When I was 9 or 10, I watched Raising Arizona on VHS and thought it was one of the weirdest and funniest things I had ever seen. A frequently jailed stickup artist with surprisingly florid diction (Nicolas Cage) and his barren police officer wife (Holly Hunter) kidnap a loudmouth furniture magnate’s quintuplet and run into trouble with two escaped convicts and the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse. I didn’t get it, really, but I didn’t care: It was hilarious and strange, with amusingly quotable dialogue (“I’ll be taking these Huggies and, uh, whatever cash ya got“) and hummable music (the “Ode to Joy” on a banjo, yodeling) throughout. During my high-school years, I caught up with the rest of the Coens’ output and considered myself a fan; their best movie to that point, Fargo, came out just before I graduated and was the first I saw in a theater. I still remember a somewhat pretentious friend explaining before our behavioral science class that Fargo’s opening, with a car driving into “nothing” (an utterly blank expanse of North Dakota snow), was a “standard absurdist trope” or something along those lines.
Deep down, though, I was disappointed. Not in Fargo: That one was brilliant, if disturbing, and I still loved Raising Arizona, too. But I didn’t actually like the other films all that much. Blood Simple, a Texas-set neo-noir, and Miller’s Crossing, a noir-ish gangster picture, were exquisitely crafted (the latter especially), but they didn’t move me. As a fan of screwball comedies, Frank Capra, Tim Robbins, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, I was desperate to like The Hudsucker Proxy. I didn’t. And then there was Barton Fink. Oh, how I wanted to love Barton Fink. A leftist-intellectual playwright goes to Hollywood, struggles to write “a wrestling picture,” meets and is disillusioned by William Faulkner (or a fictionalized version of him, anyway, called W.P. Mayhew), and ends up fleeing his seedy Los Angeles hotel while John Goodman screams, shotgun in hand, the hotel going up in flames all around him, “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” That movie had everything 17-year-old, aspiring-intellectual me could have asked for—including John Turturro (as Fink), Judy Davis (Mayhew’s lover), and Steve Buscemi (a bellhop named Chet). If I remember correctly, I halfway convinced myself I really did like it (maybe more than halfway). In truth, I was baffled. And frustrated. What did it mean? Anything?
In college, feeling more confident, I rented Barton Fink again, and watched it alone, as a kind of test. Fink, in his room, struggling to write, stares at a postcard of a comely woman on a beach. At the movie’s end, after the man from the neighboring hotel room (Goodman) has gone on a murderous rampage and left him with a box that (it is strongly implied) contains the head of Mayhew’s lover, Fink goes to a beach and sees there, in the flesh, exactly the image of that postcard. Why? Was I missing something? My conclusion, on that second viewing: no. The fault was with them, not me, I decided—the Coen brothers were “self-indulgent,” is I think the description I settled on. I didn’t bother to see The Big Lebowski (big mistake, obviously), and so for several years I felt secure in my judgment of the writer-directors. O Brother, Where Art Thou? was pointless and uneven. The Man Who Wasn’t There was chilly and boring. Intolerable Cruelty was downright forgettable. I didn’t bother with The Ladykillers (not a mistake, obviously).
My opinion changed later—not of each of those films (not entirely), but of the Coens’ work as a whole. Before coming to that reversal, though, I think it’s worth sitting for a moment with that earlier reaction. A lot of moviegoers, and a good number of critics, are, in some sense, skeptical of the Coens, dubious of their intentions. No one says that they are bad at what they do, or that their best work is behind them—given their obvious skill and their recent run of movies (almost universally acknowledged to be as good as anything they’ve done), it would be ridiculous to say so. But even in positive reviews, a note of doubt often creeps in. Are the Coens just fooling around? Are they mocking their characters? Are they mocking us? Slate’s Dana Stevens concluded her largely admiring review of A Serious Man by acknowledging that “the doubter in me never got over the suspicion that the Coens may only be fucking with Larry [the film’s protagonist], and with us.”
