The Coens have always had an eye to bringing out the best of their material, be it original work or adaptation, with edgy actors who can produce drama and comedy equally well. They successfully tread from the independent film circuit to mainstream cinema in a very short period of time, and their work is of such an obviously high caliber that audiences connected with them not long after critics did, and not even that blind industry ogre, Oscar, could delay giving them top honors. Their acting company contains A-listers and up-and-coming character actors on their way to the A-list. Their biggest-budgeted film was also their biggest failure. And they have such a peculiar sensibility that confounds and even tweaks expectations that their most devoted fans have Coen movies that they can't explain or fathom...and sometimes simply disregard.
But each film is a complicated moebius strip of cruel fate and clueless human failings, reflecting and refracting the rich vein of material from both the cinematic and literary past. It may start as inspiration, but it becomes increasingly Coen to the final frame.
Blood Simple (1984) I read about "the buzz" surrounding this film in Time Magazine, and decided to attend the premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival (complete with Coen Bros. Q & A afterwards). A more violent, solitary and sinister take on James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Double Indemnity, what stuck were the sick sense of humor, the brazen camera moves by DP Barry Sonnenfeld (I always remember that one sliding the bar that vaults the drunk lying across it--they probably wouldn't pull that one today) and the set-piece structure. what was also clear was that the Coens were studious, not content to show the highlights, but to delve into the psychology of the situation. Case in point: the sequence when stud Ray (John Getz) is getting rid of the body of his lover Abby's husband (Dan Hedaya) — he thinks she killed him and is trying to protect her—by driving it in the middle-of-the-night down a two-lane highway surrounded seemingly infinitely by farm-land. He hears the husband begin to wake up, and in a moment of panic pulls over and flees the car, running into the field.
And stops. And stands there, looking at his car with the lights on, sitting on the freeway with a not-quite-dead body in it. And there's a perfect Coen situation: what do you do? What can you do? You have to go back, or else someone's going to find the car--your car, with the body inside--eventually, but you're scared to death to go back. You have to go back. There's no choice. he has top go back. And the Coen's don't cut a frame of the entire terrifying walk back. Hitchcock meets Truffaut...again. Only Hitchcock would never be so rural.
At the Q&A, the low-key Coen's took the amused audience's questions with matter-of-fact answers, until one blow-hard schlumpfed to his feet. "Why so much blood?" he yelled at the stage. The Coen's blinked, looked at each other. Joel said, "It was dramatically necessary." Ethan, said "People bleed, man." "Bullshit!!" said the questioner. It was a portent to the violent reactions that the Coens would generate no matter what movie they made, what genre they explored. You can't please everybody.
Raising Arizona (1987) Picketed at the time of its release (because a baby was used in the stunt sequences--one wasn't, of course--but you can't tell that to biddies with signs!!), The Coen's mordant sense humor is on fine display on their first out-and-out comedy.
The comic sense of "Raising Arizona" is as dry and dead-pan as its desert locations, and its peripatetic zinging around the flat-lands (both in terms of the protagonists and the camera work) has the speed and geometry of Chuck Jones's "Road-Runner" cartoons.Nicolas Cage is H.I. McDunnough, Picasso-asymmetrical in his look, even has the hang-dog look of Wile E. Coyote. As his better quarter in "The Family Unit," Edwina (Holly Hunter) is all bantam chicken-hawk, chest out and lines belted to the loges...in the theater across town. The ying/yang-zing-zing of the McDunnoughs would be enough for most films, but "Raising Arizona" has peripheral characters of mythical proportions threatening their double-wide existence, including John Goodman and William Forsythe as former prison acquaintances, who literally rise up from the Earth, and Randall 'Tex' Cobb as a smouldering biker-"warthog from Hell." Invaluable in the mix is Trey Wilson as Nathan Arizona, the unfinished furniture King whose family's sudden density inspires the childless McDunnoughs to baby-napping. The energy the Coen's instilled in "Raising Arizona" was probably siphoned some of the nitrous oxide of their crony, Sam Raimi, who's "Evil Dead" movies have the same sort of manic intensity. The intensity would remain. The mania would occasionally re-surface.
