The Complete Collection: The Coen Brothers (Part 2)

So we movie into the nineties – following Raising Arizona in ’87 and Blood Simple in ’84 …

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

So, after the first six years, we find ourselves with an exceptionally moody and classical film as the Coen’s tackle the Film Noir genre full-on with a gangster story. The film-noir angle was to be expected and the moody-ness meant not too much comedy … and with Gabrial Byrne and Albert Finney too, you knew this was going to be a different style of film for the Coen brothers. But wait, we have some correlations still. For one, the entire film sits upon the decision Byrne decides to make when he doesn’t kill John Turturro’s sneaky character – someone having trouble murdering someone else methinks? and, to top it off, we have some infidelity as Gabriel Byrne is sleeping with his bosses long-time moll Verna. The concern with this film was that, maybe the Coen’s were now making what they had always wanted to make – no retro ‘style’, this film is set in the thirties – but ultimately, the Coen’s lost money, becoming a financial flop. This is contrary to strong reviews and, in the long-term, making a whole lot of dosh through DVD sales and rentals. So even a film deemed ‘weak’ in financial terms, still manages to keep hold of its dignity and ultimately continued to show how The Coen’s were no ‘freak’ occurence or one-trick ponies… they were filmmakers born-and-bred. But it would be a while before they are entrusted to such a big-budget again. Of all the actors cast, we already know of hte ‘top trumps’ so far – Frances McDormand, John Goodman – and now – John Turturro.

Barton Fink (1991)

Maybe studios were unhappy. Maybe not. From the $14m of Miller’s Crossing to the slightly smaller $9m budget of Barton Fink, this next film continued the rise in credability for the Coen’s as they win their sole Palme D’or winner. Picking the scene-stealers, rather than the leading men, of the previous two – John Turturro and John Goodman – the Coen’s work on a smaller scale, with a film that spends alot of time within a single hotel room. Turturro got Best Actor at Cannes and the brotheres got Best Director so, theoretically, this should be one of their finest. Personally, its not my favourite, but I do think it has a great multi-layered aspect as Turturro has to balance his artistic ambition with actually selling a product. Again, we get a taste of murder as John Goodmans happy-salesman is in fact a serial killer and we even continue the surrealism we have seen in Raising Arizona as the film ends with a spectacular fire within the hotel – horrific and surreal in equal measure. The slight symbolism is introduced as the peeling wallpaper within Barton Finks hellish hotel room mimics John Goodmans ear-infection. Barry Sonnenfeld was not cinematographer on this film either … but Mr Roger Deakins was pulled in, someone who would stick with the Coen’s for a long time to come…

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

Within Barton Fink there is an element of business-focus – how can an artist create something within a system firmly rooted in audience expectation? Financial success was what Barton Fink’s film script was expected to produce. So it was not too ridiculous to expect that the Coen’s remained within this financial-realm and they take on capitalism. Not just capitalism but, akin to Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink, this film is set within the America business age: Miller’s Crossing in the gangster 30’s, Barton Fink in the Golden Era of Hollywood and The Hudsucker Proxy about the American Manufcaturing process within New York. This film was co-written by Sam Raimi – remember him? The budget, additionally shot sky-high as it is estimated to be between $25m – $40m … but only making a little over $2m. The script dated back to 1981, when Raimi worked with Joel Coen on The Evil Dead, but alas, the script still reeked of the screwball comedy-style – classic Howard Hawks and Frank Capra could be seen littered through the film. The anyman-can-make-it story from Mr Smith Goes to Washington through to the fast-talking undercover reporter played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, clearly imitating Rosalind Russel in His Girl Friday.

Ultimately, it commercially flopped and personally, I was not too keen on it myself. Clearly the Coens love the screwball comedies of the forties – because they touch upon it again with Intolerable Cruelty having found their Cary Grant, but this film should have taught them a lesson. The Coen’s still worked with their regular crew – and some cast – in the form of Carter Burwells music, Roger Deakins cinematography backed up by Paul Newman and Tim Robbins as the lead actors. But I reckon it was good that this bombed because they had to set the next movie, back to their roots, in Minnesota with only a $7m budget titled…

Fargo (1996)
I believe, this is when the Coen’s realised what worked and what didn’t. The cast pulled in a bunch of actors they knew wouldn’t let them down – Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand next to newcomers William H. Macy and Peter Stormare. We get every Coen cliche we know of thrown in the mix – Jerry Lundegaard (Macy) has money troubles – tick Coen box one – and he decides to hire kidnappers to kidnap his wife so he can collect the ransom. Inevitably, this goes wrong and a few murders cock up the situation – tick Coen box two – and, add to this that Jerry is a complete doofus – tick Coen box three (think how clever the protagonists are in Raising Arizona, Hudsucker and Barton Fink). Set within a small town with strange mannerisms and, for anyone outside of America, a eccentric accent from a specific state. This was personal, shot in the same state the brothers were brough up within – and set in North Dakota nearby. Interestingly the town of Fargo only appears for a few minutes at the start of Fargo.

It also used a ‘Based on a True Story’ Cue card, when in fact, it was completely false. Some crazy ol’ dear even tried to hunt down the money and, ultimately, failed. And died. The dialogue was flawless, the story inspired and it recieved huge success – even winning awards for the screenplay (from Cannes) and garnering some Oscar nominations and BAFTA awards. The Coen’s were back on top.

The Big Lebowski (1998)
From Fargo, the local-tale of murder, money and deciet we move to, what some believe (not me), the Coen’s best film. Bowling, LA and a confusion of names does not seem like the pieces of a ‘cult classic’ … maybe it is. Add in there a toe and the Lebowski Urban Achievers and before you can say ‘Jesus’, you have The Big Lebowski. Again, Coen’s utilise their best assets – John Goodman, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Roger Deakins, Carter Burwell… we have dream sequences and a kidnap plot. Its local and feels personal as we follow the lazy protaganists of The Dude (Jeff Bridges), Walter Sobchak (Goodman) and Co.
The comedy as much more in line with Raising Arizona and manages to utilise its larger budget to bring a slightly more epic nature to a story that could be kept exceptionally small scale. Julianne Moore plays an eccentric sexual-artist (based, to some extent, on Yoko Ono) … nothing new there. These eccentric characters are inevitable in a Coen movie now.

The Dude was completely inspired by close-friend Jeff Dowd, whilst Sobchak was an amalgamation of Pete Exline (a Vietnam veteran) and John Milius – screenwriter of Apocalypse Now and 1941. Funnily enough, Milius had a love of guns akin to Sobchak. Inevitably, the quirky nature of this film was fresh and garnered cult following, cementing the Coen’s not only as good story tellers, but intelligent comedy-writers additionally.

You would think that the Coen’s clearly had actors set up for the rest of their career but, alas, an actor, akin to Cary Grant and Clark Gable waited in the wing to star in their next film …
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2 comments

  1. Miller's Crossing has always sat strangly with me and I think it's because it is in fact still the Coens not letting go of that retro-we're clever-than-you thing they do. Because of that the movie is more about gangster movies than a gangster movie unto itself. Everything is good about this movie until you get those few moments of self indulgence (Albert Finney's shoot out, the shoot-out with Sam Raimi) which are so strange and played for a laugh that it takes you outside of the experience while the Coens wink towards the screen. It doesn't run with the entire tone of the film. Thankfully they realized how to incorporate those moments better in Fargo.

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