Coen Brothers Analysis Essay

Joel Coen: b. November 29, 1954, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Ethan Coen: b. September 21, 1957, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

articles in Senses
web resources

The Coens are clever directors who know too much about movies and too little about real life.

—Emanuel Levy, Cinema of Outsiders

The adolescent experiences of the young Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, forced indoors by frigid Minnesota winters, provides a remarkably crystalline metaphor for their later film work. It is easy to imagine the brothers peering out their living-room window to witness the very particular and precise ethnographic detail which would find careful representation in their best received film, Fargo (1996), then turning to their television-set to observe a Frank Capra comedy or Preston Sturges farce and discovering moments, characters, narratives and themes which would find illustration in their most mannered and artificial work, The Hudsucker Proxy (1993). The Coens have been drawn to two seemingly irresolvable modes of expression: ethnographic regionalism and artificial fabrication. It is between these two extremes that the remainder of their films can be mapped.

Many of the films of the Coen brothers are specific to particular regions and communities—Blood Simple (1983) owes much of its character to its Texas setting, Raising Arizona (1987) paints a very particular picture of the inhabitants of the American South-West, The Big Lebowski (1998) gains much of its absurdist comedy from its depiction of the very absurd Los Angeles community and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) relies on the meticulous recreation of Depression-era Mississippi. Yet, the Coen brothers are just as assured in depicting artificial worlds with antecedents in popular culture. Miller’s Crossing (1990), which spins a vast intrigue in an unnamed town, secures much of its conception from Dashiell Hammett’s novels, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) owes its physical and thematic construction more to the universe of film noir than its Californian location, and The Hudsucker Proxy is a patchwork assembly of Capra settings, Sturges characters and Screwball Comedy tropes. Barton Fink (1991) might be described as occupying a midpoint position in such an analytical survey of Joel and Ethan Coen’s films. Barton Fink is set in the ‘real’ world of Hollywood—an exquisite conception of an authentic world of pure make-believe, “a society where myth has blurred with reality.” (1)

Ironically, it has been these twin aspects of Joel and Ethan Coen’s work—particularised communities and artificial constructions—which has provided the most potent ammunition for critics. The Coens’ detailed reconstruction of identifiable communities, with all their quirks and eccentricities, has led many critics to accuse them of adopting a lofty superiority to their characters. Yet, when they construct a world with no resemblance to reality they are charged with avoiding moral or ethical expression. Nearly 20 years since they made their debut with the independently financed Blood Simple, the Coen brothers remain in critical limbo—considered to be neither serious artists nor commercial achievers.

Joel and Ethan Coen were born in Minnesota to academic parents. The brothers were raised in a typical middle-American, middle-class Jewish household. Their childhood was largely unremarkable and aside from the production of a few super-8 home movies, a future in filmmaking seemed unlikely (Ethan’s book of short stories entitled Gates Of Eden contains pseudo-biographical, though ‘fictional’, narratives of the Coens’ upbringing). (2) Joel proceeded to New York University where, in lieu anything better, he enrolled in a film course. Ethan, on the other hand, ventured to Princeton; choosing Philosophy as his major, he composed a thesis on Wittgenstein. Joel’s film school experience would assist him in landing a number of editing jobs on small budget films, providing him with exposure to film production practices. With this grounding the brothers were motivated to make their own film. With the help of investors from the local Minnesota business community the Coens set about making their first feature length film—Blood Simple.

Joel and Ethan wrote, directed and produced the film, a working regime they have maintained thus far in their career. They also edit most of their movies using the single pseudonym Roderick Jaynes. Though nominally Joel directs and Ethan produces, their duties are said to be shared. Whilst working with the Coens on The Hudsucker Proxy, Paul Newman claimed he had “never had two directors…[and]…never worked with two guys who had equal creative authority who didn’t squabble.” (3) That the Coen brothers don’t ‘squabble’ reflects the total control they maintain over their vision from script to screen. Anecdotal reports suggest that actors who skip words (even seemingly insignificant dialogue) in line readings are politely requested to repeat the exercise with complete accuracy. The films of the Coen brothers are also rigorously story-boarded, ensuring the visual conception is affirmed and preserved by the many other creative talents—cinematographers, actors, editors—involved in the production of their films. What becomes apparent in the brothers’ approach to movie-making is a desire to control their films completely.

Despite working across a vast array of generic categories and utilising different thematic approaches it is possible to discern many recurrent motifs and continuing interests in their films. Joel and Ethan Coen’s striking ability to compose brilliant dialogue for their characters is perhaps the most distinguished aspect of their work. The dominant critical approach taken with regard to Fargo focused on the attention paid to capturing the specific dialect of the Minnesota community. Peter Körte argues that the attention given to maintaining an authentic language-scheme is less a simple affectation or cute device and more an “expression of a very specific experience and mentality,” supporting the notion that the Coens’ ethnographic project is legitimate. (4)

In their postmodern films, such as The Hudsucker Proxy and Barton Fink, ethnocentric detail is rejected and replaced by allusions to popular culture. This ties in with the Coen brothers’ rampant application of pre-existing source material in new and ironic ways. It is this element, common in many of their films, which lends weight to the charge that their films are empty of new ideas or moral positions. Todd McCarthy argues, with respect to The Hudsucker Proxy, that “rehashes of old movies, no matter how inspired, are almost by definition synthetic, and the fact is that nearly all the characters are constructs rather than human beings with who the viewer can connect.” (5) Yet, when the Coens construct ‘human beings’ they are often accused of adopting a mocking tone to them. Devin McKinney suggests Fargo is “a fatuous piece of nonsense, a tall cool drink of witless condescension” (6) and Emanuel Levy claims that the Coens “have always treated their characters with contempt, ruthlessly manipulating and loathing their foolishness.” (7) The fascination with language, the application of postmodern techniques, attention to regionalism and charges of arrogant superiority are the most common themes upon which the work of the Coen brothers is appraised.

