Life, for Joel and Ethan Coen, is steadily hurtling toward disaster. Their world is one of constant, albeit absurd, danger. Whether it be Steve Buscemi getting shot in the face in Fargo or the more drawn-out, Job-esque fate of Larry Gopnik in their vastly under-appreciated film, A Serious Man, the Coens seem adamant in showing the world as a huge, strange mine field where it appears as if no one is safe. There are few filmmakers who create such deliberately deathly cinematic landscapes (though Peckinpah and Tarantino do come to mind). Every aspect of their movies, from the cinematography to the setting of their stories, adds to this atmosphere peril. (Think of the blood slowly seeping through the upholstery of John Getz’s car in Blood Simple.) Yet, the filmic creations of the Coens are not ones of mere savagery and callous death. The Coen Brothers hone in on this danger and imminent death to make profound philosophical statements. From their debut to their most recent film, the Coens have been probing the depths of the American subconscious through their exploration of crime, angst, fear, and the comedic absurdity that surrounds it all. As Camus used the novel to communicate his ideas and life philosophies, the Coens use filmmaking, and they do so in a way that feels not didactic, but interesting, entertaining, and immensely detailed in the best way possible. They are the philosophers of a world of blood and the very best at what they do. This is a look at the work of Joel and Ethan Coen and how, exactly, they create their worlds of myriad danger.
The Gift of Sound and Vision
For a great novel to become truly great, it needs a compelling story as well as fully formed and alive characters. However, the prose seems to be the most important aspect. It is the tool with which the author communicates. Without good prose, the novel is next to worthless. Of course prose alone cannot carry the book. The confluence of each and every one of those separate factors (story, character, etcetera) makes for novel that can, with no reservations, achieve the title of greatness. Yet, without quality prose, the novel is nothing less than desultory–a car without wheels. It can’t run on the wheels alone, but without wheels, is it even a car?
Enter: Cinema, the widest-reaching of all the art forms. The reason films are so popular is because of how clearly the medium can convey ideas and stories. A viewer can be illiterate and still understand and enjoy the films of Charlie Chaplin. They are clear, concise, and universal; they are based on their visuals. Whereas prose is the structured language of literature, the art of visuals function as the communicating agent in film. It doesn’t matter what’s in the screenplay; all ideas are filtered through the lens.
The Coen Brothers are the best visual prose stylists in the world of film working today, perhaps ever. They communicate what they want to say with the utmost lucidity, and not only that, but they do it with flair. The Coens take full control over their visuals. Not only do their shots look damn good (and they do look damn good), but they express and communicate in a way that few other directors’ work seems to do. Beyond that, they imbue every frame of their films with that aforementioned danger and urgency. Their films look distinct. Not only are they clear and expressive but each shot is very clearly a Coen Brothers shot.
All of their movies have worlds that feel lived in and look weathered. The cinematography (often done by the brilliant Roger Deakins) rings with a glorious clarity that seems simultaneously real and paradoxically fantastical. Watching a Coen Brothers film feels as if one is watching some absurd, fractured documentary. Inside Llewyn Davis seems almost rigidly realist at times, yet, that sense of almost other-worldliness always prevails. Everything is eerily authentic, but there’s still an underlying sense of the surreal (and dangerous) that tells the viewer: This is a movie. Even then, however, one can’t be quite sure. Is this a movie? That almost reality-bending nature of the Coens’ movies is very much a result of their immaculate visual sense.
Take Barton Fink, for example, a film that reaches so far into the depths of surrealism it almost becomes a literal nightmare trip. In the very beginning, the audience is introduced to the hotel where John Turturro’s titular character will be spending most of his time. It begins with a slow and laborious dolly down the hallway of the hotel, with an ambient, industrial purr quietly droning in the background. The shot produces a chilling discomfort the likes of which haven’t been seen since Kubrick’s The Shining or Lynch’s Eraserhead. It’s a simple tracking shot along the hallway, but with the Coens’ sensibilities, it becomes so much more. No Country for Old Men, a film many consider to be the sibling duo’s masterpiece, utilizes the Coen’s penchant for impeccable visual communication in a similar manner. In the very first scene with Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh character, Chigurh is shown strangling a police officer to death while wearing handcuffs. The camera circles the two like a vulture would prey as they struggle viciously on the floor of the police station. There is no soundtrack accompanying the scene besides the slight, crying squeak of the officer’s loafers. Later, his feet are shown strewn limply next to the floor, marked up terribly from the shoes. The fury of black streaks on the floor looks almost funny, like a poor modern art painting. Yet, the scene that just took place is one of the most horrific in the film. That juxtaposition of the droll and the dangerous is just part of what makes the Coens such interesting and virtuosic artists. They know what to focus on and when to do it. They know when a soundtrack is needed (see: Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me” in The Big Lebowski or really anything in Inside Llewyn Davis) and when it isn’t (see above). Their eerie tweaking of the real (the quietly horrific squeak of the officer’s shoes, for example) is the clearest exemplification of their genius, even more so than their oft-lauded (and rightly so) screenplays.
