The Coen Brothers: From Blood to Burn, and back again
25 years ago, a precocious pair of brothers burst onto the scene with Blood Simple, a smart, sophisticated noir that announced them as major talents in American cinema. Since then, Joel and Ethan Coen have more than delivered on the promise they showed and with a diverse range of movies, from the neo-screwball road movie Raising Arizona to the dark, Prohibition-era gangster movie Miller’s Crossing, from the Odyssey-inspired O Brother, Where Art Thou? to a Southern-set remake of an Ealing comedy, The Ladykillers. Now to mark to release of the Coen brothers’ new movie, A Serious Man, FilmInFocus looks back over their entire back catalogue and presents an annotated filmography of the siblings’ dazzlingly varied oeuvre.
Blood Simple (1984)
The Coen brothers alledgely announced early on in their career that they would make a film in every genre and then stop. They kicked off with this compelling neo noir about a James M. Cain-esque love triangle between a bar manager (John Getz), his boss (Dan Hedaya) and his boss' wife (Frances McDormand aka Mrs. Ethan Coen). The film's memorable climax showcased the brothers' assured and inventive visual style particularly well, and won almost universal praise from the critics as well as the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
Raising Arizona (1987)
The Coens' sophomore feature was a major change of pace, a screwball road movie comedy about a childless married couple – "Hi," a hapless career criminal (Nicolas Cage) and Ed (Holly Hunter), the pretty cop who used to take his mugshots when he was arrested – who kidnap a baby and go on the run. The brothers wrote the role of Ed for Holly Hunter, who they, Sam Raimi and McDormand used to live with in the Bronx. (Hunter also provided the voice on the answering machine in Blood Simple. A cult favorite now, the movie fared very well on its release grossing $22 from its $6m budget.
Miller's Crossing (1990)
A complex, layered period gangster film, Miller's Crossing was inspired by Dashiell Hammett's novels Red Harvest and The Glass Key but played out its story — based around the struggles for territorial and sexual power involving aging mobster Albert Finney, his right-hand man Gabriel Byrne, Finney's moll Marcia Gay Harden and rival gang leader Jon Polito — like Shakespearian drama. It was the penultimate feature shot by Coen regular DP Barry Sonnenfield who made his directorial debut, The Addams Family, the following year.
Barton Fink (1991)
During a three-week period when they got writer's block while penning the impossibly intricate Miller's Crossing script, the siblings took a break by writing this film about a playwright-turned-screenwriter with, yes, writer's block. Set in the same period, starring some of the same actors and tackling similar themes, this sumptuously dark film about Hollywood acts as a companion piece to Miller's Crossing. Featuring a standout performance from John Turturro as the eponymous tortured writer, it won the Palme D'Or (plus two more awards) at Cannes and marked the first collaboration between the Coens and acclaimed British DP Roger Deakins.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Harking back to the 1940s comedies of Preston Sturges and Frank Capra, the Coens' lightest film since Raising Arizona featured Tim Robbins as the childlike inventor of the hula-hoop who unwittingly becomes the puppet boss of Hudsucker Industries (for scheming Paul Newman) while reporter Jennifer Jason Leigh channels Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. The Coens actually wrote the script with Sam Raimi in the mid-80s while they were trying to sell Blood Simple, and indeed it has a similar tone to Raimi's zany Crimewave (1985). It features familiar Coens actors Steve Buscemi, John Goodman Jon Polito in smaller roles, and Raimi regular Bruce Campbell and the late Anna Nicole Smith also appear.
The Coens went from cult filmmakers and darlings of the critics to truly mainstream directors with the massive success of this snowbound, Minnesota-set thriller (which is actually set in Brainerd, not Fargo). Frances McDormand won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson on the case of two kidnappers (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) hired by a slippery car salesman (William H. Macy) to snatch his wife. The brothers also won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar — although they initially claimed the movie was based on a true story — and also received nominations for Best Picture and Best Director.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The follow-up to Fargo was another decidedly unconventional take on the crime movie genre, the story of an apathetic middle-aged stoner, Dude Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), who gets embroiled in (yet another) kidnapping plot after he is mistaken for a millionaire with the same name (hence the title). Though the film only turned a small profit at the box office, its quirky combination of memorable characters (John Goodman's Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak, John Torturro's rival bowler Jesus) and quotable lines have made it a massive cult favorite on DVD that has spawned not only a handful of books but the Lebowski Fest, a cultural event that celebrates all things Lebowski.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
The title references Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels and the plot is supposedly based on Homer's Odyssey: three chain gang prisoners (George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) escape and go on an epic journey to recover the $1.2m in stolen cash Clooney's Ulysses Everett McGill has hidden. A raucous old style road movie comedy set in the Southern Gothic world of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, the film featured a bluegrass soundtrack by T-Bone Burnett and made a hit of the song "Man of Constant Sorrow," by the Clooney, Turturro and Nelson's fictional band, the Soggy Bottom Boys.
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
The Coens once again paid homage to the classic Hollywood era with this black-and-white noir about a passive barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) who gets himself caught in a spiraling series of criminal events including blackmail, murder and suicide. In addition to Coens regulars Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco and Jon Polito, the film starred a young Scarlett Johansson as Birdy, the daughter of a friend of Ed's, who "distracts" Ed, causing him to crash his car. The film was allegedly inspired by a poster the brothers saw of 1940s haircuts while making The Hudsucker Proxy.
Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
This romantic comedy reteamed the Coens with George Clooney who played a hotshot divorce lawyer who wages a war of the sexes against the ultimate gold digger (Catherine Zeta Jones), whose relationship recalled classic movies like Adam's Rib and Bringing Up Baby. The film marked the tenth collaboration between the Coens and composer Carter Burwell, and the seventh Coen movie cut by the elusive Roderick Jaynes — who is, in fact, the Moviola moniker used by the brothers.
The Ladykillers (2004)
Based on the 1950s Ealing comedy of the same name starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, Joel and Ethan Coen (who received a co-directing credit for the first time here) transposed the story of a group of bank robbers who lodge with an innocent octogenarian woman to the Deep South. Tom Hanks (who didn't see the original) played the Guinness role while Irma P. Hall's inspired turn as the sweet little old lady won her the Jury Prize for acting at the Cannes Film Festival.
No Country For Old Men (2007)
In their return to more serious territory, the Coens had massive success with this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed novel about Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who opportunistically finds a stash of drug money and is then ruthlessly pursued by bowl haircut-wearing bounty hunter Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). This tense, thoughtful thriller won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars for the brothers — plus Best Supporting Actor for Bardem — and topped the many critics' end of year lists. While the Coens were shooting in Marfa, Texas, the other big Oscar movie of 2007, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, was simultaneously in production just a few miles away.
Burn After Reading (2008)
The Coens’ 13th feature – the first film since 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There to feature an original screenplay by the brothers – put an absurdist slant on espionage and the workings of government. Mixing humor that is by turns dark and broad, Burn After Reading tells the story of Chad and Linda, two gym employees (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) who find a disc containing the incendiary memoirs of ex-spy Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) – and then decide to blackmail him. The film is notable for the number of characters who are intellectual lightweights; the Coens say they have "a long history of writing parts for idiotic characters," and viewed Chad and Harry (George Clooney’s character, a Treasury employee who’s sleeping with Cox’s wife as well as Linda) as "dueling idiots."