We decided to take the opportunity of a Coen brothers’ recent release on Netflix to examine in depth the cinematic vision of the most talked about couple of Hollywood: Joel and Ethan Coen.
Their story begins in the 50s in a Jewish family of Minnesota, their parents were teachers, the dad was an economics professor, their mother taught history. Both were art and culture fans since their early age. So much that Ethan will graduate in Philosophy and Joel in film techniques. Their first experiences behind the camera took place shortly after graduation, on Sam Raimi’s small set (The Evil Dead, 1981, which immediately became a cult movie for horror lovers). From that moment on, the Minnesota brothers continued working on their first coral production, Blood Simple, which put them under the international spotlight thanks to the victory of the Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Since this first movie we can recognize the style elements that will later consecrate the Coens to the Hollywood Olympus: we can, in fact, see the revision of an already existing genre (in this case the thriller-noir), with a considerable Plot Twist but above all, a new implacable mood, midway between the pure grotesque and black humor.
The subsequent Coen brothers production is so substantial it would be difficult to cite all their works, so I will spend a few lines quoting those which helped to make them become the stars they are now. First of all, both in chronological and in importance order, we find Fargo, a thriller set in their native Minnesota, which immediately won two Oscars. Their talent is then reconfirmed by films like The Big Lebowski (an iconic movie starred by an incredible Jeff Bridges in the role of the protagonist), The Ladykillers, The Man Who Wasn’t There and No Country for Old Man (which comfortably won 4 Academy Awards).
After all these awards and the media success, it is natural to wonder what makes them unique? Well, the two Coens were great to create their own language, that mix entertainment and artistic cinema. But this is not the only reason contributing to their artistic ascent. Their cinema narrates of solitary souls most often absorbed by a postmodern idea of uncertainty. The protagonists find themselves frequently wavering in a deep unknown, from one event to another, with no understanding of their existence. Perhaps because life serves no apparent reason with all humans striving in search of their personal answers. Such predicament’s most excellent example is evident in The Big Lebowski with Drugo (the protagonist) ending up into a spiral of disasters as a result of a very futile event.
Another distinctive element of their films is undoubtedly the past cinema revision (western and thrillers), which are swallowed and later re-proposed updated and especially full of dense dialogues rich of a new brand of Coenian referenced humor, but also thanks to the creation of difficult to forget characters. Let’s take as an example the weird helmet-hairdo character embodied by Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Man, or the three mismatched fugitives in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, or Fargo’s pregnant justice wielding heroine, in short, the two Minnesota brothers’ cinema is made up almost entirely of difficult to forget characters albeit with a strong aesthetic and personality signature.
And as their protagonists are very difficult to forget even their films are able to creep into the deepest meanders of our brain, thanks to a demanding lightness added to an iconic originality.
Coen brothers’ Filmography:
Blood Simple (1984)
Raising Arizona (1987)
Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Barton Fink (1991)
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
The Ladykillers (2004)
Paris, je t’aime (2006)
No Country for Old Man (2007)
Burn After Reading (2008)
A Serious Man (2009)
True Grit (2010)
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Hail, Caesar! (2016)
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)