Blood Simple is one of the greatest independent films ever made and was hugely influential on the indie boom of the 80s and 90s. With no filmmaking experience between them, the Coen Brothers created a fake trailer for the film they wanted to make, which they then used to raise the $1.5 million dollars they needed. On this comparatively tiny budget, they forged a small-scale neo-noir masterpiece that subtly introduced their playful but visceral style to the world. Though their penchant for black comedy would become more overt with subsequent films, Blood Simple is a very funny film if you’re tuned into the Coens’ particular sense of humour. While not a comedy per se, its tale of murder by way of multiple misunderstandings plays like a very dark farce in which the characters are doomed by their own reluctance or inability to communicate.
Blood Simple tells the tale of Ray, a bartender who unleashes the full fury of his seedy boss Julian Marty when he begins an affair with his unhappy wife Abby. When Marty employs the private dick Loren Visser to kill the lovers, it sets off a chain of events in which all four characters are implicated in a world of violence and death and none of them ever seems to be in full possession of the facts or capable of making a correct assumption based on the information in front of them. Aside from an amusing supporting role for Sam Art Williams as Ray’s smooth-talking fellow bartender Meurice, Blood Simple is really a four-hander, with John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya and M. Emmet Walsh striking just the right notes of detachment, confusion, repressed anger and self-serving sleaze.
On initial viewings, it is the more overtly grotesque Hedaya and Walsh, as the wild-eyed control freak Marty and sweat-drenched lowlife Visser, who stand out. But subsequent watches reveal that Getz and McDormand are just as fine as the poorly-matched lovers Ray and Abby. Initially, I thought these characters were underwritten and the performances insubstantial but it really struck me this time how good both actors are. Getz’s monosyllabic stoicism in the early portion of the film only makes the quiet desperation of his unpicking even more grimly amusing, while McDormand (in her debut role, and the first in a fruitful collaborative relationship with the Coens) is brilliantly ambiguous as Abby. Her wide-eyed performance combines innocence with a hint of the manipulative, which the audience is never quite sure is real or whether it is just implanted by the vindictive accusations of her husband and the historical misogynistic tendencies of the Noir genre. Certainly Abby’s dream sequence (the one slightly creaky cliché employed in the film), in which her make-up compact is referred to as her “weapon”, suggests she is at least aware of her potential in that regard. There’s also a hilarious contrast between Abby’s talkativeness and Ray’s stony silence, with a scene in which Abby describes how Marty is “anal in the head” always making me laugh out loud.
Blood Simple is a film that stands up well to multiple viewings since its refusal to spell out the character motivations that drive the plot can make it initially hard to follow. This is a strength rather than a flaw, since the film neatly avoids clunky exposition and asks the audience to fill in the blanks that the characters could so easily eradicate if they’d only talk to each other. In a film where communication, or the lack of it, is such a central theme, it’s a wonderfully clever move to be so sparing in what you communicate directly to the viewer. That the audience can become as perplexed as the characters makes for an even more immersive experience. But suggestions that Blood Simple should be called Bloody Complicated are also patently wrong. Though twisty, part of the appeal of Blood Simple is how simplistic the narrative really is. It could be untangled with a couple of quick conversations. The opening monologue, delivered as voiceover narration, advocates for a lone wolf mindset: “Now go on ahead, y’know, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help, ‘n watch him fly. Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else… that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, an’ down here… you’re on your own.” There’s a filmmaking tradition that the omniscient narrator is the voice of wisdom but, in classic subversive Coen brothers style, this voice turns out to belong instead to one of the characters, Visser, and the narrative that follows pretty much undoes his credibility and his philosophy.
