Hello my name is John Charet and I am the owner of this website “Cinematic Coffee” (www.cinematiccoffee.com) and today, I will be discussing the films of The Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan) with a very good friend of mine. Her name is Pamela Lowe Saldana and she is the owner of the website “All Things Thriller” (www.allthingsthriller.com). We will discuss the style and themes of the filmmakers, our personal five favorites and even a little bit about ourselves for the next unknown amount of time 🙂
PLS: Okay. Great John. I’m aboard and ready to get rolling…So I’ve always been curious, how did your love of film develop?
JC: Well you know it is interesting because it goes all the way back to late spring early summer of 1997. I was 12 years-old at the time so my knowledge of the films I love today were pretty much stillborn. I loved comedies like The Blues Brothers and horror films like An American Werewolf in London. I watched Joe Bob Briggs Monstervision on TNT, which was always fun (look him up). I loved watching Schwarzenegger and Stallone action movies or ones similar to theirs. By fall of 1998 and beyond, I started getting more knowledgable about classics like The Godfather and On the Waterfront and by the early 2000’s, my love of the earlier stuff I mentioned blended together with my love of the essential Hollywood classics and from 2001 to now, I started adding foreign films to the mix. By now, I would consider myself a pro at almost everything cinema.
PLS: I agree, about the pro at almost everything cinema part, at least. Ha! Funny that you would mention Joe Bob Briggs on Monstervision. I loved that too. Super campy.
JC: In fact, Joe Bob Briggs had another program on the premium channel entitled The Movie Channel titled Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater and I saw some youtube clips of it. I was not aware of that other show at the time, but as I read more about him a decade ago, I became more acquainted with it through youtube viewings. I will also add that his irreverent humor on that program made the TNT program look wholesome by comparison. Standing on it’s own though, it is still anything but.
PLS: Speaking of Joe Bob…Wasn’t he in Casino?
JC: Yes he did appear in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film Casino. Based on what I have read on IMDB, he played a character by the name of Don Ward.
JC: Tell me a little bit about how your love of film developed?
PLS: Right. He was really good. I love Casino by the way.
Well, anyway, like you my love of the movies started early. I was probably about seven when I became interested in watching movies with my Mom. She was the big influence in my film habits. She loved good quality American films. Ones that had good endings as she would say. That meant happy endings. That said, she had good taste in film and that’s the genesis of my love of movies.
JC: The tender age of 7 is a unique age to become interested in film. Your mother’s taste in films is similar to that of my mother. Just out of curiosity, was The Wizard of Oz one of the films you watched at that age?
PLS: Yes. The Wizard of Oz was really early in my film history. I remember watching that when I was five.
PLS: So John, if I recall correctly, your favorite Coen Brothers film is Miller’s Crossing. Am I right?
JC: Although others have read my site before, I am uncertain as to whether or not I should answer that now or when I conduct my top 5 list? 🙂
PLS: Ha! Fair enough. Let’s talk a little about the Coen Brothers style then. You go first.
JC: Let switch the clock all the way back to 1984 with their debut feature Blood Simple. Now the film is often celebrated as an electrifying directorial debut while at the same time can also arguably be summed up as a pitch perfect stylish exercise. That part comes not so much from their use of color as it does from their influence of quintessential film noir whether it be A or B material. Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity has served as one influence (an A noir) while the B or elevated B film in the other case would be Orson Welles Touch of Evil. Though that film I think has become an A level B film as time has proved, but that is just my opinion. Your thoughts.
PLS: Interesting. Blood Simple is one of my favorite Coen films. I saw it when it first came out and I was mesmerized by its originality, though now I would classify it more as revisionist noir. Yes I see both influences that you mentioned, particularly the Double Indemnity influence. I can also see a little Kiss Me Deadly in it as well.
JC: I would count Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly as another influence as well. Calling it a revisionist noir would not be too far out of the question when you take into account how hard it is describe how it can be summed up as a traditional piece. Also, M. Emmet Walsh’s slimy Private detective character (a supporting role) Loren Visor stands out as the film’s most memorable character and gets some of the best lines like that opening scene where he talks about the world being full of complainers.
PLS: Oh yes, the great M. Emmet Walsh. Wow! What a great performance. He was so sticky and icky as Snoop Dogg would say. The scene where his gloved hand is groping around to unlatch the window, oh my gosh! Terrifying. To me Blood Simple is an almost perfect film and it is a quintessential example of Neo-noir. I call it revisionist because, it is not exactly reverent in it’s treatment of the noir signatures though it is respectful. Still there’s a tongue in cheek mixed with that respect that would go on and become a Coen Bros. signature.
JC: Yes, the trademark tongue in cheek qualities are there, but they seem more or less subtle compared to their next film (more on that soon). Along with Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn’t There from 17 years later (2001 that is) was another stylish noir exercise of theirs, but unlike Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn’t There seemed slightly richer to me, but that is only because of all the metaphors Joel and Ethan Coen cooked up. They also pranked their audience in a much more complex way. Nevertheless, I love each film equally.
