Inside Llewyn Davis comes out next month, which means the world will soon get another chance to bask in the quirky warmth generated by a Coen Brothers release. Thoughtful artists that they are, and possessed of a professional maturity that has developed considerably over three decades, the Coens usually take their sweet-ass time between projects. This is an entirely good thing, too, for the boys spend this time crafting unique characters within distinct worlds, ones eerily familiar to our own, yet just off-kilter enough to generate a specific Coen-flavor. The best directors do this: they establish a familiar foundation upon which they continuously develop and evolve over time. This is what keeps audiences coming back: that specific flavor, that recurring set of themes that transcend a movie and the epoch it inhabits. Although the scripts have gotten tighter, and the performances increasingly crisp, there is an unmistakable set of rules and traditions that can be found running through all of the Coen Brothers’ pictures, something the 10rant is keen to celebrate today.
As always, if you feel the 10rant left anything out in the discussion below, feel free to leave a comment at the bottom. The points for today’s list were selected based on the recurrence of specific events or characters, and how they acted when put in similar situations to those in other Coen Brothers pictures. There might not have been enough time to mention and/or cite specific examples from EVERY movie in the Coen catalogue that applied to a point, so again, feel free to elaborate on anything that was overlooked. Aside from that, there’s not much else to say. Shall we?
[Examples: Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, Miller’s Crossing, Raising Arizona, The Man Who Wasn’t There]
We’ll start with probably the most obvious lesson within the Coen catalogue, and that’s one regarding unnecessary intervention. Take “The Dude” (Jeff Bridges) for example. In The Big Lebowski, this unhappy pilgrim got caught up in a nasty little extortion scheme, one The Dude could have easily walked away from at the meager cost of a (admittedly choice) rug. Yet the lure of a quick windfall lured the aging hippie into the twisted little drama, and The Dude agreed to act as the bag-man; what followed was nothing short of a disaster, as The Dude’s chariot got thrashed, some strange artist chick got pregnant (by him), and his buddy “Donnie” got himself killed. Getting involved was even tougher on “Leo” (Albert Finney) from Miller’s Crossing, for the Irish crime boss had to go to the mattresses, full-bore, because he got caught up with some grifter broad whose no-good brother needed unwarranted protection. Still, as it concerned nasty consequences for getting unnecessarily involved in matters that didn’t concern the main character(s), it didn’t get a whole lot worse than the fate that befell “Llewelyn Moss” (Josh Brolin) in No Country For Old Men. Moss wandered into what was clearly a drug deal gone bad, and could have simply walked away and gone on with his life, yet the draw of a big bag of cash was too much for the man, and a pile of bodies followed in that decision’s wake.
Of course, if one wants to seek out empty, meaningless tragedy, they need not look much further than “Chad Feldheimer” (Brad Pitt) from Burn After Reading, whose stupidity got him shot in the face, a fate slightly better than the one the kidnappers endured in Fargo, which was essentially a cinematic clinic on how to make poor, unnecessary decisions. Really, the list could go on and on. Whether it was Billy Bob’s “Ed Crane” going in for the loony dry cleaning scheme in The Man Who Wasn’t There (which, surprise-surprise, ended in murder), or the great baby kidnapping caper of Raising Arizona, Coen Brothers characters that go off the beaten path to get involved in questionable endeavors almost always find their asses in the wood chipper (figuratively and otherwise). Normally, money was the driving factor behind these characters’ involvement in some unwieldy or impractical scam, one that they could have just as easily avoided had they not stuck their neck out for a chopping. Yet as this next point should clearly illustrate, in the Coen Brothers universe (and the one we inhabit)…
[Examples: True Grit, Burn After Reading, No Country For Old Men, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Ladykillers, Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy]
The perpetual chase after an ill-gotten fortune is probably the most consistent theme within the Coen catalogue, and has gotten Joel and Ethan’s characters into more trouble than anything else listed today. And this wasn’t just something audiences saw via blind cash-grabs like in No Country For Old Men (though there was plenty of that as well); no, in the Coen universe, greed knows no bounds. This was certainly the case for Paul Newman’s “Sidney J. Mussburger” from The Hudsucker Proxy, who tried to manipulate stock prices (and the value of his portfolio) when he installed a dummy as company President. Mussburger would have probably gotten along pretty well with Jeffrey Lebowski (not to be confused with “The Dude”), who used his wife’s unannounced trip to Palm Springs to orchestrate an embezzlement. Bill Macy’s “Jerry Lundegaard” in Fargo also tried to use his wife as a bargaining chip in an embezzlement scam, something that pretty much destroyed his life wholesale. Still, all three of these schemes paled in comparison to the complex robbery devised by “G.H. Dorr” (Tom Hanks) in The Ladykillers, where false identities and serious drilling/tunneling equipment was required. Yet it wasn’t all fancy flash and mirrors.