Miller's Crossing (1990) Coen Brothers, formalized. When they turn serious, the Coens turn very serious, and their first study without a hint of the sly, off-putting humor is this small scale mob movie with big themes in the style of Dashiell Hammett. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is a foot-soldier in Big Leo's (Albert Finney) bootleg whiskey business during Prohibition, in a small industrialized eastern town. Despite their differences, rival hood Johnny Caspar (the wonderful Jon Polito), is polite enough to request that his gang "whack" loose cannon Bernie Bermbaum (John Turturro). Bernie is brother to Leo's moll Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), and so refuses, despite the complications the duplicitous Bernie causes to both sides. Tom would like to see Bernie gone, because he's also seeing Verna on the side, and the complicated loyalties/disloyalties he engenders will turn to blood-shed on both personal and business levels. A great cast telling a subtle story, with just a tinge of Bertolucci atmospherics, Miller's Crossing is a full-blooded masterwork.
Barton Fink (1991) The Coens experimented with surrealism in Raising Arizona, but they turn the stage completely over to that realm with this satire of hypocritical "kitchen-sink" theater writers slumming in Hollywood screenplays. Barton Fink (John Turturro) is clearly based on Clifford Odets, the leftist-playwright who named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee ("I'll show them the face of a true radical" Odets crowed, only to cave and name names when he appeared). Fink, fresh off another theater triumph, signs on with Capital Pictures to write a Wallace Beery wrestling movie and retreats to the Hotel Earle, whose eerie deformities and distractions only enforce his writer's block on the subject. Part of it is lack of inspiration. Part of it is that East Coast intellectual Fink knows little of hard-knock reality, except what he can romantically invent. Visits by working stiff travelling salesman Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) (whom Fink dismisses to his detriment) and alcoholic writer W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) only complicates matters. "Barton Fink" is such an angry, vindictive film that it's more off-putting than entertaining, but the visual and sonic inventiveness of the Coens is on full display to make the audience...and Fink squirm in their chairs (This is the first Coen film photographed by their essential collaborator Roger Deakins). But despite their obvious animosity towards Fink, they allow him to emerge from their creative Hell, more or less unscathed...but still a bit myopic.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)The first genuine bomb created by the Coen's, this big-budget collaboration between the brothers, producer Joel Silver and Sam Raimi told a Capra-esque pastiche by way of Preston Sturges and Ayn Rand about an up-and-coming business student (Tim Robbins) assuming a corporate position under false pretenses, who manages to save the failing Hudsucker Company with the most worthless of inventions—the hula-hoop. If it weren't the story of "Wham-O" it might be bizarre enough a story to tell. As it is, the film strains any good feelings it has by stilted performances from Paul Newman and Jennifer Jason Leigh and a production that seems to care more about the architecture and the whizzing camera-work than anything resembling character. Silver, who was a mega-producer at this point, producing many of the Schwarzenegger action movies and the "Die Hard" series seemed to have the magic touch at this stage of his career, and threw all sorts of money into this project only to see the film rejected by audiences even as a cult hit.
The Coens were angling for respectability with The Hudsucker Proxy. But returning to their roots with their next film garnered the attention they were seeking.
Fargo (1996) "THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred."
Yeah, not so much, I think. Despite an opening crawl that says the story is based on true incidents, the crimes of "Fargo" never happened, but might have been pieced together from several incidents. Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), frustrated trying to secure income from his father-in-law (Harve Presnell) conspires with a couple of roughnecks (Peter Stormare, Steve Buscemi) to kidnap his wife and hold her for ransom.
Then, what the heck, things go terribly, terribly wrong.
Fitting nicely in the "terrible mess" school of comedy (where well-organized plots go hilariously awry), the kidnapping-gone-wrong is soon being investigated by the highlight of the movie (among many) in the character of very pregnant Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who sweetly waddles through the horrific story looking at clues with a clear eye and common sense. Audiences loved Marge ("You betcha!") and feared for her, travelling as she did, the first true moral compass to appear in the amoral Universe of a Coen Brothers movie.
Next: The Coen Brothers (The Cosmopolitan Years)