Number of Films: Seven
Modern Masterpieces: Two. No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man.
Total Disasters: The Ladykillers has maybe a few good things going for it.
Better than you remember: Burn After Reading was very much a love-it-or-hate-it film. If you hated it, it’s far better than you remember.
Awards: Director and Picture Oscars for No Country for Old Men
Box Office: That film is also their best performer w/ over 75 mil.
Critical Consensus: ...and received their most consistent raves.
Favorite Actor: If you said George Clooney, you’d be right! Also Stephen Root and Richard Jenkins. Three films each.
Meaninglessness. It’s the major thematic thread through the Coen Brothers’ filmography, and best describes their view on life; a sequence of meaningless events full of sound and fury signifying nothing. But there’s a stylistic thread in the brothers’ films as well. It’s their favorite way to tell their tales of meaningless... By mixing and mis-matching various genres. The Coen brother’s films can reasonably be separated into two kinds. Those that are heavier on the genre fun (like The Big Lebowski where although it’s clear that The Dude’s misadventures add up to nothing the enjoyment comes from watching the stoner comedy meet Raymond Chandler). Or those that are heavier on the meaningless motif (like Fargo where the combined comedy and crime genre’s are essential, but the heart of the film lies within Marge’s “and what for?” monologue.)
Ethan, Joel, Roger
The Coen Brothers started off the decade with three films heavy on genre play and ended by digging deeper into the futility of their universe than ever before. O Brother Where Art Thou? is titled after a fictional film from Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. And the film is their definitive love-letter to the 1930’s comedies that have inspired them from Raising Arizona onward. Sprinke in a little religious allegory and a lot of Greek myth (not to forget the contributions of T. Bone Burnett, one of their finest collaborators) and you’ve got classic Coen genre goofiness. Of course even after our fugitive protagonists save the day and get pardoned, they still find themselves senselessly at the whim of the film’s villain, followed by a Deus ex Machina ending that, from any other director, would be frustratingly unnatural. But not in the world of the Coens. After this came The Man Who Wasn’t There, the brothers’ definitive love-letter to film noir. Just as its predecessor the delights of the film come from watching noir elements congeal with staples of old time sci-fi and allusions to Nabakov’s Lolita (with a lot of aesthetic help from Roger Deankins, another invaluable contributor). And just as before not much that happens has any real meaning. It’s life. Man against a world out to punish him via ambivalence.
Intolerable Cruelty. As long as they were making genre-based love letters, they might have as well thrown in screwball comedy. But they barely loaded the genre blender and as a result the film seems too safe (though it’s saved by Clooney’s inspired performance and an aside with a character named Wheezy Joe). Forget homage, The Ladykillers, their next film was an all-out remake, and like most remakes, came off as rather unnecessary. But the prospect of character after character getting bumped off in meaningless ways must have appealed to the Coens. And once again the film’s most worthwhile asset is its leading performance (nice to see Tom Hanks chew up the scenery comedically again).
In Burn After Reading, the Coen’s again use a character who wonders out loud about it all. “What did we learn?” asks the CIA man. But “I don’t know” is really the only possible response. This isn’t a deep thematic contemplation. This is another fun-with-genre outing. What genre you ask? Only the most vogue of the decade, the (god I hate this term) hyperlink film, where the lives of random strangers intertwine to create some kind of poignant statement on the world. But the Coens mock it. They know that these films are so overly dependent on ridiculous coincidence and stupid characters that what was supposed to be meaningful can only be meaningless… perfect for the Brothers’ Coen.
And the Coens continue to explore the universe, utilizing more techniques and exploring even far more territory than I’ve been able to describe here. Their films are filled with layers, yet crammed with delights. Over the past decade, no directors have managed to combine the cerebral and the comical with such success. And in the last ten years their status has grown from quirky and clever cult directors to two of the best minds working in American cinema.