Directors’ Trademarks: The Coen Brothers

Joel and Ethan Coen, known collectively as the Coen brothers, are a filmmaking duo who have been active making feature films since the 1980’s. Together they share many production-related roles on their films, including writing, directing, editing, and producing. Although they are typically both equal contributors in many of these roles, they often trade off as lead billing. For editor, they typically use the pseudonym “Roderick Jaynes”, and for director Joel was listed on all films up until The Ladykillers even though both of them shared directing responsibilities. On later films, they are both listed as director.

Their first feature film was Blood Simple (1984) which was not a commercial success but was a critical hit, earning many awards at film festivals. The next film that they directed was 1987’s Raising Arizona. Audiences enjoyed the film, and although it is now considered a modern classic, initial critical consensus was mixed. Miller’s Crossing (1990) was their third film, which flopped at the box office despite good reviews. Barton Fink (1991) was next, winning more festival awards and was nominated for several Oscars, but it just didn’t resonate well with audiences and ended up losing money. 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy was the Coen brothers’ biggest film to date, yet they still could not connect with theater audiences which caused the film to bomb at the box office. This was also their first film that was not well received by critics.

The Coen brothers scaled back their approach on their next film, Fargo (1996) which became a hit at the box office and with critics. Their follow up was another film that has since become a classic, The Big Lebowski (1998). The string of hits continued with 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? before the release of 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There which had only moderate success in comparison. Next, they directed the romantic comedy Intolerable Cruelty in 2003, which became their one of their biggest box office hits. Next, they released The Ladykillers (2004) which was profitable in theaters, but was poorly received by critics, a Coen brothers first. They bounced back with 2007’s No Country for Old Men, which became a big commercial and critical hit, winning the brothers their first, and only, Best Director Oscar. They switched back to comedy with 2008’s Burn After Reading, which found success in theaters, and was moderately well received. A Serious Man (2009) received similar feedback from critics, but only had limited release in theaters. True Grit (2010) became the biggest commercial hit of their career (so far), while also achieving high praise from critics. Despite a limited release in theaters, their next film, Inside Llewyn Davis found profitability, and was also a critical success. The Coen brothers’ latest film is Hail, Caesar!, which is in theaters now.

So the question posed is, if you are watching a Coen brothers film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of  the Coen brother’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:

Crime Gone Wrong

A majority of the Coen brothers’ films are crime dramas, or feature a crime, yet rarely do those crimes go off without a hitch. They often play off of the traditional film technique of making crime seem cool or exciting for entertainment purposes. Characters are frequently driven by desperation and, for them, crime is the answer. Unfortunately their glorification of crime as a solution to their problem often causes them to overlook minor details or their own inexperience, which leads to failure. This contrast between the familiar actions of characters in typical crime films, and what the Coen Brothers present becomes a source of comedy. The Ladykillers is an entire film based upon a group of mishap-prone criminals. Raising Arizona follows the problematic scheme of a couple who can’t have children, so they decide to kidnap a baby and keep it as their own. In The Hudsucker Proxy, a corrupt executive comes up with a scheme to devalue the stock of his company so that he can buy the majority share, which later backfires. Even in their more serious films, crime tends to go wrong. No Country For Old Men starts when an innocent man takes money from a drug deal gone wrong. In Miller’s Crossing, an attempt by a mobster to have one of his followers prove his loyalty by killing a bookie ends up costing him his power, and eventually his own life. 

