The Coen Brothers exist in the rarefied realm where visionary brilliance shakes hands with widespread beloved acclaim, placing them firmly amidst cinema’s greatest ever auteurs… but that’s just like my opinion, man.
Their refusal to abide by genre and insistence on colouring their work with a kaleidoscopic melee of inspiration means that they capture more of the wacky realism of modern human existence than just about any other director(s).
You might imagine that such a splurge on celluloid makes them difficult to pin down, but their work is, in fact, a collage with binding ties. They search for meaning in irreverence and in the process prove that the two are actually entwined.
Below, we’re looking at their filmography and weaving our way through the tapestry of their traits by dissecting ten of their greatest ever scenes and how they define the oddball brothers of Hollywood.
The Coen Brothers ten best scenes:
10. The art of the bit-part character: Mike “Super Lady” Yanagita – Fargo
The Coen Brothers go-to cinematographer, Roger Deakins, once said, “I feel every shot, every camera move, every frame, and the way you frame something and the choice of lens, I see all those things are really important on every shot.” The Coen Brothers recognised this meticulous creative ethos and concurred that there is no point sweating over every shot if not everything within it gets the same attention to detail.
Thus, they mastered the art of the extra to an unrivalled degree, giving them a depth, meaning and personality worth a thousand of the slapdash screen fillers that occupy other directors’ small scenes and backgrounds.
Of all the bit part characters they have crafted, perhaps Mike Yanagita is the best. All of the chaos and bloodshed in the movie casually unspools in a meandering jaunt of comatose upheaval, fuelled by misadventure, deceit and a chronic disregard for consequence. Yanagita is the everyday embodiment of this beyond the bloodshed. Despite being pathetically banal, he is in his own way a conniving barefaced liar who hilariously tries to hit on a heavily pregnant married woman in a scene more uncomfortable than a bike without a seat.
9. Satisfying set pieces: A Man of Constant Sorrow – O’ Brother, Where Art Thou
The author Patrick deWitt once wrote, “I for one find it an annoyance when a story doesn’t do what it’s meant to do.” In an ideal world, the line would be unnoticeably jejune but seeing as though so few stories do actually do what they’re meant to do, it actually prickles with poignancy and perceptiveness.
The Coen Brother’s realise that giving the audience what they want is not some cardinal sin, but a worthy endeavour. The Soggy Bottom Boys having their rightful moment in the spotlight is a celebratory set-piece moment, that pauses on an important passage of diegesis and happily picnics there, so the audience can joyously savour getting what they want.
Amid the unfurling chaos of their movies, it is important to lay down a few markers to hit and this scene is one of the ripples with sweet Soggy Bottom satisfaction and perfectly centres the (mis)adventure.
8. Larger than life characters: Roland Turner – Inside Llewyn Davis
What is the point of introducing some nameless new face to a story if they aren’t going to add anything new? That is a question that the Coen’s always seem to ask. When a new character is dragged into the calamity they are already as fully formed as the protagonists, such is the way of the world.
For those that haven’t seen the Netflix documentary Evil Genius, there is a scene in it whereby a man is brought into a police station for some routine questioning to help them corroborate a few details, nothing more, nothing less. However, therein he immediately thrust himself into suspicion by casually telling the police, “I just want you to know that I am the smartest man in this room.”
John Goodman’s character seems to permeate Inside Llewyn Davis with that same jubilant scene-stealing intent. He comes in like a one-man maelstrom of entertainment, offering something right out of leftfield and rather than unhinge the project, he revitalises it with a thrilling change of pace and tact. His introduction is a thing to behold.
7. The beauty of the set-up: “Are you the military?” – Burn After Reading
In isolation this scene doesn’t seem all that masterful, it’s just George Clooney inexplicably perplexed and paranoid beyond belief while scouring the sights of a park. However, the hilarity has been seeded by everything that went before, lending his breakdown the laughable weight of a tragic culmination.
“Who are you?” he waveringly yells in a state of mind-bent befuddlement before boarding a flight to Venezuela. In an era of nothing but meme-able lines, the scene proves that gags still land best when they carry the weight of a set-up. The delivery of his rant to shell-shocked Linda Litzke might be brilliant in its own right, but with a 90 minutes of build-up behind it, it puts the necessary situation back in the double-hander of sitcom.
