How The Coen Brothers Became The World's Greatest Filmmakers

Nearly 30 years after the release of Blood Simple the Coen Brothers are still consistently releasing slick, funny, expertly written films that shine with audiences and critics alike. Just what makes them so great?
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I first saw Blood Simple, the 1984 full-length feature debut of dynamic writing/producing/directing duo Joel and Ethan Coen, on a double bill with The Evil Dead. (Joel Coen worked as assistant editor on The Evil Dead and the brothers would write director Sam Raimi’s 1985 follow-up, Crimewave). The latter, with its stop-motion killer trees and Fray Bentos acting, had the audience in fits of nervous giggles that to this day I’m not sure were intentional or not. Blood Simple, on the other hand, was an altogether different beast. Little more on the surface than a murderous love-triangle tale in the Texan desert, the movie seethed underneath with an emotional tenor altogether darker, deeper, twistier and more disturbing than anything to jump out of a creaky old haunted house in the woods.

Blood Simple turned all the crime story conventions on their heads in a way not seen since the sick and harrowing masterpieces of pulp novelist Jim Thompson in the 1950s. The sympathetic ‘other man’, initially the ostensible hero of the piece, resorts to unspeakable acts of violence; the vengeful, cold-hearted husband, boo-hiss, suffers a fate so awful it all but wins him the audience’s sympathy; and the woman in the middle (the debut role of actress Frances McDormand, who married Joel Coen in the same year) morphs from femme fatale to action hero as we watch her put through the emotional wringer.

But it’s the role played by M. Emmet Walsh that undermines our expectations most of all. As the private eye who provides the voice-over, he ought to be the good guy, the deus ex machina who steps in and untangles all the strands for a neat resolution. All I can say is, if you’ve never seen Blood Simple then you can forget that cosy Philip Marlowe notion. Good guy he ain’t.

Arguably, along with Blade Runner (which also features another slimy performance from the great Walsh) Blood Simple re-invented film noir for the Eighties, and the genre hasn’t been the same since. The Coens could have run with that and earned another dozen accolades without breaking much of a sweat. Instead, they left that route to John Dahl (director of Kill Me Again, Red Rock West, The Last Seduction and, later, TV’s Dexter and Breaking Bad), and, in their next film, plumped for a broader comedy, but one that was still hardly less black at heart.

Blood Simple re-invented film noir for the Eighties, and the genre hasn’t been the same since

The violent and sinister villain, as represented by the unlikely Walsh in Blood Simple, would become a stock-in-trade figure in many of their later films (think Peter Stormare feeding the body into the wood-chipper in Fargo or, more chillingly still, Javier Bardem and his bolt-thrower in No Country for Old Men), but perhaps none of them is quite so phantasmagorical as the hairy biker from hell rampaging through their second feature, Raising Arizona.

Like its predecessor, the first question the film elicited was, ‘What the hell does the title mean?’ And like its predecessor too, no one cared what it meant once they knew it was by the same talented guys who’d blown their minds the first time round.

But the extra ingredient that their second film brought to the table was stars that would go on to become bona fide A-listers. Nicolas Cage had had a couple of limelight roles, in Alan Parker’s Birdy and uncle Francis Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married, but it was left to the Coens to show the world his gift for comedy. Ditto Holly Hunter, who achieved Oscar glory in 1993’s The Piano but might well be best remembered as the voice of Elastigirl in The Incredibles. (The Coens’ ability to nurture comedic talent and bring it to the fore would later prove instrumental to George Clooney’s career trajectory after his performance in their 2000 masterpiece O  Brother, Where Art Thou?)

Raising Arizona also threw the spotlight on the comic talents of John Goodman (previously hidden in second-fiddle parts in Eighties B-movies like Maria’s Lovers and The Big Easy), soon after which Roseanne Barr would never look back. The sight of his gargantuan frame erupting out of the mud in the prison-break scene was one of the arresting images of that cinematic era, and underscored the Coens’ talent for striking visuals that has made them what they are today.