Blood Simple is such a show-not-tell film that its emphasis on looking feels almost obsessive. A merry-go-round of objects- some significant, some not so much- are tightly focused in on to ensure the audience notices them: Visser’s lighter, a pile of rotting fish, a pearl-handled pistol. The appropriately dingy cinematography by future Men in Black director Barry Sonnenfeld and a strikingly classy piano score by Carter Burwell also help set the melancholy, chilly mood of the piece, which makes the little absurdities even more effective. The film feels funnier the more you see it, the more you understand the unnecessary ways the characters end up involving themselves in deadly situations. Though some of them are more revolting than others, no-one here is a total innocent and their knowledge that they are playing a risky game gives the audience a pass to enjoy and even laugh at just how nastily the whole thing escalates for everyone involved.
The crux of Blood Simple is two phenomenal, largely wordless set pieces involving two characters apiece. The first, more extended sequence comes around the middle of the film and involves a corpse that refuses to stay dead. The second, shorter, though no less impactful, set piece acts as the film’s climax and shifts the genre from neo-Noir into stalk-and-slash Horror. It’s easily one of the nastiest, grisliest scenes the Coen Brothers ever filmed and, when its punchline arrives and is topped off by the perfect choice of playout music over the credits, it’s clear to me that this is one of my favourite film endings of all time. It epitomises Blood Simple’s immaculately judged balance of the grim and sinister with the absurd and farcical.
3. THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE
The Man Who Wasn’t There is perhaps the most overlooked and under-discussed film in the Coen brothers oeuvre. Though it received a good critical reception, it performed weakly at the box office and, after that, most people seemed to forget it existed. Like its protagonist, The Man Who Wasn’t There faded into the background. It’s not hard to see why not many people embraced this film. It moves at a deliberate, stately pace, telling the story of a reserved, softly spoken man whose impulsive foray into crime gets out of control in a darker, less farcical way than we’ve seen in previous Coen brothers films. When talking about this film prior to production, the Coens deliberately undersold it by saying they were working on a film about “a barber who wants to be a dry cleaner.” While it is inaccurate to say that this is the main premise of The Man Who Wasn’t There, this description gets at its particular style of humour, in that it accentuates the mundane above the remarkable. This is a trick The Man Who Wasn’t There pulls off repeatedly. Even as his life becomes a nightmare of wrongful accusations, expensive lawyers, deluded widows and alcoholic relatives, the deadpan protagonist Ed Crane never lets it completely derail his existence. Through it all, the barber keeps cutting hair.
A recurring statement I’ve seen even in the positive reviews of The Man Who Wasn’t There is that “no-one is going to call this one of the best Coen brothers films.” Well, yes they are. I am. The Man Who Wasn’t There is a fantastic film for many reasons. Having established its slow pace and thoughtful outlook in the opening scenes, it never deviates from this pattern. Even as the usual parade of oddball Coen characters begin to show up, we see them through the measured perspective of Ed Crane. This keeps the film on a sober, focused track even as events mount up. You could call The Man Who Wasn’t There the anti-Lebowski. Unlike The Dude, who’s laidback demeanour is eroded by exasperation and confusion as his world is overrun by eccentric intruders, Ed Crane remains in complete control of his emotions, if not his life. At times, this juxtaposition makes for a very funny mismatch but just as often The Man Who Wasn’t There uses its pacing to accentuate tragedy. There are ironic twists that could amount to farce if played differently but the film opts to take a melancholy approach. Therefore, ground that the Coens have trodden before gains a new freshness and sense of gravitas, without losing that crucial sense of humour.
The first thing most people will notice about The Man Who Wasn’t There is Roger Deakins’ sumptuous black and white photography. Coupled with Carter Burwell’s dignified piano score, it immediately brings out the meditative beauty of the film. From the opening scene of a slowly rotating barber pole, The Man Who Wasn’t There is the Coen’s most beautiful picture yet and Deakins bagged the film’s only Oscar nomination for his extraordinary work. The look of The Man Who Wasn’t There is crucial, given that its protagonist is so undemonstrative that we spend so much time looking, although his voiceover narration betrays a poetic bent that perfectly compliments the images onscreen. The visuals are also a clear tribute to 40s and 50s Film Noir, a genre which The Man Who Wasn’t There seems to embrace and subvert in equal measures. In a typically Coenesque twist, an unexpected sci-fi element is also introduced by way of the wife of a murder victim who may or may not have lost her mind. This ambiguous tangent allows the Coens to have some visual fun evoking the low budget Sci-fi films of the same era, turning hubcaps into spaceships or a cartoonishly large doctor’s head mirror. It’s all part of the unique appeal of The Man Who Wasn’t There that while there’s a murder trial going on that any other film would make the central concern, it chooses instead to give equal weight to haircuts, piano recitals and dry cleaning.