Screaming Characters

One frequent occurrence in a Coen brothers film is to have a character who is either very loud/obnoxious or at some point a character yells loudly as the camera zooms in on their crazed face. In Fargo the short-tempered character is Showalter (Steve Buscemi). In The Big Lebowski  it’s Walter Sobchak (John Goodman). In Intolerable Cruelty, during the trial scene, a witness accuses a lawyer (Edward Hermann), who charges at the witness stand (and the camera) in a fit of rage. In Blood Simple, Abby catches her adversary’s arm in a window and stabs his hand, which results in a long-winded shout of pain with a close up of the man’s face. A common trait in many of the Coen brothers films is what has come to be known as “The Howling Fat Man.” In a few of his films he has a heavyset character who at some point in the film shouts from the top of their lungs, in either rage, fright, or glee. Often, these characters are played by John Goodman. In Raising Arizona, there is the scene with his character, Snoats, escaping from prison, emerging from the ground while screaming through the effort. Later, when Snoats and his associate leave the baby behind at a gas station, they scream the entire way back to fetch him. In Barton Fink, Goodman plays Charlie, who at one point becomes enraged towards a police officer who is after him, and he runs down a hotel hallway shouting the entire way. In O Brother, Where Art Thou? Goodman’s character is the tricky businessman Big Dan Teague, who becomes enraged when the main characters try to escape. Another “Howling Fat Man” occurs in Miller’s Crossing, when Johnny murders Eddie Dane and Drop won’t stop yelling, or in the opening sequence of The Hudsucker Proxy, when the chairman commits suicide by jumping out of the window of a skyscraper and plummets to his death.

Car Tension

The Coen brothers put their characters in a lot of awkward situations. The fact that many of these awkward interactions occur in an automobile is not a coincidence. Scenes in cars can be claustrophobic, restrictive, and uncomfortable. All these things really allow an awkward interaction or moment to be most effective in reaching the audience, especially if it is an argument with heightened emotions. Like the characters on screen, the audience feels like they can’t move, which allows the audience to better understand the feelings of the characters they are watching. In The Big Lebowski, the Dude’s taxi ride home is shortened when he has an argument with the driver in regards to The Eagles and gets thrown out. In Burn After Reading, Chad and Osbourne have an altercation in the car, Osbourne punches Chad in the face, and this leads to a chase. In Fargo Showalter and Grimsrud are hired as kidnappers, but that doesn’t mean they like working together. This becomes apparent when Showalter chastises Grimsrud for his uncomfortable silence while they are on the road. The opening for Blood Simple is full of mystery and intrigue, as the film fades in from a voiceover to a dark, disturbing car ride that is full of uncomfortable characteristics. For one, it is raining, and difficult to see. On top of this, the characters talk slowly, and we don’t see their faces until later on. All of this allows the film to open with a tense, uncertain tone.

Foolish Characters

Schemes going wrong and conflict arising in Coen brothers films is often the result of characters making unwise decisions. Unlike typical movie characters, major characters in a Coen brothers films are often realistically flawed. They are commonly only of average intelligence, and as such, can be easily tricked to the point that the audience often sees the problem arising long before the character does. The events in Fargo, for instance, begin when car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), desperate for money, hatches a half-baked plan to make money through the kidnapping of his own wife. The scheme becomes sabotaged on multiple levels by incompetence, as the criminals he hires end up making irrational mistakes that throw the whole thing awry. In O Brother, Where Art Thou? the three escaped convicts frequently find themselves in dangerous situations because they are easily tricked. In Raising Arizona, ex-convict Hi is so upset with his inability to have a child that he decides to kidnap one and raise it as his own. In The Big Lebowski, The Dude’s frustration with being the wrong victim of an assault causes him to make several spur-of-the-moment decisions that cause him to inadvertently become more involved in the criminal world than he originally intended. In The Hudsucker Proxy, Norville Barnes is the newly appointed president of the company, appointed solely because of his inexperience and is expected to make poor decisions that will hurt the company.

Roger Deakins

The Coen brothers’ films all tend to look similar. They often feel rustic, with yellow or gold tones and a somewhat washed-out appearance. This technique is fitting for those films that take place in the past, as the film itself almost feels old or nostalgic. The reason for the commonality of presentation over such a long filmography is that the Coen brothers are frequent collaborators with famed cinematographer Roger Deakins. Deakins has worked on all of the Coen brothers films since Barton Fink except for Burn After Reading and Inside Llewyn Davis. Deakin’s work with the Coen brothers has been one of the longest-serving and fruitful partnerships in the industry, and has made him one of the most honored cinematographers in the business. Deakins sites a mutual understanding and approach as the reason that his partnership with the Coen brothers has continued after all of these years. 

Check out our last installment of Directors’ Trademarks:

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