As mentioned in the discussion of #10, Moss thought he had himself one hell of a windfall early on in No Country For Old Men, that is until a paroled demon from the fifth circle of hell took form and started chasing his ass around Texas with a silenced shotgun. “The Dude” thought he was going to be up a couple grand just for making a kidnapping drop in The Big Lebowski, just like “Visser” (M. Emmet Walsh) though he had himself an easy ten large after he shot “Marty” in Blood Simple, yet again, there is no easy buck to be found in the Coen universe. In The Man Who Wasn’t There, “Ed Crane” figured that his blackmail scheme was fairly sound, and that his life would be enhanced by the expected dry cleaning windfall, yet because of Ed’s greedy scheming, “Big Dave” killed “Tolliver,” which led to Ed’s execution via the electric chair (oh, and Ed’s wife killed herself, too). Indeed, whether it’s an old man chasing a bounty (see True Grit), a husband looking to scare up some extra cash via a kidnapping (Fargo), or some dummy looking to extort a tenured C.I.A. man (see Burn After Reading), quick-buck schemes usually don’t go as planned, and often end badly (see #10 for more on that). And while the fact that there is no such thing as easy-cash should come as little surprise to most audiences and film characters, the people that have populated the Coen Brothers universe never seem to catch on, which is probably the result of…
[Examples: The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading, Fargo]
Jesus-tap-dancing-Christ: do these guys know how to direct dummy characters, or what? It’s hard to pinpoint just one, or even two characters as perfect examples of this trend, for if a Coen Brothers movie didn’t feature an idiot as its lead, then that character was probably surrounded by stupidity on nearly all fronts. Examples of this abound throughout the filmmakers’ canon, and in varying degrees, for there were the no-nonsense, dumb-as-shit folks like “H.I.” (Nicolas Cage) in Raising Arizona, whose perpetual imbecility saw him locked up for a good chunk of his life, much like George Clooney’s “Ulysses Everett McGill” from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, who would have needed fifty I.Q. points to pass a 5th grade equivalency exam. Still, both of these goons would have been able to tutor “Chad Feldheimer” (Brad Pitt) from Burn After Reading, who possessed the intelligence of a euthanized lab rat. Yet even the slightly more perceptive characters within the Coen universe weren’t all that bright, or were too stoned to pass as anything resembling a functioning member of society.
