It’s been a bleak few years for dedicated followers of the Coen brothers after the triple whammy of The Man Who Wasn’t There (sharply divided opinion), Intolerable Cruelty (disappointing) and The Ladykillers (even more so). And then, since 2004 – zilch. So the rave reviews that greeted No Country For Old Men, not to mention its recent Oscar success, make this an excellent moment to look back and review their pre-No Country body of work.
The Coen’s recent stumbles came as all the more of a surprise, given the confidence with which they initially eased themselves into one genre after another, reworking each to fit their deadpan and idiosyncratic vision. Blood Simple arrived totally out of leftfield, its slasher-movie-meets-bedroom-farce plot giving devotees of ruthless black comedy cause to cheer. Raising Arizona drew on the frenetic slapstick conventions of classic Warner Bros animation, turning its zany kidnapping intrigue more pinball than screwball. And those who had Joel and Ethan pegged as heartless jokers found themselves wrong-footed by the dark, moody stylishness of Miller’s Crossing, a pastiche of ’30s crime movies fashioned with a loving attention to detail and an authentic, noirish sense of inescapable fate.
BUILDING A REPUTATION
Watched today, the Coens’ early films come up as fresh and assured as ever, each one of them creating a wholly coherent mood and milieu, sharpened by the brothers’ instinct for casting and their exact ears for dialogue. The oddball Coen rep company kicks in with a vengeance in Barton Fink, with John Turturro and John Goodman as the Laurel & Hardy from hell, creepy supporting roles for Steve Buscemi and Jon Polito – and the gloop-sweating, spontaneously combusting Hotel Earle (an emanation of Barton’s psyche) as much a character as any member of the cast.
Even The Hudsucker Proxy, widely tagged as the Coens’ first misfire, looks better by the year, with its gleaming art-deco vision of corporate arrogance, even if the plot does slide rather too close to the feelgood mainstream. But it’s with the central trilogy of Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? that Joel and Ethan hit the heights. In these three standouts, all the unique elements of their work – skewed humour, eccentric plots, loquacious dialogue, generic borrowings, stylised visuals, outrageous violence and a relish for regional stereotypes – mesh into a richly satisfying mix.
Fargo is (ironically enough, given its snowy setting) the warmest of their films, thanks to Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning turn as the shrewd, slow-spoken and heavily pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson. Along with her husband Norm, she represents safe and sane normality – especially next to the skittering panic of Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macy), the cold arrogance of his father-in-law Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) and the dumb brutality of inept heavies Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare). In fact, they’re the first normal people to appear in any Coen brothers movie.
Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski isn’t normal by any standard – except maybe those of a West Coast pothead convention – but he’s utterly lovable nonetheless (“It’s good knowin’ he’s out there, the Dude, takin’ her easy for all us sinners,” muses Sam Elliott’s Stranger.) It’s no secret that the Coens love to borrow and then mercilessly subvert literary models – Blood Simple derives from James M Cain, Miller’s Crossing from Dashiell Hammett. The Big Lebowski spoofs Raymond Chandler, with the Dude as a doped-up, clueless version of Philip Marlowe. Despite this, it’s the only Coen film to date in which nobody gets killed. The sole death – of the dumb, likeable Donny (Steve Buscemi)
– is accidental.
Based on Homer’s Odyssey, the classical tale which the Coens later admitted they’d never read, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is an ironic hymn to all things Southern – the bluegrass music, the old-time religion, the lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan. It’s all centred around an appealingly self-mocking performance by George Clooney as the pomade-obsessed Ulysses Everett McGill, a chain-gang escapee who’s on a quest to win back his wife. The humour is laid-back, folksy and subversive… who else but the Coen brothers would dare turn a Klan meeting into a Busby Berkley musical spectacular?
The most underrated of all the Coen films, The Man Who Wasn’t There, brings existential angst to the tale of an inwardly tormented small-town barber whose emotions, while fierce enough, are locked away behind a stony facade. Shot in gleaming black and white by the Coens’ regular director of photography Roger Deakins, it features a rivetingly underplayed performance from Billy Bob Thornton. But of the two movies that followed – the Clooney/Zeta-Jones rom-com Intolerable Cruelty and Ealing remake The Ladykillers – it might be kinder to say nothing…
Apart from Coen connoisseur Eddie Robson’s 48-page booklet, the extras offer nothing new and some of the films (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy) remain vanilla. In the case of O Brother we lose out on quite a few cherishable goodies from the two-disc Special Edition – the bluegrass concert and the music video of ‘I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow’ are an especially sad loss. But riches elsewhere in this set provide ample compensation.