Joel and Ethan Coen, aka The Coen Brothers, have maybe the most distinct crucial characteristic which makes one a Great Filmmaker: voice. Being able to dazzle with technique and wordplay isn’t necessarily enough to enter this pantheon. The Greatest Filmmakers create universes within which their characters operate and are easily distinguishable from any world another director might create. The extended beauty of The Coens’ works is that while their contributions to the pop vernacular are obvious even to the neophyte, they have equally great work which extends beyond what is their accepted realm of genius.
While the Coens are the second entrants breathing this particular Monkeys Fighting Robots rarefied air, our first entry, Michael Bay, might have asphyxiated directly out of the womb if it weren’t for Joel and Ethan Coen. The most interesting characteristics of Mr. Bay’s work are when he’s attempting to ape the notions of what it means to make a “Coen Brothers’ Movie” (Mr. Bay’s films take such a hard left turn from actual Coen aesthetic that it’s unfair to call him a ripoff but credit must be given where it’s due). Idiosyncratic collections of characters put through the wood-chipper of mundane, yet extraordinary life are the meat and potatoes of Coen Universes.
[Caution! Clip contains NSFW language!]
Each Coen Universe is immediately recognizable whether it be through the weekly bowling league you and your buddies enjoy (The Big Lebowski), your pregnant wife going about her job because she believes in duty and keeping busy (Fargo), trying to come to terms with the fact your art is passing you by without asking permission (Inside Llewyn Davis) or stealing a baby to raise as your own whilst running from a biker maniac who might actually be a demonic minion of Satan (Raising Arizona — ok maybe not that last one). The people living these lives aren’t that far removed from ourselves. They might be the hyperreality of what it means to have PTSD or a song in your heart but their plights are the same as ours. The extents of the circumstances in The Big Lebowski or Inside Llewyn Davis help to illuminate the truth of what it means to be looked upon as an outcast or a talent who is being overlooked.
The Coens have become known for their humor and for excellent reason with Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? being prime examples. Their genius has garnered even more critical acclaim when they look into the deeper and darker recesses of the human condition. No Country For Old Men secured the Coens much Oscar gold (if you take that sort of thing as credence) but, more importantly, placed a populist, consumable sheen on material that isn’t easy and never lets the audience off the hook. The Coens previous work also tells us this (Donny’s ashes being blown back into The Dude’s face in TBL is funny but also darkly realistic) but when placed within this realm of true evil and not giving us easy answers of what that evil actually is or how, if even at all, you can actually defeat it resonated deeply with audiences. The fact that No Country probably isn’t even their greatest film is another testament toward the longevity of the Coens’ relevance.
Outside of the Coen Brothers’ typical directorial work, they’ve turned in some interesting scripts for movies you might never recognize as their work. Did you by chance realize the Coens are nominated for an Oscar this year? They helped pen Steven Spielberg’s latest work, Bridge of Spies and I would dare anyone to point out to me a blatantly traditional Coen tic in that film. I’d love to also see the list of films they’ve worked on without credit.
Essays and dissertations and think pieces galore could be made from any single one of the Coens’ films including their “lesser” work (Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers being fair, yet still interesting examples). Delving deep into why things go where and how the camera acts as perverse instigator and what the plight of the unwilling hero truly means and blahblahmetaphorblahbiddyblahblah isn’t what makes Joel and Ethan Coen’s films important works of human art. It’s Nicolas Cage loving a baby he can’t possibly take care of in Raising Arizona. It’s the lovable simplicity of Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading. It’s Rooster Cogburn’s (Jeff Bridges) unwilling paternal instinct in True Grit. It’s the MUSIC of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s the hideous absurdity of Barton Fink. Joel and Ethan Coen create skewed windows into our own lives with their films and it is a beautifully joyous ride each and every time.
The Coen Brothers’ latest film, the comedy Hail, Caesar! opens this weekend. I can’t wait to add a Channing Tatum performance into the Coens’ pantheon of great characters.
”Undisputed Collection of Greatest Filmmakers” is a semi-regular column that attempts to place today’s working directors into a pantheon of greats, only surrounded in fellowship by talent of equally unparalleled measure. This collection is non-refundable.
Check out the previous directors enshrined in this collection (with more to come!):