This was the case in The Big Lebowski, where “The Dude” (Jeff Bridges) eventually caught on to what was going on, but only after a few days (and several dozen tokes) to chew on all the madness and sort it out. Likewise, though he wasn’t the most perceptive or savvy person in the world, “Norville Barnes” (Tim Robbins) from The Hudsucker Proxy eventually got a handle on the twisted schemes that saw him installed into a position of power, yet it was only after the dummy had been led around by his nose for a few months, and manipulated into spearheading a corporate fraud scam. Usually caught in the crossfire of a world’s drama firing too fast for them to keep up, these dummies sometimes emerged from the chaos alive, though at other times, they weren’t so lucky. The consistent factor running through all of their adventures usually involved them in an unholy mess that their stupidity made worse before anything was allowed to get better. Tough though this may have been on the characters, it’s been a hoot for audiences, especially when these characters (some of them idiots) made desperate, rash decisions…
[Examples: The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Miller’s Crossing, No Country For Old Men, The Ladykillers, Barton Fink]
Now, while most of the life-lessons we’ve covered up to this point have operated within the bounds of reason and practicality (i.e., getting involved is bad, chasing a quick buck is dumb, etc.), this one goes a bit against the grain. When put in a really tight spot, rash, wild-eyed action isn’t usually the way to go, yet for characters in the Coen Brothers’ world(s), it’s often the only recipe for success. Take, for example, the escape affected by “Ulysses McGill” (George Clooney) and his crew in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, both from their chain gang and from the burning barn they found themselves trapped within not even a third of the way through the picture. Although the first break might have been somewhat reasonable (if ill-advised), the second was nothing short of miraculous, for the boys were surrounded by a heavily armed posse, inside a structure just minutes from collapse, and escaped due largely to the efforts of a pre-teen getaway driver. This attack-or-die attitude was shared by “Leo” in Miller’s Crossing when the crime boss was similarly ambushed, and survived only because he reckoned (correctly) that the best defense was a good offense. “Barton Fink” (John Turturro) definitely subscribed to this philosophy, for the film that bore his name saw the man immediately (and with freakish nonchalance) dispose of a body after waking up next to it with no recollection of how it came to that state.
John Goodman’s “Charlie Meadows” was integral to this disposal project in Barton Fink, just as he seemed to be for “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski, where Goodman’s “Walter” was privy to pretty much every aspect of his best friend’s sudden twisted drama. In that film, Walter was essentially the embodiment of the Coens’ rash-action philosophy, for whether he was making a drop with a little Uzi protection, or facing off against a squad of nihilists, the man always took his dilemmas boldly, head-on, and by the horns. For a while, this strategy worked out pretty well for “Llewelyn Moss” (Josh Brolin) in No Country For Old Men, who survived as long as he did only because he confidently jumped ship or started shooting anytime he got a whiff of something amiss. Hell, even “G.H. Dorr” (Tom Hanks) in The Ladykillers got in on this, for when cornered by the police, the man reverted to what was almost certainly a shitty childhood, and hid under the bed! It worked, too! Indeed, in the Coen universe, such action is entirely acceptable, nay, necessary, for tough times often call for even tougher decisions. This probably wouldn’t usually be necessary if the various police departments within the featured communities were a bit more on top of things, however, which brings us to our next point…
[Examples: Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, Burn After Reading, No Country For Old Men, The Ladykillers, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There, O Brother, Where Art Thou?]
The Coens haven’t maintained a particularly good track record when it comes to their cinematic treatment of law enforcement officials, something that has probably led to a dearth of invitations to policeman’s balls and sheriff’s conferences for the idiosyncratic pair. Even when the cops in their films are at their best, like operating at peak efficiency, they’re still too far behind the action to make any kind of a difference. “Marge Gunderson” from Fargo was probably the best representative of the profession within the Coen cannon, yet even she was too slow of foot (or pregnant) to do much more except walk in on an orgy of murder and misery whilst the last leg was getting shoved into the wood chipper. Sure, she was able to bag one of the kidnappers, and her good work led to the apprehension of “Jerry Lundegaard” (William H. Macy), yet by that point the damage had pretty much been done. This was essentially the same fate that befell T.J. Jones’ “Sheriff Ed Tom Bell” in No Country For Old Men, who was a damn fine investigator, and an even better human being, yet was miles away from seriously contending with the fantastically evil forces at work in his small corner of Texas.
Those two Smokies never really had a prayer, yet they were still light-years ahead of the morons wearing badges in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Raising Arizona, which was populated by a crop of criminals so dumb that a group of college campus rent-a-cops could have collared the whole lot. In Miller’s Crossing, the cops were so laughably corrupt and pliable that the boys in blue actually spoke openly about it! “Look, don’t nobody ask me, since I’m just the Chief around here…I know I don’t know nothin’.” Hell, even the goddamned C.I.A., pretty much the biggest, baddest law enforcement agency this side of the K.G.-fucking-B., even it couldn’t keep up with the mess that spiraled out of control in Burn After Reading. And while the cops did find The Dude’s car in The Big Lebowski, and successfully caught up with “Ed Crane” in The Man Who Wasn’t There, they never came close to getting at the truth of what was really going on in either film, and served little purpose except to torment the main characters a bit. Hell, the head cop in The Ladykillers couldn’t even find a guy hiding under the bed, and the “detectives” in Barton Fink were so comically inept that they let a murder suspect burn a hotel down in their presence. Yet this is the world these law enforcement officials inhabit, and it’s a skewed, slightly off-kilter universe where powerful people hold immeasurable power, and can manipulate the doings of the peasants around them at their leisure…
[Examples: No Country For Old Men, Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading, The Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Raising Arizona, Fargo]
Many critics have written about the themes at work in Barton Fink, probably the most symbolically rich and metaphorically textured piece in the Coen cannon. In that film, the title character, played by John Turturro, repeatedly expressed his desire to write for “the common man,” yet the author’s every word and action seemed to betray this instinct in what developed into a swirling tangle of urban lust and Hollywood vanity. In that film, Barton failed to live up to his studio’s plastic expectations, and as a result, he was relegated to a writer’s wasteland where he wasn’t allowed to leave, yet had no chance at a meaningful career. The cocky east coast playwright tried to reform the Hollywood ethos, and like a pesky mosquito, was thoughtlessly swatted aside by an indifferent and all-powerful industry machine. “Llewelyn Moss” tried to steal from a drug cartel with corporate connections in No Country For Old Men, and had every facet of his life practically erased from existence as a result. “The Dude” tried to play Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski, only to get his ass drugged and roughed up by the Malibu Police Chief (clearly, Mr. Treehorn had connections).
Yes, it’s a long, sad laundry list of poor, unfortunate souls who tried dancing amongst more seasoned tango artists within the Coens’ universe, for whether it was “Norville Barnes” attempting to exert his will over the board in The Hudsucker Proxy, or “Johnny Caspar” (Joe Polito) looking to make a move on “Leo” in Miller’s Crossing, these power-plays rarely worked. Hell, even the eternally corrupt and crotchety “Pappy O’Daniel” (Charles Durning) from O Brother, Where Art Thou? was able to hold on to his office, for an incumbent, Coen Brothers universe or no, is a hard thing to beat. Yeah, when it boils right down to it, whether it was a pair of young lovers looking to start a family by stealing that desired portion from a wealthy family (Raising Arizona), or a corrupt car dealer looking to extort a little money from a wealthy father-in-law (Fargo), these ploys always ended horribly for those involved, and rarely resulted in anything less than a death or two. This shouldn’t be something one takes lightly, either, for as the Coens have demonstrated time and again…
[Examples: Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Fargo]
Oh my: how did we get so far into this conversation without covering so vital a topic? Admittedly, this one is a bit flexible in its scope, for in the Coen Brothers cinematic dreamscape, there are severe consequences to fucking both a stranger AND a known-acquaintance in the ass, but let’s start with the former. As it concerns strangers, there was no better example to site than the Larry Sellers incident from The Big Lebowski, where “Walter” made it clear that random stranger ass-fuckings would not be tolerated. “Llewelyn Moss” also stole from a stranger (or cartel of strangers…whatever), and suffered terribly as a result, for the act led not just to his murder, but his wife’s as well. Though not outright thievery, blackmail schemes didn’t work well for “Chad” in Burn After Reading, or for “Ed Crane” in The Man Who Wasn’t There; for Chad, his fucking of a stranger in the ass is what got him killed, yet barber Ed Crane blackmailed a guy he knew quite well, a man who (ironically) was fucking Ed’s wife (whether it was in the ass or not remained a mystery).
