Watch: One Person, One Frame: The Coen Brothers’ Embrace of Human Imperfection

Watch: One Person, One Frame: The Coen Brothers’ Embrace of Human Imperfection

The compassion of the Coen Brothers cannot be ignored. It shows up everywhere: in their storylines, which demonstrate repeatedly how difficult it is to simply live, carry on a life, without someone barging into your home and tossing a ferret in the bathtub with you; in their production design, which glorifies kitsch on the one hand and valorizes the clarity of a green desk lamp (as in ‘Miller’s Crossing’); and in their cinematography, which, as Tony Zhou demonstrates in his latest brilliant technique-obsessed video essay, allows us to become intimately familiar with the faces and souls of characters by simply letting them occupy an entire frame by themselves.

Watch: Why The Coen Brothers’ ‘A Serious Man’ Is Their Most Profound Film To Date

Watch: Why The Coen Brothers’ ‘A Serious Man’ Is Their Most Profound Film To Date

There can be no doubt that ‘A Serious Man‘ is the Coen Brothers’ most profound film. It’s not their funniest film (that honor goes to ‘The Big Lebowski’). It’s not their most complicated film (see ‘Miller’s Crossing’–scratch that, memorize ‘Miller’s Crossing’). And it’s not their most outlandish film (hello, ‘Raising Arizona’). But it is the film that grapples most extensively and most compellingly with huge, near-imponderable questions, most notably one we ask all the time, but rarely have a conclusive answer to: What’s going on? Also addressed: What is the meaning of existence? What unifies all events on Earth? And, last but not least, or easiest: Why are we here? Evan Puschak, or "The Nerdwriter," as he calls himself on YouTube, has been making a remarkable series of video essays for quite some time now, on a range of subjects: his latest discusses the crucial question at the heart of the Coens’ most understated, but also most gravitas-infused, movie. For anyone who wants to know more about the Coens’ work–or, in fact, how to close-read a film–this piece is invaluable.

Watch: A Video Essay on the Coen Brothers’ Search for Truth

Watch: A Video Essay on the Coen Brothers’ Search for Truth

At one point in this intensely clever video essay, Jeff Bridges, as The Big Lebowski’s "The Dude," says, "I am not Mr. Lebowski." Immediately, William H. Macy, as Fargo‘s Jerry Lundegaard, responds, blankly but nervously, "Yeah?" The two carry on a brief rapport, and then the piece moves on. Steven Benedict looks at the ways the Coen brothers’ films "talk" to each other, by presenting the lines from disparate films as parts of an actual dialogue. The effect is hypnotic, and the message is clear. In the films of the Coen brothers, little is certain–except for one thing: the search for whatever certainty there might be. Benedict has offered up films from across the brothers’ career. Barton Fink (often). O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Hudsucker Proxy. A Serious Man. Miller’s Crossing. Inside Llewyn Davis. And the list goes on! Benedict’s arrangement succinctly and beautifully orchestrates the gleeful discombulation of these films into a harmonious whole.

VIDEO ESSAY: The Coen Brothers: Men of Constant Sorrow

VIDEO ESSAY: The Coen Brothers: Men of Constant Sorrow

Woe be to you if you should be so unlucky as to be a male
character in a Coen Brothers film. You will be punched. You will be yanked off
moving trains. You will frequently be plagued either by melancholy or by
ethical torment. Things won’t go well for you. And often, you won’t be terribly
likable. Take the plight of Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo.
Could a terrible kidnapping plan have possibly gone any more poorly than this
one? But, at the same time, could there be a less amiable character? The
simpering, the crying, the sneakiness, the stammering–who could stand it? Or think of Tom Reagan of
Millers Crossing. He
perpetually tries to take control—of people, of his job, of his existence—and yet perpetually gets his
come-uppance, in grand style, sometimes quite bluntly. His moment of mercy
shown to Bernie Bernbaum in the forest, when he could take a shot, and doesn’t,
is repaid by punishment, like all the best good deeds. Does he invite this bad
luck? Sure, but don’t we all, sort of? Or consider Jeff Lebowski. Just consider
him, for a moment. The peeing on the rug? The ferret in the bathtub? The blow
to the head? All wholly unasked for, and yet delivered with a vengeance. But,
and this is the million-dollar (literally) question, by who? Or what? It’s been
tossed out that the Coen Brothers are, in some sense, religious—that,
especially as shown in A Serious Man, their films are about how we humans are,
in a sense, little more than plastic cowboy and soldier figurines being moved
around in someone or something’s deranged, Old-Testament-Style shadowbox, open to whatever hurricane or other unexpected blow from above might descend upon them. But
the opposite could also be asserted, that their films show what it is like to
live in a world without a G-d, without mercy—and that what might pass for
punishment in another view is simply the business of everyday life. How the men
of these films transact that business is entirely up to them. One would think
that Anton Chigurh of No Country for Old
was wholly in control of his destiny, being as he is a reptilian
sociopath—but even he likes a coin toss every now and then. True Grit? Same
story, in a sense: though the men in this film have intentionality, they’re wandering
through a terrain—the West—which is famously unpredictable, famously wild. And
they’re being led by a young woman a quarter their age. And, beyond that, the
Coens have constructed the script in such a way, with such faith to the
original dialogue, that one sometimes feels the characters, male and female
both, are at the mercy of the words coming out of their mouths. Leigh Singer’s beautiful piece places us right in the middle of the Coen dilemma, in a form so exhilarating you might forget how much despair is being depicted.–Max Winter

Leigh Singer is a freelance film journalist, filmmaker and screenwriter.
Leigh studied Film and Literature at Warwick University, where he
directed and adapted the world stage premiere of Steven Soderbergh’s
‘sex, lies and videotape’. He has written or made video essays on fllm for The Guardian, The Independent, BBCi,
Dazed & Confused, Total Film,
and others, has appeared on TV and radio as a film critic and is a
programmer with the London Film Festival. You can reach him on Twitter

CANNES 2013: Joel and Ethan Coen’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

CANNES 2013: Joel and Ethan Coen’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

nullPlenty of films exist about struggling young artists trying to be great and failing in the process. But Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis is unique in focusing on a great struggling young artist resigned to the idea of his own impending failure. Not surprisingly, sadness is one of the film’s strongest and most resonant themes, expressed primarily through Llewyn’s (Oscar Isaac) searching eyes, which convey yearning and defeat simultaneously. Yet the Coens match the character’s extended melancholy with a sense of narrative openness, especially in the random events that allow the meandering stream-of-consciousness story to exude hopeful qualities along the way.

Set in early 1960s Greenwich Village at the dawn of the folk music revolution, the film opens with the bearded Llewyn performing in medium shot in a smoky beatnik bar. From the outset, his raspy musical voice is honest and vulnerable, two traits that seem to vanish the second he must deal with the real world in any discernible way. Even more interesting, the audience in the film doesn’t quite jive with Llewyn’s brooding and inclusive musical persona. The crowd’s lethargic faces look on in jest, proving the lack of connection between performer and patron. Much of Inside Llewyn Davis is about the often-futile attempts at translating original artistry into mass emotional consumption.

From the dimly lit stage to the only slightly brighter streets, jobless Llewyn aimlessly breezes from one NYC borough to the next, crashing on different friends’ couches and dealing with the wake of conflicts he’s helped to cause. Time passes by slowly, and deceptively minor scenes involving Llewyn’s agent and family quickly build on each other both thematically and emotionally, adding to the film’s fluid and whimsical pace. Music is always in the air, with the Coens’ sprinkling of full performances by Llewyn and other folk personalities throughout the film. But often it appears only the film’s audience can hear their genius (and absurdity). They are all truly ahead of their time in one way or another.

An unexpected pregnancy involving the girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) of a close friend and the non-impact of his unsuccessful debut solo record prove to be small ripples in Llewyn’s life. Hilariously, what most films would construe as “major” melodramatic conflicts become dwarfed by a small inconvenience involving a friend’s cat that turns into a sublime romp through the city streets. Holding the feline tightly after its near escape, Llewyn sits noticeably out of place on the subway. In an amazing moment, the Coens show the cat’s face inquisitively peering out the window, awake to the kinetic world rushing by. Whether the animal is transfixed by its own reflection or the passing terminal signs remains one of the film’s great wonders.