PLS: Yes, I know you like The Man Who Wasn’t There. I didn’t care for that one so much. I felt like they were beating me over the head with their themes in that one. Usually, I prefer more subtlety. I think that’s where you and I diverge a bit. I would say that you are a lover of bold cinema. Fair assessment?
JC: Fair assessment indeed. As for 1987’s Raising Arizona, I read somewhere that Joel and Ethan Coen had wanted to follow up Blood Simple with a film that was completely different in tone and this one was the result. If Blood Simple was the film that introduced The Coen Brothers as geniuses, then Raising Arizona is the one that confirms them of that title. This comedy plays like a hyperkinetic cartoon. A majority of scenes has the camera moving at such an energetic pace and this quality matches perfectly with the wacky situation at hand. Nicholas Cage’s ex convict character of Herbert I. “Hi” Mcdunnough discovers that his wife Ed (Holly Hunter) can’t conceive and they decide (with good intentions) to kidnap a male quintuplet, but as always in situations like these, they get into trouble in all sorts of hilarious ways. Your thoughts.
PLS: Masterpiece. That’s what I think about Raising Arizona. The casting is perfect. Who would be a better H.I. (Hi. That alone is hillarious) than Nicolas Cage. Brilliant performance. Then you have the taciturn Edwena (Ed). Holly Hunter is one of the best actresses out there–especially when she’s playing Texas/Mid-West/Southerner. To me the frantic pace and camera work is indeed cartoonish. I’ve often thought the road runner cartoon from Warner Bros. must have been an inspiration. There aren’t enough adjectives for how much I love this film or how hard it makes me laugh. Brilliant. Campy. Physical comedy of errors. Satirical. Slapstick. Every element of comedy is there. I know Randy Tex Cobb by the way. He was a body guard for my dad at one time. My dad was a big time gambler. He’s a cool guy.
JC: Raising Arizona is indeed a masterpiece as you say. As much as I love The Big Lebowski, I would have to rank this one much higher due to it’s nonstop zaniness. I do not know If The Coen Brothers are political, but that one moment when Hi’s old buddies Gale (John Goodman) and Evelle (William Forsyth) are in a car and they realize that they accidently left Nathan Junior at that small convenience store, their is a “Mondale/Ferraro” sticker on the back of the vehicle and it may be their subtle jab that the Democrats are every bit as bumbling as the Republicans (Ronald Reagan was in office at the time). Even the character of Visor from Blood Simple may be a thinly veiled version of a Reagan era boogeyman. This is just speculation though and little else. I have read though that Joel and Ethan have always denied that their films were political in any way so maybe that is just nonsense on my part. That is interesting that you know Randall Tex Cobb. Predictably, he was probably a nice guy and a totally far cry from Leonard Smalls 🙂
PLS: Hmmm…Randall is a cool guy. He was always nice to me. I was pretty young, so it wasn’t that hard for him to be nice. Way back in the day.
But yeah, the Coen Bros. are irreverent. They do not carry anybody’s water. Everything with them is calculated and well thought out, so I’m sure your right about the bumper sticker and all, though it doesn’t mean they are Republican. To me they are thumbing the political establishment of their peers. I too think Raising Arizona is superior to The Big Lebowski, but it’s wonderful too. The soundtrack alone (and I’m talking about the music here) is stellar.
JC: I agree with you that they probably “do not carry anybody’s water.” as you so eloquently put it. I mean their C.I.A. farce Burn After Reading mocks all of it’s characters regardless of affiliation. Back to Raising Arizona though 🙂 As much as I love The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Burn After Reading, I still think that Raising Arizona tops them all because their is something that feels compact about it in terms of structure and yes, the music (as in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) is just “stellar” as you so eloquently put it once again.
PLS: Absolutely. Comedy is the hardest genre to pull off in any medium. There are so many, many great noirs, for example, but far fewer great comedies. Raising Arizona is one of the most elite. I would put The Big Lebowski in the elite group too.
JC: I agree with you 100 percent 🙂 Now off to Miller’s Crossing, which is Joel and Ethan’s Coen third feature film to date. As with Blood Simple, this one is a Neo noir crime thriller, but unlike that one, it goes much deeper than that. For one thing, it is a period piece (set in the 1920’s during the prohibition era) with thinly veiled references to Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and the literary works of Dashiell Hammett (most notably The Glass Key and Red Harvest). The plot of a former right hand man (Gabriel Byrne), who ignites a war between Irish and Italian gangsters sounds familiar on paper, but in execution, it is anything but. From Jon Polito’s electrifying opening speech about ethics to the image of a fedora hat blowing in the woods, is it any surprise that this film seems to have grown in stature over the years as one of the Coen brothers best? I am personally not surprised at all, but then again I love a majority of their work. Other Coen brothers films may be more quotable by comparison, but the most exciting thing here about the dialogue is that (improvised or not) the actors seem to be having a fun time delivering all of their lines. I mean all of it sounds natural and never forced. Out of all of the films I have seen from Joel and Ethan Coen, this one features the absolute greatest set piece that they have ever put together. That one would be the scene where Albert Finney’s character defends himself with a Tommy gun while the song Danny Boy is playing in the background. Your thoughts.