Nowadays, when I see such skepticism creep into a piece about the Coens, I think of a scene in that very movie, about a physics professor named Larry Gopnik living in a suburb of Minneapolis in the late 1960s. Larry goes to see a rabbi to sort out a difficult run of professional and familial problems. A personal rival of his has just been killed in a car accident at the same moment that Larry himself, in another part of town, had a fender-bender of his own. Is God trying to tell him “that we are all one, or something?” Larry asks. The rabbi responds to this question with another: “How does God speak to us?” He then tells the story of “the goy’s teeth.” The ensuing six minutes are as fine as any the Coens have put on film—and tell us as much about the Coens’ approach to storytelling as they are willing, I suspect, to divulge.
One day, the rabbi says, an orthodontist he and Larry both know noticed Hebrew letters inscribed on the back of the lower front teeth of one of his (goyishe, as it happens) patients. The letters spelled out “Help me.” The orthodontist became obsessed with their significance. He looked in other mouths for other messages, but found none. He used the cabala to assign a number to each letter and made a phone number out of them; this led him to a grocery store. Mystified, he consulted the rabbi. “Tell me, Rabbi,” the orthodontist said, “What can such a sign mean?” And that’s the end of the story. Larry is unsatisfied with this ending. “Why even tell me the story?!” he fumes. The rabbi chuckles, genuinely surprised. “First I should tell you, then I should …” He trails off.
The Coens, who edit and produce as well as write and direct all of their movies, take a supremely God-like approach to filmmaking. All artists are creators, of course, and thus deities of a sort, but you can present stories on film in ways that subvert or undermine that divine position. You can draw on obviously personal and autobiographical material (like Woody Allen, for instance), emphasizing your own role as an imperfect, self-centered observer of what transpires. You can stick to camera angles that imply the sight lines of your characters, as though we’re seeing the world through their eyes—or take a casual-seeming, handheld approach to the camerawork, to make clear we’re not seeing everything.
The Coens don’t do any of these things. They do the opposite of them. Their shots are precisely, even ostentatiously composed (they “storyboard everything“), and often employ superhuman perspectives (moving through a drainpipe, say, to take one notorious example). Their stories are not, in any straightforward way, autobiographical; even A Serious Man, set in the time and place where they grew up, has no obvious stand-ins for Joel and Ethan (the teenage son is a dopey cartoon, and there’s only one of him). And yet despite all this meticulous, everywhere-evident directorial control, their movies do not always make plain narrative sense. What can such a movie mean? If you ask them, the Coens (as anyone who has read their interviews can tell you) will probably say something like, “First I should tell you, then I should …”
After seeing A Serious Man, I watched Barton Fink a third time. I still don’t know why it ends the way it does. But I love John Turturro’s performance, and John Goodman’s, and the whole business with the character based on Faulkner—and the other business with the one based on Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, and Jack Warner. The movie does, I realize now, have something to do with the Holocaust (it’s set in 1940; Goodman, in the middle of the hotel conflagration, in a hallway previously dotted with empty shoes, says “heil Hitler” to a German-American cop before shooting him) and leans heavily on the Book of Daniel, including the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. It’s a nightmare vision of the Jewish writer who goes in bad faith to Hollywood to make some money at a time when millions are being slaughtered. And yet it’s funny. I don’t need to understand it more than that. Not yet, anyway. I’ll keep watching it.
And I’ll keep watching all the rest of the Coens’ movies, too, which have an odd way of illuminating each other. It’s a matter not just of “recurring motifs” (Tricia Cooke and William Preston Robertson have identified six of those in the Coen oeuvre, including “howling fat men,” “vomiting,” and “peculiar haircuts”) but of persistent thematic interests—sometimes expressed by recurring motifs. By my count, at least 12 of the Coens’$2 15 films feature scenes with (mostly old, usually rich) white men sitting behind desks; as symbols of power, these men are not sympathetic characters. More than half of the Coens’ movies include at least one hulking menace, an embodiment of some malevolent force in the universe, like the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse or Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men—or less obviously demonic men like Eddie Dane (Miller’s Crossing), Tom Chaney ( True Grit), and Mike Fagles (A Serious Man). At the mercy of these unpleasant men are our heroes and antiheroes: Fink, Larry Gopnik, Hi McDunnogh (Cage’s character in Raising Arizona), and so on.
