Total Recall

Total Recall: Welcome to Coen Brothers Country

A look at the filmography of the two-headed writer-producer-director.

by | November 7, 2007 | Comments

Before expanding wide on November 21,
No Country for
Old Men
(90 percent) will play in select cities this Friday, riding a
wave of huge expectations. (RT dug it at Cannes!) The
Cormac
McCarthy
-based thriller has made big splashes during festivals and it’s
touted as a major comeback for the
Coen Brothers.
What better time to look at the movies that have made the filmmaking siblings so
respected?

Even with seemingly multiplex-ready movies like
Intolerable
Cruelty
(75 percent) and
The Ladykillers

(55 percent), Joel and Ethan Coen have rarely been boffo box office draws. But the
brothers release their movies with surprising regularity, and never seem to have
much problem getting projects off the ground. It’s probably because the duo
makes weird movies. But not too weird. The Coens are essentially genre
craftsmen — crime thrillers, neo-noirs, a stoner comedy here or there — who
finesse their movies with signature arch dialogue and a morbid, mannered sense
of humor. It’s an approach that limits box office but opens countless doors to
produce a loyal and rabid cult following. Here’s a trip through the filmography
of America’s most valued team of auteurs.


Combining the shocks of a slasher film with the moral
ambiguity and twisty plotting of film noir, the Coens’ debut,
Blood Simple

(1984, 98 percent),
shook American independent cinema to its core. Creepy and deliriously
malevolent, its the story of a bar owner who hires a sketchy private eye to kill his
cheating wife (Frances McDormand); double and triple crosses and bloody mayhem
ensues. With their first film, the Coens show an aptitude for the stylistic
quirks that would become their trademark: the balancing the macabre with a loopy
sense of humor.



The first Coen
brothers film to display their knack for quirky comedy, 1987’s
Raising Arizona

(90 percent)
helped seal the filmmakers’ reputation and cement their loyal following.
Nicholas Cage and
Holly Hunter are brilliantly cast as a cop and ex-con
husband/wife who resolve their infertility with kidnapping. Though not their
biggest hit, it’s infinitely quotable ("Edwina’s insides were a rocky place
where my seed could find no purchase.") and original score by Carter Burwell is
not to be ignored.


As an homage to classic gangster movies,1991’s
Miller’s
Crossing
(90 percent) is hypercharged; the language is harsher, the violence
more brutal, the plotting more labyrinthine.
Albert Finney and
Gabriel Byrne
star as Irish mobsters, threatened externally by the Italian mob and internally
by their shared love of a woman (Marcia Gay Harden). In some ways, Miller’s
Crossing
is the Coens’ most straightforward work; while it has a streak of
dark humor, it features impeccable 1920s décor and intriguing tale of loyalty
throughout.


Legend has it the Coens had such a bad case of writer’s
block while writing Miller’s Crossing that they took three weeks off to
script Barton Fink
(1991, 93 percent), a 1930s-set black comedy about — what else? — a
Hollywood scribe with writer’s block. A fledgling New York playwright who sells
out (at the cost of…his soul!) and moves to the City of Angels, Barton Fink
(played marvelously by Coen regular
John Turturro)
holes up in the seamy Hotel Earle, where exquisitely dismal wallpaper peels off
the walls as a heat wave sweats the city. The heat especially ramps up when
Barton’s gregarious neighbor (John
Goodman
) is around; almost hellishly so, you might say. But as every
smart filmmaker is wont to do, the Coens offer no overt explanations of what’s
really going on — just a well-told tale with visual imagery aplenty, and an ode
to the sometimes infernal nature of the creative process.



The Coens spooned
doses of their trademark guileless humor on
The Hudsucker Proxy

(1994, 58 percent), a period office comedy-cum-Christmas tale.
Jennifer Jason-Leigh is pitch perfect in her role as post-war
career woman ("Do you think this suit looks mannish?") against
Tim Robbins‘s
hapless dreamer ("You know — for kids!"). Visionary in many ways, this film
deserves a better reputation than it’s garnered in its odd little sleeper life.



1996’s
Fargo
(93 percent) is
the Coens’ most successful film to date, with seven Oscar nominations and two wins:
Best Actress (Frances McDormand) and Best Original Screenplay. Fargo details a
ransom kidnap scheme gone wrong, with very pregnant cop McDormand investigating
the crime as the bumbling perpetrators attempt to cover their tracks. The Coens’
bleak humor and taste for blood and violence never mixed as well as it did in
Minnesota.



