“The thing is, they don’t suck.”
– Billy Bob Thornton, on the Coen Brothers
Great films usually have a certain rhythm to them, a well-made click underneath the surface that carries you along on its currents. And, given enough time, a rhythm often takes shape over the course of a filmography as well. The Coen Brothers, who have been making movies for over thirty years now, are master craftsman; say what you will about the many films they’ve made, but each has an unmistakable, distinctive authorial beat. It’s hard to watch more than a few minutes of any one of their 17 films without knowing exactly whose hands you’re in.
Beyond that, though, things appear to break down into two very different camps regarding the Coen Brothers. What makes this split all the more fascinating is how diametrically opposed the two positions are. To one faction, the Coen Brothers are cold-hearted nihilists to the core: technically adept but dispassionate, enjoyably ironic and clever, but ultimately believing in nothing. The other camp sees the Coens as old-fashioned Judeo-Christian moralists, storytellers with a clear sense of Right and Wrong, creating ethical worlds where most sinners get their just desserts. And again, there’s no middle ground here, really: The difference between nihilism and moralism is a gulf as big as any ocean. Do the Coen Brothers actually believe in anything? Are they dystopian pranksters or existential moralists? Are they in on the joke or standing above it all, chuckling?
Personally, I’m deeply partial to the notion that the Coen Brothers do, in fact, believe in something—even if that something is never wholly defined. Mysterious forces are often at work in their films, or at least appear to be; a higher power of sorts—guiding things or merely observing them—entirely outside of the characters’ awareness. And while the Coens seem far more interested in Questions than Answers (perhaps leading some to mistake their films’ ambiguities for a type of cynical nihilism), I would posit that it’s the questions themselves that hint at an underlying moral framework to their cinematic universe. Luck and happenstance certainly play a role in most of their tales, but so too do personal agency, codes of conduct, and basic human decency. Thus, while there often seems to be some kind of judgment being passed, I think it’s a sizable misreading to see this judgment as coming from the Coen Brothers themselves. They seem to genuinely love most of their befuddled, bumbling characters—depicting their frailties, foibles, and follies with a sense of humorous compassion—as if to say, There but for the grace of God go I.
It’s perhaps not surprising to learn that the young and impressionable Joel and Ethan Coen, two brothers growing up in an academic Jewish family in the suburbs of Minnesota, got their start as childhood filmmakers by attempting to remake the various Hollywood movies they’d seen on television. Because in a way, they’ve been doing much the same thing ever since, building an enormously engaging and sprawling body of work out of tackling popular old-school Hollywood genres (noir, gangster pictures, screwball comedies, musicals, westerns) and putting their own idiosyncratic stamp on them.
This month, we’re taking a look at some of those films, and trying to sort out what they’ve meant to us. And, much like the Coens’ own filmography, the issue itself is a mixture of darkness and light. Kelsey Ford explores Fargo—arguably their most iconic film—and the television series created in its wake, which both extends and complicates its Midwestern mythology; Stephen Sparks wrestles with Barton Fink and writer’s block; Kevin Curtis looks at how Blood Simple blends noir conventions with black comedy; Karina Wolf examines Miller’s Crossing and what it tells us about America. On the lighter side, Emma Stefansky discusses how she fell in love with The Big Lebowski’s Donnie Kerabatsos; Fran Hoepfner takes in the Coens’ latest film, Hail Caesar!; Alissa Wilkinson suggests the perfect drink to pair with a viewing of Inside Llewyn Davis; and sibling writing duo Nick and Hallie Bateman offer up life advice from No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh. We end things as we always do, with a poem from Arielle Greenberg, reflecting on True Grit.
It’s an understatement and a half to say that we looked forward to putting together this issue as much as any issue we’ve ever made. We could happily talk about the Coen Brothers for days on end and still have so much left to say—a fact which our upcoming podcast certainly attests to!—because so many of their films seem tailor-made for film lovers; even the lesser ones offer up ample delights and richly reward multiple viewings (except for The Ladykillers, that one just plain stinks). [Managing Editor’s note: Surprisingly, when I was researching various rankings of Coen Brothers films, The Ladykillers was not universally in last place, appearing above such films as The Hudsucker Proxy and Intolerable Cruelty and even The Big Lebowski on several prominent lists.] We don’t see this issue, then, as our definitive stance on the Coen Brothers—rather, we hope it serves as part of a larger, ongoing dialogue about these endlessly fascinating filmmakers and their place in the contemporary cinematic landscape.
And if you don’t? Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.
—Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief