October 18, 2009

Joel & Ethan Coen: The Third Decade (2006-)

Though I didn't finish this project until the Walker Art Center's Coen Brothers retrospective, Joel & Ethan Coen: Raising Cain, reached its end, I'm still glad I took the opportunity to rewatch all 14 Coen brothers films (including A Serious Man, for the first time). Considering the lack of time I've been able to spend writing here, it was an ambitious goal, though it's given me (along with the Regis Dialogue I attended with them) a much more comprehensive understanding of their films.

ReadA Conversation with the Coens & a Look at Their First Decade (1984-1994)
ReadJoel & Ethan Coen: The Second Decade (1995-2005) 

(Title screens via the Walker blog.)

No Country for Old Men (2007)

As I mentioned in Part 1, I saw Blood Simple for the first time only recently, but it made an immediate impression on my understanding of the rest of the Coen's films, particularly No Country for Old Men. This was my favorite movie of 2007, a Best Picture winner, an instant classic, and one of the best movies of the decade. Repeated viewings have done nothing to diminish its stature in my mind, and I continue to gain appreciation for the acting from the supporting cast, notably Kelly MacDonald, who does wonders covering up her thick Scottish accent.

I haven't read the celebrated Cormac McCarthy novel that inspired the Coens to make this adaptation, but there are a lot of ways you can look at No Country for Old Men - as a parable about the inevitability of death and the meaninglessness of fate, as a cultural study of early 1980's West Texas, as a conventional cat-and-mouse chase story, or as a hitman suspense thriller. Any way you look at it, the most obvious thing about it is the incredible polish with which the Coens fashion the story. There is not an overlong scene or an unnecessary line or even a bad character; it's nearly a perfect movie. Here is an instantly classic scene that introduces us to the creepy quirkiness of Anton Chigurh (Bardem). No one can play the mocking copycat game like Chigurh:

Burn After Reading (2008)

Considering the star power that was on display in this movie (nearly the entire cast has either won or been nominated for multiple Oscars), it still surprises me that Burn After Reading received such a lukewarm critical and commercial reception. Maybe people were disappointed to see the Coens return to screwball comedy after their top-form drama in No Country for Old Men. Or maybe the satire on Beltway culture was too subtle and we just didn't appreciate the wryness of the comedy.

In any event I think Burn After Reading is one of those Coen movies that shouldn't be overthought; it's best enjoyed when you just sit back and allow yourself to be entertained by the kooky characters. And they are kooky, as evidenced in the trailer (the only embeddable video I could find, unfortunately):

A Serious Man (2009)

Not much more to say about this that I haven't said here or here, other than two weeks after seeing I still remember it fondly. Is it the best Coen film yet? That's hard to say, and it doesn't really matter. It is, at the very least, their most personal film, as well as (not coincidentally) one of their most thought-provoking. It is a meditation on life, suffering, and Judaism, not necessarily in that order. 

With A Serious Man the Coens have now told a story set in almost every decade of the last century (really interesting to consider). And of course they can still write great comedy. Here's a hilarious scene with Larry Gopnik's arch-nemesis, Sy Ableman:


  1. I agree about Burn After Reading. In fact, I think I liked it even more than you. When I finished watching it the first time, I literally rewinded it to the beginning and watched it again. I really like John Malkovich, such a versatile talent.

  2. Malkovich, Malkovich. I wish he would choose his roles a little more carefully. For my money he's great like once every 3.5 movies. Most recently I loved him in The Great Buck Howard. Looks like he has some so-so movies coming up (Jonah Hex? eh. Secretariat? sure.), but the guy could probably land an Oscar without too much effort.

  3. As I already mentioned in the comments section of your last post, No Country for Old Men happens to be one of my favourite movies. I just can't seem to have enough of it. So much so that I recently bought the "celebrated" Cormac McCarthy book it is based on and completed it a few days back. A wonderful book I must say. There's a cinematic feel to the book, which clearly shows the Coens' ability to spot great stories. I'd really want the Coens to make such deadly serious movies more often even though outcome might not necessarily be as brilliant always.

    I liked Burn After Reading too. Loved the wry humour and biting cynicism. The scene where George Clooney accidentally shoots Brad Pitt was hilarious. In fact, there are a number of really great comic moments. The humour is understated and intelligent, and never crass.

    Looking forward to watching A Serious Man sooner rather than later.

    Kudos for covering the Coens' entire filmography!

  4. Thanks again for following along with this series, Shubhajit. I think you really have a great understanding of the Coens' style, from what you have said here and there - especially here, about the adaptation of No Country. During the dialogue Ethan described how McCarthy's writing really made an adaptation quite easy. I haven't read the book, but he said the characters are described in such detail that it was easy to find ways to portray them on screen.

    For example, he talked about the scene in which Llewelyn (Brolin) puts together the stick and string attachment in the hotel room, and how that doesn't just move the story along, but also says a lot about what kind of person he is. They also mentioned that Chigurh is never physically described, and the only hint you have that he is not American is because somebody observes that he smells like a foreign cologne. I find those details really fascinating in the context of what we see on screen in No Country.

    Hehe, I'd have to argue about BaR - Clooney's basement creation is the very definition of crass...

    Since you mention "deadly serious" movies, I should also add they talked about their next adaptation, True Grit. They claim, half-jokingly, that a true film adaptation has not been done. Which says all that needs to be said about what they think of the John Wayne-starring version, and what we can expect from theirs. Should be awesome.

  5. He was really terrific in In the Line of Fire -- have you seen that one? It's an awesome thriller and Malkovich's performance (Oscar-nominated) is one of the better villains in recent memory. He was also very good in The Great Buck Howard, a film that I thoroughly enjoyed.

  6. Oh yes of course, and that's as close as he's come to an Oscar in like 15 years. That was a great role and a great movie at the time it came out. Might be a little too hot in the current political climate (though Death of a President a couple of years ago somehow made it into theaters), but it was appropriate in the early 90's.

    Anyway, it's interesting that Malkovich has only worked with the Coens once.


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