Joel and Ethan Coen have worked within the realms of various genres, adopting appropriate methods of realisation to reflect these representational frameworks. The dialogue in their films is a prominent factor in the organisation and maintenance of these generic constructions and in the fulfilment of specific stylistic strategies. The Hudsucker Proxy‘s synthetic visual design is mirrored by its stylised dialogue, the criminal milieu of Miller’s Crossing is characterised by memorably rich gangster jargon, while Fargo‘s attention to visual realism operates concurrently with the application of an appropriate regional dialect. Barry Sonnenfield—the director of photography on Raising Arizona—suggests that the script has greatest priority to the Coens, arguing that words and structure are more important than any visual concerns. (8) Language operates as a cue to the themes and characters in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. That they construct dialogue of wonderful inarticulacy, such as the Dude’s (Jeff Bridges) scrambled speeches in The Big Lebowski and Carl’s (Steve Buscemi) consistent malapropism in Fargo, is not merely a joke at the expense of their characters but rather the critical interrogation of communication breakdown. The premise of Blood Simple evolves upon the protagonists’ inability to communicate effectively, their private discourses breeding distrust and confusion that ultimately leads to the tragic consequences at the film’s conclusion. James Mottram observes that the “four main protagonists, although existing in a unified physical world, inhabit a separate mental and emotional space that causes repeated misinterpretations.” (9) With Fargo and The Big Lebowski the Coens have extended this philosophy of miscommunication to an ailment of society in which inarticulacy is an observable symptom.

The language styles pursued by the characters in these films frequently betray repressed or unconscious desires that expose the value systems of modern cultures. Jeff Evans detects the irony inherent in the dialogue of Raising Arizona as stemming in part from a gulf that exists between the florid, loquacious and poetic speech of the characters and their sparse, homely and modest physical reality. (10) H.I. (Nicolas Cage) at one point, describes his and Ed’s (Holly Hunter) motor-home existence in the middle of the barren plains of the Arizona desert as “the salad days”. Raising Arizona is to some extent about a desire to improve one’s position; H.I., a confirmed recidivist, wants to marry, work, build a home and start a family. He is after the American dream of prosperity, and in dialogue he has found a way to fabricate a chimera of success, having failed to achieve it in a material sense. The moral of the film will finally suggest that this material success is a charade, and that true happiness and prosperity comes from the modest pursuit of doing the right thing. This emphasis on the absence of meaning in language is an earnest critique of aspects of America’s culture; of the views and values, prejudices and hegemonies in these societies. The dialogue in the films of the Coen brothers offers insight into dominant ideologies, endeavoring to examine how language works to maintain certain standards and beliefs.

As “regional independents”, Joel and Ethan Coen have spread their film wings right across the extensive lands of the United States. Blood Simple and Raising Arizona document the South-West, Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski are each set in Los Angeles and Fargo is perhaps the most prominent film ever to capture the specific culture of Minnesota. The Coens have acquired a reputation for a certain kind of ethnographic expression through the critical exploration of particular cultures. Mottram maintains that these film locations are never arbitrarily chosen but rather the settings “speak on behalf of the characters; ironically, people who, more often than not, are inextricably linked to their homeland”, noting that the “heat of Texas in Blood Simple is symbolic of the moral inferno that the characters find themselves in.” (11) The use of Texas as a setting for Blood Simple coincides with the style and concerns of the film’s chief inspiration, James M. Cain. Joyce Carol Oates proposes the moral environment of Cain’s novels is such that:

…one understands how barren, how stripped and bizarre this Western landscape has become. It is as if the world extends no farther than the radius of one’s desire…To be successful, such narrowly-conceived art must blot out what landscape it cannot cover; hence the blurred surrealistic backgrounds of the successful Cain novels.(12)

With Blood Simple Joel and Ethan Coen use Texas to develop a similarly surreal environment, of flat, featureless plains, endless highways and stifling heat.

