The Good, The Bad and the Badass: The Coen Bros.
After looking at the career of actor Christian Bale last week, in anticipation of OUT OF THE FURNACE, this week we go back behind the camera to look at the careers of arguably the most famous family duo in Hollywood history.
The Coen Brothers, Joel & Ethan, are among the most enduring names in contemporary film. From their humble beginnings with BLOOD SIMPLE in 1984, through the breakout success of RAISING ARIZONA to the arthouse triumphs of MILLER’S CROSSING, BARTON FINK, and to the surprising commercial success of FARGO and OH BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, the Coens are nothing if not consistent. Even their flops, such as THE HUDSUCKER PROXY and THE BIG LEBOWSKI, have a way of redeeming themselves years later to become cult hits. In the case of LEBOWSKI, its become a virtual phenomenon, generating more in ancillary revenue then most blockbusters due to its consistent popularity on DVD/Blu-ray and in retrospective theatrical showings (I actually attended one earlier this month).
In anticipation of their latest film, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, which our own Eric Walkuski raved about here I figured it was high time this directorial duo featured in The Good, The Bad, and the Badass. While most of their contemporaries eventually became part of the big-studio machine, the Coens have avoided this. Even their movies that are bankrolled by big studios maintain that distinctive Coen flavor, and for every commercial film like TRUE GRIT, you can count on something like A SERIOUS MAN, giving their body of work a nice variety. Truly, these two men are modern masters.
To me, the best Coen Brothers movie is still FARGO. The whole “Minnesota-nice” meets film noir vibe of the film is something only Joel & Ethan Coen could have pulled off (although others will try- with the upcoming FX series) and it's probably the film of theirs I return to the most. Frances McDormand, who married Joel Coen after starring in their first film, BLOOD SIMPLE, has the role of a lifetime as the very pregnant chief of police Marge Gunderson, who has to get to the bottom of a kidnapping/murder scheme that involves a dead body, a scumbag car salesman (William H. Macy in his breakout part), two “in-over-their-heads” kidnappers (Steve Buscemi & Peter Stormare), a wood chipper, and more. It's a brilliant, and often hilarious film.
The only Coen Brothers movies I ever had a hard time loving were their back-to-back studio comedies, the retro INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and their ill-conceived remake of THE LADYKILLERS. While the latter at least had a funny, off-kilter Tom Hanks performance, INTOLERABLE CRUELTY is just flat-out bad, saved only by funny cameos from Geoffrey Rush and Billy Bob Thorton. I get that they were trying to make an old-fashioned screwball comedy, but it doesn't work at all. Maybe it's the fact that they applied this retro vibe to a contemporary setting, which they avoided in other retro films like OH BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, and THE HUDSUCKER PROXY. Not ever George Clooney can save this one, although it was a modest commercial hit and the critics seemed to like it (at the time).
For underrated, I have to go with their fist film, BLOOD SIMPLE. While it was a big festival/word-of-mouth hit when it hit theatres in 1984, in the wake of their more ambitious films it's often overlooked. I notice that most younger Coen Brothers fans--who probably grew up on LEBOWSKI and OH BROTHER- often haven't seen this one, but if you like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (and who doesn't) you should give this one a shot. An atmospheric, Texas-set noir, this one boasts one of the all-time great murder scenes, along with a nail-biting climax, an early part for star Frances McDormand, and a brilliant turn by Coen favorite M. Emmet Walsh.
To me, the greatest Coen Brothers set-piece occurs in MILLER’S CROSSING, when mob boss Leo O'Bannon (the great Albert Finney) gets to prove he's still “an artist with a Thompson” when a rival gang tries to take him out, while he relaxed with a cigar listening to “Danny Boy”. Big mistake.
5. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
4. RAISING ARIZONA
3. BLOOD SIMPLE
2. MILLER’S CROSSING
The Coens have been linked to a few projects, but nothing's concrete so far. They did- however- write the upcoming, fact-based, Angelina Jolie film (she directs but doesn't star) UNBROKEN, which is due in theatres next fall.
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