THE ESSAY BELOW CONTAINS SMALL SPOILERS FOR FARGO AND THE BIG LEBOWSKI. IT ALSO CONTAINS A DETAILED PLOT ANALYSIS FOR A SERIOUS MAN.
Joel Daniel Coen was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on November 29th, 1954. His brother Ethan Jesse Coen, was also born in Minneapolis on September 21st, 1957. Joel graduated from New York University Film School and is currently married to actress Frances McDormand. Ethan studied philosophy at Princeton University. They are children of university professors and showed an interest in filmmaking at an early age.
THEME: THE UNEXPECTED OUTCOME AND THE CRUELTY OF FATE
The Coens are often categorized by their goofy characters, attention, and admiration for historic accuracy, complicated story lines, black humor and irony.While it’s fair to say that these trademarks and styles would emerge in their films no matter the genre, why it all works together so well is owed to a common theme they love to explore. The Coens’ filmography is largely an exercise in the intention versus the outcome. Whether or not the characters are in over their heads, trying and failing to do the best they can or just plain stupid, what they all have in common is that they just want to do one thing and that one thing seems impossible. They typically take one step forward and two steps back only to find that the path is now even more difficult. This idea is what really creates that Coen brothers style that’s so hard to describe but so easy to identify. It’s their structuring. Take a character, give them a goal and a motive and then throw everything at them to complicate their path. This creates distance between them and their goal. Let’s look at a few examples of this.
In Fargo, Jerry is desperate for money, so to get money to hires two men to kidnap his wife. He plans to use this to his advantage by extorting his wealthy father-in-law. His goal is to get out of debt and his motivation is self-sufficiency and desperation. The complication comes in the form of Showalter, one of the two men hired to perform the kidnapping. His involvement leads to disaster after disaster. Showalter and his accident-prone nature are also subject to this structuring. When the criminals are traveling to Brainerd and are pulled over by a state trooper, Showalter attempts and fails to bribe the officer. His goal is to minimize his chances of being caught (or exiting the situation quickly and easily), his motivation is that Jean, Jerry’s wife, is in the backseat. The complication is the police officer refusing the bribe. The result is that the officer must be killed, which then causes a new set of problems. It seems the idea the Coens continually have, not only for a plot but for scenes, is to have a character get the ball rolling with no appreciation for where it could end up. Each action has a reaction, but that reaction is normally fragmented. Actions have consequences in their universe, regardless of the intent.
This seemingly simple formula appears obvious once stated. Of course, our characters have to have conflict, that’s the basis of drama, isn’t it? But the Coen’s take it from macro level, like a plot outline, to a micro level, like a single conversation. Consider The Big Lebowski and the way the dialogue is handled. Multiple characters may appear in a scene and might be trying to communicate different points to different people. While many may not be plot related, they are character related, and this helps further confuse and even frustrate our characters. While The Dude may be arguing with Walter, Donny might intervene which pulls away Walter. Now Walter and Donny are arguing but The Dude is still trying to finish the conversation with Walter. Not only that but the scene in which they are having these conversations very often have the same outcome, pulling them away from where they believed to have been going.
When Walter and The Dude are following the kidnappers instructions and driving somewhere unknown to drop off ransom money, the formula is put in place. The goal is to drop off money, and the motivation is twofold: first, the life of Bunny (that poor woman, man) and second, the reward money. The complication in this scene comes twofold as well: first, Walter is present when he should not be, angering the kidnappers, and second, he attempts to trick the kidnappers with a ringer. Every action has a reaction, but the reaction is rarely what was expected by our characters. They then have to react to these new problems, which of course only cause more problems and complication.