The Coens’ most recent film, The Man Who Wasn’t There, returns to James Cain as a touchstone, reinventing his fiction through the subversion of its generic and literary conventions. The Man Who Wasn’t There is set in traditional Cain country—a Californian town named Santa Rosa. But the Coens are less interested here in representing an authentic Californian community and more concerned with manufacturing a stylised film noir cosmos swathed in existentialist apathy and passivity. Miller’s Crossing is also set in an intensely rhetorical world, every setting seems overly precise and affected, not so much a step back in time, more like a return to familiar representations from the past. Ethan Coen declared that in Miller’s Crossing “the city’s an anonymous one, the typical ‘corrupted town’ of Hammett novels.” (13)Fargo, on the other hand seems to carry with it a documentary authenticity. The film’s prologue—which attests to the veracity of the depicted events—may be a red herring, but it does acknowledge the film’s agenda—the maintenance of a coherent system of realism. The peculiar snow-capped setting and the equally exotic Scandinavian-inflected dialogue reinforces the particularly provincial nature of the representation. Whereas Minnesota is integral to the design and conception of Fargo, Los Angeles is fundamental to The Big Lebowski. Josh Levine argues that the Coens populated The Big Lebowski with types who could not exist anywhere else but “in the sunny land of complete informalness and surreal juxtapositions.” (14) The wandering-intrigue narrative of The Big Lebowski is perfectly suited to experiencing the widely diverse and divergent community of Los Angeles, a culture equally receptive to doped-out slackers, right-wing militants, German nihilists, Malibu pornographers and a pederast named Jesus (John Turturro).

Barton Fink is also set in Los Angeles but its specific placement in the more particularised culture of Hollywood allows for a more fantastic conception. Joel and Ethan Coen’s interpretation of Hollywood in Barton Fink is less a denotative representation and more a symbolic interpretation. The Coens place the eponymous hero Barton (John Turturro) in a living hell when he sells his creative soul to a motion picture studio. Barton Fink contains a stimulating mix of accepted history, anecdotal and apocryphal elements and pure fiction. A similar methodology is adopted for O Brother, Where Art Thou? which offers a technically precise and culturally astute recreation of 1930s deep-south America but frames the narrative using Homer’s The Odyssey. The mixture of historical detail with an archetypal fiction narrative is a postmodern paradigm. Yet, neither of these films come close to The Hudsucker Proxy for re-imagining the past. With The Hudsucker Proxy the Coens eschew all resemblance to reality to produce a remarkably artificial world that owes almost all of its inspiration to old movies.

The films of Joel and Ethan Coen are not merely constructed from the pieces of other films and references are not drawn solely from the domain of cinema history. The Coens seek to work with well known source material, extracting the essence of an author’s approach and re-deploying this style within a different and original environment. With Blood Simple the Coens endeavor to re-contextualise the basic elements of the James Cain novel. Blood Simple owes a notable debt to the style of James Cain, but also to film noir, neo-noir, the tenets of independent film in the 1980s, the crime genre and the eccentricities of Texas culture. The Coen brothers’ films negotiate the issue of fidelity by furnishing adaptations that reject a linear relationship to one model or source text. Miller’s Crossing is based loosely on two Dashiell Hammett novels, The Glass Key and Red Harvest, and it also engages in a more general sense with Hammett’s style and themes. The Big Lebowski is perhaps more ambitious as the Coens, influenced by Raymond Chandler, fashion a story around the world of a doped out loser and social-league ten-pin bowling. With The Man Who Wasn’t There, Joel and Ethan Coen return to James M. Cain. But once again the relationship to their inspiration remains paradoxical. The Man Who Wasn’t There is concerned with transgressing many of film noir‘s most important conventions, summarily problematising its connection to James Cain, a chief inspiration for the entire noir movement. The Coens have chosen to exclude all emotion from their protagonist, the monotone Ed (Billy Bob Thornton), to make him as dispassionate and detached as possible, prompting Graham Fuller to categorise the film “anti-noir”. (15) Without the crucial elements of passion, desire and sexuality, The Man Who Wasn’t There undermines the very genre that frames it.

Barton Fink is less a subversion of generic conventions and more an ironic reexamination of history. It is both a critique of the Hollywood system then and now, and a reworking of the myth of the leftist artist in the 1930s. It seems, with Barton Fink, the Coens secure great enjoyment in debunking the typical celebration of the common man by exposing the egotistical motives that trump altruistic intention. The Coens subvert the myth of the suffering playwright with their depiction of Barton Fink as a pompous and self-absorbed author who is out of touch with the very people he claims to write for, and about. The Coen brothers have sought to rework and reevaluate the past by engaging with history in a hyper-critical way. The self-conscious manner of the Coen brothers’ films always foregrounds both history’s and fiction’s textuality.

In the films of the Coen brothers the process of story-telling is often laid open to exposition and demonstration. Barton Fink is a Hollywood film set in Hollywood, the hub of American story-telling. The Hudsucker Proxy is a defiantly referential film that overtly exposes its textual design; the film’s narrator, an initial indication of the text’s narrativity, stops the film midstream and directly addresses the audience. O Brother, Where Art Thou? foregrounds the narrative framework of its trajectory in the opening credits when the brothers cite The Odyssey as the film’s basis. With Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coen brothers are highly self-conscious in the manner of their storytelling. Their narrative tools, particularly in The Hudsucker Proxy, are often deftly self-reflexive. To insist on exposing the devices of construction immediately cues the viewer to the construction of all texts. Linda Hutcheon identifies a mode of “metacinema” in which the formation process of subjectivity and narrativity has become a staple. (16) And it would appear that the Coen brothers’ films befit such a classification. Their use of distancing narrational modes such as voice-over exposition in Raising Arizona and The Man Who Wasn’t There, the direct address prologue in Blood Simple and The Big Lebowski, and the rigid application of generic convention in Miller’s Crossing are all elements which foreground the construction processes involved.

