Following the release of the Coen Brothers’ latest release – Hail, Caesar! – critic Joe Ryan counts down his five favourite Coen classics.
The latest offering from the Coen Brothers, Hail, Caesar!, has received some rave reviews. The comedy, performances, direction and the dance numbers all seem to have been well received and the film seems tipped to be one of the highest grossers of the year. Commentators are saying that the Coens have, once again, outdone themselves. Such a statement, to a dyed-in-the-wool fan of their work, is a bold claim as their back-catalogue would leave many a director green with envy. Hopefully, these 5 films will convince you why. Keeping this list relatively short was a tall order. As such, honourable mentions have to go to The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men and Raising Arizona. However, there are only 5 spots to give, so here are my top 5 films from Joel and Ethan Coen.
5. A Serious Man
With a penchant for outlandish characters and seedy occurrences, this 2009 film showed a more domesticated side to the Coen Brothers’ work. The life of a Jewish physics professor in 1960’s Minnesota as he goes through a messy divorce and investigates sabotage in his application for tenure initially seems a decidedly drab and mundane topic for the Coens to tackle. However, their mastery of the dialogue scene (helped in no small part by Roger Deakins’ stark and uncompromising cinematography), along with the vibrancy and dark humour of their characters, and an accomplished central performance from Michael Stuhlbarg, bring the film to life and transform it into something far more engaging. A Serious Man is a contemplation of cosmic order, of the ease with which we bend principle and morality, and of a man clutching at straws as his life descends into chaos.
4. Miller’s Crossing
The mafia movie is an oversubscribed genre. From Coppola to Scorsese and all the De Palma’s in between, fans know the dangerous world of the mobster in great detail. So do the Coens. Their homage to gangster films and noir is perhaps their most cine-literate feature to date. Owing more to the gritty, prohibition era mob tales of Jimmy Cagney (The Public Enemy and Angels with Dirty Faces, in particular) than the romanticised depictions set in the twilight of the mafia’s power, the Coen’s crafted a powerful story of shifting loyalties and the dehumanising effects of violence. Once again darkly comic and littered with strong performances from an excellent ensemble cast (particularly Coen stalwart John Turturro), Miller’s Crossing is an immensely rich film that rewards subsequent viewings with a meticulous attention to detail and control that has become a hallmark of the Coens’ films.
Perhaps the most heart-warming film about the investigation into a vicious murder ever made, the fact that two seasons of a TV series have resulted from this film speaks to the depth and breadth of this film’s world. However, the TV series doesn’t have Frances McDormand. Her performance as Marge Gunderson, the folksy, heavily pregnant Minnesotan officer assigned to the case, has become one of the most iconic performances of all time, earning McDormand a much deserved Oscar. The deceptively complicated plot, dealing with a dangerous kidnapping and insurance scam that goes fatally wrong, moves along at a surprising pace without ever seeming hurried. In fact, the machinations of the eponymous town, with its knitted jumpers and vaguely Scandinavian accents, seem decidedly low-key. A film about the all-consuming nature of greed and sowing the seeds for the Coens’ pre-occupation with a brutal yet judgmental universal order, Fargo is a true American classic.
2. Blood Simple
The Coens’ debut feature and, in many ways, their purest and most straightforward film. One of their films containing no comedic elements whatsoever (a rarity for the Coens) and made on a shoe-string budget which itself was raised through a fake trailer made for the film by the Coens, Blood Simple offers a stripped down look into the dark, violent undercurrent of American society. A revenge tale about a bar owner who hires a private detective to kill his wife and her lover, Blood Simple is the genesis of much of the themes present in the Brothers’ later work. The eerie atmosphere of a violent modern Western (later recreated by the Coens in No Country for Old Men) makes this film a tough watch even today. There is a bleakness and an ever-present danger to this film, bordering on horror, handled with such care and attention that I can scarcely believe that this was their first film. It behoves any fan of the Coens, or of modern American cinema in general, to see this film.
Whilst many a Coen fan would extoll the virtues of The Big Lebowski until they’re blue in the face, it is Barton Fink that is their underappreciated masterpiece. A hard film to quantify without spoiling it, the best thing to be said of Barton Fink (perhaps the best thing to be said of any film) is to go into it blind and let it surprise you. John Turturro’s playwright turned Hollywood screenwriter encounters a hell all his own when checking into the wrong hotel in this masterful period piece. Replete with symbolism and an oppressive and uncomfortable atmosphere, the Coens demonstrate their ability to sell outlandish characters and events to their audience with total commitment. To my mind, this is the best film about Hollywood, the best Coen brothers’ film and one of the greatest films ever made. A stylised character piece? An existentialist drama? A psychological horror film? Barton Fink is all of these and so much more besides.
Article by Joe Ryan.