If Inside Llewyn Davis shares the deceptively shapeless and wandering trajectory of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it feels profoundly breezy in a completely different way. This can be greatly attributed to Oscar Isaac’s heartbreaking performance, which gives even the smallest moment palpable weight. He even manages to convey an entire generation’s frustration and malaise in a single spoken farewell without the hint of indulgence. Llewyn understands that aside from bits of bad luck and potentially a few cultural circumstances, his life has been defined by missed opportunities involving love, family, success, and artistic creation. He may seem at peace with these failures on the surface, grooving with disappointment as if were his permanent dance partner. But those lovely eyes are all hurt. What’s inside Llewyn Davis is pure regret. 

Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and
The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies
at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.

Nobody Gets Out of Life Alive: THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE

Nobody Gets Out of Life Alive: THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE


“Nobody gets out of life alive. The world’s so full of
crap a man’s going to get into it sooner or later, whether he’s careful or

Originally an advertisement for professional bloodletting
services, the red stripes of barber poles still remain today, despite the fact
that hair is the only thing modern barbers remove from their clients’ bodies.
The Man Who Wasn’t There begins with a languorous opening shot of a spinning
barber’s pole. Since the film is a Coen brothers neo-noir, it’s safe
to assume there will be a different kind of bloodletting before the film
is over. 

The year is 1949, and the barber we are about to meet is Ed
Crane, played with a perfectly calibrated laconic calm by Billy Bob Thornton.
He is an existentialist anti-hero, as if Bartleby the Scrivener had chosen an
alternate career path and became tragically enmeshed in a blackmailing scheme
gone wrong. 

Ed is an absence punched into the fabric of the film, a
black hole around which it orbits. His primary response to the world is one of
violent underreaction. He is inert with passivity, an American buddha, beatific
with a placid glow of naivete and repression. He’s like an unspoken thought.
This film chronicles his unfortunate late-blooming experiments with taking
action and his resulting demise. The process of his destruction commences the
moment he goes from being an unexpressed thought to an utterance, the moment he enters the world through
activity and decision. And his destruction is also the vehicle by which he
realizes himself.

In the noir cosmos, it is normal for a timid character to be
lured out of a safe but unsatisfying zone of normalcy by mirages of wealth and romance. This is what happens to Ed when
he gets suckered into a swindle that involves becoming a silent partner in a dry
cleaning business. He acquires the money for this by blackmailing his wife’s
boss, with whom she is having an affair. The plan appears to have a perfect
symmetry. He would seem to be able to enter his dream of wealth while getting
revenge against his rival with a single action. He wants to reach goals he has
unthinkingly and hastily stumbled upon in a manner that involves little to no
effort. We know it is not going to end well.

Like many of the Coen brothers’ characters, at no point does
Ed gain an understanding of how he works. The one aspect of his revolt against
his life is his inappropriate attachment to the gamine Birdy, played with a
compelling subdued clarity by Scarlett Johansson. Their
relation is one of genuine friendship, but Ed himself has no idea that his
intentions are also amorous.

This is because he can’t see himself. No learning curve is
possible in this world, only the transformation of circumstances. The rules of
the film’s universe dictate that the ultimate sacrifice must be paid for the
crime of wanting to be a dry cleaner. He mutely picks his moment to enter the
stream of phenomena from the suspended animation of seemingly prosperous, happy
post-WWII America, and he is briskly swept away in the acrid waters of brutal
existential comedy. It isn’t that he is dispatched following a
naively lazy attempt to escape from his life, but that his existence doesn’t
begin until the elaborate process of his undoing has commenced.

Some people find it disturbing that in Coen brothers films,
the characters don’t often have clear realistic referents and appear at first
glance to be stereotypes, playthings created only to be sadistically ground
up in the gears of a machine in which unfortunate patterns of human behavior, bad
decisions, bad luck, and stupidity converge to mete out a punishment so
arbitrary and so astronomically out of proportion to the crime that one can
only laugh. I’ve never understood this objection. Placing doltish,
unrealistically drawn, powerless
characters in an uncertain, comically brutal universe is what the Coen brothers
do best, and it’s what makes their films so entertaining, thought provoking,
and appealing.

The fact that the brothers were faculty brats who went
respectively to NYU and Princeton and sometimes make cartoonish movies about
dim-witted people has led some to the misguided conclusion that they are
condescending to their characters. Dave Kehr, writing about Raising Arizona, opined that “the distinction between satire and sincerity doesn`t mean much to the
Coen brothers, who treat everything that passes before their camera with
the same smarmy condescension…. The elaborate, self-conscious stylistics serve only to proclaim how much
more sophisticated the Coens are than the bumpkins they have chosen to
populate their movie. At the same time, the empty technique invites the
audience to share the Coens` sense of superiority….” Coming to this conclusion requires ignoring the glaringly burlesque fable-like atmosphere that permeates their
films, and falling into the trap of looking in vain for realistic characters
and settings to emotionally identify with, when the films are working with
totally different dynamics and materials. The Coen brothers clearly have a real
affection for their stylistically rendered characters, and this is reinforced by
the degree to which other people love these characters as well. The Coens
create the characters not to be mocked, but to be destroyed with extreme prejudice. The brothers
seem to be poking fun at creations they love. In the process of
humiliating, damaging and annihilating these figures, they render them in an extremely vivid
and often hilarious way.

Though today the Coens are widely critically lauded and
their films are usually discussed in a way that comprehends the spirit in which
they were meant,  their work is still polarizing.
It seems that gleefully subverting conventions never seems to lose its power to
piss people off. Some critics found their first films grating and insincere,
especially critics at the more genteel publications which might not have been
ready for the Coen dynamic, which usually incorporates slapstick, noir, brutal
violence, and wry humor into an entertaining but disorienting mélange. Even the
inordinately perspicacious Pauline Kael held up the first two Coen films beside a template of expectations which rendered them somewhat
illegible to her. On Blood Simple: “[T]he reason the camera whoop-de-do is so noticeable is that there’s
nothing else going on. The movie doesn’t even seem meant to have any
rhythmic flow; the Coens just want us to respond to a bunch of ‘touches’
on routine themes. (These art touches are their jokes.) Blood Simple
comes on as self-mocking, but it has no self to mock.” Critics might be able to accept stylized
wry brutality and black humor, but to be accepted it must be served with a large
side order of transcendence, and that is a dish that is not usually available
on the Coen menu.

When filmmakers don’t
leave clear markers as to how sincere or sarcastic they are, critical anxiety is generated, and this can cause us to miss how much obvious joy is being taken in playing with genres and dynamics.
This has sometimes resulted in a pattern of priggish critical harrumphing that
continues in some quarters even to this day. Rather than letting the sincere
and sarcastic elements work together in a thought-provoking manner as a kind of
essay, the ambiguity is sometimes mistaken for ridicule. Some critics have assumed
that the tradition of realistically drawn, emotionally relatable characters and
settings is being smugly dismissed. After all, it’s the critic’s job to provide
a grading system to determine how well filmmakers provide this traditional

The Man Who Wasn’t There might prove off-putting if
approached with this conventional set of expectations. But it’s funny,
thought-provoking, and mesmerizing if you let its themes and questions, and its
gorgeous, silky black-and-white cinematography work more in the spirit in which
they seem to have been created: as a wry, poetic thought experiment within a
technically impressive formal genre structure. The Man Who Wasn’t There offers
the stability of being one genre rather than several at the same time, but it
doesn’t offer a stable railing of seeming emotional truth. It works by keeping
the viewer continually off balance, so the only stability is to be found by
continuing to ask questions.

The Coen brothers’ warmer, more wildly entertaining films
like Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, and Fargo do provide opportunities for
the traditional dynamic of emotional identification. But even their sweetest
and most uproarious films also contain their trademark opposite pole of
punishing nastiness. Allowing these contradictory polarities to work
simultaneously to some degree is a large part of what gives their films a
unique sense of tension and unpredictability.

There are many things that critics agree the Coens do well,
including themes of friendship, theatrically arresting violence, 
humor, suspense, elaborately complex, perfectly choreographed set
pieces, perfectionist music editing and overall technical panache. Not least
among the things they’re known for is unforgettable dialogue, often done with
in a comically inappropriate literary style. They’re fond of voiceovers,
usually from unreliable narrators such as H.I. in Raising Arizona. Their films
use a contrast between the narrators’ blinkered perspective and the
considerably broader perspective accorded to the camera. The voiceovers are
dramatic monologues competing with the images rather than explaining them. Ed’s
voiceover in The Man Who Wasn’t There is eventually revealed to be a men’s
magazine article about his journey to the electric chair. It is, literally, an essay.

nullThe movie begins with Ed talking about how little he talks.
“I just cut the hair.” Disparities between subjective narratives and
the gaps of knowledge between characters fuel some of the tensest scenes of
conversation in the film, as when Ed is first speaking to the menacing Big Dave Brewster,
played by James
Gandolfini, with his trademark Tony Soprano blend of menace and
affability. We are not sure how much Big Dave knows or what he’s capable of, as
he is speaking to Ed as though in confidence about some other blackmailer. He
slowly reveals how much he does know, which is everything, and then asks him in
mounting rage, “What kind of man are you?” before attempting to beat
him to death. Ed semi-accidentally kills him in self-defense with a lucky jab
of Big Dave’s cigar cutting knife straight into the jugular. The shot of Ed
being strangled by Big Dave is done from outside the room, behind glass he is
being pressed against. The glass, our view of the scene,  cracks joltingly during the struggle, and
this marks the first start of the machine of Ed’s fate. The scene
ends with the ticking of a clock.

Not all the verbal narratives in the film are unreliable.
The Coens are not nihilists. Several pieces of information are framed as if they were
objectively the case. The first comes from Ed’s lawyer’s private detective, who
reveals that Big Joe was faking his war hero resume. He turns out to have been
just a bar room brawler with an anger management problem. The other comes from
the piano tutor Ed contacts to evaluate Birdy’s level of talent, and whose evaluation is unusually
frank. Neither piece of truthful information is particularly important in the

The film’s basic dynamic involves simple reversal of the passive
and the active. Instead of shaving his wife’s legs for her and cutting other
people’s hair, at the end of the movie Ed is the one being shaved, with
orderlies scraping away the hair on his leg to ensure a good contact for the electric chair. He is not even being
executed for any crime he committed, but he doesn’t mind. He’s in the driver’s

Drew Gardner’s books include Chomp Away (Combo, 2010), and Petroleum
Hat (Roof Books, 2005). He tweets at @chompaway and lives in New York

The Big Lebowski a Masterpiece? That’s Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man

THE BIG LEBOWSKI a Masterpiece? That’s Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man


Without question, The Big Lebowski is the most popular movie the Coen brothers ever made. I’m not talking about box office receipts—Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou had higher domestic grosses—but in terms of ubiquity and fandom, the 1998 stoner comedy has no equal. Louisville, Kentucky hosted its tenth annual Lebowski Fest last year, wherein diehard fans celebrated all things Dude. They quoted lines from the movie, dressed as their favorite characters, and drank more White Russians than they probably should have. What’s missing from the conversation, however, is not how the movie has become an underground pop culture phenomenon, but how The Big Lebowski stacks up as a movie. Quite simply, The Big Lebowski does not belong among the canon of the Coens’ best films, no matter how much the fans and urban achievers protest.

Maybe it’s confirmation bias, but whenever I bring the topic up with friends, I’m invariably met with, “That’s just, like, your opinion, man.” Indeed, repeating your favorite lines is part of the fun, especially when presented with the appropriate context. But there are other Coen comedies, too, and their meticulous consistency is what makes them better films. In terms of full-on kookiness, the introduction of Intolerable Cruelty’s Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy lands better and harder than the introduction of Jesus, the bowling pederast. With a mix of broad and focused diction, the central trio of O Brother, Where Art Thou has more consistent comic chemistry than uneven Lebowski heroes; Donny (Steve Buscemi) amounts to a one-note joke, drilled into the ground by the Coens. Come to think of it, Raising Arizona’s stolen baby is more a useful conceit than Donny is: when Ed (Holly Hunter) sobs with joy, it’s a captivatingly funny character moment. “Shut the fuck up, Donny” is merely a dismissive statement, repeated too much.

I don’t mean to imply that I think The Big Lebowski is a bad movie, or a bad comedy. As Sam Elliott’s character would say, “Far from it.” The Big Lebowski is a good comedy because it features smart lines for stupid characters. The Stranger (Elliott) introduces The Dude (Jeff Bridges) as the laziest man in all of Los Angeles County, but he’s also a quick wit. Other characters don’t reward his jokes—Maude’s (Julianne Moore) “Don’t be fatuous, Jeffrey” is the warmest response he gets—so the audience has an instinctive sympathy for The Dude. Nobody else but the viewers notice the sharp mind at work underneath the fog of weed, vodka, and sunglasses. Walter (John Goodman) is The Dude’s opposite and equal: while Walter’s broad gestures initially define him, it’s the smaller lines (e.g. “You mean beyond pacifism?”) that push him beyond caricature into something unique. And with a tapestry of odd secondary characters, The Big Lebowski ambles along without much fuss.

“Ambles” is the key word here. The weakness of The Big Lebowski—and the reason it does not deserve mention among the Coens’ best—is that it amounts to little more than a well-written shaggy dog story. First and foremost, meticulously tight plotting define the best films by the Coen Brothers. Blood Simple and Fargo, for example, are examples of pure cinematic storytelling, and they deal with the repercussions of murder in an inexorable, brutally logical way. Ardent Lebowski fans like to say the meandering plot and zany asides are deliberate, reflecting The Dude’s abiding nature. I’ve heard other defenses which claim that the movie has an airtight plot, and it’s The Dude’s stoner fog that makes it all appear so hazy. The problem with both theories is that they ignore how the Coens consistently put their characters in a narrative fog, even without the White Russians or pot. Fargo’s Jerry Lundegaard and even No Country’s Llewelyn Moss could not make their way through a dense narrative from the Coens, yet the directors’ command of plot is held to a higher standard than the flawed, imperfect information their characters are given. Put another way, the Coens fall into the trap of the Dude’s laziness in The Big Lebowski, and the Coens are at their best when they’re being very un-Dude.

Look, celebrating The Big Lebowski is not beneath me. Back in 2009 I went to a mini-Lebowski party at my friend’s apartment. In the email chain leading up to the party, I dropped multiple references to lines in the movie, including a couple that are in this article. I know what it is to be a fan, but it is important to separate fandom from analysis. The former can obfuscate the latter, which is a shame since some scrutiny might illuminate the secret of The Big Lebowksi’s unlikely endurance. Our answer is more than a throwaway line, or an annual festival. Say what you like about the tenets of actual criticism, Lebowski fans, at least it’s an ethos.

Alan Zilberman is the film editor of Brightest Young Things, as well as a contributor to Tiny Mix Tapes, Washington City Paper, and The Atlantic. Follow him on Twitter here.

O Coen Brothers, Where Art God? A Conversation Between Matt Zoller Seitz and Jeffrey Overstreet

O Coen Brothers, Where Art God? A Conversation Between Matt Zoller Seitz and Jeffrey Overstreet


Editor’s note: So, I was watching Raising Arizona for the 400th time the other night, and laughing at the sheer Freudian-Jungian comic bookish-ness of having the lone biker of the apocalypse appear in conjunction with the hero, H.I. McDonough, having a dream. It’s almost as if he was summoned by the hero’s dream—as if he’s a metaphor made flesh. You can see the biker as a physicalization of the hero’s internal struggle to put down the outlaw within, and become domesticated. The biker is an id creature erupting from inside of H.I.—the return of the repressed, I guess Freud might say—only he’s riding a giant Harley and he’s got shotguns and grenades.
And then I started to fixate on something else: the sense that there’s an equally strong religious or spiritual dimension to that scene. It’s as if the biker is a demon being summoned like a supernatural creature from a horror movie or an ancient folktale. Ed doesn’t call him a “warthog from Hell” for nothing.

And this in turn got me thinking about all the other instances in Joel and Ethan Coen’s filmography where it seems as though supernatural forces, or at least nonrational or uncanny forces, are at play—where what you’re seeing doesn’t quite seem to be metaphorical, if you know what I mean. There’s an angel and a guardian angel in The Hudsucker Proxy, and the actual stoppage of time. The villain in No Country for Old Men seems like Satan himself, or a demon from hell, not unlike that biker from Raising Arizona. The bad guy in The Ladykillers is basically Satan, doing battle with an old widow, and their dynamic recalls Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish in The Night of the Hunter, which was a Manichean story that quoted the Bible and from folktales and fairytales rather liberally. A Serious Man draws on Jewish theology and folktales quite pointedly, and it ends with what looks rather like a miracle, or maybe a curse, or the apocalypse; and in any event, the film seems to connect with No Country for Old Men, which also has a fire-and-brimstone, or Revelation, kind of vibe.

And at a certain point I just thought, “I need to get Jeffrey Overstreet to talk to me about this, and see what he thinks.” Jeffrey is a novelist and one of my favorite film critics. He writes with great lucidity and compassion about all sorts of movies, from all sorts of angles, but what I value most about his work is the theological-moral perspective he takes on things. He’s not a dogmatic scold, sifting through popular art looking for work that fits a rigid world view; he’s more interested in Looking Closer, as his blog title suggests, to discover what, if anything, the work is saying. That’s what I think he does in this conversation.—Matt Zoller Seitz 

nullMatt Zoller Seitz: Do the Coens believe in God? Can we even say that for sure? Do they believe in the non-rational, the supernatural? Or are they just pranksters pulling our chains and hoping to spark conversation pieces like this one, while they sit there snickering? What do you think?

Jeffrey Overstreet: As Emily Dickinson says, “Success in Circuit
lies….” So, forgive me, but I’ll get to that question about God in a circuitous

I think it’s great that the scene
that started your engine for this conversation is “The Emergence of the Lone
Biker.” I think it’s one of the most intriguing in the Coen brothers’ whole repertoire.
(I can’t say “repertoire” in this conversation without giving it an exaggerated
Southern pronunciation, just as a Coen brothers character would say it.) Anyway,
that scene is not only resonant with apocalyptic, supernatural implications —
it’s intriguing in that it serves as one of several portals into their other
films. It’s one of those recurring motifs, those strands of thread that stitch
the Coens’ whole body of work together.

Raising Arizona’s H.I. has the
Lone Biker, who greatly resembles Sheriff Bell’s nemesis in No Country for Old Men —Anton Chigurh.
Both are lone figures of chaos, wrath, death, and judgment, prone to blasting
“the little things” (bunnies, birds) and the innocents. In fact, there are
shots of H.I.’s troubled sleep, in which he dreams of apocalyptic things, that
mirror Llewelyn’s troubled sleep after he brings the money home in No Country. There are strong connections
between H.I. and Llewlyn, fools-in-arms right down to the way that their stolen
goods drag them down into much darker and more frightful trouble. The allure of
“what other people have” — money, a family, power, fame — is the pathway to
hell for so many Coen characters.

But there are a variety of crooks in
the Coens’ world. There are boneheads like H.I. and Llewelyn, who take what
doesn’t belong to them and regret it. There are power-mad figureheads and CEOs
and “Men Behind Desks” like Waring Hudsucker in The Hudsucker Proxy and the Big Lebowski in the film that bears his
name, and the Hollywood studio execs in Barton
, and Leo in Miller’s Crossing
crooks who are insulated and egomaniacal, corrupt and rotten to the core. There
are flimsy fools of apathy and inaction, like Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man and Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Those who
insist on forcing the world into order through the power of law  —Sheriff Bell in No Country, Tom Reagan in Miller’s
, Rooster Cogburn in True
— end up despairing, unless they act in allegiance to some kind of
higher law, embracing mercy and mystery.

In fact, the only characters I can
think of who aren’t seriously messed up are Marge Gunderson in Fargo and Mattie Ross in True Grit.

So, back to your question
about God: I think the Coens suggest him via
. They show the incompleteness and insufficiency of a vision that
leaves God out. There are clearly human evils at work —evils of foolishness,
carelessness, folly, and evils of greed and deliberate violence. But there are
also evils of apocalyptic, seemingly supernatural proportions. As No Country demonstrates, good deeds and
the power of law are not enough to save the world. Ultimately, the best we can
do is seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in the presence of something
greater than ourselves. 

The whole “white hats versus black hats” view of the world
MZS: It’s very elusive, very tricky, very coy, I guess you could say — the way they deal with these issues, or don’t deal with them.

From Blood Simple onward, the Coens have offered up plot after plot after plot wherein good and evil square off, but both good and evil are as comical as they are formidable. Good is noble but rather dull, or conventional and predictable. Evil—or corruption—is more exciting, I suppose, or at least superficially sexier than good, but kind of pathetic in the long run. Anton Chigurh is distinguished by his isolation and his grotesqueness. The crooks in Fargo bang prostitutes in hotel rooms after a Jose Feliciano concert, and seem to last all of ten minutes before Johnny Carson comes on; meanwhile, Marge Gunderson and her husband seem truly satisfied in their “boring” suburban home, in their shared bed.

In the Coens’ work, the settled, slightly boring but essentially satisfied “good” collides with the evil, the chaotic. And the fate of the world, or at least these characters’ own little world, is at stake.

nullBut here’s the really interesting part for me: in a Coen brothers film, you can never be entirely sure if good really defeated evil or if evil destroyed itself, through overconfidence or inattention or just plain bad luck.

Luck is such a huge factor in the Coens’ work. Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, Barton Fink, Burn After Reading and so many other Coen brothers films have plots that seem driven by mysterious clockwork forces that could either be weighted in favor of “good” or not . . . . But then again, you kind of can’t tell. And while I think I know what the Coens think of their bad guys, I can’t be entirely sure if what I’m seeing onscreen is a condemnation, however comic, or merely a presentation.

Are they moralists, or are they anthropologists?

JO: I think they’re out to subvert the
whole “white hats versus black hats” view of the world. I think they
do believe in good and evil, but they seem to see all of humanity as having one
foot planted in both camps. Their character cannot be “the Good,” but the more
they “lean in” toward love, the more peace and hope and goodness they

Think of H.I.’s final dream, the one
about growing old with a family and feasting. Think of Marge and Norm
celebrating the 3-cent stamp and the upcoming baby. Think of how the most moving
and inspiring moment in True Grit
comes not when Cogburn blasts the bad guys, but when he carries Mattie across
miles and miles trying to save her. The more these characters try and crush
evil, or to diagnose it with the intellect, or try to make themselves better
through the sheer force of will, the more hopeless and sick at heart they


Think of poor Barton Fink, who rants
and rants about intellectuals who want “to insulate themselves from the
common man, from where they live…” And what is Barton doing? He’s
recoiling from his neighbor, trying to insulate himself from a “common man.”
But the wallpaper keeps peeling away, and he will eventually have to deal with
the ugliness, the corruption, that is common to everyone. His only hope for
relief, it seems, comes when he learns to carry his “box of
corruption” with him, rest, and look around at what beauty he can find in
the midst of the world’s seeming-absurdity. (And what is that diving pelican in
the final moment but an affirmation that there is something absurd in the
sublime, and something sublime in absurdity?)

In the same way, Sheriff Bell in No Country, for all of his efforts, must
sit at the table with his wife, confess to a sense of hopelessness and
futility, and “lean in” to a dream, to a sense that maybe there is a
glimmer of hope, but it exists beyond our control.

nullThat is why I think there is
profundity in Delmar’s baptism in O
Brother, Where Art Thou
? It’s grace. A fool like Delmar, and maybe even a
fool like Ulysses, can “be saved” when he accepts grace. When these
characters have a sort of Damascus-road encounter with something greater than
themselves, and allow the gravity of that to draw them away from their wicked
ways. “Well,” he tells his friends, “as soon as we get ourselves
cleaned up and we get a little smellum in our hair, why, we’re gonna feel 100%
better about ourselves and about life in general.” That doesn’t work. But
he will begin to feel better about
himself when grace inspires him back toward the straight and narrow, when love
“cleans him up.”

Even Mattie Ross, for all of her
righteous anger, pays a heavy price for trying to fix the world by force. After
she is “disarmed,” she seems to realize that the greatest reward of
her adventure was not justice achieved by violence, but the mysterious bond that
formed between her and Cogburn, who strove so mightily to help her.

The Coens’ paint a picture of a world
botched beyond belief, and beyond humanity’s capacity to repair. But there is
something transcendent about what those characters who know love enjoy. They
touch something that operates in, through, and beyond the human sphere.

Hey, even Private Detective Visser in
Blood Simple has a sense of it. He’s
preoccupied with Russia, where “everyone pulls for everyone else.”
But in Texas… “you’re on your own.”  


Just drifting through, like the tumbling tumbleweeds

MZS: I want to dig into this a bit more, this sense that bedrock Judeo-Christian concepts inform the Coen brothers’ filmography. I think it’s self-evidently true to say this, like saying that David Cronenberg is fascinated by the fragility of flesh and its overlap with technology, or that Steven Spielberg has daddy issues. But at the same time, it’s an observation that conflicts with the popular perception of the Coens as being cold or disinterested moral relativists—or at the very least, film school pranksters, guys who are all about homage, and who don’t believe in anything, really.

They certainly do hold their cards pretty close to their vests in that regard. But maybe not as close as detractors might say?

They’re essentially comic storytellers, even when they’re making supposed dramas, but after watching their work for nearly thirty years, I’ve concluded that deep down, they’re among the most moral, even moralistic, filmmakers working in the Hollywood mainstream. Good and evil aren’t metaphorical to them, even though they take on overtly symbolic guises at times. There is a right way and a wrong way to live. They do judge the corrupt, the weak, the impulsive and the greedy in very unflattering terms. When the bad guys in The Ladykillers get foiled, they seem to be struck down—smitten as if by God himself, then dumped onto a garbage barge like, well, human garbage, I guess. And then there’s that line in the police car near the end of Fargo: “There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.” 

What you say about surrendering to a higher power, or to the possibility of enlightenment or even “rapture,” as a Christian might put it, runs throughout Joel and Ethan Coen’s filmography—that sense that you have to let go, to surrender to cosmic forces rather than fight them, and let the universe sort itself out. That’s not to say that the outcome will necessarily favor Good, or even favor you personally—just that, as the films tell their stories, the universe has a way, and we don’t necessarily know what That Way is, and ultimately we’re all just drifting through, like the tumbling tumbleweeds in The Big Lebowski.

Do the Coens want to try to make sense of any of this? I don’t know . . . There are times when they seem as baffled as the rest of us. They certainly have a fondness for narrator characters who try to put everything in perspective and fail miserably and very amusingly. The narrator Moses—what a name!—in The Hudsucker Proxy, or Sam Elliott’s cowboy in Lebowski, kind of lose their places as they’re trying to put a frame around things. The Coens seem to get a kick out of tantalizing us with answers while laughing at the very idea that there could be answers. 

JO: Well . . . they sure don’t seem to think we’ll know answers on this side of Sheriff Bell’s dream. But there is something out there. There is somebody running the clock.

I’m uncomfortable with the term “moralists” when it comes to the Coens. Mere moralism isn’t enough. Moralism is just arithmetic: A fool plus his money are bound for hell. That’s not an accurate summation of their sensibility, because look at how the loving and the righteous and the innocent die miserably in their films. Exhibit A: Lana, from No Country. “Karma” is far too narrow a concept for the Coens.

Furthermore, there is too much
respect for mystery in these films
for the storytellers to be mere moralists.


Now, I don’t think the answer is to
start trying to pin a religion on them. A
Serious Man
makes it painfully clear that religion can become like Arthur Gopnick’s
book “The Mentaculus” … a labyrinth of laws and reasoning that ends
up making as much sense as the absurd, self-contradicting legal defense of Ed
Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There.
Religion, while it binds communities and brings meaning through ritual, is
ultimately not enough. I’m not willing to brand the Coens as “covert
Christians.” And even if I did, the word “Christian” is about as
meaningful anymore as the word “conservative” or “Democrat”,
or the term “the American way.” It means a million things to a
million people. 
But they are definitely drawn to a
vision of the cosmos that resonates with my understanding of Christ’s
teachings. That is to say that “righteousness,” the ways of religion, and the
law-focused method of an “Old Testament” worldview, are ultimately insufficient.
We cannot earn our way to heaven by being good. We cannot save ourselves.

The Coens know that “all have
sinned,” and they know that “the wages of sin is death.” Everybody is likely to
die miserably in their movies, whether as a result of their own evil or someone

But there is something out there,
some kind of offer of grace, and when we glimpse that, goodness happens
in us. We begin to love not for selfish reasons, but as a response, as a
reflection, as if we are instruments being tuned up by something greater than

No, I think that the clearest
summation of their worldview comes from Mattie in their True Grit remake: “You must pay for everything in this world,
one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.”


The small and humble people of the world

JO: On a side note, while I don’t see
anything as simplistic as a “Christ figure” in the Coens’ films, I do
love the way some have speculated that “The Dude” himself is a
“holy fool” who acts as a sort of signpost toward Jesus. We see him
doing carpentry (badly). We see him “taking it easy for all us
sinners.” He walks around in a robe, and hangs out with all manner of
fools and crooks without an inclination toward judgment. He even bowls
alongside a “false Christ” (“The Jesus”). And what does he
drink at the grocery? Okay, I know, it’s a crazy stretch, probably a
coincidence, but I love the suggestion of “dual nature of Christ” in
the carton of half-and-half. (Cathleen Falsani has a whole book on this, by the
way: The Dude Abides: The Gospel According
to the Coen Brothers

The Coens love the fact that God uses
the small and humble people of the world to shame the greater. 

MZS: Well, I didn’t want to come at this head-on, because it seems very un-Coen-like, but you went there first: I take it you believe that the Coens believe in God?

JO: Accept the mystery.

Okay, more directly: I think they believe
in grace. I think that they’re likely to give the great mystery enough respect
that they won’t name him. They’d rather show than tell. Or, if you will — they
don’t believe in God, they believe in G-d. That’s my inclination.

But then again, many great artists
who profess to profound doubts, cynicism, agnosticism, have given us inspiring theological art. Listen to Woody Allen say he doesn’t believe in
right and wrong, or good and evil, or God. But then he tells stories about men
who, when they commit all manner of sins, are haunted, conflicted,

Perhaps the Coens’ films are another
case of the art knowing more than the artists. And that is what should matter
anyway. I don’t much care what the artist believes. I care to discern what the
art reveals.

Annie Dillard once wrote, “There
is no such thing as an artist: there is only the world, lit or unlit as the
light allows. When the candle is burning, who looks at the wick? When the
candle is out, who needs it? But the world without light is wasteland and
chaos, and a life without sacrifice is abomination.” I love that. Give me
the work and its mystery. Don’t ask me what the artist believes.

nullMZS: Then what do you think the work reveals, about God, about faith, about the possibility of a moral code that can help us make sense of things? I feel like the Coens are very culturally conservative beneath it all, and not anything close to the snickering secular humanists you might think they are, considering their reputation as pranksters. I felt like the Nihilists in The Big Lebowski were the Coens’ playful mockery of critics who’ve called them Nihilists—”Ja, we are nihilists, we believe in nothing!” they repeat, chasing the hero through his dreams with huge castrating scissors. The Coens aren’t nihilists. They believe in something. And yet they don’t spell that something out. It emerges organically while you’re watching their films, maybe because they’re not entirely sure what “it” is, either. They can see the contours but not the details, maybe? It’s tricky and very subjective, what they’re doing, and what we’re doing as we watch they’re doing. It’s like looking for shapes in clouds. You see what you want to see, and maybe you’re right to see it, or maybe if you were a couple of miles in the other direction you’d see something else entirely. 

There’s an aspect to their work that reminds me of going to Sunday school as a kid, and I don’t mean that as a knock, not at all. It also reminds me of hearing my grandfather tell stories about his childhood by way of moral instruction. They’re illuminating the universe, or at least exploring it. But they’re not going about it in a didactic way. There’s something fundamentally humble about them, as visually and structurally and generically flamboyant as they sometimes are. I feel like they’re figuring things out, too—figuring themselves out, figuring the world out, and laughing at themselves, and the rest of us, for thinking there’s An Answer to anything.

JO: I get why it reminds you of Sunday School,
but I never get the sense that they’re lecturing. I get the sense that they’re
holding up a mirror to all of humanity, themselves included, and showing us
what a hilarious and pathetic mess we all — Coens included — make of things. I
think Barton Fink has self-critique
built into it — they’re making intellectual movies, but they know that even
ambitious art like that can only go so far. Their constant nods to Sullivan’s Travels, especially in Hudsucker and O Brother, tell us that they know that there is redemption in a
certain kind of self-effacing laughter. I suspect they see themselves as Larry Gopniks…
exasperated by the insanity in the people around them, but then capable of
perpetuating that same destruction with their own judgmentalism and compromise.

What many people perceive as
condescension, as “sneering at their characters” … I disagree with
that characterization. I tend to see that as a sign of their humility, maybe
even compassion, and above all… affection. We are deeply moved when Tom Reagan
shows mercy to Bernie in Miller’s
. We feel that something has died when he becomes the figure of
wrath later. Visceral responses like that are what we need in order to remember
what is really at stake in this world. And I love their films for triggering
those responses, and making me look for signs of beauty and grace in this
world. As Dylan sings – and I can’t wait to see them visit Dylan’s scene in
their next film! — “It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”

nullChuck Jones clearly loved his Looney Toons characters. He loved their language, their exaggerated features, their cleverness, their vanity, their folly. But he loved those characters. And his depictions of human folly in the circus of those cartoons was a form of insightful humility, about all of us ridiculous human beings. So I think the Coens’ work disturbs audiences because it reminds us that, contrary to so many Hollywood messages, “being good” isn’t the answer. Being good is good, but—as Bill Murray says in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom—it isn’t enough to fix things. Their movies “ring true” when they remind us that there is a “wrath that’s about to set down,” as Rooster Cogburn says. If that wasn’t true, it wouldn’t strike such a resonant chord in audiences. The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in Raising Arizona is coming, and there’s something elemental and true about him. We ourselves have unleashed him, as H.I. declares. In No Country, we’re warned that we “can’t stop what’s comin’.” There is a moral code, yes, and we violate it in countless ways. We’re screwed.

But their work doesn’t stop there. It engages and encourages us by leaving us with moments that transcend all of that doom, all of that destruction. Their suggestion of the possibility of grace is not so much a sermon proclamation as a desperate hope.

And it wouldn’t move us so deeply if the anticipation of grace weren’t built into us somehow. It moves us because, on some level, we know it’s true.

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website,

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play. His book-length interview with Wes Anderson, The Wes Anderson Collection, will be published in October, 2013, by Abrams Books. 


The Circle of Life: The Hudsucker Proxy


More than anything, Joel and Ethan Coen fear being taken seriously. Barton Fink’s pompous playwright is superficially styled as a parody of Clifford Odets, but in retrospect—and particularly in light of the game-changing A Serious ManBarton emerges as a kind of negative self-portrait, embodying the Coens’ morbid terror of their own pretensions. But I’m spouting off again.

The Hudsucker Proxy is one of the Coens’ most outwardly frivolous movies, part of a group of ill-received farces that includes Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers and Burn After Reading. But it’s often in their farces—where audiences least expect it and critics are most likely to overlook it—that the brothers grapple with some of their darkest themes. In Burn After Reading as in No Country for Old Men, innocent people are murdered without reason, but in Burn After Reading, the universe laughs.

Hudsucker isn’t shy about announcing its preoccupations. As the camera floats through a transparently erszatz cityscape, narrator Bill Cobbs, his voice a sly parody of Morgan Freeman’s folksy drawl, fixes the time at seconds before midnight on New Year’s Eve, with “ol’ daddy earth fixin’ to start one more trip ’round the sun.” We close in on the luminous orb of a massive clock face atop an art deco skyscraper, sandwiched between the stone-carved legend “Hudsucker Industries” and the neon-scripted motto below: “The Future Is Now.” As the calendar is poised to turn over and wipe the slate clean, the people below, Cobb says, are “trying to catch hold of one moment in time—to be able to say, ‘Right now, this is it. I got it.’ ’Course by then it’ll be passed.”

nullThe Hudsucker Proxy is a screwball comedy about entropy, physical and, more crucially, moral. Tim Robbins’ Norville Barnes arrives in the big city as a fresh-faced rube, right off the bus from small-town U.S.A. Proudly clutching his diploma from the Muncie College of Business Administration (Go Eagles!), he’s come to claim his position in the rat race, but at every turn, the way is barred. Only when fate intervenes, as it frequently will, does he luck into a mailroom job in Hudsucker’s basement, slipping through the company’s revolving door just as the body of its soon-to-be-late founder, Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning) is plummeting from the 44th floor (not counting the mezzanine).

Hudsucker’s suicide leaves a void at the top, which scheming VP Sidney J. Mussburger (a gloriously gruff Paul Newman) conspires to fill with Robbins’ dewy sap, driving down the company’s stock price so the board—a long, gleaming conference-room table filled with elderly white men whose eyebrows stretch to the sky—can buy up Hudsucker’s shares on the cheap. But idiot that he is, Norville Barnes has one great idea, sketched on a yellowed piece of paper he keeps folder up in his shoe. Norville’s concept sketch is an unadorned circle, one of many populating Hudsucker’s symbolically overladen cosmos, but to him its ingenuity is self-evident. Once installed as a clueless patsy, he proudly whips it out to show to the board, his pitch consisting of a simple wide-eyed phrase: “You know, for kids!”

Norville’s circle turns out to be the hula hoop, whose transformation from company-sinking boondoggle to unstoppable fad is chronicled in a giddy, wordless sequence at Hudsucker’s center. Once again, fate takes a heavy hand. A frustrated storekeeper chucks an armful of unsold hoops out his front door; one separates itself from the pack and rolls several city blocks, finally coming to rest at the feet of an inquisitive boy. He picks it up, slips it experimentally around his hips, and starts it spinning. (That the hula hoop’s journey is accomplished without recourse to CGI increases the feeling of fortuitousness; you know the take used is one among dozens where the hero hoop spun out of frame or crashed ingloriously to earth.) A mob of schoolchildren running home after the last bell come upon the boy, and the hula hoop becomes an overnight sensation. Norville’s idiot has become a savant.

nullNorville’s fall is as meteoric as his rise—as Hudsucker’s circles imply, what goes around comes around. His corn-fed ingenuousness turns to arrogance, he’s schemed out of a job, and we find ourselves where we began, with Norville stepping out onto the ledge adjoining Hudsucker Industries’ looming clock. But the cycle is finally broken, if only by some serious bending of the rules, a happy ending that suggests such endings only happen in the movies. Optimism and pessimism walk hand in hand.

The Hudsucker Proxy is the last film of the Coen’s high symbolic period, capping a stylistic trilogy that includes Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink. The movie’s interest in the doomed repetition of history and the eternal dark side of human nature could hardly be more. Circles are everywhere: Hudsucker’s clock face, the coffee-mug ring that brings the company’s classified ad to Norville’s attention, the hula hoop and its descendants, the halo above Waring Hudsucker’s angelic head (“They’re all wearin’ ’em upstairs. It’s a fad.”) Joel Coen once said the brothers deliberately littered their films with untethered signifiers as a way of messing with critics, but here the recurring symbolism is like another layer of farce. It’s like the Coens are daring viewers to take their goofy screwball fable seriously, larding it with mythological and cinematic references like Jennifer Jason Leigh’s fast-talking reporter, a straightforward pastiche of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday.

There are parts of Hudsucker that don’t mesh. The lifeless expanse of Sidney Mussburger’s office is a trifle too melancholy, too cold; it feels like a shot meant for the Coens’ former cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld, rather than relatively new hire Roger Deakins. On its initial release, Hudsucker was touted as the Coens’ move up to large-scale filmmaking, teaming them with Lethal Weapon producer Joel Silver after their Cannes triple crown, and there are times when the movie doesn’t seem to fill the space allotted; its emphatic gestures echo like
Charles Foster Kane’s voice in an empty Xanadu. But that emptiness comes
to feel like part of the point, a solitary undertone that runs all the
way through. Hudsucker is warmer in every sense than Fargo,
the movie that followed it, but at heart they’re equally bleak about
people’s ability to do anything for a little bit of money.

Sam Adams writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Time Out New York, the Onion A.V. Club, and the Philadelphia City Paper. Follow him on Twitter.

The Five Best Uses of Music in Coen Brothers Films

The Five Best Uses of Pop Music in Coen Brothers Films


The Coen brothers’ relationship to source music is as integral to their vision as recurring themes and subject matter. Like a signature shot or the way certain characters speak, a director’s song selection can reverberate throughout an oeuvre. We anticipate with excitement what 45s are going to be “rediscovered” after being used in a movie. Martin Scorsese and David Chase are masters at using pop music to enhance ecstasy and dread. Danny Boyle uses Brit pop and world beat grooves to bring us into the jangled headspace of his anti-heroes. Quentin Tarantino brilliantly uses a mix-tape approach to music to complement his genre deconstructions. Matthew Weiner knows how to take an old standard and make it sound new again. Cameron Crowe celebrates the good vibrations of ‘70s gold. Allison Anders’ passion for American pop deserves more recognition. Same goes for Craig Brewer, who is practically alone in acknowledging that hip-hop and country no longer occupy separate playlists.

Then there are filmmakers whose understanding of music is constantly evolving. They don’t so much recontextualize their record collection as expand it. These filmmakers work in the vein of Stanley Kubrick, a master at selecting period-specific source music for his movies. Modern-day Kubrick musicologists include David Fincher, who uses both original scores and source cues in startlingly new ways. (Fight Club is his A Clockwork Orange, while the score to The Social Network feels like a companion piece to that of The Shining.) Wes Anderson is another director who constantly mixes things up on the soundtrack. The use of multiple Hank Williams songs in Moonrise Kingdom was an out-of-the-box gambit that proved surprisingly moving. (On the other hand, Paul Thomas Anderson so desperately wants to be a Kubrickphile that his soundtracks have felt increasingly strained since the gloriously melancholic Magnolia.) But the filmmakers who most resemble Kubrick when it comes to music are the Coen brothers. Ever since their audacious directorial debut Blood Simple (1985), Joel and Ethan Coen have used both source music and composed scores to set the tone of their fishbowl-lens visions of cruelty, trickery, detachment, and longing. Specializing in deadpan genre deconstructions, the Coens use music to provide the emotionality for their generally cool stories. Their movies have always given off the feeling of being hermetically-sealed environs where acts of cruelty and kindness are given equal weight. This would be quite off-putting if it weren’t for the music. What follows are the best uses of music in the Coens’ movies. I stand by my ranking, or my name isn’t Aaron Aradillas.

“Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane 

A Serious Man, the Coens’ most humane movie, is all about the disorienting feeling of trying to assimilate in a world where faith in a higher power is constantly being tested. While not strictly autobiographical, the film is informed by the Coens’ Jewish upbringing during the 1960s in suburban Minnesota. Part of the first generation of Jewish-Americans who felt removed from the Holocaust, they re-create the swirling atmosphere of suburban blandness and mind-expanding psychedelia rock. As Physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) starts to seek answers to life’s mysteries, the Coens gently mock and pay respect to the temporary comforts of religious rituals. Unlike a physics problem, which can be mapped out to its one and only conclusion, real life is messier and can sometimes seem quite arbitrary.

Larry’s journey to the realization that not every question has an answer is foretold by the use of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” a track from their Surrealistic Pillow album, the song is a rocked-out version of a mellower folk number that singer Grace Slick brought from The Great Society. The song is highlighted at three key points during the movie. First, it follows a seemingly unrelated prologue scene set in the early 20th century that centers on suspicion and misunderstandings in a rustic shtetl. The bemused tone of the prologue, followed by the swirling guitar sound of “Somebody to Love” over the opening credits, keys us to the movie’s constantly shifting mood of unrest. With Spencer Dryden’s forward-motion drumming and Slick’s authoritative yet pleadingly romantic howl, “Somebody to Love” is rightfully held up as a superior example of psychedelic rock. It’s revealed that the song is being heard on a tiny transistor radio by Larry’s son Danny (Aaron Wolff), who can barely concentrate on his Hebrew school studies. (He’s preparing for his Bar Mitzvah.) The lyrics of the song seem fatalistic but are actually cautiously optimistic.

    When the truth is found to be lies
    An’ all the joy within you dies
    Don’t you want somebody to love
    Don’t you need somebody to love
    Wouldn’t you love somebody to love
    You better find someone to love, love

It’s the thin line between “want” and “need” that drives Larry to question the purpose of his life—and why it seems to be inexplicably coming apart. He seeks counsel from three rabbis, but the answers they give him aren’t very helpful. It isn’t until the end when Danny, who has completed his Bar Mitzvah ceremony and is sitting with the most senior rabbi, that the song is reprised. The rabbi alters the opening lyrics of the song slightly and offers them as advice to Danny. This is followed by a gathering storm that forces the school kids to seek shelter. The final shot is of Danny looking at an ominous storm cloud. Here the song is reprised for a third and final time, except this time it all comes together as Danny, having just come of age, seems to grasp what his father does not. That is, sometimes not knowing can be scary, but it can also feel like freedom.

“It’s the Same Old Song” by The Four Tops 

Blood Simple was not your typical directorial debut. A blood-soaked neo-noir, it was a calling-card movie that rocked audiences. Released only a couple of months after Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, Blood Simple was also an independent deadpan comedy, but it was also a scarily tense throwback to all those nasty ‘40s thrillers that revolved around sex, murder, guilt, and the fear of being caught. Before House of Games, before Reservoir Dogs, before One False Move, before The Usual Suspects, before Bound, the Coens reached back into Hollywood’s past and came up with a low-budget contraption built to thrill. It remains one of the most important debut features in modern movie history.

The highlight is an extended wordless sequence where, after a series of double-crosses and assumptions, dumb lug bartender Ray (John Getz) finds himself cleaning up the blood-splattered office of his girlfriend’s husband, who has been shot by the sleazy private investigator hired to kill the cheating couple. (You get all that?) As Ray locks the office door and begins to use his jacket to clean the blood, his co-worker Meurice (Samm-Art Williams) arrives and turns on the jukebox and “It’s the Same Old Song” blasts onto the soundtrack. The song’s jaunty melody is a variation on “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” while the lyrics about a former girlfriend who seems to enjoy leaving men in pain tap into the misogyny, the mistrust of women, that courses through film noir. The relentless beat is like the telltale heart of the audience. Like Donovan’s “Atlantis” during the “Billy Bats” sequence in GoodFellas, or Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” in Reservoir Dogs, “It’s the Same Old Song” in Blood Simple heightens our excitement in not wanting to look away. The sequence illustrates that a perfectly chosen pop song can allow you to get away with murder.

“Danny Boy” by Frank Patterson 

You Can’t Hit Albert Finney! by cliporama2

1990 turned out to be the year of the gangster film, with an emphasis on pop. You had GoodFellas, of course, with its gimme-shelter-from the-storm of violence and cocaine craziness. Abel Ferrara’s great King of New York possessed a Scarface-level of comic scariness that was set to the thumping beat of Schoolly D’s “Am I Black Enough for You?” The most hyped movie of the year, Warren Beatty’s candy-colored Dick Tracy, had songs written by Stephen Sondheim and performed by Madonna. (Her I’m Breathless is actually an underrated gem.) Even the unjustly maligned The Godfather Part III concludes with a nearly 30-minute action payoff, set to the opera Cavalleria rusticana, that remains one of the greatest pieces of sustained action filmmaking ever made. And in Miller’s Crossing, the Coens stage a musically-enhanced action sequence that plays like the ultimate version of a gangland shoot-out.

The movie is what I like to call one of their “tutorials.” Like Blood Simple, The Hudsucker Proxy, even Burn After Reading, the Coens like to make movies that are like “how to’s” on certain genres. Miller’s Crossing is an obsessively detailed re-creation of a ‘30s gangster movie. Everything from the clothes to the ugly mugs to the complicated machinations of the plot to the overly articulated dialogue instructs us on how we should be experiencing the movie. Naturally, there’s an attempted hit on a boss that’s a shoot-the-works knockout. As Leo (Albert Finney), the head of the Irish gang that runs the city, lies in bed while smoking a cigar, we hear Frank Patterson’s version of  ”Danny Boy” being played on a record player. This song, the quintessential Irish standard about a mother bidding her son farewell as he goes off to war, builds on the soundtrack as we see the feet of henchmen heading towards Leo’s bedroom. (They’ve been sent by Italian gangster Johnny Caper [Joe Polito] who, among his many grievances, is sick of Leo giving him the high hat.) Leo, sensing something is up, grabs his gun and lunges under his bed right at the moment the gunmen burst in shooting. “Danny Boy” seems to fade for a moment only to come roaring back on the soundtrack as a series of precisely edited shots and movements show Leo defending himself. After shooting one guy in the foot to have him fall to the ground so he can shoot him in the head while still hiding under the bed, Leo grabs a Tommy Gun and systematically goes after the remaining gunmen. There’s a bit of slapstick gruesomeness when Leo pumps what seems like a thousand rounds into one of the men. The climax of the scene has Leo doing a James Cagney pose as he slowly walks down the street, firing the machine gun at a car until it swerves, crashes and explodes. As Leo stands in the middle of the street, triumphant and satisfied, the song ends. The point is clear: war has been declared.

“The Man In Me” by Bob Dylan 

Ah, The Big Lebowski. It’s probably the Coens most well-known, most quoted, most revered movie. The follow-up to their great kidnapping comedy Fargo, Lebowski saw the brothers in prankster mode as they used a Raymond Chandler-like structure to riff on male aggression, ignorance, nihilism, and L.A.-based fringe characters. Taking off from a Brazil-like misunderstanding that causes pacifist The Dude (Jeff Bridges), his psycho Vietnam veteran best friend Walter (John Goodman), and their innocent buddy Donnie (Steve Buscemi) to attempt to rip off people they think are dumber than they are, The Big Lebowski is a stoner comedy that reveals just how circularly aimless a lot of plot-driven pulp fiction really is. It really doesn’t add up to much. By the end, most of the characters are back where they started. That’s probably why it has only grown in stature over the last 15 years. The movie’s give-and-take between laid-back detachment and in-your-face cruelty (embodied by Goodman’s towering performance) was a precursor to everything from Jackass to Napoleon Dynamite to Superbad.

The Big Lebowski would seem, at first glance, a heartless comedy of the grotesque, but the soundtrack tells a different story. A celebration of the ‘70s SoCal vibe, the Lebowski soundtrack is both ironic and sincere. You get absurd selections like Kenny Rogers & The First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” and Henry Mancini’s “Lujon” alongside a searing live version of “Dead Flowers” by Townes Van Zandt. Also, as a running gag, you have the movie’s disdain for “the fucking Eagles.” (The Dude’s dislike of the ridiculously popular California band is leftover snobbery from his counterculture youth. There’s no way a group that successful can be good.) And, of course, we mustn’t forget Creedence. For me the best use of music is Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me.” It’s used a couple of times (including in one of The Dude’s flying-like-Superman hallucinations), but its use in the strikes-and-spares opening-credit sequence sets the movie’s tone beautifully. We watch as serious-looking bowlers line up and execute perfectly controlled rolls. There’s a Busby Berkley-meets-Bob Fosse playfulness to the choreography of the movements. Musically, the song (taken from Dylan’s New Morning) is a laid-back groove with Dylan in fine voice. (This period of his career saw him transitioning from his trademark nasal pleading to his current smoker’s growl.) Lyrically, it’s blessedly devoid of Dylan’s typical skepticism and mistrust. The opening child-like refrain of la-la-la-la-la-la-la is quite affecting. The opening lines are a winking foreshadowing of The Dude’s role in the world.

    The man in me will do nearly any task
    And as for compensation, there’s a little he would ask

The Dude’s pacifism has morphed into a neverending journey to stay mellow in a world where aggression won’t stand. All he really wants is a new rug, and he is willing to do nearly anything for it. By the end, he’s lost a friend but is possibly a little wiser. The Dude. He abides.

“I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” by The Soggy Bottom Boys 

The current popularity of bluegrass and folk music can be traced back to the runaway success of O Brother, Where Art Thou? A companion piece to the Coens’ hillbilly family comedy Raising Arizona, O Brother was a mix of Homer’s The Odyssey, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, and Hee-Haw. Depending on how you looked at it, the movie was either an inspired Depression-era Southern comedy of manners or a condescending, cracker-barrel comedy that made you feel superior to everyone and everything on screen. This trace of superiority the Coens seem to display over their characters (and sometimes the audience) has been something I and many others have grappled with over the years. It all began with Raising Arizona, a rollicking comedy that nevertheless isn’t above ridiculing “regional folk.” (At the time of the film’s release, critics praised the Coens’ sense of quirk and style while bashing David Byrne’s equally quirky but more humane Southern character study True Stories.) Fargo, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man show the brothers playing it straight, and their filmmaking is better for it. Even True Grit had a more controlled sense of its down-home characters than O Brother. (With No Country for Old Men, they traded in their quirk for Cormac McCarthy’s nihilistic pulp. Talk about an upgrade.)

What saves O Brother, Where Art Thou? is its landmark soundtrack. Produced by T. Bone Burnett, the album consisted of period-specific traditionals and folk standards, used throughout the movie as a kind of running musical commentary as escaped convicts Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson), and Peter Hogwallop (John Turturro) go on a journey to retrieve some supposed buried treasure. I had thought of highlighting the haunting “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” performed in the movie by Chris Thomas King portraying delta bluesman Tommy Johnson, but I opted for “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.” As performed by The Soggy Bottom Boys (Tommy on guitar, Everett on lead vocals, Delmar and Pete on harmony), the song is heard throughout the movie. (The boys cut the record in one take in a recording booth as a way to make some quick cash. To their surprise, it became a smash hit.) The song is a lament by a man who’s at the end of his rope and has decided to leave everything behind and jump a train. He’s almost welcoming of the relief of death.

    It’s fare thee well my old lover
    I never expect to see you again
    For I’m bound to ride that northern railroad
    Perhaps I’ll die upon this train

The song becomes the theme for “Pappy” O’Daniel, (Charles Durning), the cheerfully corrupt (and honest) incumbent governor of Mississippi. Dan Tyminski’s vocal and guitar playing is so joyful that, like a lot of folk and gospel and rural American music, it turns despair into hope. The entire soundtrack is almost contrapuntal to the Coens’ occasional smugness toward the South. The music gives their diorama view of rural life a glimmer of soul.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.