The films of the Coen brothers display an acute awareness of history and its inscription in the texts of the past and the present. Joel and Ethan Coen do not employ pastiche to resolve a dearth of ideas, they actively examine the texts they draw from as a means to building a bridge to the past. The Coens deny the usual mythical constructions, they do not invest in traditional frameworks of representation, rather they interrogate those frameworks to examine and expose how they construct meaning. With this process the films of the Coen brothers are diligent in their investigation of history and its ideologies. Carolyn Russell argues that:

the Coens make films that are highly self-conscious of their relationship to preexisting film forms. Their movies rely upon a base of knowledge, cultural and film historical, that is presumed to be shared between themselves and their viewers.(17)

This assertion highlights the very important manner by which postmodern representations call upon the reader/viewer to complete the text. The role of memory, reception and intertextuality are crucial to the design in the Coen brothers’ films. By engaging the texts of the past the directors are able to challenge and critique history through the agency of parody, irony and self-reflexivity. This confrontation with history’s textual construction enables an exploration and interpretation of ideologies of the past. Despite all the criticism of their work—their films are merely about other films, their work smugly proposes the emptiness at the core of art, they hide behind style to avoid moral and ethical issues—the Coen brothers nevertheless set up a connection to history through their pithy investigation into the texts that represent the past. With their keen approach to historical periods and texts of bygone eras, and their reliance on irony and parody, the Coen brothers not only engage with history but they question and challenge the ideologies by which it is constructed.

When the Coen brothers draw on their vast intertextual web of references in order to inform their films, as is the case in The Hudsucker Proxy, they are often accused of elitism; of alienating their audience by servicing only their own penchant for in-jokes and obscure allusions. Yet, when they set their films in more realistic and genuine settings, as in Fargo, the brothers are then criticised for mocking their characters. Fargo endured a barrage of criticism suggesting that the film’s portrayal of the Mid-West region’s people was condescending and exploitative. Talk-radio audiences in Minnesota complained that the film ridiculed them and their culture, and McKinney suggested that not only was the dialogue inaccurate in its representation of the true regional dialect but the application of it by the Coens served merely to diminish the characters rather than particularise them. (18) It is true that many of the characters in their films are foolish or ridiculous but often this is indicative of their disposition. Ethan Coen declared in an interview the objective of representing Carl and Jerry (William H. Macy)—the nefarious ‘masterminds’ of Fargo‘s abduction plan—as so inept:

One of the reasons for making them simple-minded was our desire to go against the Hollywood cliché of the bad guy as a super-professional who controls everything he does. In fact, in most cases criminals belong to the strata of society least equipped to face life, and that’s the reason they’re caught so often. In this sense too, our movie is closer to life than the conventions of cinema and genre movies.(19)

The aspects of Fargo that undermine and rally against film convention and focus on characteristics more attuned to reality give it a naturalistic identity. Emphasising a character’s ineptitude is inextricably linked to an expression of reality and need not be evident of a specific agenda to ridicule a community or a society.

Joel and Ethan Coen are often censured for failing to commit to moral or ethical positions and chastised for constructing worlds of artificiality. But the truth is, manifest in Levy’s pointed condemnation (located at the beginning of this essay), the Coens are victims of a critical establishment which considers visual documentation—film and television—to be unworthy conveyers of the past. The Coen brothers do know too much about film, they know enough to recognise the conceits of its processes and to detect the values that such systems are designed to support. And they know enough to subvert and criticise these systems in order to construct a valid and important engagement with the past, encapsulating very effective and substantial moral and ethical explorations. The Coen brothers’ wonderful ear for dialogue, rigid attention to regional re-constructions, inventive approach to the past, in addition to their professional skill and adroit technique has resulted in some of the most enjoyable (and critically worthy) contemporary films.


Joel and Ethan Coen as writer, director and producer:

Blood Simple (1983) also editor as Roderick Jaynes

Raising Arizona

Miller’s Crossing

Barton Fink
(1991) also editor as Roderick Jaynes

The Hudsucker Proxy

(1996) also editor as Roderick Jaynes

The Big Lebowski
(1998) also editor as Roderick Jaynes

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
(2000) also editor as Roderick Jaynes

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) also editor as Roderick Jaynes

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

The Ladykillers (2004)

Paris, je t’aime (segment “Tuileries”) (2006)

No Country for Old Men (2007)

World Cinema(short) (2007)

Burn After Reading (2008)

A Serious Man (2009)

True Grit (2010)

Inside Llewyn Davis(2013)

Hail Caeser!(2016)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs(TV Series, six episodes) (2018)

Joel and Ethan Coen as writer:

Crimewave (Sam Raimi, 1985) also known as Broken Hearts and Noses, also known as The XYZ Murders

Ethan Coen as writer:

The Naked Man (J. Todd Anderson, 1998)

Joel Coen as assistant editor:

The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1982) also known as Book of the Dead

Fear No Evil (Frank Laloggia, 1981) also known as Mark of the Beast

Joel Coen as actor:

Spies Like Us (John Landis, 1985)