While the Coens have rarely desisted from using crime as the engine of their stories, they’ve never let it drive them into a rut. A list of the films that have centred on the genre illustrates above all else the variety of their re-takes on it and freshness of their approaches to it.

1990’s Miller’s Crossing is a gangster movie of amoral and almost nihilistic detachment that seems to deliberately counterpoint the family fervour of other directors’ previous epics like The Godfather, Scarface or that same year’s Goodfellas.

What the Coens created in Miller’s Crossing, however, could hardly contrast more with, say, the wife-kidnap plot of 1996’s snow-swept Fargo, in which William H. Macy’s would-be blackmailer is so hapless, inept and careworn that we just want to cuddle him until he stops making such a damn mess of it all; or with the CIA-driven escalation of frantic fiascos covering up a threat to the state ultimately signifying nothing in 2008’s Burn After Reading.

the Coens’ claim to auteurship lies less in the re-telling and re-treading, more in the constant re-imagining and re-invention.

One need hardly bother to add to the list their ultimate creation, Jeff Bridges’ brilliant private eye as incompetent stoner in 1998’s The Big Lebowski, to understand that the Coens’ vision of what a crime thriller should and can be exists on a separate plane to those of other mortals. Compare them with almost any other notable crime film director of the post-studio system era: Scorsese, De Palma, Michael Mann or Tarantino. Fine filmmakers all, arguably, but whose genius emerges from the uniformity in their output, while the Coens’ claim to auteurship lies less in the re-telling and re-treading, more in the constant re-imagining and re-invention.

The handful of non-crime movies in the brothers’ canon maintain sufficient links to their other films to make them recognisably Coenesque, not least through such familiar cast stalwarts as Goodman, Clooney, Steve Buscemi and John Turturro. Barton Fink, their 1991 flirtation with existentialism, is also something of a comment on their own uneasy relationship with the Hollywood industry that has back-handedly succoured their independent spirit, while The Hudsucker Proxy points forward to the mid-Noughties and their homages to vintage and screwball comedy, The Ladykillers (2003) and Intolerable Cruelty (2004).

These last two films represented a lull in the quality of the brothers’ output according to general critical wisdom, but perhaps it should be borne in mind that The Ladykillers was their first attempt at a re-make, while Intolerable Cruelty was a film they scripted for someone else and only agreed to make themselves as a last resort. In a further note of mitigation, The Ladykillers featured Tom Hanks, an actor whose particular star persona just doesn’t seem to sit right in a Coen Brothers movie.

Since then, their critical and commercial star has risen once more with two films in particular, 2007’s No Country for Old Men and 2010’s True Grit, bolstered by the Oscar-busting acting chops of, respectively, Tommy Lee Jones and Jeff Bridges. It’s interesting in both these films to see the Coens taking on a new genre for them, the western, a modern-day one in the former case and, in the latter, a traditional one (and another re-make, no less). The elements that bind these films to the rest of the Coens’ ouevre constitute a run-down of terms most prevalent in critics’ accounts of their work: whimsy, irony, inventiveness, idiosyncracy, human weakness, the uncertainty principle and an obsession with things that roll (like spurs and tumbleweed).

During their nearly thirty-year career to date, the Coens’ movies have won 4 Oscars, 6 Baftas, 3 Golden Globes and 6 prizes at Cannes, all in all a pretty substantial tally. Be that as it may, what makes their films and their talent so vibrant and enduring seems to reach beyond mere critical acclaim, to audiences of ordinary people, seemingly across the world, who love their movies, the characters they’ve created and the stories they’ve told, to the extent where they want to watch them again and again, and in doing so, can still get more out of them.

Coen Brothers filmography

Blood Simple (1984)

Crimewave (writers only; 1985)

Raising Arizona (1987)

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Barton Fink (1991)

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

Fargo (1996)

The Big Lebowski (1998)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

The Ladykillers (2004)

Paris, je t’aime (segment ‘Tuileries’; 2006)

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Burn After Reading (2008)

A Serious Man (2009)

True Grit (2010)

Gambit (writers only; 2012)

Inside Llewyn Davis (2012)

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