The Coen Brothers have spent most of their careers as critical darlings, favourites of people like me who love the offbeat sensibility they bring to their films.
Their classic work, which includes O Brother Where Art Thou, Barton Fink and of course, the Oscar winning Fargo dates back to the early eighties with their breathtaking debut Blood Simple.
The Coens made their name mixing off-the-wall comedy with crime stories. Raising Arizona redefined quirky and The Big Lebowski is a cult classic.
The sibling directors set their new film Hail, Caesar! in a fictional movie studio called Capitol Pictures but populated the story with characters ripped from Hollywood history. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s legendary producer and “fixer.” In Tinseltown’s Golden Age Mannix solved star’s problems, allegedly using his influence to keep some of the most notorious crimes and scandals on the LAPD blotter under wraps.
They don’t hit a homerun every time up at bat—their romantic comedy Intolerable Cruelty lacked both romance and comedy and The Ladykillers was an ill-advised remake of an Ealing Studios classic—but their genre-jumping resume contains many marvellous films that are as varied, subject wise, as they are entertaining.
Here are three of their movies that translate easily from the arthouse to your house.
No Country for Old Men: The Coens faithfully adapted Cormac McCarthy’s novel, keeping the dark humor, unbearable suspense and high body count—the ultra-violence would make David Cronenberg proud—while at the same time tightening up their notoriously loose narrative style. This is muscular filmmaking, highly structured but not predictable; it’s well paced and suspenseful. Couple the terrific story with great performances and beautiful New Mexico photography and the result is one of their best films.
A Serious Man: Though billed as a comedy, this may be the bleakest film the Coen Brothers have ever made. And remember these are the guys who once stuffed someone in a wood chipper on film. The story of a man who thought he did everything right, only to be jabbed in the eye by the fickle finger of fate is a tragiomedy that shows how ruthless real life can be. Set in 1967 Minnesota A Serious Man is apparently a thinly veiled look at the early life of the Coens, and if this is true, they deserve the designation of tortured artists. This film is darkly brilliant and funny, but a celebration of life it ain’t.
Inside Llewyn Davis: This one is a fictional look at the vibrant 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene. Imagine the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan come to life and you’ll get the idea. More a character study than a traditional narrative, Inside Llewyn Davis lives up to its name by painting a vivid portrait of its main character, played by Star Wars’ star Oscar Isaac. Sharp-eyed folkies will note not-so-coincidental similarities between the people Llewyn meets and real-life types like Tom Paxton, Alert Grossman and Mary Travers, but this isn’t a history, it’s a feel. It gives us an under-the-covers look at the struggles and naked ambition it takes to get noticed. Once you get inside Llewyn’s head you probably won’t want to hang out with the guy in real life, but you won’t regret spending two cinematic hours with him.