Crimewave (Sam Raimi, 1985) uncredited; also known as Broken Hearts and Noses, also known as The XYZ Murders

Select Bibliography

References related directly to Joel and Ethan Coen:

Ronald Bergan, The Coen Brothers, Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York, 2000

Ellen Cheshire & John Ashbrook, Joel and Ethan Coen: The Pocket Essential, Second Edition, Harpenden, Pocket Essentials, 2002

Peter Körte & Georg Seesslen (eds), Joel and Ethan Coen, trans. Michael Kane & Rory Mulholland, Limelight Editions, New York, 2001 [contains a reasonably exhaustive bibliography]

Josh Levine, The Coen Brothers: The Story of Two American Filmmakers, ECW Press, Toronto, 2000

James Mottram, The Coen Brothers: The Life of the Mind, B.T. Batsford, London, 2000

William Preston Robertson’s text edited by Tricia Cooke, The Big Lebowski: The Making of a Coen Brothers Film, W.W. Norton & Company, New York & London, 1998

Carolyn R. Russell, The Films of Joel and Ethan Coen, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, 2001

Paul A. Woods (ed.), Joel & Ethan Coen: Blood Siblings, Plexus, London, 2000

General References and Articles:

Geoff Andrew, Stranger Than Paradise: Maverick filmmakers in recent American cinema, Prion, London, 1998

Steven Carter, “’Flare to White’: Fargo and the Postmodern Turn”, Literature/Film Quarterly, 24(4), 1999, pp. 238–244

Jeff Evans, “Comic Rhetoric In Raising Arizona”, Studies in American Humor, Ser.4, no.3, 1996, pp. 39–53

Graham Fuller, “Dead Man Walking”, Sight and Sound, October 2001, pp. 12–15

Peter Galvin, “I’d Rather Light a Candle Than Curse Your Darkness: A Bluffer’s Guide to the Coen Brothers”, Independent Filmmaker, Summer 2001, pp. 44–49

Larry E. Grimes, “Shall these Bones Live? The Problem of Bodies in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Joel Coen’s Blood Simple” in Joel W Martin and E. Conrad Jr. (eds), Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film, Westview, Boulder, 1995, pp. 19–29

David Gritten, “Brothers in Film: An Interview with Ethan and Joel Coen”, Creative Screenwriting, 6 (1), Jan-Feb 1999, pp. 55–59

Rodney Hill, “Small Things Considered: Raising Arizona and Of Mice and Men”, Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, 8 (3), Summer 1989, pp. 18–27

Mark Horowitz, “Coen Brothers A–Z: The Big Two Headed Picture”, Film Comment, September–October 1991, pp. 27–32

Richard T. Jameson, “What’s in the Box”, Film Comment, September–October 1991 pp. 26, 32

Barry Laga, “Decapitated Spectators: Barton Fink, (Post)History, and Cinematic Pleasure” in Cristina Degli-Esposti (ed.), Postmodernism in the Cinema, Berghahn Books, New York and Oxford, 1998, pp. 187–207

Emanuel Levy, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film, New York University Press, London, New York, 1999

Devin McKinney, “Fargo”, Film Quarterly, 50, Fall 1996, pp. 31–34

R. Barton. Palmer, “Blood Simple: Defining the Commercial/Independent Text”, Persistence of Vision, No. 6, Summer 1988, pp. 3–19

Katherine M. Restaino, “The Poetics of Dashiell Hammett” in Jerome H. Delamater and Ruth Prigozy (eds), The Detective in American Fiction, Film, and Television, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1998, pp. 103–110

William Preston Robertson, “What’s the Goopus?”, American Film, 16, August 1991, pp. 18–32

Katherine Sutherland, “Beauty and the Beast, Basic Instinct and Barton Fink: the Pursuit of Textual Satisfaction”, Textual Studies in Canada, Vol. 4, 1994, pp. 81–91

Lynne M. Thompson, “Giving Birth to the Artist Within, Barton Fink‘s Nod to Stephen Dedalus”, Spectator, 12(2), Spring 1992, pp. 52–57

George Toles, “Obvious Mysteries in Fargo”, Michigan Quarterly Review, 38 (4), Fall 1999, pp. 627–664

By Ethan Coen:

Ethan Coen, Gates of Eden, William Morrow, New York, 1998

Ethan Coen, The Drunken Driver has the Right of Way, Crown Publishing Group, New York, 2001

Articles in Senses of Cinema

Miller’s Crossing, The Glass Key and Dashiell Hammett by Paul Coughlin

O Brother, Where Art Thou?by Michael Cohen

Web Resources

Compiled by author

Coen Brothers Clips
Three .avi clips from The Big Lebowski.

Coenesque: The films of Joel and Ethan Coen
Straightforward film analysis and biographical information. News on the site hasn’t been updated since September 2002.

Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Links to several online articles here. Just scroll down

Gods of Filmmaking: Joel and Ethan Coen
Summary of each of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, lacking any true critical engagement.

Official The Man Who Wasn’t There Site
Promotional site.

Unofficial Miller’s Crossing Site
Enjoyable fan site with script, deleted scenes, actor information and images from Miller’s Crossing. Contains a glossary for those who get lost in Miller’s Crossing‘s tangled gangster jargon.