These relatively powerless men (and they are, for the most part, men; manhood is itself one of the Coens’ most common themes) move through a world ruled by uncertainty (Heisenberg’s principle makes notable appearances in two Coen movies) and chance (recall the repeated coin toss in No Country for Old Men, the wind in Miller’s Crossing, the many wheels of fortune in TheHudsucker Proxy). This world often seems bereft of inherent meaning (though several of the movies take a measure of comfort in simple human decency: The Coens are not nihilists), and it is haunted by evil and death. It’s also a world rife with misunderstandings and poor decision-making—hence, frequently, comedy. (This outlook, by the way, also informs Ethan Coen’s fiction, drama, and poetry—and perhaps, judging from the descriptions I’ve read, his undergraduate thesis as well: “Two Views of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy.”)
Importantly, for me, this world the Coens have created is not as far removed from the one we actually live in as some critics seem to think. (The phrase “hermetically sealed” pops up in reviews of their films nearly as often as the word “nihilism.”) The movie that won me back to the Coens almost a decade after I discounted them was No Country for Old Men. Like Fargo, it’s about an officer of the law, an ordinary citizen who wants something that isn’t his, and a few criminals. While Fargo (1996) concerns the selfishness and greed of a middle-class car salesman (William H. Macy) trying to live beyond his means, No Country (2007) examines the reactions to an evil man (Javier Bardem) who operates according to his own nihilistic logic. The chief of police in Fargo (Frances McDormand) serves as a contented counterpoint to the grasping Macy, while the sheriff in No Country (Tommy Lee Jones) is troubled and scared, and ultimately gives up, pondering the generations that went before him and “how they would have operated in these times.” I find in these two movies reflections, intentional or otherwise, of the moral and political landscape of the United States in the 1990s and the 2000s, respectively—the cold, creeping materialism of the former decade dominating Fargo; the failure, in the latter decade, to bravely and legally confront a baffling form of evil reverberating in No Country.
Going through their back catalog a second (or, in most cases, a third or fourth) time, I found that the Coens have always kept their eyes and ears alert to the broader social climate. Their first film, Blood Simple, opens with a monologue contrasting America and the Soviets: “In Russia,” M. Emmet Walsh’s private detective says, “they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else—that’s the theory, anyway.” In Texas, on the other hand, he says, setting up the selfish follies to come, “you’re on your own.” In Raising Arizona, a movie partly about unequal distribution (a wealthy couple has five kids, thanks to fertility treatments; a poorer couple can’t have any), Hi says he “tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn’t easy with that son of a bitch Reagan in the White House.” (In the previous scene, a portrait of Arizona’s own Barry Goldwater looks down on Hi’s parole hearing.) The Big Lebowski is a buddy picture about a bellicose, self-righteous Vietnam veteran and a left-leaning former protester, united against an old white man living off the wealth of his dead wife while spouting up-from-your-bootstraps clichés. Burn After Reading (2008) not only sends up the idiocy of Hollywood spy movies but also depicts the ruthlessly efficient incompetence of the CIA—and the widespread loneliness of our shallow, paranoid age. (It’s probably the Coens’ darkest movie, and one of their funniest.)
I don’t mean to suggest that the Coens’ movies are narrowly political, just that Joel and Ethan, as storytellers, have a wide scope—and a broad range: Few filmmakers have a body of work that is at once as varied and as unified as theirs (something delightfully demonstrated by this well crafted YouTube montage). Their movies are fables, really, cinematic folktales that draw on the familiar conventions of Hollywood genres to tell morally charged although often ambiguous stories. And, happily, the Coens seem determined to push themselves each time: Although they never got to make their nearly wordless James Dickey adaptation (To the White Sea—you can read the script online), their most recent film, True Grit, considered safe by some, has, in Mattie Ross, a protagonist unlike any they’d previously attempted: young, female, utterly self-possessed. Like Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski, it’s largely about friendship. Like No Country for Old Men and Fargo, it’s partly about the law. As with all the Coens’ movies, it’s mostly about wonderfully realized characters, who, as is also typical, verge on caricature yet have a vivid particularity that makes them hard to forget and easy to return to. Unlike most Hollywood heroes and heroines, we’re not expected to identify with these characters, I don’t think. But we should see in them many of our own flaws and foibles, as well as those of the crazy-making, capitalist country to which they unquestionably belong.