Though many of the
Coens’ films can be labeled cult classics, perhaps none embody the term moreso than The Big Lebowski
(1998, 74 percent).
Jeff Bridges
stars as pot smoking slacker hero Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski, who seeks restitution for his rug, urinated on by a pair of gangsters who
mistook him for a different Lebowski — namely, the “big” one (played by Charles Durning). Along with his bowling buddies, The Dude
embarks on a wild chase that’s as funny, depraved, and plain unpredictable as
Los Angeles always feels like it should be.


With
O Brother, Where Art Thou?

(2000, 79 percent), the Coen brothers took
their thriller tropes (ill-fated criminal plans, ironic stereotypes, and a detached
tone) and magically applied it towards an Odyssey-inspired farce. Starring

George Clooney as the beleaguered but resourceful Odysseus,
O Brother is a
sepia-toned fantasia of throwaway jokes, slapstick, and killer bluegrass. In
fact, the music proved popular enough to spawn a virtual cottage industry with
multiple soundtracks, a documentary, and even a national tour.


Though the brothers have flirted with the shadowy realms of
film noir, 2001’s
The Man Who Wasn’t There

(79 percent) is the closest they come to making a
headlong plunge into the genre.
Billy Bob Thornton stars as a classic fall guy,
and playing the character as a deeply emotionally repressed square, Thornton is
at his most controlled, wringing pathos out of an increasingly dire scenario.
Featuring sharp, evocative black and white cinematography and an excellent
supporting cast, The Man Who Wasn’t There is an existential nightmare
replete with odd touches and arguably the brothers’ most emotionally pained
work.


Demonstrating that their penchant for screwball comedy was not limited to marginal environments or period-piece conceits, the Coens set Intolerable Cruelty (2003, 75 percent) in no less a setting than modern day Beverly Hills. True to the genre, stars
Catherine Zeta-Jones and
George Clooney
are a suing wife and a wealthy divorce lawyer. Untrue to the genre, the stars go
together like a rug and a chair.




The Ladykillers

(2004, 55 percent), a remake of
Alexander
Mackendrick
‘s
1955 crime comedy
, relocates
the film’s original London heist to the Deep South, and swaps the British war widow

for the equally archetypal black matriarch. Though
The Ladykillers
lacks the toothy bite of its macabre predecessor, it garnered
some noteworthy festival awards for long-time Coens cinematographer
Roger Deakins and the
matriarch herself,
Irma P. Hall.

Whether you enjoyed their more recent forays into comedy or not, one thing’s for certain; with the ultra violent No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen mark a return to their darkly comic, sinister roots that made them cult favorites in the first place. Consider it a dip into the Western genre: the story of a hunter and an assassin facing off over a bag of stolen cash, set against the backdrop of the parched Texas plains. With plenty of firepower to spare, No Country not only revives that clever Coen knack for finding humor in the morbid, but it may just be the closest they’ll get to making an all-out action film — and one with valid awards season prospects, to boot. And that, we say, was well worth the wait.