You Know, For Kids! The Movies Of The Coen Brothers
Substantial effort at cataloguing a wide variety of information on the Coen brothers and their films, marred by a poor layout. Includes reviews, scripts, multimedia and forum. News on the site hasn’t been updated since November 2002.

Click here to search for Joel and Ethan Coen DVDs, videos and books at


  1. Yannick Dahan, “From Dream to Reality: The Films of the Coen Brothers” in Paul A. Woods (ed.), Joel & Ethan Coen: Blood Siblings, Plexus, London, 2000, p. 176
  2. Ethan Coen, Gates of Eden, William Morrow, New York, 1998. See, in particular, the stories “The Old Country” and “The Boys”.
  3. John Clark, “Strange Bedfellows” in Paul A. Woods (ed.), Joel & Ethan Coen: Blood Siblings, p. 121
  4. Peter Körte, “Looking for a trail in Coen County” in Peter Körte & Georg Seesslen (eds), Joel and Ethan Coen, trans. Rory Mulholland, Limelight Editions, New York, 2001, p. 283
  5. Todd McCarthy, “The Hudsucker Proxy” in Paul A. Woods (ed.), Joel & Ethan Coen: Blood Siblings, p. 118
  6. Devin McKinney, “Fargo”, Film Quarterly, 50, Fall 1996, p. 32
  7. Emanuel Levy, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film, New York University Press, London, New York, 1999, p. 230
  8. David Edelstein “Invasion of the Baby Snatchers” in Paul A. Woods (ed.), Joel & Ethan Coen: Blood Siblings, p. 51
  9. James Mottram, The Coen Brothers: The Life of the Mind, B.T. Batsford, London, 2000, p. 20
  10. Jeff Evans, “Comic Rhetoric In Raising Arizona”, Studies in American Humor, Ser. 4, no. 3, 1996, pp. 39–53
  11. Mottram, p. 11
  12. Joyce Carol Oates, “Man Under Sentence of Death: The Novels of James M. Cain” in David Madden (ed.), Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, Southern Illinios University Press, Carbondale & Edwardsville, 1968, p. 111–112
  13. Jean-Pierre Coursodon, “A Hat Blown by the Wind” in Paul A. Woods (ed.), Joel & Ethan Coen: Blood Siblings, p. 89
  14. Josh Levine, The Coen Brothers: The Story of Two American Filmmakers, ECW Press, Toronto, 2000, p. 140
  15. Graham Fuller, “Dead Man Walking”, Sight and Sound, October 2001, p. 14
  16. Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism, Routledge, London & New York, 1989, p. 11
  17. Carolyn R. Russell, The Films of Joel and Ethan Coen, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, 2001, p. 5
  18. McKinney, p. 25. The reference to talk-show audiences complaining about the characters’ depiction is cited in Levine, p. 135.
  19. Michel Ciment and Hubert Niogret, “Closer to Life than the Conventions of Cinema” in Paul A. Woods (ed.), Joel & Ethan Coen: Blood Siblings, p. 159

Warning: spoilers ahead for Coen brothers movies in general.

By the time the Coen brothers’ Fargo glides to an end, apocalyptic punishments have been disbursed all around. One kidnapper and murderer is dead and mostly mulched; the other has been caught extremely red-handed, shot in the leg, and hauled off to face trial. The grasping husband who hired them is ignominiously captured while trying to crawl out a bathroom window in his underwear. He’s spent the whole film desperately trying to preserve his dignity with fake smiles and desperate lies, but as he’s arrested, he loses all his pretenses, and wails incoherently, like a trapped animal. Even his domineering, emasculating father-in-law winds up dead, shot by the kidnapper he was trying to bully. All the blood, profanity, and comedy aside, Fargo is the kind of crime story that would have passed muster under the Hays Code: Criminals are never glorified or glamorized, even minor transgressions are brutally punished, and no one gets away clean.

That’s standard in Joel and Ethan Coen’s films, which often take a brutal, Old Testament tack on morality, defining good and evil along Biblical guidelines, and offering little wiggle room for anyone who doesn’t follow the Ten Commandments, or even anyone who strays from the Golden Rule. Their films are never explicitly religious in the sense of Christian-targeted movies, which come with frequent preaching and doctrinal messages. But the Coens always touch on moral choices, from career criminality to simple codes of personal conduct. And when characters make the wrong choices—which they virtually always do, because there would be no story otherwise—the Coens either laugh at them or kick them in the teeth. Different films take different approaches, but the Coens’ career as a whole has established some definitive rules:

1. Once dramatic characters stray from goodness, however that’s defined, they’ve sealed their fates, and there’s no earning their way back.

Often, what drives the Coens’ stories is the implacable unfolding of extreme consequences once that first wrong step is taken. That focus started with their first film, Blood Simple, a pared-down neo-noir that strips away most of the usual femme-fatale conniving and patsy-protagonist resistance, and cuts to the chase: Julian Marty’s wife Abby cheats on him with his employee Ray. Their decision is barely examined: The film doesn’t explore Abby or Ray in any depth beforehand to see what leads to their choice, and doesn’t dwell on their relationship, or even their personalities. The Coens’ lack of interest in the whys of their affair suggest that their reasons don’t make any difference—just their actions, which lead quickly and inevitably to catastrophe. Ray and Abby choose to cuckold Julian; he chooses to avenge himself through a private detective; the detective chooses to betray his boss; Ray encounters the fallout of that betrayal, fatally misinterprets it, and makes the worst decisions the situation allows. Every decision tree along the way inevitably leads to a worse place with a higher body count. In the end, three of them are dead, and the last one is traumatized, shattered, and left alone to mourn.

