For almost 25 years, Joel and Ethan Coen have remained the quirkiest and most original moviemaking team on the planet. The brothers have dabbled in an array of genres: From romantic comedies (Intolerable Cruelty) to mob movies (Miller’s Crossing) and private detective stories (The Big Lebowski), they’ve virtually done it all, with their trademark dark wit always intact. Their latest endeavor, following the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men, is the outrageous comedy-thriller Burn After Reading. Before heading to theaters to see the much-anticipated movie, which premiered this past week at the Toronto International Film Festival, spend some time with MM reviewing some of their most beloved work.
Blood Simple (1984)
The Coens’ made an auspicious debut with this grisly, darkly funny film noir. A jealous bar owner (Dan Hedaya) hires a private investigator (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill his cheating wife (Frances McDormand) and the man she’s sleeping with. What first appears to be a simple plan becomes increasingly more complicated as double-crossing, a case of mistaken identity and much bloodshed ensues. With its stylish camerawork, ingenious plot twists and vivid performances—including Frances McDormand in her film debut and M. Emmet Walsh as the sleaziest private detective of all time—Blood Simple still stands as a neo-noir classic and one of the best films in the Coen brothers oeuvre. As Ann Hornaday in The Baltimore Sun said, “Blood Simple is a reminder of how rarely an original artistic sensibility is announced to the world and how much better movies are when that sensibility is allowed to keep going its own way.”
Raising Arizona (1987)
As they would do many times in their career, the Coens’ flouted convention by making their follow-up film to Blood Simple an over-the-top, slapstick comedy. Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter play an ex-con and ex-cop, respectively, who get married but find that they cannot have children. In an act of desperation, the mismatched pair decides to steal one of the quintuplets of furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona. Like in the Coen brothers’ previous film, what starts out as a seemingly sure-fire plan becomes increasingly more complicated as friends, co-workers and a deadly bounty hunter attempt to retrieve the baby and reward money. Despite the film’s hilarious, over-the-top humor, the moviemakers also proved adept at finding the emotional core of the story, making the audience feel sympathy towards the bumbling, well-meaning criminals.
Arguably the Coen brothers’ finest film, Fargo was certainly their most critically successful when first released in 1996. Set in the Coens’ home state of Minnesota, the film depicts the downfall of desperate car dealer Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy, nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role), who hires two men (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife so that his wealthy father-in-law will pay the $1 million ransom. As in most Coen films, things soon go awry (and gruesome) and noble, pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand once again) is brought in to investigate the crime. The thought-provoking film received seven Academy Award nominations: The Coens won Best Original Screenplay and McDormand was bestowed Best Actress for her iconic character, the moral center of the film. With its icy setting, complex characters and unique blend of subtle comedy and pathos, Fargo is a true original.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
The Coens’ journeyed into the deep south for this loose re-telling of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, set in 1930s Mississippi. The outlandish comedy stars George Clooney (in his first of three collaborations with the brothers) as one of three convicts who escape from prison and get involved in a variety of larger-than-life adventures. Boasting a hugely popular bluegrass soundtrack and nabbing two Oscar nominations, O Brother is one of the Coens’ most wildly original films. A.O. Scott, of The New York Times, said of the film: “It is, all in all, a rambunctious and inspired ride in which the Coen brothers’ voracious fascination with the arcana of American popular culture and their whiz-kid inventiveness reach new heights of whimsy.”
No Country For Old Men (2007)
The Coen brothers’ struck gold last year as they returned to Blood Simple territory with this bleak, faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel of the same name. Set in 1980s Texas, the film centers on conscienceless, bloodthirsty killer Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem in an Oscar-winning role and unfortunate bowl haircut), on the trail of Moss (Josh Brolin), a hunter who came across a suitcase of dirty millions in cash. Analyzing the case, much like Marge in Fargo, is a veteran sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) who slowly comes to realize that the world has become too brutal and heartless for the older generation. Perhaps the Coens’ most intense work, No Country was also by far their biggest money-maker, raking in $78 million at the box office. The film received mostly raves from critics, who viewed it as a return to form for the Coen brothers, following several lackluster mainstream comedies. In the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert applauded the movie, saying, “Many of the scenes in No Country For Old Men are so flawlessly constructed that you want them to simply continue, and yet they create an emotional suction drawing you to the next scene. Another movie that made me feel that way was Fargo. To make one such film is a miracle. Here is another.” The film was championed at this year’s Oscar ceremony; winning four of eight nominations, including the Coens’ first-ever win for Best Director(s) and their second Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Most importantly, No Country For Old Men was named the Best Picture of the year.
Burn After Reading (2008)
The Coen brothers wasted no time in releasing another film less than one year after the success of No Country. And much like the rest of their oeuvre, it couldn’t be more different than the film that preceded it. Burn After Reading is a madcap comedy revolving around a disk containing the memoirs of a CIA agent (John Malkovich). The disk ends up in the hands of two desperate gym employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, looking much goofier than he’s been in ages) who attempt to sell it. The impressive cast also includes George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor). Burn After Reading sure looks like another unforgettable, oddball trip into Coen country.