6. Subverting tragedy: Scattering Donny – The Big Lebowski
We learn a lot from Donny’s requiem in The Big Lebowski, not least that he was an avid surfer which is never previously mentioned or that his full name is in fact Theodore Donald Kerabatsos which also escapes the audience up until that point, but nothing that we learn is anything approaching profound. The leads are not unemotional or deliberately underplaying the event, it’s just that, as ever, life gets in the way.
This scene is now firmly woven into the Coen’s expanding tapestry with utterly iconic and defining visuals. It exhibits their excellent use of physical comedy, but more so than that it ensures that the great human comedy stays true to laughable form even when it’s trying to pause for a moment of futile poignancy.
5. Moments of mayhem: Hallway inferno – Barton Fink
Lesser directors would be afraid that they had taken things too far during the iconic hallway scene in Barton Fink, but these two bozos amp up things even further by having John Goodman proudly recite the line “Heil Hitler!” in a moment of utter madness.
While the renowned critic Roger Ebert, during a period where he perhaps had a bit too much free time, mused that the whole film was an allegory for the rise of fascism owing to lines like this one, the contrary seems to be true – that all swirling scope and depth is temporarily sequestered for an utterance of comedic perfection. There is unrivalled depth to the film and myriad themes, but this riotous line just seems to say ‘this is the entertainment business after all’.
4. A dose of literary depth: The ending – The Man Who Wasn’t There
The Man Who Wasn’t There is undoubtedly the Coen’s most underrated movie. It pairs Albert Camus philosophy with the story stylings of an old courtroom drama. While Camus was eternally bothering himself with the search for meaning, a courtroom drama is all about serving up justice at the end, thus The Man Who Wasn’t There aptly delivers on both.
In the same way that Kurt Vonnegut used the surrealism of aliens to depict the true-to-life madness of war in Slaughterhouse-Five, the Coen’s dabble in a similar literary technique by suturing their story with an equally colourful allegory. Never has a narrative simultaneously seemed more exacting and irreverent.
3. Cartoon caper: The chase – Raising Arizona
Simon Pegg, who himself knows a thing or two about oddball comedies, once described Raising Arizona as a real-life Looney Tunes movie. There is, after all, an undeniable innocence to the manic happenings of the movie, that makes it a simple pleasure to watch.
At the heart of the Looney Tunes comparison is a scene akin to the Scooby-Doo gang being chased through each door of a hallway by a caretaker in a bedsheet. If a movie’s purpose is to exult a viewer above the humdrum of the everyday, then this adrenalised piece of wacky slapstick makes it impossible to ponder any worries or woes in a celebration of wacky irreverence, that nevertheless remains stylised and on point.
2. It’s all in the dialogue: “It really tied the room together” – The Big Lebowski
The Big Lebowski is essentially a modern counterculture bible, and it remains as endlessly quotable as its Christian equivalent. In one single scene lines like “I am the walrus” and “you’re out of your element Donny,” are etched into the sensibilities of anyone who has seen the film more than once.
This opening gambit sets up the show perfectly, establishing each of the trio in one rapid swoop of laughs and Leninism. This here is a town populated purely by idiots, it seems to say, and each one of them is worth your time. More themes and density or stoked up and extinguished in this little intro than most movies manage throughout.
Perhaps most importantly of all, is that despite being very stylised, each character has their own dominion over their lines. They’re speaking from the same page as friends always do, but they are undoubtedly individuals, not a mass spouting the same cool spiel.
1. What’s the point of it all: The Goy’s teeth – A Serious Man
In a retelling of the biblical Book of Job, The Coen’s send the hapless Larry Gopnik on a search for meaning. It is not a grand quest; as Guillermo del Toro brilliant said, all the Coen Brothers movies could end up in the morning paper but they would always be page eight rather than the headline story. For my money, page eight is the most interesting and in a weird paradoxical way the most consequential too. The circumstances that snatch the headlines thankfully often don’t have much of a bearing on our humble lives.
The beleaguered Gopnik’s misplaced demands for a final answer are more akin to a search for narrative than anything else. That is a pot of gold that this scene refuses to offer, but with the backing of Jimi Hendrix, some captivating cinematography and a brilliantly written and recited monologue it offers up more than enough entertainment to avoid any lingering shared frustration with our bedevilled protagonist. It’s one of the greatest little segments in film history, achieving one of cinema’s most cherishable feats: outstaying its welcome on screen in the mind of the beer holder watching.