Authors: Alex Vo, Sara Schieron, Timothy Mead Ryan, Nicholas Hershey, Jen Yamato

Tag Cloud

DGA docudrama Comics on TV Shondaland biography all-time Ghostbusters BBC One Pet Sematary hispanic talk show Crunchyroll cults obituary disaster Emmy Nominations Brie Larson directors Apple crime drama VH1 Watching Series cancelled TV series blockbuster Western joker dark Premiere Dates spider-man dc Paramount Network animated Martial Arts sag awards Countdown slashers Star Wars Mudbound technology batman Awards Tour 2019 Year in Review free movies Disney Plus Polls and Games Podcast doctor who Elton John Schedule indie MSNBC what to watch The Arrangement based on movie Certified Fresh rotten twilight El Rey ESPN independent Super Bowl stand-up comedy singing competition sitcom game of thrones Funimation video on demand Sneak Peek PlayStation Shudder Disney streaming service TCA 2017 science fiction Walt Disney Pictures cartoon cops Pop Vudu President anime SundanceTV festivals politics Lifetime Christmas movies The Witch period drama Lionsgate crossover chucky Mary Poppins Returns transformers TCA Awards diversity Valentine's Day BBC America BBC Musicals Acorn TV documentary Mystery boxoffice Photos Television Critics Association toy story Amazon Studios miniseries Disney Channel Country HBO Max Food Network game show Kids & Family Superheroe medical drama Creative Arts Emmys series adventure emmy awards Logo Esquire films comedies Horror Pirates spanish language Sundance Now 007 Sony Pictures Amazon Prime Box Office First Reviews FXX APB Musical WarnerMedia indiana jones Emmys TruTV facebook renewed TV shows Mindy Kaling National Geographic Tumblr Lifetime Sundance parents Comic Book E! Superheroes Bravo teaser HBO Go Dark Horse Comics Sundance TV Extras award winner cancelled television PBS Fall TV Stephen King Holiday television Mary poppins Academy Awards TBS ghosts stop motion jamie lee curtis Marathons Quiz OWN movies ITV rotten movies we love Epix Awards Marvel Television Marvel zombie 2017 concert Black Mirror YouTube Red LGBT Teen strong female leads E3 satire Anna Paquin NYCC WGN social media A24 christmas movies Discovery Channel CMT Music Apple TV Plus cars 45 Biopics aliens discovery Spike true crime hist DC streaming service Christmas Writers Guild of America Rocketman Binge Guide latino book streaming green book Heroines screenings Nickelodeon Arrowverse Classic Film versus Family American Society of Cinematographers Spring TV justice league binge Rock criterion LGBTQ Infographic Marvel Studios Character Guide CW Seed YA Film Disney Adult Swim 72 Emmy Awards History Tubi Animation worst Red Carpet Toys RT History Fox News TIFF Reality Showtime travel elevated horror theme song Grammys Disney+ Disney Plus reviews TCM vampires Hulu TNT halloween a nightmare on elm street romantic comedy spain Comedy Central police drama GIFs 20th Century Fox USA Network Action Masterpiece Turner GoT Spectrum Originals Syfy VOD Film Festival Hallmark Christmas movies 2015 New York Comic Con Fantasy video 2020 IFC Pop TV FOX political drama SXSW Nominations comics Nat Geo Winners The Walking Dead cancelled golden globes romance crime thriller children's TV documentaries Netflix Christmas movies news composers Columbia Pictures movie werewolf 24 frames Warner Bros. 21st Century Fox dragons crime Amazon mission: impossible Trophy Talk 2018 quibi Set visit Hear Us Out Baby Yoda NBC Television Academy Chilling Adventures of Sabrina DC Comics Avengers BET Awards ABC Peacock Interview Tomatazos Video Games Freeform richard e. Grant YouTube stoner YouTube Premium TV renewals X-Men mockumentary Election TV Land Drama The Purge Star Trek Amazon Prime Video revenge CNN Cannes Apple TV+ franchise Ovation Ellie Kemper Summer Comedy Tarantino A&E mutant Starz MCU fast and furious reboot The CW Winter TV Chernobyl Reality Competition south america child's play Mary Tyler Moore superhero dceu San Diego Comic-Con zombies canceled PaleyFest scary movies 71st Emmy Awards kids screen actors guild psycho cats sequel Thanksgiving Endgame TV adaptation Captain marvel asian-american First Look CBS All Access USA nature Calendar breaking bad FX on Hulu BAFTA witnail natural history Britbox harry potter Universal Opinion cancelled TV shows foreign thriller tv talk classics MTV laika Oscars DC Universe Crackle anthology space CBS ratings Travel Channel critics Netflix canceled TV shows cooking robots OneApp AMC DirecTV Lucasfilm See It Skip It Song of Ice and Fire BET supernatural IFC Films RT21 casting universal monsters finale Hallmark blaxploitation 4/20 2016 Best and Worst SDCC spy thriller Holidays VICE unscripted comiccon Turner Classic Movies TCA Winter 2020 cinemax nbcuniversal ABC Family serial killer HBO dramedy Cosplay Women's History Month TLC Pixar Trailer Pride Month Sci-Fi TCA hollywood historical drama psychological thriller FX Paramount Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt war Black History Month GLAAD Trivia spinoff dogs zero dark thirty sports comic Rom-Com die hard best name the review Rocky Cartoon Network