They have always been inseparable in the public imagination, the Coen brothers, a zygotic artistic collaboration with an almost primal indivisibility. While for years Joel was credited as director and Ethan as producer, this was due entirely to a quirk in the Directors Guild of America that disallowed duel directorial credits, unless members were an ‘established duo’. This became official in 2004: they are now the established duo of commercial film – one would have to go back to Powell and Pressburger to find a cinematic partnership of such richness and breadth. With the release of Joel’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, the first film directed solely by one brother, it seems a good time to drill down into the brothers’ quintessence: what is a Coen brothers’ film, and what could or should we expect from a Coen brother film? Is the zygote finally subdividing?
Their début, Blood Simple (1984), was a competent if derivative neo-noir thriller. While it luxuriates in filmic precedents – notably Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) – it lacks a crucial Coen element: it isn’t funny. It’s played entirely straight, something that cannot be said of any of their films since, even their most outwardly serious ones. Blood Simple stars Frances McDormand, Joel’s wife since 1984 and a kind of talismanic presence throughout their filmography, and while knowing and sly in its references, the film seemed to promise more than it delivered. And then, as if in direct response to that criticism, they produced a wildly hysterical hyper-comedy with their sophomore effort Raising Arizona (1987), and the Coen touch was born.
Raising Arizona had a mixed critical response, but it is hard not to look back at it as a touchstone for all we have come to expect from a Coen brothers’ film. It was anarchic, full of extreme comic performances that were garish but also tender and oddly moving. Its tonal shifts were alarming, the kind the brothers would hone in films such as O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Burn After Reading (2008). It was a film, like their largely misunderstood later farce Hail, Caesar! (2016), that wasn’t afraid to look silly (even daft), hiding its competent technique behind a cartoonish façade. No wonder it was dismissed at the time as ‘no big deal’ by Pauline Kael, even as she admitted it had ‘a rambunctious charm’. Then they made the highly film-literate Miller’s Crossing (1990), stately and elegiac, and from them audiences learned to expect the unexpected.
On the surface, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing have nothing in common; one would forgive an uninformed viewer from believing they sprang from unrelated creative imaginations. But there is a way in which they adhere, can in fact be read as two sides of the same coin. Both films are about the consequences of ‘sticking it to the man’ and the weight of responsibility that comes when one upends the status quo. In Raising Arizona, Ed (Holly Hunter) and H.I. (Nicholas Cage) do this when they kidnap one of local furniture magnate Nathan Arizona’s quintuplets and try to raise him on the lam. In Miller’s Crossing, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) does it by falling for the girlfriend of his mobster boss Leo (Albert Finney). The spiralling upheavals that follow these lapses of judgement (although they are really both examples of the protagonists stepping wilfully into the looking glass) threaten catastrophe right up to the point of resolution, when the status quo is returned and things basically go back to how they were at the beginning. Nathan Arizona gets his kid back; Leo gets his girl. And our protagonists heave a sigh of relief, getting off seemingly without consequence.
One of the key notions linking Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing, and a central theme in much of the Coen universe, is ethics, specifically in the way a character’s ethical framework differs from, or sits adjacent to, their society’s concept of morality. Jon Polito (another actor who turns up often in the brothers’ filmography) opens Miller’s Crossing with a long monologue on the subject; in fact, ‘ethics’ is the first word spoken in that film. His character, Johnny Caspar, is a two-bit hood with pretensions of grandeur, but he is adamant that, in this criminal world of crooks and mobsters – one that exists outside the boundaries of social morality – an ethical code is vital, so that everyone gets a chance to make a dishonest buck. Ed and H.I. also see an ethical justification in their kidnapping, redressing the imbalance that lets a wealthy businessman produce five children when they are incapable of conceiving one. Morally, stealing a child is reprehensible, but ethically it makes perfect sense.
Later films from the Coens will add variations on the theme of ethics, on who gets away with, and who has to pay for, ethical slippages. Of course, Fargo (1996) is essential here, a film whose entire world view can be encapsulated in the bewildered expression of William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, a man who makes haplessness seem worse a crime than murder itself. It is, after all, Jerry’s total absence of ethical consideration that sets off the film’s dominos of carnage; without his venality, disloyalty, and carping obsequiousness, nobody in the film would have to die. His final scene, bawling pathetically as he is arrested in a cheap motel room, sums the man up perfectly: a child throwing a tantrum because he has finally been found out.
Most of the characters in Fargo are corrupt and avaricious – from Jerry’s awful father-in-law Wade (Harve Presnell) to the bumbling yet utterly amoral kidnappers-for-hire, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) – with one notable exception: McDormand’s pregnant cop Marge Gunderson. Marge is steely, courageous, and dogged; she’s also kind, thoughtful, and upbeat. Her optimism is often used comically as a contrast to the brutality around her, in the way intense bursts of colour are used in contrast to all that white Minnesota snow – but she is never the butt of the joke. Where everyone around Jerry and his grubby little scheme see only their own petty desires, Marge sees the bigger picture. When she shakes her head at Gaear as she drives him to prison, she expresses her total incomprehension at his view of the world. ‘And it’s a beautiful day,’ she says to him, as the snow blankets all around her. This isn’t a cheap joke at Northern American attitudes to the weather; it is an ethical standpoint, a determination to see good in the world.
