As Los Angeles rises out of the desert and pans into view during the opening sequence of Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski, we hear a conversational ode of sorts to ‘The Dude’. Within that opening stanza, Sam Elliot drawls out the following: “Sometimes there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place, he fits right in there.”
Throughout their career the oddball brothers of Hollywood have always sought the right character to tell their story, that crafted identity that fits right in there or else notably doesn’t fit in at all. These characters are our conduits into the twisted realities of the Coen’s and vessels through which their stories unfold.
As directors they have always been disciples of the Hitchcock mantra ‘if it happens anywhere it matters not’, but Ethan Coen stretched that message regarding time and place a little further and referred to the sort of movies they make as having a sense of “Natural History.” It’s not only a time and place they want to capture but also “the creatures that survived there.”
In keeping with that ethos, they have managed to craft a series of the most memorable characters in Hollywood history. Commercially they may well be firmly amidst the oscar-winning mainstream but stylistically they’re still very much cultist. The inherent quirkiness of all their outings has guaranteed that they will alienate some of the wider movie-going masses, but even those who have not acquired a taste for the Coen’s have to accept that they’re the undisputed champions of the bit-part character.
This is in small part due to the duo sprinkling every second of screentime with as much creative seasoning as they can, thus from the stars that dominate their wide lens singles to the quasi-extra Buschemi’s in the background, every one of these Dudes and Dudesses has a whole lotta soul.
From the cartoonish to the curmudgeonly here’s a look at ten of their very best characters of all time.
The ten best characters from Coen brothers films:
10. The Man (Sam Elliot) – The Big Lebowski
In ‘The Man’ they crafted an ingenious construct that allowed the narrator to infiltrate the very story that he struggled to keep tabs on. Only the Coen’s were not simply content with this original act of movie wizardry, as the very construct they crafted becomes a character who could have a movie of his own.
It would be an insult to refer to an interwoven narrator as a clever gimmick, even if he was only there to provide that quirk alone, but the fact that he is a three-dimensional fully formed fellow in his own right elevates the ‘Third Man-Esque’ narration to a higher level.
By incorporating an outsider into the insular world of Lebowski’s Los Angeles we get to view it from the outside looking in as well as being a fibre in the fabric of it. He also helps to delineate the character of The Dude, being very much the obverse heads on the same coin where El Duderito is the reverse tails. And lastly, Sam Elliot undoubtedly adds a solid dose of cowboy cool.
9. Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) – A Serious Man
A Serious Man is very much a film about a single character, a modern-day version of the biblical Job. However, there has to be a dose of the slightly absurd for this everyday everyman tale to work. The wild figure of Sy Ableman is the curveball in a fable as old as time.
Without him the movies big battle of ‘why?’ may well have been left searching. His appearance always breaks up the pace in just the right way and his line read of “Larry… you, you are jesting?” is amongst the best in any Coen brothers movie.
8. Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) – O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Coen brothers have curated an inner sanctum of collaborators that cohabitate their wild cinematic universe. Not only has this guaranteed quality performances, but it allows the directing duo to both tailor-make their characters and juice out their actor’s attributes.
Clooney’s portrayal of Ulysses is endlessly charismatic. The craft of acting can be analysed until the cows come home, but the fact of the matter is some people just cut a more appealing presence on the big screen than others, no doubt such a skill takes a lot of work, but it’s the one that comes across most effortlessly. Every character in this movie is perfectly portrayed, but Ulysses centres the adventure wonderfully as all good frontmen should.
7. Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) – Burn After Reading
The word quirky has already featured in this article a few times and that’s because it’s an adjective never far from the forefront when thinking of the Coen’s. Brad Pitt embodies this adjective like no other in his portrayal of ‘Chad’. Although their movies are ostensibly absurd, quite clearly life is too and, in many ways, their blending of genre, mixing up of emotions and menagerie of larger than life characters are somehow more apposite with reality than typically traditional forms of storytelling.
Chad might be wild, but he is the sort of guy we’ve all come across and casting the familiar Brad Pitt to remind us of this is a stroke of genius almost as creditable as the masterful performance itself.
Pitt’s headphone wielding gym-junky imbues the movie with so much charm, humour and one hell of a shock! Burn After Reading is a unique masterpiece that scarcely has what you could consider a lead character, each of the ensemble providing their own little bit of brilliance, but none more so than Chad.
6. Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) – Miller’s Crossing
It is the gangster flick that breaks all the noir stereotypes, the epitome of which is the twist on the classic ‘Dame’. Though the original dames of early noir may have been progressive in terms of their empowerment, they were usually characters of necessity and lacked any shades of the complexity that Verna provides.
She has all the classic lines, “Maybe that’s why I like you, Tom. I’ve never met anyone who made being a son of a bitch such a point of pride,” but she also has a vitalised individualism that makes her an elusive enigma throughout. She even retains this enigmatic quality when the ultimate twist on the usual trait of her character is subtly revealed.
5. Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) – Barton Fink
Renowned movie critic Roger Ebert once famously declared that Barton Fink was an allegorical tale mirroring the rise of fascism. Whilst its message may not be quite as recondite as that there is no doubting that it — like all their filmography — is rich in depth of meaning, an attribute that a lot of other movies lack.
The Coen’s messages, however, are always imparted with entertainment at the forefront, and to depict this particular tale of champagne socialists and the horrors of Hollywood bureaucracy, they needed someone to forcefully drive the plot. Charlie Meadows riotously takes up that mantle and a slew of subtexts cling onto his coat tail.
Goodman turns in one of his best bits of endearing bastardry that the Coen’s have orchestrated and that “Heil Hitler!” line is just the perfect splattered icing on a very troubled cake.
4. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) – No Country for Old Men
When a team of psychoanalysts studied movie characters Anton Chigurh ranked just behind James Bond at the very top of the true-to-form psychopath rankings. Based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, he is not entirely a nutjob of their creation, but they certainly brought him bursting into spooky bowl-cut life.
He’s a bad guy with no backstory which asks the question, ‘what spawned such a beast’? “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” There’s perhaps no movie villain more deranged or devoid of humanity than Chigurh.
3. Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) – The Big Lebowski
The most comedic and quotable character from Coen County, which would place him high in the running for most comedic and quotable worldwide. Like everyone else on this list, there’s a lot of interpretive depth to Walter, but when he’s pulling a pistol in a bowling alley one minute and spouting about the beautiful tradition of Judaism the next, it’s the giant surface of Walter that seems most notable.
He hexes the life of The Dude to no end, but ultimately, he’s too interesting and endearing to bring the question ‘why is he even friends with this guy’ to the fore. It’s the wacky-guy role he has reprised for the Coens many times but never with as much uncompromising duality.
It’s a masterful performance of some masterful writing.
2. Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) – Fargo
The unbearably cliched and ever-present trait of all fictional detectives is to have them not only tackle societies daemons but be besieged by an inner battle with their own. Marge, on the other hand, is the justifiable moral arbiter of society and her humble, upstanding ways make the crimes of the film all the more incredulous by contrast.
A far cry from some troubled maverick, she is an impressively benign Shepherd-esque civilian nobly endeavouring to protect the mixed-up flock of Fargo.
This original incarnation of a simple benign detective is far from beige; she colours the movie with endless allure and humour. Her heavily pregnant presence serves as a constant juxtaposition to the decidedly more violent overtones. She even has time to squeeze in a meal with an old friend Mike Yanagita who narrowly misses out on this list. Her character is ultimately summed up with a classic line uttered to a man who’s just fed someone into a woodchipper, “There’s more to life than a little bit of money… And it’s a beautiful day.”
1. The Dude (Jeff Bridges) – The Big Lebowski
For all their success, the Coens have always been a very unique presence amidst commercial cinema. They are like the cinematic Talking Heads or some other alternative act that seemingly never intended to break the mainstream but filled enough of a niche, for enough people, that largescale success followed by proxy.
The movie excels in far-out Coenified idiosyncrasies, making it many people’s favourite film. However, what makes this outing reside amongst more traditionally renowned pieces of museum quality pop-culture and resonate with enough of the masses that it sits comfortably in the IMDb top 250, is that it is perfectly realised down to the tiniest purple velveteen jumpsuit minutiae.
Thanks to an almost laughably miraculous and chronically underrated bit of character acting by Jeff Bridges, The Dude likewise is one of the most masterfully realised anti-heroes, well I wouldn’t say anti-hero because what’s an anti-hero, but he sits right in there and really ties the film together. In short, The Dude Abides.