The Coen Brothers - Filmmaker Feature by Sarah Smeaton
Joel and Ethan Coen have filled our screens with their original and gripping pieces of cinematography since the 1980s, and whether you’re a lover or a hater, what I think everyone has to admire is their diversity. What I personally love about them so much is that they’re clearly not concerned with staying inside safe genre territory. In fact, it would appear that over the years they’ve tried to do everything within their power to enter into as many genres as possible (whilst being epic at pretty much all of them at the same time). There aren’t many directors out there who can be so well-accomplished and admired in such a vast array of subjects. Here I take just a short look into their fabulously eccentric work to date.
Joel Coen’s first break in film directing came in the early 1980s when he met Sam Raimi and took an assistant editorial role on The Evil Dead. It was thanks to this step up that in 1984 the pair were able to make their first film debut together with their own written and directed, Blood Simple. And what a way to kick off their career. This film was to be the marker for many of their films to come, ringing with film noir aspects throughout and ominous scenes that you just can’t look away from, even though at times you very much might want to. Three years later, the Coen brothers make it known they won’t be sticking inside genre parameters, with the fun, wry comedy Raising Arizona. And so the bar is set.
Diversity and Raw Imagination
The Coen brothers have gone on to create some of the most diverse, critically acclaimed movies of their time. On paper how on earth does Fargo and The Big Lebowski have the same director? And it’s not as if these two were turned out with a huge amount of space in-between, with just four years dividing them. Every single one of the Coen films pushes just into the right side of eccentric for me. These guys are not frightened to step away from ‘normal’ boundaries. They embrace this, and in doing so embrace their audience and encourage every single viewer into reimagining their morals, decisions and even life direction. Throughout their filmmaking, they’ve cleverly and excellently depicted real life, and it’s this play on ‘normality’ and the mundane that I think is so effortlessly captivating about their films.
No Country for Old Men, is a brilliantly dark and macabre film based on the novel by the fantastically talented Cormack McCarthy, and what a combination. The Coen brothers and McCarthy. I’m not sure I could have dreamed up a more beautiful, disturbing combination had I had the choice. This film is ceaseless in style and merciless in content from start to finish. A true masterpiece that at the same time leaves you, as is so often with Coen brother films, somehow deflated at the ordinariness with which such brutal scenes can be carried out. The fact there’s even room for comedy in this morbid film is mind boggling. Take the scene where the rather large receptionist at the trailer park holds her own against Anton Chigurgh’s hold-no-prisoners attitude, right alongside another seemingly effortless murder. Juxtaposing horrifically violent scenes with elements of comedy is in itself quite an awkward thing to watch and to emotionally participate in as a viewer, but it’s through bold, honest techniques such as this that the Coen brothers will forever be standout directors.
These films, no matter the comedic content are largely raw in form (refreshingly so) and all are extremely introspective, often following the lives of very ordinary people, caught up in strange/abnormal situations. Take one of their greatest works, Fargo. In such a saturated genre, Fargo stands miles apart from the crowd. It, like many Coen films, follows true events and everyday characters, holding the camera light on them for just that bit longer in order for the viewer to get a shockingly realistic glimpse into their lives. Marge Gunderson is as far as you can get from the badass, superhuman crime hunters that are forever coming out of US film. Yet this makes her more endearing to us and enables us to have open empathy for her from the word go. And in The Big Lebowski, The Dude is so laidback he’s horizontal yet comically lands himself into all sorts of mayhem over a ruined rug, on a day that started like any other in his bachelor lifestyle, where his biggest highlight of the day was drinking several White Russians. If he was actually an uptight, rich, successful guy, being extorted for money, would we engage with him as much as we do? Never. It’s for this reason, and all the Coen’s simple, unobtrusive characters that their films continue to stay oppressively buried within your mind for a lifetime.
Hail, Caesar!, the Coen’s latest work has a distinct film noir quality to it, and despite the myriad of sub-plots, which could have been distracting, I was held captivated throughout. For I think that’s what Joel and Ethan do so well; provide snippets into people’s lives, and add complex layers over the top of what are essentially simple baseline plots. It’s not a clean cut movie, but since when have any of their films been that? If anything, I found this to be one of the most openly self-reflective films that they have achieved, and rather brave with the topics that are covered underneath the humour, which admittedly is somewhat stagnant in too many places. Hail, Caesar! stars a passionate director with a complete lack of control on cast selection, poor writers and a lot of inward criticism against the bank rollers in the movie industry. This is far from a thoughtless comedy, delicately covering much deeper themes and therefore has to still generate respect to these guys.
Will the likes of Fargo and The Big Lebowski ever be topped? Unlikely. But if these guys can keep on providing us with evidence of real life on the big screen, I know one thing’s for sure, I’ll remain an avid fan.