They sent George Clooney on an Odyssey-inspired trip through America’s outh, won the Palme d’Or with a film about writer’s block they initially wrote to overcome their own writer’s block and turned a pregnant Minnesota police chief into a crime-solving hero. Tales of Nicolas Cage stealing a baby, The Dude abiding and bowling, a captive bolt pistol-wielding killer and a struggling '60s folk singer are all also on their resume.
Indeed, if Joel and Ethan Coen were to write and direct a movie about their filmmaking careers, a title card stating “this is a true story” wouldn’t go astray. Unlike their two-time Oscar-winning comedy-thriller, Fargo, those words would prove accurate. The brothers’ output might appear eclectic, as though it couldn’t possibly be made by the same duo, but there’s no doubting a Coen film — from their neo-noir debut, Blood Simple, through to the comic love letter to old Hollywood that is Hail, Caesar!
The Coen brothers essentials
It’s a classic line in one of the Coen brothers’ classic comedies, Raising Arizona. “I think I got the best one,” Nicolas Cage’s HI McDunnough tells his wife, Ed (Holly Hunter), moments after kidnapping a baby the pair plans to raise as their own. It’s also a statement that could apply to most of the filmmaking duo’s features. When Barton Fink won the Palme d’Or, Best Director and Best Actor at Cannes, it was hailed as a masterpiece. Then came Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man, True Grit and Inside Llewyn Davis.
When it comes to the Minnesota-born auteurs and their cinematic output, the symmetry and parallels keep on coming. Sometimes they’re mere nods, like the setting of Fargo and A Serious Man, or drawn from their own lives, such as the latter feature’s insight into the Jewish community within the Coens’ home state. Sometimes, they’re playful, as seen when The Big Lebowski’s comedic chaos springs from two men with the same name. Barton Fink’s creation when the pair was tussling with the script for Miller’s Crossing is well known, and it’s easy to read their own Hollywood experiences into several other features. Among them, The Hudsucker Proxy’s tale of an everyman battling a powerbroker behind a desk, Inside Llewyn Davis’ quest for artistic rather than commercial fulfillment and Hail, Caesar!’s portrait of the film industry.
In the process, the siblings have amassed an intriguing collection of movies to their name. It’s a resume filled with comic capers like Burn After Reading, plus crime dramas such as The Man Who Wasn’t There. And it’s one with big hits, as seen in the four-time Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men and 10-time nominee True Grit, as well as swings and misses such as Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. Simmering within each, however, are homages to a plethora of filmmaking styles and genres, a fondness for black comedy and amusingly repeated lines, visual daring that turns the camera into a character and unconventional figures only the Coens’ could write. Where their protagonists are concerned, they’re all searching for meaning in their lives — against the odds, in unusual circumstances and with their distinctive personalities. Perhaps art imitates life again there, too.
Three things you mightn’t know
- Other than his own short films, Joel Coen’s first filmmaking credits stem from his time as an assistant editor, including on Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead.
- While they share writing, directing and producing duties on all of their features, Joel was always listed as the director and Ethan as the producer until 2004’s The Ladykillers.
- For their next project, the Coens’ will write and direct their first TV series, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. A Western anthology for Netflix, it will tell six tales about the American West across six episodes and star O Brother Where Art Thou’s Tim Blake Nelson as the titular character.
Six films you really need to see
Raising Arizona: As zanily amusing as Blood Simple was tightly thrilling, the Coens’ sophomore feature is the most enjoyable and amusing film about stealing a baby that’s ever been committed to celluloid.
Barton Fink: A potent example of the Coen brothers’ disdain for fitting neatly into any genre, this tale of a writer struggling to pen a script is filled with existential horror, surrealist drama and noir touches, as well as a compelling performance by John Turturro in the eponymous role.
Fargo: The film that sparked several others — and an anthology TV series — with its untrue “true tale” once again demonstrated the Coens’ mastery of both bleak material and dark comedy. And their inventive use of a woodchipper.
O Brother Where Art Thou: In this jovial jaunt through the Depression-era South, the Coens’ “took the Odyssey, which they’d never read, and adapted it,” as George Clooney explains.
No Country for Old Men: Javier Bardem’s commanding portrayal of his murderous character is matched by the Coen brothers’ total command of tone, tension and thrills in what proves a stellar adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name.
Inside Llewyn Davis: Featuring a standout performance by Oscar Isaac and a memorable folk soundtrack to match, Inside Llewyn Davis turns a musician’s sorry personal and professional plight into cinematic poetry.
Who’s sharing the Coen brothers love?
George Clooney: A fan as well as a star of the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou, Intolerable Cruelty, Burn After Reading and Hail, Caesar!, Clooney says he’s seen The Big Lebowski 50 or so times.
Carter Burwell: Burwell made his composing debut with Blood Simple and has scored 15 of the Coens’ 17 features. He also provided additional music for O Brother Where Art Thou, but wasn’t involved in Inside Llewyn Davis.
Jeff Bridges: Forever immortalised as The Dude in The Big Lebowski, and also earning an Oscar nomination for True Grit, Bridges calls the latter a masterpiece, but admits he’s obviously biased.
John Turturro: A frequent Coens player throughout the '90s, Turturro featured in Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou, while also winning Cannes’ Best Actor award for Barton Fink.
Alex Karpovsky: Seen in Inside Llewyn Davis and Hail, Caesar!, the Girls actor considers the Coen brothers “pretty much my favourite filmmakers on the planet”.
Scott Tobias: A film critic with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, NPR, Vulture, The Guardian and more. Read Tobias’s in-depth Coens’ primer for The AV Club.
Mary Zophres: Nominated for an Oscar for her work on True Grit, the costume designer has worked on every Coen brothers film since Fargo.
What should I watch next?
Watch the Coen brothers discuss four of their features on SBS On Demand:
Regular episodes air on Tuesdays at 10:20pm, but you can stream The Vice Guide to Film examining The Coen Brothers now at SBS On Demand: