O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) Written by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen Directed by Joel Coen
The Coen Brothers were coming off some iconic films by the time the new millennium rolled around. In the 1990s, they established themselves with pictures like Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski. Their first entry into the 2000s was a big-budget comedy based on Homer’s Odyssey. It was just the sort of strange left turn their entire career has been filled with. The result was a decent movie, most certainly their most outstanding technical achievement but definitely not one of my favorites in their filmography.
Blood Simple (1985) Written by Joel & Ethan Coen Directed by Joel Coen
Nothing in Blood Simple feels unnecessary. Each frame, each character action, every twist in the plot feels like it clicks right into place to tell a classic neo-noir tale. The Coens direct with confidence that they know every character and the perfect flow of the story. The title comes from Dashiell Hammet’s novel Red Harvest to describe the mindset immersed in violence and how it becomes addled with fear & terror. That perfectly describes this quartet of souls as they make bad choices, communicate poorly, and allow paranoia to take over their psyche. The result is a movie dripping with noir, reminiscent of old classics but paving its own country-fried way.
Miller’s Crossing (1990) Written Joel and Ethan Coen Directed by Joel Coen
Miller’s Crossing is not often cited these days when people talk about the Coen Brothers’ body of work, but I think it deserves a higher spot. The film is such a cleverly constructed story, moving at a brisk pace and never feeling it’s two-hour runtime. The world of the film is so rich and layered with a back story, and the Coens reveal only as much as we need to know to understand the story. The rest is left up the viewer to infer and ponder, which is something about the Coen Brothers that I absolutely love.
True Grit (2010, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen) Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
I’ve never seen the original True Grit, mainly because I am not such a big fan of John Wayne. I’ve only seen two films of his (The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). I totally get Wayne as an icon, but as an actor he seemed a little weak. So I entered the remake of True Grit with no expectations and found it to be a great western and adventure story, with enough subtext to keep me thinking for a long time. Despite advertisements, this is Hailee Steinfeld’s film. The other actors are there to support her and she does a magnificent job keeping up with the likes of Bridges and Damon.
Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) is the 14 year old daughter of a man shot in cold blood by Tom Cheney (Brolin), a dim witted scoundrel. Mattie travels to the location of her father’s body under the pretense of preparing it to be sent back home, but is actually out to find a hired gun to help her track down and murder Cheney. She happens upon the grizzled federal marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), a man who shoots first and asks questions later. After some convincing, he agrees to take Mattie into Choctaw territory where Cheney ran off to. Before they can depart, Texas ranger Le Boeuf (Damon) who is looking for Cheney in relation to his murder of a Texas state senator. The trio bickers and bonds as they draw closer to their prey, which in the end will test each of their resolves.
The Coens are employing their strongest tactics in this film: dialogue and character. The language of the characters is so precise and specific, and this is how they have created countless memorable and iconic characters. True Grit is a showcase for the complex figure of Mattie Ross, whom could easily become a “girl power” anachronism. Instead, through well placed pieces of dialogue, we learn about Mattie’s role in her home and the extra responsibility she has been strapped with. She is both courageous and vulnerable in a way many female characters in film rarely are. Beyond Mattie, the central and side characters all have unspoken histories that we catch glimpses of. As she and Rooster travel the wilderness they encounter characters who may have a line or two (or none at all) and are fully realized figures in this world. The Coens succeed in producing another film chock full of those things that cause the brains of film geeks like myself to salivate.
The film begins with a prologue, where a Jewish couple, some time in the late 18th/early 20th century are presented with a conundrum. A rabbi has appeared at their door after an invitation from the husband. However, the wife has heard that this rabbi died three years before and believes what is in their home is a dybbuk, a sort of Jewish demon. The prologue is presented in a way that leaves both the possibility of the rabbi being who he claims and being the dybbuk equally valid. Thus, the film links itself to the paradox of Schroedinger’s Cat.
Set in 1967, the plot focuses on college mathematics professor Larry Gopnik. Larry is a modern day Job, having his wife ask for a divorce, her new lover passive-aggressively maneuvering his way into the home, two teenage children who could care less about him, a student bribing for a higher grade, and general disdain from all those around him.
For this latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, the duo have departed from casting big name actors and have opted for a melange of recognizable character actors and stage performers. The film is highly steeped in Jewish culture and likely contains many autobiographical elements. It is highly impressive that the same minds behind No Country For Old Men and The Big Lebowski are able to deftly move between almost genre of film and produce work of superb quality. A Serious Man is no exception, despite its drastic casting shifts.
There is a lot of pay close attention to in this film, and the way the story ends is inevitably going to frustrate those viewers who like loose ends tied up. A key piece to getting the most out of the film is keep many of the stories told, including the prologue in mind. It’s mentioned in the film, that in Judaism stories and folktales are a crucial part of understanding the challenges placed before a person. There are many stories told in this film and all of them have themes and ideas that play out in the climax of the film.
I found A Serious Man to be one of the most intellectually rewarding of the Coens’ work, which says a lot when you look at the quality of their career. It’s in their continuing tradition of going completely against the grain and expectations of their audience, and its concepts and questions will linger with you for days and weeks to follow.