The Coens have gotten much less blunt and more sophisticated with their moral explorations over the past two decades. Their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, doesn’t read nearly so much like a morality play, though it’s similarly merciless. The film begins with the titular character getting a brutal beatdown, before the film even reveals what he did to earn it. But as it loops back in time, it suggests, over and over, that Llewyn’s life is a sort of perpetual beatdown, a nonstop series of setbacks and disappointments, and that on some cosmic level, he’s earned them with his own failings. As a struggling singer in New York City’s 1960s folk scene, he’s cruel to his fans and patrons, he’s uncharitable and rude to other performers, and he’s selfish and self-absorbed in general. And the world responds to him with equal rudeness, shutting him down at every opportunity. Where the punishments in Blood Simple come from direct, clear cause-and-effect processes—the betrayers are betrayed, the killers are killed—Inside Llewyn Davis’ chastisements are more abstract. There’s no direct causal link between Llewyn screaming at his host at a dinner party for singing along with his music, or abandoning a cat in a car by the side of the road, and Llewyn getting rejected by the producer who could turn his career around. But seen within the pattern of the Coens’ overall take on how negative personal choices  lead to outsized destruction, it’s hard to miss the suggestion of a connection.

The clearest map of their films’ moral outlook comes in 2009’s A Serious Man, an open exploration of how God works in the world, and whether moral justice exists. As physics professor Larry Gopnik endures the trials of Job (or the trials of Llewyn Davis, with far less of a sense that Larry is a schmuck perpetually earning his own comeuppance), he questions what godliness means, and tries to make the right choices, particularly regarding a student attempting to bribe him for a better grade. Events around him suggest the world is a chaotic, unjust, random place, or at least a place with no clear answers, as the fables at the beginning and middle of the film emphasize. But the second he crosses the line, when he stops his ethical struggle and decides to accept the bribe, the consequences are instantaneous: He gets an ominous call from his doctor about the results of a medical test, while a tornado threatens to engulf his son’s school. The story implies that God may be capricious about rewarding the just, but never about punishing the guilty. It’s impossible to earn success through good works, but easy to earn failure through bad ones.

2. Dramatic characters who transgress morally can still be sympathetic, but that doesn’t get them off the hook.

The Coens consistently visit brutal judgment and retribution on their characters, but they feel for their suffering along the way. They display plenty of empathy for Llewyn, soldiering on after his partner’s suicide, and displaying a real talent for creating beautiful, soulful music. (Though it seems particularly relevant that the Coens never delve into what drove his partner to kill himself, or what their relationship was like beforehand. Again, they suggest, causes aren’t as important as actions; Llewyn’s assholery may be the result of well-earned despair, but the forces of impersonal retribution still can’t justify or condone it.) And Larry in A Serious Man seems put upon past the point anyone should have to endure: He struggles with his health, his wife has an affair and demands a divorce, anonymous letters threaten his tenure. He seeks answers in his Jewish faith, which has no answers for him except an exacting “Obey the rules.” It’s no surprise when he doesn’t, given what he’s been through, but the film’s final shot makes it clear that those rules are ironbound, regardless of excuses.

Coen protagonists tend to make one early bad choice that will lead to destruction by the end of the movie, but their struggles to evade it are endearing and fascinating. Llewelyn Moss in No Country For Old Men earns his fate by leaving a gunshot victim to die and taking his money, but spends the rest of the film fleeing a series of implacable, murderous enemies, and it’s natural to cheer for him as he flees from a vicious pursuing dog, or dodges drug-runners bent on murdering him. Tom Reagan in Miller’s Crossing endures repeated brutal beatings and mortal threats, and ultimately loses everything but his life while trying to navigate a clever system of lies, betrayals, and reversals. Barton Fink starts Barton Fink by queasily deciding to sell out his considerable talent for Hollywood money, and spends the rest of his film suffering the horror-movie consequences. Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There draws himself a straight line between deciding to blackmail his boss and dying in the electric chair, but he’s victimized relentlessly along the way, in ways that make him more victim than victimizer. Even Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo is sympathetic, as he desperately tries to dig himself out of the hole he’s created. The Coens don’t hate their sinners—they just don’t let them get away with the sin.

3. Characters in comedies play by different rules—but only with the open understanding that their rules are ridiculous.

The Coens’ dramas only account for half their filmography: The other half are farces, where the natural moral order is reversed, and people literally get away with murder. The most extreme example is 2008’s Burn After Reading, where the nicest character gets murdered in a crazed hatchet attack, the second-nicest character gets fatally shot in the face, and the rogue’s gallery of adulterers and blackmailers largely slip the noose. The film ends with a couple of baffled CIA officers debating what they’ve learned from the whole debacle, and concluding that none of it is particularly meaningful or useful. They arbitrarily decide to grant one selfish and small-minded character exactly what she most wants, so they can sweep all the movie’s events under the rug and ignore them—and it comes across as a referendum from the Coens, revealing the lack of a point or a center in a story where the villains are rewarded and the best people (relatively speaking) are punished.

