Those Curious Coen Brothers

Known for their unique characters and gripping dialogue, Joel Coen, 61, and Ethan Coen, 58, are the directors, writers and producers of numerous critically adored films including “Fargo”, “The Big Lebowski” and the Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men”. The Economist

Joel Coen is often listed as the sole director on early projects, but this is only because guild rules stopped two individuals taking credit for one film. They have pretty much shared most roles throughout their careers.

I’ve seen people walk out of the cinema before a Coen film has ended, and I’ve heard the confused and annoyed chatter during the end credits, but the brothers have still managed to break really quite unusual, niche films into the mainstream. Perhaps this is partly due to the large list of popular actors who are keen to work with them.

Anyway, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on my top Coen films…

Burn After Reading (2008) is one of my favourites, with Brad Pitt and John Malkovitch giving hilarious performances, particular when in the same scene. Pitt’s character has grand plans but it’s a Coen film, so you know it’s not going to work out for him!

True Grit is another of my favourites, and it’s thanks to this film, Quentin Tarantino and the Weird West fiction genre, that I’ve finally realised westerns are great. The characters in True Grit seem very honest portrayals of human beings, doing what they want or need to do. I think it’s one of their more normal films too, which probably explains why it’s their most financially successful so far. I’d love some more recommendations for modern traditional westerns. It’s one of the Coen brothers’ few films that doesn’t mash up genres.Business Insider

I saw Barton Fink very late (last year I think) and it’s probably in my top three Coen films, being complicated and super exciting all the way through. It’s a bit of a secret film, meaning different things to different viewers.

Fargo the film is one of the best films of all time, Fargo series 1 was an extremely fun viewing experience… and I’m not sure I can even talk about Fargo series 2. “We have no problem with it. It just feels divorced from our film somehow.” – Joel Coen talking about the TV series. However, all three pieces of work make me wish we had more snowy settings on the big and small screens. Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is possibly one of the best Coen creations.

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No Country for Old Men (2007) is a film that I often forget is by the Coen brothers. Watching it for the first time seemed like such a big experience and I felt like films were changing, they were going in a new, higher direction. It’s also their longest film at two hours two minutes, short by today’s standards. “I mean, after two hours with a character we feel we’re pretty much done with them.” – Joel Coen. Many say “No Country for Old Men” is objectively the best film the Coen brothers ever made. They have a point. “No Country” earned them their first Oscars for best director and best picture. The awards were well-deserved. At first, this doesn’t feel like any Coen brothers film ever made.Business Insider

If I had to pick a favourite, it would be A Serious Man (2009). It’s hard to explain why, but since first seeing it I’ve discovered the short stories of Ethan Coen and this film seems to have a lot of his mind in it. It is hilarious, but it’s also so… well, serious. “A Serious Man” is the most confident and personal film the Coen brothers have ever made… At one point, it diverges into a story about Hebrew letters found on a man’s teeth. That’s because the Coens can. Business Insider

And then there’s The Big Lebowski (1998). 

“The Big Lebowski” is bigger than just one movie.

The story of a laid-back stoner named The Dude (Jeff Bridges), who gets sucked into a seedy LA underworld after asking for a replacement for his soiled rug (“that was a valued rug”), was a box-office flop when it came out. But it slowly gained cult status. Now it plays to sold-out crowds at midnight showings. It has launched clothing lines and even a religion called Dudeism.

And even with the overexposure, “The Big Lebowski” never gets old. After countless viewings, I can’t quite put my finger on it, because my perception of this movie changes every time I watch it. That’s what happens when you have a story so intricate and well mapped out. The mystery gets more intriguing and makes more sense the more you watch it. And yes, this is a film you will want to watch many times.

The Dude deserves to be in the pantheon of great cinematic characters as does Walter Sobchak (John Goodman). For creating a timeless comedy and a character whose face decorates both a shirt I wear and a mug I drink coffee out of every morning, I say, “the Dude abides.” Business Insider

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Moving on: The Coens are often praised for the music in their films, and composer Carter Burwell is responsible for the score in sixteen of them. He is not responsible for the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack, one of my least favourite of their films (it’s not a bad film but I expect amazing from these guys now, so I was disappointed). Not planning to be a film composer, Burwell received numerous requests after scoring the music for Blood Simple, the Coens’ first feature-length film. “It is, in fact, just an accident of the way that Blood Simple was received, frankly. Other people started calling me and asking me to do film scores. So, yes, it’s entirely their fault” – Carter Burwell.

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Despite Burwell’s lack of formal training, Joel Coen says the brothers have always felt like they were in good musical hands.

“Carter is so good at sort of moving into these different kinds of storytelling,” he says, “and understanding what the sort of imperatives of the movie are, and what it needs musically.”

That’s good, because the Coens don’t like to give Burwell too much instruction up front. Burwell says they discuss all the practicalities, but he can’t necessarily ask what a scene is really about…”I’m a bit more of a quieter person,” he says, “and often the music is more behind what’s going on.”…Burwell says he tries to work with people who understand the virtue of withholding information or leaving the audience uninformed and even confused. NPR

Their latest film, Hail, Caesar!, another period piece about Hollywood, isn’t released in the UK until next week, so I haven’t seen it yet! It looks silly and fun, so I’m looking forward to it. This twisted love letter to blacklist-era Hollywood finds the brothers at their most absurd, and it totally works. Business Insider

If you’re an aspiring film-maker, the brothers offer some tips here!

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