Jerry is the definition of haplessness in Fargo, but this trait is so ubiquitous in the Coen brothers’ oeuvre, it often seems they have been mapping the various gradations of haplessness all along. It could describe the eponymous writer of Barton Fink (1991), played magnificently by John Turturro as a self-aggrandising fool; it certainly describes the Dude (Jeff Bridges) in The Big Lebowski (1998), all three runaways (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson) in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and every single character in Burn After Reading. Sometimes this haplessness is born of distraction, or greed, or artistic blockage; usually, it’s the result of extreme stupidity. Depending on whether the film tilts towards the tragic or the farcical, people are killed as a result of it, and not always the hapless themselves.
In contrast to Jerry Lundegaard, whom she resembles in her greed and narcissism, Burn After Reading’s Linda Litzke (again played by McDormand) gets away scot-free from the carnage she sets in motion. She is desperate for a boob job, and her determination to get one leads to the death of two of her colleagues, not to mention several moronic secret service agents who basically get what they deserve. It is her complete lack of remorse that aligns her with Fargo’s Jerry – her total inability to care or even notice that other people are endangered because of the unrelenting pursuit of her goal – that marks her as the film’s chief villain. But Burn After Reading has no Marge Gunderson to mete out justice, so she gets her boob job money in the end, simply because the secret service can’t be bothered untangling the mess she’s made. She slips back into the vacuous world from which she came, oblivious.
Audiences tend to find this moral disregard either funny or disturbing. Various critics, including David Thomson, have professed antipathy towards the Coen brothers on this point; there is an active distrust about their seriousness, a suspicion around their moral and aesthetic intentions. Thomson, in his inestimable Have You Seen…? (2008) informs us that ‘I gave up long ago hoping for a “straight” picture from them – one they believed in and expected us to treat with the same respect’. This seems an outrageous statement coming a year after the release of No Country for Old Men, a film of deadly seriousness and laser-like intent. A kind of reverse Fargo, it tells a story of a largely innocent man, Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss, inserting himself into a crime cock-up and bringing retribution down on himself and his loved ones, via one of the screen’s most infamous and chilling psychopaths, Anton Chigurh (played with foppish menace by Javier Bardem).
No Country for Old Men has, like Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, one character who represents an entire resistance to the nihilism of the world around them: Tommy Lee Jones’s weary and equally perplexed cop Sheriff Bell. But, unlike Marge, Bell doesn’t seem up to the task of bringing justice to this world. This isn’t his fault – he isn’t hapless in any way – but rather an indication of how far into desolate territory his fellow human beings have strayed, dragging him reluctantly behind them. All that white snow has turned to dust, and the filmmakers seem as horrified that they have ended up in this environment as the rest of us. There isn’t a single moment of glibness in that film; all is taut and unrelentingly sober.
Perhaps the brothers gained a reputation for glibness from their frustratingly opaque self-analysis in the media; it’s virtually impossible to get anything about their work from them in interviews that isn’t jokey and dismissive. They are constantly undercutting their own filmography by claiming that their films are meaningless, their decisions accidental, their entire approach to the art of film imprecise and unconscious. It’s a ruse, of course: they are meticulous and collaborative world-builders, and their films taken together represent as singular a vision of humanity’s baffling place in the universe as Joseph Losey’s or Ernst Lubitsch’s. The brothers are Marge and Sheriff Bell, as well as Barton and the Dude, A Serious Man’s (2009) Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Inside Llewyn Davis’s (2013) Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) – stumbling about in the dark, determined to get somewhere, anywhere, before the hourglass runs down.
So what are we to make of the fact that Joel is directing a film on his own, and how different will it be from what has come before? He told the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw that Ethan didn’t get involved on The Tragedy of Macbeth because ‘this isn’t a movie that would have interested him’. Of course, it stars McDormand as Lady Macbeth, so that connection remains central. Bruno Delbonnel, who worked with the brothers on Inside Llewyn Davis and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), is the director of photography, and Mary Zophres, a collaborator since Fargo, is the costume designer. It is possible that this film will become a kind of outlier in the brothers’ filmography. But then it’s equally possible that the brothers will work again not only with each other, but will take these new collaborators – actors like Kathryn Hunter, who plays all three witches, and crew members like Stefan Dechant and Jason T. Clark, who are responsible for the film’s art and production design – and fold them into the family, as it were.
This, after all, is what great filmmakers do: they collaborate, building a network of artists who add to their world view. Many directors reuse a small coterie of actors (Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick did; Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese certainly do; perhaps most famously was Ingmar Bergman, whose collaborations extended beyond the screen and onto the stage), but arguably none do so in quite the same way as the Coen brothers. Actors such as Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Jon Polito, and John Turturro don’t just pop up time and again in their films, their roles echo and resonate across those films. There is a kind of nest of neural pathways that build up; the actors themselves become leitmotifs, signifying beyond their function in any one film.
Talismans are a recurring motif in the Coen universe, and this use of actors is merely an extension of the brothers’ interest in them. The hat in Miller’s Crossing, the picture of the girl on the beach in Barton Fink, the coin in No Country for Old Men, the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis: they all take on a mysterious, even primal, weight, far beyond their application in the plot itself. It is almost as if the characters are wildly investing everyday objects with some sort of spiritual power, as a way of clinging to meaning in a meaningless place. In this way, Macbeth can be seen as perfect subject matter for a Coen brother. Macbeth wildly invests objects with spiritual power, albeit a dark and inverted one: the dagger, the owl, the crown, even the witches themselves. He, too, is a hapless fool, stumbling in his petty pace to dusty death. And his crisis is an ethical one, far outside the moral boundaries of his world. Perhaps this seeming digression of a project will fit neatly into the Coen filmography after all, and the offspring will resemble both parents. Certainly, it will take more than one film to divide this family unit.
Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (A24) is available to watch in cinemas from December 26, and on Apple TV+ from January 14.