What Makes a Coen Brothers Movie a Coen Brothers Movie? Find Out in a 4‑Hour Video Essay of Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men & More

What could movies as dif­fer­ent as Bar­ton FinkThe Big Lebows­kiNo Coun­try for Old Men, and True Grit have in com­mon? Even casu­al cinephiles will take that as a sil­ly ques­tion, know­ing full well that all of them came from the same sib­ling writ­ing-direct­ing team of Joel and Ethan Coen, bet­ter known as the Coen broth­ers. But to those who real­ly dig deep into movies, the ques­tion stands: what, aes­thet­i­cal­ly, for­mal­ly, intel­lec­tu­al­ly, or emo­tion­al­ly, does uni­fy the fil­mog­ra­phy of the Coen broth­ers? Though it boasts more than its fair share of crit­i­cal, com­mer­cial, and cult fan favorites, its auteurs seem­ing­ly pre­fer to mark their work with many sub­tle sig­na­tures rather than one bold and obvi­ous one.

Cameron Beyl, cre­ator of The Direc­tors Series (whose exam­i­na­tions of Stan­ley Kubrick and David Finch­er we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture), finds out just what makes a Coen broth­ers movie a Coen broth­ers movie in his sev­en-part, near­ly four-hour set of video essays on the two Jew­ish broth­ers from the Min­neso­ta sub­urbs who went on to make per­haps the most dis­tinc­tive impact on the zeit­geist of their gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can film­mak­ers.

He begins with the Coen broth­ers’ Texas noir debut Blood Sim­ple and sopho­more south­west­ern slap­stick Rais­ing Ari­zona, then goes on to their larg­er-scale post­mod­ern peri­od pieces Miller’s Cross­ingBar­ton Fink, and the Hud­suck­er Proxy.

The next chap­ter cov­ers their break­out films of the late 1990s Far­go and The Big Lebows­ki, and then two high­ly styl­ized pic­tures, the Odyssey-inspired prison break O Broth­er, Where Art Thou? and the black-and-white noir The Man Who Was­n’t There. Then come Intol­er­a­ble Cru­el­ty and The Ladykillers, two 21st-cen­tu­ry screw­ball come­dies, fol­lowed by their “pres­ti­gious pin­na­cle,” the acclaimed four-pic­ture stretch of No Coun­try for Old MenBurn After Read­ingA Seri­ous Man, and True Grit.

The final chap­ter (below) looks at the Coen broth­ers’ two most recent works, both of which take on the cul­ture indus­try: Inside Llewyn Davis, the tale of a would-be 1960s folk star, and Hail, Cae­sar!, one of ear­ly-1950s Hol­ly­wood.

Beyl’s analy­sis brings to the fore both the more and the less vis­i­ble com­mon ele­ments of the Coen broth­ers’ movies. The for­mer include their fond­ness for his­tor­i­cal and “mid­dle Amer­i­can” set­tings, their repeat­ed use of actors like John Good­man, Steve Busce­mi, Frances McDor­mand, and John Tur­tur­ro, and their ten­den­cy to move the cam­era with what Beyl sev­er­al times describes as “break­neck speed.” The lat­ter include eas­i­ly miss­able place and char­ac­ter inter­con­nec­tions (for instance, how Bar­ton Fink and Hail, Cae­sar!, set a decade apart and made a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry apart, involve the same fic­tion­al Hol­ly­wood stu­dio) and their simul­ta­ne­ous deploy­ment and sub­ver­sion of genre con­ven­tions, pos­si­bly owing to their life­long “out­sider” per­spec­tive.

But above all, noth­ing sig­nals the work of the Coen broth­ers quite so clear­ly as their ever-more-refined mix­ture of zani­ness and bru­tal­i­ty, which Beyl puts in terms of their mix­ture of dis­parate film­mak­ing influ­ences: Pre­ston Sturges on one hand, for exam­ple, and Sam Peck­in­pah on the oth­er. This comes with their films’ built-in resis­tance to straight­for­ward inter­pre­ta­tion, a kind of plea­sur­able com­plex­i­ty that pre­vents any one sim­ple his­tor­i­cal, social, or polit­i­cal read­ing from mak­ing much head­way. In fact, as Beyl acknowl­edges in the first of these video essays, the Coen broth­ers would prob­a­bly con­sid­er this sort of long-form exam­i­na­tion of their work a waste of time, but if it sends view­ers back to that work — and espe­cial­ly if it sends them back watch­ing and notic­ing more close­ly — it does a favor to the rare kind of mod­ern cin­e­ma that actu­al­ly mer­its the word unique.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the Coen Broth­ers Sto­ry­board­ed Blood Sim­ple Down to a Tee (1984)

Is The Big Lebows­ki a Great Noir Film? A New Way to Look at the Coen Broth­ers’ Icon­ic Movie

How the Coen Broth­ers Put Their Remark­able Stamp on the “Shot Reverse Shot,” the Fun­da­men­tal Cin­e­mat­ic Tech­nique

Tui­leries: A Short, Slight­ly Twist­ed Film by Joel and Ethan Coen

World Cin­e­ma: Joel and Ethan Coen’s Play­ful Homage to Cin­e­ma His­to­ry

Dis­cov­er the Life & Work of Stan­ley Kubrick in a Sweep­ing Three-Hour Video Essay

How Did David Finch­er Become the Kubrick of Our Time? A New Series of Video Essays Explains

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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