The Big Lebowski follows a similar pattern: It’s a rambling story of anything-goes anarchy, where no satisfying conclusions are reached, the guilty escape justice, and  the most innocent character dies in the climactic confrontation. Lebowski doesn’t underline its themes as emphatically as Burn After Reading, but it ends with a similar “This was all essentially meaningless” monologue, with Sam Elliott as “The Stranger” telling the camera that the important thing is the way Jeff Bridges as The Dude is “out there, takin’ her easy for all us sinners.” Bounced about between all the evils of the world, The Dude’s only real job is to stay calm, detached, and alive as he laughs sadly about what a mess the world becomes if no moral center can be found.

4. Even in comedies, some moral lines can’t be crossed.

Coen comedies often have criminals and con artists as protagonists, but the filmmakers still divide “good,” endearingly kind criminals from “bad,” malicious ones. Raising Arizona has a pair of babynapping criminals as heroes, but a more obvious and intimidating villain shows up in order to get killed off, and the protagonists only really live happily ever after in their unlikely dreams. The Ladykillers brings out the comedy, though not always the sympathy, in a heist story, but the thieves still all die, with the final one falling victim to the kind of act of God that feels like a particularly pointed comment from the filmmakers. The Hudsucker Proxy is so patterned after Frank Capra and Howard Hawks films that it would feel ridiculous to bring calamity down on its lightweight, cartoony protagonists, who are at most guilty of a little professional deception and hubris, but it still finds a way to send its villain off to an asylum. Intolerable Cruelty eventually redeems its central swindler and gives her a heart of gold, while killing off the real villain in a ridiculous accident. Even when the criminals make good in a Coen brothers film, someone has to be punished. It helps if they spend the whole film suffering for their crimes while trying to be good, like the protagonists of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, who do somewhat earn their redemption—almost unheard of in a Coen movie, and permitted only as a farcical, silly idea. None of these films brutalize their main characters for moral trespass the way the Coens’ dramas do, but they’re also all drawn as broad absurdist comedies, pitched far from reality.

5. In the rare drama where the villains go unpunished, the entire point of the story is grief at God’s failings.

Even when the Coens don’t originate their storylines, they choose to adapt material that reflects their fascination with ethical codes, and follows through on their sensibility: True Grit is a story told along strict, classical Western lines, where bad men are gunned down and innocence prevails, though it’s irrevocably damaged in the process. The Ladykillers, based on the 1955 comedy of the same name, makes more of a hash than usual of ethics; the Coens’ most muddled film sometimes seems up in the air about whether any of the characters are worthy of sympathy, and in the end, it falls on the side of killing the criminals off and letting God sort them out. Miller’s Crossing, loosely patterned on a pair of Dashiell Hammett novels, lets its mobbed-up protagonist survive—though less because he’s a smaller evil in a story of big evils, and more because he’s secretly following a strict moral code throughout, staying loyal to the people he loves at immense risk to his own life.

No Country For Old Men, a close adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, looks like the biggest disruption in their pattern: It punishes the protagonist and his innocent wife for his failings, while letting mass murderer and open villain Anton Chigurh walk (or at least limp) away, as he does in the book. But just as Burn After Reading takes criminals’ success as a reason to conclude that life is preposterous and meaningless, No Country For Old Men takes it as reason for grief and despair. It ends with Sheriff Bell somberly noting God’s failure to assert Himself—in Bell’s life, but possibly also in the world at large—while the devil controls the land. And the film’s final words, in which he recounts a dream about his father going before him with the seeds of a fire he’s planning to build “out there in all that dark and all that cold,” suggest the smallness of hope in the world, and the suggestion that if there is an ultimate morality, it’s a tiny light in the darkness at most.

But it’s a light that clearly fascinates the Coens. Even in their worlds, innocence and purity are no guarantee of survival, let alone success: Their stories are littered with people who suffer for other people’s moral failings, perhaps most epitomized by poor Jean Lundegaard in Fargo, dead on the kitchen floor while her killer, headed for retribution, watches TV behind her. Even virtue generally isn’t rewarded: Consider the ransom money in Fargo, buried by an anonymous post under a blanket of snow, and how many crime films (The Ladykillers, for instance) end by awarding exactly that kind of life-changing windfall to some worthy soul. Instead, Fargo’s hero Marge gets to go home quietly to her husband Norm and ponder what the future will bring, and hope their child will be one of those blessed little lights in the darkness. They’d better hope so, since it’ll be growing up in a Coen brothers world of either strict moral reckoning or laughable anarchy.

Our Movie Of The Week discussion of Fargo ends here. Don't miss Tuesday's Keynote on the many faces of Fargo's Minnesota, and Wednesday's staff Forum on the film's portrayal of masculinity and crime, the Mike Yanagita mystery, and more. Next week, strap on your white platform shoes and join us as we look back at Tim Burton's feature debut, Pee-wee's Big Adventure.

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