As usual with the Coens, the casting of The Man Who Wasn’t There is impeccable, drawing from a pool of Coen regulars combined with a smattering of newcomers. Frances McDormand is here, showing her range once more in a role that couldn’t be more different from Marge Gunderson. As Doris Crane, she is somewhat unpleasant but also intensely vulnerable. A scene in which an unspoken truth registers between her and her husband is played to silent perfection. Jon Polito is back too in perhaps his best performance for the Coens as a talkative, passionate but ever so slightly awkward businessman trying to interest investors in his dry cleaning business. Tony Shalhoub shines in perhaps his best film role as the high priced lawyer and Michael Badalucco, last seen robbing banks and shooting cows in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, is excellent as Doris’s brother and Ed’s boss at the barber shop. Badalucco’s arc is particularly heartbreaking, going from happy, playful, motormouthed business owner to a ruined, broken alcoholic recluse, but he plays the role with a comic verve which, in keeping with the ridiculousness of life and people, does not dim even in the most tragic moments.
Among the newcomers are an imposing James Gandolfini, a very young but already impressive Scarlett Johansson, Richard Jenkins (who puts in a hell of a performance in one solitary scene) and Katherine Borowitz, who’s haunted eyes linger long after the credits role. But The Man Who Wasn’t There belongs to Billy Bob Thornton, who’s performance as Ed is pitch perfect. His rugged face, captured in that crisp black and white, is like a monument and his slow, deliberate body language mixes a weariness with a dogged determination to retain that quiet dignity in the face of any challenge. Like Jerry Lundergaard before him, Ed is really the villain, given that he sets in motion a terrible chain of events, but it’s much easier to feel sympathy for him. His attempt to anonymously blackmail the man sleeping with his wife in order to find a purpose for himself is a far cry from Jerry’s decision to place his own wife in the hands of violent thugs. And, unlike Jerry, there is no mounting stress here. The deeper Ed gets into his nightmare, the more calmly inert he seems to get. It’s a wonderful performance but went largely unrecognised thanks to its subtlety. The Academy preferred Thornton’s unbearable turn in Sling Blade!
The Man Who Wasn’t There is undoubtedly an acquired taste. For some, it will take patience and a few viewings to work its magic. For others, its appeal will remain completely elusive. But for fans of a slower pace and a character-rich narrative, not to mention stunning visuals, this is a forgotten classic.
2. BARTON FINK
It’s well known that the Coen brothers wrote their fourth film Barton Fink during a three week break from writing their third film Miller’s Crossing. The intricacies of Miller’s Crossing’s twisty plot had become difficult to negotiate, whereas Barton Fink, according to the Coens themselves, was just “burped out” with astonishing ease in a short space of time. Incredibly, this writing exercise was sufficiently refreshing that it allowed them to return to Miller’s Crossing and complete it. More incredibly, they ended up with a new screenplay that was even better than Miller’s Crossing. Barton Fink is the sort of film that some filmmakers agonise over getting right for years. That it came so quickly and naturally to the Coens is clearly visible on the screen. Films with this much packed into them can sometimes end up feeling overly mannered or exhaustingly complex. Barton Fink glides by with an elegance that never feels like it is vying for our approval. There are bits of very pointed symbolism mixed with images and dialogue that is deliberately open to multiple interpretations while still functioning within the parameters of the film’s many themes. These themes include the writing process, high art vs. low art, class, sexuality, the relationship between writer, subject and audience, the rise of Fascism, the Holocaust, slavery, religion, Heaven and Hell, violence, mental illness, fact vs. fiction, and heads. Lots and lots of allusions to heads. Oh, and did I mention it’s also very funny?