On that note…
Talking Good For The Hell Of It, For Everything
When compiling a list of the best dialogue writers in the movie industry, a few names seem almost obligated to spring up. P.T. Anderson, Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin, and Charlie Kaufman are all regulars on lists of the sort. The Coens, too, seem to occupy a perpetual place on the “Best Working Screenwriters” list. Yet, there’s no one whose spot seems quite as earned as theirs does. Where guys like Tarantino and Kaufman are hugely agile in the craft, they are undeniably idiosyncratic writers. This isn’t necessarily to their detriment, however, the Coen’s have the odd situation where they do have a distinct dialogue style but still manage to make everything they write feel universal and grounded very much in reality. As wonderfully perfect as something like Pulp Fiction is, the film still exists in its own, cartoonish world. The Coen’s have films like that too, O, Brother Where Art Thou?, for example. On the whole, however, their dialogue feels both realistic and hilariously distinctive.
The scenes of endlessly quotable linguistic tomfoolery in films like The Big Lebowski (“Don’t be fatuous, Jeffrey.”) feel not only funny but also believable. There’s lots of seemingly unnecessary back-and-forth between characters that eventually leads to the main point of the scene. They use the humor in the mundane to work towards something more important, and more often than not, more insidious. There is that trademark absurdity, too, but not enough to take one out of the movie. When the brothers want to be austere and dramatic, they seem to have no trouble switching gears. The infamous coin-toss scene in No Country for Old Men works as a tremendous example of this.
Here, Anton Chigurh engages in a dialogue with a very confounded and increasingly unnerved convenience store cashier. Chigurh eventually takes out a quarter and asks the cashier to “call it.” It’s never states outright, but there’s no question that the cashier’s very life is on the line. The future of everything he has hinges on the fate of that circular disk of copper and nickel. It’s a heavy scene, thematically, and in many ways unlike anything the Coens have written before. Yet, it does still seem very much their style. Underneath the tension and McCarthyian fatalism, there’s an almost-humor, a sense of facetiousness that should undercut the intensity of the scene but instead only enhances it. Bardem’s final delivery, “Don’t put it in your pocket…Then it’ll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. (beat) Which it is,” seems textbook Coen.
Again, with their dialogue, the Coens succeed so well because of their pairing of the mundane and insane. A conversation about the weather soon evolves into a genuine life-or-death scenario, and it all feels wholly natural. The trajectories these conversations take seem aimless at first but soon come to a startling, and weirdly sensical, conclusion. What seems shapeless at first soon reveals itself to be as deliberately structured as an architectural blueprint.
I sit now and write a collection of words that I feel might at least come close to aptly describing the work of the Coen Brothers. I try to get at the surrealism, at the sense of underlying danger inherent in their wonderful, wonderful films. Yet, I still feel that I’ve fallen short. Perhaps it is because I am not good enough a writer, or perhaps it is because all great art has an intangible quality about it. Words can be twisted and spun and arranged to create something of an idea of why the particular artwork succeeds, but justice for the art never truly seems to be dealt. There’s always something missing. We cannot quite get at the power, the magic, of it all. For the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, I feel a particular frustration. They have such a large, diverse, and interesting body of work that summing up how and why it works in a thousand or so words seems futile. Their films are ones of quietly boiling danger, of shocking violence steeped in absurdist comedy. They are period pieces and genre films, films that defy definition, and films that seem a direct comment on not only our society today, but society throughout time. How can one boil them down to an article? It seems almost insulting to the brothers themselves. They are beyond mere articles and thinkpieces.
Still, we try. Still, we attempt to define and boil down and explain. We tap and type away at our keyboards like Barton Fink himself, trying to get at something greater that feels so present yet so indescribable. We type and type until our skulls are hollowed out and our fingers are withered and bloody. We type and there is nothing. We type until all that remains is the faint, terrible squeak of the police officer’s loafers on the linoleum floor.
This is the world of Joel and Ethan Coen. We’re all just living in it.