Yet as was mentioned at the beginning of this point, the Coens have never made much of a distinction between their presentation of the consequences of fucking a stranger versus a familiar in the ass, as both actions have played out badly for their characters. “Jerry Lundegaard” from Fargo tried to extort money from his father-in-law, something that led to the death of Jerry’s wife, her dad, both kidnappers, and a handful of innocents caught in the crossfire. In Miller’s Crossing, “Bernie” (John Turturro) thought he could skim off the fight info he was getting from “Johnny Caspar” (Joe Polito), something that should have just gotten him killed, but instead was the impetus for a full-fledged mob war that saw dozens of people butchered. Yes, if audiences have learned nothing else, it’s that random metaphorical ass-fuckings are not the way to go, for they often lead to severe responses far worse than whatever nastiness originally inflicted. This horror is usually the work of a singular, particularly nasty individual, too, for when the Coens go shopping for bad guys, they don’t skimp!
[Examples: O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, Raising Arizona, True Grit, Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing]
The Coens don’t make movies with moderate villains: oh my, no. Sure, there were some shitty, no-good assholes that didn’t necessarily take the leap into full-blown evil, but the main baddies, the unmistakable paragons of doom: they have always been easy to spot in the Coen universe. Take, for example, what is probably their most famous villain, Javier Bardem’s “Anton Chigurh” from No Country For Old Men. To be fair, the character belonged to Cormac McCarthy, whose literary incarnation came to life onscreen so viscerally that the Academy practically shoved the Oscar into Bardem’s hand. Cold, ruthless, and possessed of a singular purpose that a tidal wave couldn’t interrupt, “Chigurh” followed in a long line of scary-as-fuck Coen Brothers characters who had a hard-on for the film’s lead, and didn’t seem to so much as sleep when on their quest to make amends with that person. Though not as ominously terrifying, or supernaturally persistent, “Visser” from Blood Simple also had an inescapable, never-say-die disposition that gave the character a portentous, almost menacing quality that would appear frequently in subsequent Coen Brothers offerings. It definitely found a home in the movie the Coens did after Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, where the mysterious, mostly-silent biker/bounty hunter (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb) scoured the Earth for his assigned charge.
The same could be said for “Sheriff Cooley” (Daniel von Bargen) in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, who seemed personally invested in the capture and execution of McGill and his crew. Yet these bad guys weren’t always the silent, spooky type. In Miller’s Crossing, for example, “The Dane” (J.E. Freeman) had plenty to say, something that actually made him scarier. While it’s true that the man didn’t say much, when he did speak (and especially when he acted), the audience knew damn-well that the hitter meant business.
Thug: “If I tell you, how do I know you won’t kill me?”
The Dane: “Because if you told me and I killed you and you were lying, I wouldn’t get to kill you THEN!”
It was only a lucky, well-time shovel-shot to the The Dane’s face that kept the enforcer from choking the life out of “Tom” (Gabriel Byrne), who made out a lot better than most of the Coen Brothers characters that have had one of these abnormally scary men on their trail. Indeed, True Grit was a movie almost entirely concerned with the story of one (admittedly older and broken down) of these scary fuckers (Jeff Bridges’ “Rooster Cogburn”), and it went to great lengths to show how poorly things turned out for those who got on his bad side. Yet in most cases these scary bastards wouldn’t have been necessary if the main characters hadn’t done a dumb thing (or things), one that was almost always rooted in an illegal action that often brought nasty people from out of town into the mix…
[Example: Raising Arizona, No Country for Old Men, The Ladykillers, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Fargo, Blood Simple, O Brother, Where Art Thou?]