Barton Fink was a critical success but a flop at the box office, partly due to the impossibility of categorising it. It has elements of comedy, drama and horror but placing it under any of these genre headings will likely lead to confusion from the average viewer looking for a straightforward laugh or a scare. Even those familiar with other Coen brothers films may be surprised by just how elusive Barton Fink can at first seem. But, as with the complex plotting of Miller’s Crossing and Blood Simple, the more times you see Barton Fink, the more you understand it. Unlike those other films though, with Fink a complete grasp of what’s going on remains out of reach, which makes it all the more satisfying and alluring.
Barton Fink is about an idealistic but egotistical playwright who’s acceptance of an offer to write screenplays for Hollywood sees him move from New York to L.A., where he encounters an industry he doesn’t understand and people with whom he struggles to connect. The one exception is the physically imposing but affable Charlie Meadows, his neighbour in a disastrously run-down hotel in which wallpaper constantly peels off the walls in the intense heat. Set to work on a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery, Fink finds himself suffering from a chronic case of writer’s block which nothing short of decapitation could fix. Not necessarily his own decapitation though. One of Barton Fink’s most striking features is the horrifying Hotel Earle, a vision of Hell, perhaps literally, from which escape is impossible for some. The oozing walls, wooshing doors and hauntingly ambiguous noises from nearby rooms are captured impeccably by Skip Lievsay’s intense sound design and Roger Deakins’ striking cinematography (both men would become regular Coen collaborators), creating a haunting but sometimes absurdist claustrophobic world akin to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and The Tenant and David Lynch’s Eraserhead. But the tone of the film, though frequently terrifying, is more readily accessible than these influences, with humour a constant counterpoint even when the fiery Hellscape fully reveals itself.
If Barton Fink’s screenplay, direction, cinematography and sound are all exceptional, these are more than matched by the incredible cast. This is one of the Coens’ finest ensembles, populated with small but extraordinarily vivid roles that fill out the world around John Turturro’s superbly neurotic Fink. John Mahoney as a Faulkner-esque alcoholic writer and Judy Davis as his long suffering “honey”, Tony Shalhoub as bitter, fast-talking producer Ben Geisler, Richard Portnow and Christopher Murney as two droll but racist detectives, Steve Buscemi as by-the-books bellboy Chet. Jon Polito, so memorable as hotheaded mob boss Johnny Caspar in the Coens’ previous film, could scarcely be more different here in a quiet, subtle performance as the downtrodden assistant to studio boss Jack Lipnick. As Lipnick himself, Michael Lerner is simply priceless, relishing being given some of the script’s funniest dialogue which he belts out with a showman’s enthusiasm, peppered by a handful of ill-considered asides which often undermine his own authority. Lerner bagged himself an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Jack Palance in City Slickers.