Maybe the best example is Larry’s story in A Serious Man. It’s a story about a man facing many troubles despite his best efforts to be good and be seen as good. But nothing seems to work in his favor. His wife wants a divorce, and Larry’s selflessness leads him to immediately conclude that the divorce is wrong on the grounds that her lover’s deceased wife “isn’t even cold yet,” even though she’s been dead for years. He supports an eccentric family member with a gambling addiction that only adds to Larry’s stress. He has to handle the bribery attempts of a failing student, which jeopardizes his chances of being awarded tenure. His office life is becoming suffocating because he is repeatedly phoned by a Columbia Records representative attempting to collect a bill that his son ran up. His intentions are to be good, and he is good, but he feels punished for something he can’t understand. He makes a timid effort to understand his children and his wife. He wants a better grasp on what is happening around him because he genuinely cares about the outcome of all of these lives.
So, he seeks out help through various Rabbis only to be told a story with a message he misses completely. The story is about a dentist who finds a message on the back of a man’s teeth. After desperately trying to find meaning in this, he speaks to a Rabbi. The Rabbi gives him some generic advice and sends him on his way. His life returns to normal and he’s happy again. The message, while generic, is that sometimes actions have no reason, they exist independently of other events. It’s only after you stop trying to understand the unexplainable that you’ll be happy. But Larry ignores this story and its message. After many struggles, a few high points and some low points, he’s finally at a decent spot. His son had his bar-mitzvah. He’s close to obtaining tenure. And in this moment he shows a sign of needless weakness and is immediately punished for it. His intentions here are to take the easy way out, because he’s endured so much already. His motivation is the allure of sweeping a problem under the rug, and the outcome is nightmarish and immediate. This is one of their finest films because of how thoroughly the concept is hammered into it. With their consistent use of cinematographers and multiple trademarks, identifying when you’re watching a Coen film is easy. Their style has even been defined in a dictionary. But the structuring of the story, scene by scene, is something worth paying attention to when watching any of their films to get a better understanding of the true definition of Coenesque.
Casting choices (Frances McDormand, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi)
Camera placed at ground level to show characters walking
Men with hats
Repeated phrases (Damn, we’re in a tight spot!)
Rolling objects (Hula Hoop, bowling ball, hat, hubcap)
Opening shots of landscapes, accompanied by voice over
The Coens owe a great deal of their images, style, stories, characters and genres to the classic Hollywood era of filmmaking. Film noir, pulp detective stories, and screwball comedies were what inspired the brothers to go into filmmaking. While you can see many films from the 40s, 50s, and 60s that contain the basis for their films, there are some standouts that warrant closer evaluation. These movies all have their own qualities, but if you’re looking to better understand where the Coens have come from, the following few films will provide much insight.
The Big Sleep  - The Big Sleep is a classic Howard Hawks film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.It was written for the screen by William Faulkner, based on Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. It’s about a private eye that’s hired to investigate a wealthy family. It’s the kind of story where the character, along with the audience, has no idea how convoluted the situation can get. The more complicated the story, the more intriguing it becomes. When asked about the influence the film had on The Big Lebowski, Joel said, “We wanted to do a Chandler kind of story - how it moves episodically, and deals with the characters trying to unravel a mystery. As well as having a hopelessly complex plot that's ultimately unimportant.”
The Long Goodbye  - This updated rendition of Chandler’s story is worth a view to better understand Walter and Maude.
Anyone unfamiliar with their filmography is going to have a hard time simply picking up a film and watching it because their filmography covers so many genres and styles. If you’re looking for something lighter, akin to the screwball comedies of old Hollywood, then start with Raising Arizona or The Hudsucker Proxy. If you’re looking for something more theological, symbolic and slow burning, then start with A Serious Man or Barton Fink. If you want a more convoluted plot that heavily accentuates their style then The Big Lebowski and Fargo are perfect for you. Or, if you want to check out some of their lesser acclaimed films, start with The Man Who Wasn’t There, Miller’s Crossing, or Blood Simple. Lastly, if you’re looking for something that’s not in their typical style, then check out No Country for Old Men or True Grit.
THE COEN BROTHERS
The Coen brothers have earned their fame and place in the already daunting list of classic American filmmakers. With their clear understanding of photography, clever and ironic writing, good casting decisions and consistent quality, it’s hard to go wrong with their films. They’ve effortlessly tackled multiple genres over their 30 year career and still manage to surprise and entertain.