The Coen Brothers – Ethan and Joel – are two of cinema’s most competent character writers, gracing our screens with some of the most memorable figures. Beginning their filmmaking career together in 1984, the pair rose onto the scene with their neo-noir crime Blood Simple, starring frequent Coen collaborator (and Joel’s wife) Frances McDormand.
Since that moment, the duo have had a successful career together, releasing such critically praised films as The Big Lebowski (1998), Fargo (1996), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), and No Country For Old Men (2007). These magnificent films have gifted us with some incredible characters, from the terrifying sociopathic Anton Chigurh to the loveable slacker The Dude.
What makes the brothers so good at filmmaking is their unique ability to create multi-layered and nuanced characters, even the most heartless criminal character is still a joy to watch in the Coen Brothers’ universe. They have the different character archetypes nailed down – from the antihero to the lovable yet problematic sidekick to the ruthless killer – the brothers know how to write them well without falling into predictability.
From Inside Llewyn Davis, to Barton Fink, to Fargo, check out the Coen brothers’ greatest characters…
The 10 best Coen brother characters:
10. Llewyn Davis – Inside Llewyn Davis
Inside Llewyn Davis stars Oscar Isaac in his breakout role as a struggling folk singer trying to navigate the musical landscape of the 1960s whilst maintaining personal relationships. The film was described by the Guardian as “combin[ing] childlike innocence with an aged and exhausted acceptance of the world,” and Isaac plays his character magnificently.
Llewyn experiences tragedy, grief, and failure as he grapples with the fact that music is a competitive business – and his unwillingness to commercialise himself will make life much harder. Despite some of Llewyn’s questionable actions, such as getting his best friend’s girlfriend pregnant, his character is one of the Coen brothers’ most memorable.
9. Mattie Ross – True Grit
In the Coen brothers’ remake of the classic 1969 John Wayne western, the pair decided to cast newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as 14-year-old Mattie, who employs a lawman named Cogburn to seek revenge on her father’s murderer. This version of the story is much more faithful to its source material – Charles Portis’ 1968 novel of the same name – which gives more focus to the character of Mattie.
Quick-witted and smart, Mattie is both determined and headstrong. Her character is so captivating and complex that Steinfeld was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role – an impressive feat for her first ever feature film performance.
8. Barton – Barton Fink
The Coen brothers’ genre-bending story of Barton Fink, a young playwright living in New York who is hired to write for Hollywood, is one of the duo’s earlier works, yet it still showcases their seeming effortlessness for nuanced characterisation. Played by John Turturro, Barton is empathetic, honest, and naive, but this can sometimes get the better of him.
Barton Fink evolves into something more terrifying than we initially anticipate, and it is Turturro’s incredibly nuanced portrayal of the playwright that emphasises the series of events even further. Barton’s circular glasses frame his wide-eyed stare, which is simply unforgettable.
7. Chad – Burn After Reading
The 2008 black comedy Burn After Reading might not be the first Coen Brothers picture that comes to mind if you were asked to name one. However, it is a shining example of the pair’s comedic genius. It was later described by many as “savagely comic”, and much of this is down to the incredible performances from its cast.
One of the most memorable characters in the film is Chad, played by Brad Pitt. The legendary actor let his less serious side loose as the idiotic gym employee who, alongside Frances McDormand as Linda, finds the memoirs of a CIA analyst and attempts to make a profit from their findings. Chad is stupid yet loveable, made all the more upsetting when he meets his fatal end.
6. Maude Lebowksi – The Big Lebowski
A comedic cult classic, The Big Lebowski is one of the Coen brothers’ most beloved pictures. Tackling a case of mistaken identity, the film is memorable for both its bizarre characters and scenarios as well as quotable dialogue and, according to Joel Coen, the “hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant”.
Whether she’s swinging from the ceiling, slinging paint across a canvas, or dressed as a Viking, you can’t forget Maude’s presence in the film. With some great lines, such as “my art has been commended as being strongly vaginal, which bothers some men,” she is the perfect quirky character for such a fun film as The Big Lebowski.
5. Walter Sobchak – The Big Lebowski
John Goodman has starred in six Coen brother pictures, making him the actor to appear the most in their films, alongside Steve Buscemi. However, his most notable role out of these six appearances has to be Walter in The Big Lebowksi. Vietnam war veteran and The Dude’s close friend and bowling teammate, Walter, is overly-confident yet paranoid and aggressive.
He starkly contrasts his overly-chill stoner companion, for example, pulling out a gun on someone over the rules of bowling. Yet he is just another of the crazy yet loveable characters that comprise the cast of The Big Lebowksi. and Goodman’s stellar performance is just one of the reasons that the film remains such a comedic classic.
4. Jerry Lundegaard – Fargo
Not the only Fargo character to be featured on this list, Jerry, played by William H. Macy, is just one of the reasons why the 1996 black comedy is so great. Macy’s performance remains one of the greatest of his career – it even gained him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Despite Jerry being much to blame for the violence that occurs in Fargo, he remains an incredibly relatable and hilarious character. He may hire two men to kidnap his wife, but the refined performance given by Macy, paired with an incredible talent for characterisation from the Coens, prevents us from feeling a strong sense of hatred towards the disgraced character – that’s what makes Fargo so good.
3. Jeffrey ‘The Dude’ Lebowski – The Big Lebowski
Frequent Coen brother collaborator Jeff Bridges excels as Jeffrey, the charming slacker with a penchant for bowling, in The Big Lebowski. With a whole host of fantastic one-liners such as “yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man” and “the Dude abides,” The Dude is one of the Coen Brothers’ funniest characters.
The Dude spends most of his time just hanging out – bowling and drinking White Russians without the stress of a job or family to take care of. He is the perfect loveable antihero archetype, equally entitled yet likeable. Bridges brings so much personality to the classic stoner stereotype, making The Dude one of cinema’s most memorable losers.
2. Marge Gunderson – Fargo
An amalgamation of everything that makes the Coen brothers so great – Marge Gunderson, the happily ordinary police chief, is a magnificent example of someone who is kindhearted but determined to do something about the violence she bears witness to. Her character is played by Frances McDormand, whose performance managed to bag her the Oscar for Best Actress.
Compared to the usual female archetype in a crime film, Marge is neither the helpless victim nor the ‘strong female’ whose only ‘strength’ comes from her lack of femininity. Instead, she is seven months pregnant, happily married, and also incredible at her job. She’s an amazing character who acts as a beacon of hope in a world of corruption.
1. Anton Chigurh – No Country For Old Men
Very few characters in the history of cinema come close to the ruthlessness of Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men. The sociopathic killer, who often decides the fate of his victims by the flip of a coin, is played astoundingly by Javier Bardem – who had to be heavily persuaded to play the role after claiming that “I hate violence”.
Yet Bardem gives an Oscar-winning performance of a lifetime as Anton, who kills almost every person he meets in the film. His chilling and unforgettable performance stands out as arguably the greatest character in a Coen Brothers movie to date.