Throughout their careers, Joel and Ethan Coen have made some of the best movies of the last thirty years, with some of the best character work… ever, really. What makes the Coens’ work so immediately likable, is that the pair take established genres and turn them inside out, involving characters and plot elements that stretch the stories into something unfamiliar. There’s always an element of chaos.
This month, we dedicated a series of brunch and midnite screenings to The Coens’ early work, screening some of their most popular movies: Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy. These are their A-Sides, their hits. Some of our favorite Coen Brothers films, though, are a bit more divisive.
Joel Coen met director Sam Raimi when he worked as an assistant editor on Raimi’s The Evil Dead. After that came Joel and Ethan’s first film, Blood Simple, the two of them collaborated with Raimi on the script for what became Raimi’s second feature, Crimewave. Though tinkered with by the studio, the movie still stands as an interesting marriage of the Coens’ dark streak and Raimi’s Three Stooges sensibilities. About a pair of Muppet-voiced hitmen going on a late-night rampage and the dork they frame for their crimes, Crimewave plays like a perverted, live action Warner Bros. cartoon.
Miller’s Crossing (1990)
What’s right and wrong when you live in a world without rules? This is the quandary at the heart of Miller’s Crossing, the Coens’ third film. In an effort to keep the peace between his boss and an up-and-coming mobster, mob advisor Tom Regan has decisions to make: is it okay to kill a man whose actions didn’t affect you? Can you follow a person that gave you those orders? “I ain’t embarrassed to use the word – I’m talkin’ about ethics.”
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
A film noir in the Double Indemnity vein, The Man Who Wasn’t There follows a nobody, an emotionally distant small-town barber, who hatches a blackmail scheme against a man who he suspects is porking his wife. This being a film noir, someone ends up dead, and the wrong person gets fingered for the crime. Billy Bob Thornton’s affectless performance as Ed is its greatest strength — especially his long, weird existential ramblings about hair, dirt and the soul.
Burn After Reading (2008)
Being a spy is hard. It takes a specially attuned mind to navigate the world of espionage, where one false move can earn you a bullet to the head. In Burn After Reading, the Coens’ twisted take on the D.C. spy thriller, there are no spies. There’s a paranoid Treasury Department employee, an alcoholic CIA analyst, a couple of gym rats, all of whom are climbing over each other to get at a lost disc of “high level spy shit,” that’s really just a couple of bank statements left in a gym locker by a careless divorce attorney. While not their most well-rounded comedy, Burn After Reading might be the Coen’s funniest film. It’s a snipe hunt with mid-level government clearance — also, there’s an oscillating dildo chair.
A Serious Man (2009)
A lot of critics dislike the Coens’ mean streak. The duo does have a tendency to put their put their characters through hell just for the sake of it, but it’s never as simple as that. A Serious Man is a kind of modern Job story, but one that’s filled with some of the most delightfully strange sequences the Coens ever put to film. There’s an aged sage who quotes Jefferson Airplane, a set of teeth with Hebrew etched along the back, and — my favorite — a bar-mitzvah from the perspective of a terrified, super-duper-stoned little boy.
*Removed an accusation of misogyny in A Serious Man because the writer forgot to remove it in the first edit. Professionalism.