You’ve probably noticed a name conspicuously missing from that list. I haven’t mentioned John Goodman’s absolutely perfect turn as Charlie Meadows/Karl “Madman” Mundt yet because I think it deserves an entire paragraph to itself. Goodman has long been one of my favourite actors and I keep waiting for him to get that long overdue Oscar nomination. Much as I love Michael Lerner in this film, I’m still absolutely convinced that this should’ve been Goodman’s year to not only be nominated for but to win the Supporting Actor award. The Coens have written a hell of a role specifically for him and he absolutely exceeds the already high expectations to create a completely indelible character who is at once funny and frightening, appealing and repulsive, sympathetic and irredeemable, real and unreal. It’s a tall order to make a part this ambitious work but Goodman is utterly on fire (sometimes literally). Look at that very first scene where, after announcing himself with a chilling offscreen laugh-sob that sounds deliriously joyless, Charlie arrives in Fink’s doorway to confront him after receiving a complaint about the noise he is making. Towering, imposing, intense, he queries whether Fink called in the complaint and for a moment all the air goes completely out of the room. Then his demeanour switches, he apologises and we realise this is a nice guy who just got carried away. He wins over the audience just as he shatters the seemingly impenetrable icy facade of Fink. But that sense of unease never quite leaves. Witness his repressed irritation each time Barton interrupts him. For a while, every scene with Charlie is like an oasis in the frightening world around them, but he keeps that level of discomfort bubbling underneath, occasionally embarrassing and even physically assaulting Barton during their interactions. When the reveal of Charlie’s true nature arrives, the viewer is shocked, saddened but also not entirely surprised. Goodman’s amazing work has preserved the twist while ensuring it remains plausible enough not to be just a cheap third act switcheroo. And his riveting performance as Mundt is jaw-dropping, horrifying but still funny. The lengthy closing speeches the Coens give him are just wonderful and Goodman nails them to the extent that his final exit is oddly touching. I honestly think this is one of my top 10 greatest performances of all time. There’s so much that makes Barton Fink a masterpiece but I think Goodman’s performance is the thing that keeps me coming back more than anything.
Sometimes you revisit films and wonder if you’ve overrated them in the past, as I found I had with Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy, but sometimes you revisit films with absolutely no doubt that they will be as brilliant as you remember them being. Fargo, which for several years I counted as my favourite film, was always going to be one of the latter. It’s a film I know back to front and upside down but from which I still get immense pleasure. However good it is in my memory, that can never match the thrill of seeing it on the screen in front of me. The fact that there were no surprises this time round didn’t diminish the utter pleasure of watching pitch perfect performances of superbly written scenes, directed with astonishing precision. Fargo is a virtually perfect piece of filmmaking.
Crime films were extremely big in the 90s but Fargo puts a new slant on the genre. It’s a film filled with different kinds of villains, from the straightforwardly psychopathic, though very different, murderers Carl and Gaear, through the spinelessly manipulative but consistently unsuccessful car salesman Jerry Lundergaard, the entitled bully of a millionaire Wade, the monosyllabic but brutal auto-mechanic Shep and the pathetic, predatory loser Mike Yanagita. By contrast, Fargo’s hero is one of the most lovable, kind-natured, sweet creations in all of cinema, the heavily pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson. These fascinating creations are dropped into a story that is sometimes brutal, always compelling and frequently hilarious. That final point is key, as I’ve always found Fargo to be one of the funniest films of the 90s. There are very few actual gags here though, with the humour coming almost entirely from character: the desperation of Jerry which escalates like a bad taste farce, the odd couple routine between Carl and Gaear, and the constant pleasantries and trivialities that litter any scene involving Marge, her husband and the cops. There are always a handful of critics who see the Coen brothers’ tone as condescending but I’ve never seen it that way. Though they have some fun with the “Minnesota nice” stereotype and an exaggerated take on the accent, the characters themselves feel more real than any the Coens had yet come up with. Though humour is derived from the incongruity of seeing such asides in a film of this kind, the Coens portray it as delightful and, well, nice. Marge and her husband Norm’s complete devotion to each other is shown in a heartwarming light, in contrast with the terrible way in which all the other characters treat each other. And far from being mocked, Marge is immediately portrayed as smart, insightful and terrific at her job.
When I first saw Fargo, I remember feeling a lot sorrier for Jerry Lundergaard than I do now. There is something in the writing that taps so completely into the growing stress of a situation spinning out of control, and William H. Macy’s fantastic hangdog performance makes Jerry pathetically pitiful in his guileless approach. But watching Fargo now, I tend to see Jerry as the major villain. Sure, Carl and Gaear kill people but it is Jerry who unleashes them with a monstrous plot to have his own wife kidnapped in order to obtain a portion of the ransom money himself. Jerry is clearly in quite desperate need of the money, although the script is careful to deny us the knowledge of exactly why, making Jerry even shiftier. You wonder just how long he has been coming up these kind of plots and how each one has pushed him deeper under. And though he doesn’t seem like the sort of person who would set out to deliberately hurt anyone, it’s telling that he doesn’t ever factor in what effect this will all have on his own son Scotty until the whole terrible business is well underway.