For whatever reason, be it the proclivity of the Coen Brothers to put eccentric people on the road in their films, or the broad cinematic understanding that strangers from out of town often rock the boat, travelers in the Coens’ movies often spell trouble. Whether it’s hired help contracted from outside the area, like in Fargo, Blood Simple, or No Country For Old Men, or just a nefarious bunch coming into town unprompted to execute their own schemes, like in The Ladykillers, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, or Raising Arizona, the lesson stands: out of town folk are bad news. Hell, even the people who came into town with good intentions often fucked shit up just by being there, for in The Hudsucker Proxy, hayseed “Norville Barnes” (Tim Robbins) ruined all kinds of well-laid plans with his small-town-inspired good intentions, and in The Man Who Wasn’t There, “Creighton Tolliver” (Joe Polito) got four people (himself included) killed for trying to get a dry cleaning operation off the ground in a community that clearly wasn’t ready for such excitement.
Actually, about the only time the Coens flew in the face of this convention was in The Big Lebowski, where Sam Elliott’s “Stranger” character acted as little more than an impartial observer to the madcap events unfolding all around him. Normally, at least in the Coen universe, this guy would have been the one pulling the strings on all the kidnapping and extortion fronts, and should by all rights have emerged from the shadows of the parking lot, from behind the flaming wreckage of The Dude’s car, to exact revenge on all those who had stood in his way. It wasn’t to be, however, not in that particular cinematic outing, anyway. While many of the familiar themes we’ve discussed today played out as expected in The Big Lebowski, in this, there was a variance. Yet the lesson should stand: when dealing with Coen Brothers characters, the unfamiliar stranger from out of town is simply not to be trusted. Truly, if nothing else, they might lead a person astray, away from the domestic tranquility afforded by a stable home, and a trusting, monogamous relationship…
[Examples: Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading, Miller’s Crossing, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Barton Fink, Raising Arizona]
This one essentially goes without saying (or, rather, it should), yet the Coens have circled back around to this point a number of times, so we’ll spend a moment dissecting it. Like teenage sex in a slasher flick, marital infidelity is usually a harbinger of bad things to come in the Coen universe. Their first film, Blood Simple, used this plot point as the central axis upon which all the events pivoted, the consequences of which proved disastrous for all characters involved. Likewise, in Burn After Reading, infidelity mixed with abject stupidity formed a volatile stew that destroyed everything it touched. In The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ed’s wife, “Doris” (Frances McDormand), certainly didn’t push the murderous events forward as a result of her tryst with “Big Dave” (James Gandolfini), but the affair certainly didn’t go over well with Ed, whose subsequent blackmail schemes were at least partially inspired by the despair caused by a cheating wife’s actions. At times, it got worse than this, too. The nasty love triangle that sprung up between “Tom,” “Leo,” and “Verna” in Miller’s Crossing was the spark that lit the film’s powder keg, and in Burn After Reading, the naughtiness of Clooney’s “Harry Pfarrer” character actually got a couple people killed!
While it wasn’t always as dramatic and violent as all this, marital infidelity has certainly carried some painful consequences, even when it was mostly consensual. Take as a case in point the actions of “Bunny Lebowski” in The Big Lebowski, whose accepted nympho lifestyle drove her elderly husband over an edge, and eventually got what felt like half of L.A. involved in one of the messiest, most confusing crime capers in movie history. A solid ass-kicking landed on “Glen” (Sam McMurray) for suggesting a possible wife-swap arrangement to “H.I.” in Raising Arizona, a lesson “Barton Fink” (John Turturro) might have heeded when he got involved with “Audrey” (Judy Davis), who was wrecking homes all over town in the picture that bore the main character’s name. Though it hasn’t appeared in every Coen Brothers film, those instances where a person decided to step outside of a relationship to test other, more unfamiliar waters, they’ve all ended the same way: badly. Only time will tell if the brothers’ newest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, follows this trend, or any of the others listed this day. One thing is for sure, however, and that’s the trust we audience members have in the Coen’s giving us another movie staffed with fascinating characters that can’t help but to make the same mistakes as all their predecessors, mistakes that the world seems to delight in when crafted and presented by familiar, expert hands.