By contrast, Marge Gunderson is the sort of person who would go out of her way to make others comfortable and happy before she considered her own needs. She is the unconventional hero to Jerry’s bizarre villain. Though it is often noted that she doesn’t turn up until a third of the film has already happened, Marge is undoubtedly the main character and you’re with her all the way. There aren’t many Coen brothers characters you’d willingly invite to your dinner table. Marge would be more than welcome at mine any time. How did the Coen brothers manage to create such a tough but endearing character? The writing is, of course, excellent but cast the wrong actor and all would be lost. Fortunately, Frances McDormand was not only the right actor but absolutely the only person I can imagine in this role. She IS Marge. She manages to play up the comedic exaggerations while simultaneously bringing out the deeply human traits that underscore them. The result is the sort of perfect performance that gives you the best of both worlds: a combination of great big caricature and subtle human portrait. Watch her dealing with Mike Yanagita’s unwanted advances or facing off with the increasingly agitated Jerry. And her monologue to Gaear at the end of the film could be portrayed as naïve but is, instead, sold completely as right, true and virtuous, without being remotely finger-wagging. Even as a police chief, Marge is just too good a person to ever understand the things bad people will do for “a little bit of money.”
Though I’ve already argued for Marge as the lead, I’ve always thought of Fargo as having three main characters. The way it moves between their stories, which for the most part play out separately, is part of what keeps that forward motion so relentless. Along with Marge and Jerry, the third protagonist is Steve Buscemi’s Carl. There’s a lot of different types of humour in Fargo, from the bleak farce of Jerry’s story to the sweet observational interludes with Marge. Carl provides a particularly brutal form of slapstick and reaction comedy and Buscemi bags most of the film’s biggest laugh with his short temper, incredulous responses and hilarious delivery. Macy and McDormand were both deservedly Oscar nominated (with McDormand winning the Best Actress award. Hooray!) but I’ve always thought Buscemi was robbed of a nod too. He makes Carl into an impulsive but approachable psychopath; the sort of person that could be pointing a gun at you one minute and affably filling you in on local history the next. The misfortunes he encounters along the way are generally of his own making but he reacts as if they are the greatest injustices known to man. And his temper is easily triggered over the most trivial of things. Witness the absolutely brilliant moment in which he confronts a parking attendant over a matter of $4.
The chilly landscapes of Fargo, exquisitely shot by Roger Deakins, are a big part of its identity, as is another great score by Carter Burwell. It’s the sort of film where everything has just come together perfectly and its concise runtime is testament to its shrewd economy and effective minimalism. Like Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing, the plot has lots of twists and turns but there’s no danger of not following this one. Fargo is fully comprehensible without multiple viewings, yet it invites them because there’s so much to relish in the dialogue and performances that can be focused on more thoroughly once you know how the gripping story plays out. Having fictitiously claimed in an opening caption that it is based on a true story, the Coens impishly leave a few open ends here and there. The question most people ask is What happened to the buried money? But, perhaps influenced by the moving humanism of the Gundersons, the question I am always left with is What happened to Scotty? With one parent and grandparent apiece dead and a father presumably going to jail for a long, long time, who is going to look after this kid? Stan Grossman? Would he have the financial wherewithal? After all, he’s not a bank, Jerry!
After literally hours of deliberation, I’ve eventually decided that Fargo deserves the number one spot over Barton Fink. While Fink arguably has more to uncover on every viewing, Fargo’s streamlined presentation and pitch perfect take on black comedy just make it irresistible to me. Keep your Pulp Fiction, Fargo is the best film of the 90s.