PLS: I think Miller’s Crossing is the most beautifully filmed piece in the Coen cannon. The cinematography is breathtaking. It’s a curious piece and I mean that in a good way. It’s very stylish but it’s themes are down to earth. And it is tragic. The love that Tom has for his mentor and boss Leo–when I say love I’m talking about respect, a kind of father son relationship, it’s a very masculine film. Then on the other hand their is the homosexual triangle that brings everyone down–and it is love too, no more or no less than Tom and Leo’s love. The love between siblings, Verna and Bernie, the love between friends and then, of course the romantic relationship. To me, Miller’s Crossing is a study of the sordid ramifications of the love/hate relationship.
JC: I agree completely with everything you just said and I could not have said it better. Quite possibly the most beautiful and tragic of The Coen brothers films indeed. Interesting piece of trivia: Trey Wilson (who played Nathan Arizona in Raising Arizona) was originally supposed to play Leo, but his unexpected death in 1989 prompted him to be replaced by Albert Finney. Interesting isn’t it?
PLS: Yes it is. I think Albert Finney did an excellent job. I can’t really imagine Trey Wilson in the role except for the jitterbug machine gun scene. I think that scene might have worked even better with Wilson. A landmark scene in cinema I think.
JC: A landmark scene indeed. The next two pictures in the Coen brothers filmography come off as perfect examples of ones that they would love to watch in a theater.
The Arthouse Film: Their 1991 cult item Barton Fink is an unclassifiable wild and crazy head trip of a film. The film starts off as a Hollywood satire of Robert Aldrich, Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder proportions and suddenly becomes a Kubrick-ian horror film (a la The Shining) directed by Roman Polanski directed by Joel Coen and written by both him and his brother Ethan. One either loves it or is just plain divided by it. I am happy to proclaim that I love it.
The Commercial Film: Their 1994 commercial comedy The Hudsucker Proxy was virtually ignored by audiences and unfairly dismissed by critics. Maybe it was too sophisticated? Who knows. As for me, I loved it as well. If one took elements from films directed by Frank Capra, Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges and blended them together, you would get The Hudsucker Proxy. The Coens take on an everyman’s rise to corporate celebrity is just wonderful. The Coen brothers were given their biggest budget to date at the time and what they came up with here is the cinematic equivalent of a giant toy play set (“you know for kids”).
Your Thoughts on both of these Pam.
PLS: Both of these films I would put in the lower portion of the Coen Bros. film cannon. It’s just a matter of taste here. I can’t fault the filmmaking of either movie, it is bold and original. Both are very sophisticated films. I think there is an element of absurdism and, yes, certainly heavy doses of psychological horror/humor in Barton Fink. It is a beautifully shot film too, and their are nods to Blood Simple with the fixation on odd structures and things like the wall paper, a stain on the ceiling, reminds me of M. Emmet Walsh looking up at the tangle of plumbing pipes under the sink as he was dying. I love that kind of stuff.
The Hudsucker Proxy is a little too sophisticated for me. I’m sorry to say I bailed on it, but I won’t deny its genius, it’s just over my head.
JC: I hear ya 🙂 Now we come to the film that managed to please not only die hard fans of the Coen brothers, but even their detractors as well and that is none other than Fargo from 1996. What makes this film so unique lies not so much in it’s plot, which centers around a heavily pregnant female police chief’s (Frances McDormand) determination to hunt down three incompetent criminals involved in a murder plot as much in how it is told. The wintry setting looks off putting at first, but the frequent bouts of humor (black or otherwise) that blends with an ultimately optimistic outlook for our heroine is what makes it fascinating. Most memorable scenes for me: the graphically violent wood chipper scene and the Minnesota accents: “ya” and “you betcha.”
Following that is The Big Lebowski, which has now become an undisputed cult classic despite initially opening to mixed reviews and a similar performance at the box office. Joel and Ethan Coen have claimed that it is their take on Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Either way, we get lots of quotable dialogue (“the rug really tied the room together” is one of many examples) and some surrealistic sequences (most notably one that pays homage to Bubsy Berkley). Speaking of which, remember that Bubsy Berkley inspired Ku Klux Klan sequence in O Brother, Where Art Thou?? Again I love this film too and as for everything positive that has been said about it by it’s fans, I can only nod with them in agreement.
Your thoughts Pam.
PLS: Well, Fargo is my favorite Coen Bros. film. If you examine the orginal movie poster: A Homespun Murder Story, it proclaims; then you have the needlepoint image of the dead man in the snow with a patch of crimson–that sums up the themes of this landmark film so well. It’s a Black Comedy. I remember my husband and I taking my mother to see it in the theater. She and I were laughing our (excuse me here) asses off and my husband and everybody else in the theater was looking at us like we were crazy. My Mom thought it was so funny, she didn’t know why she thought it was funny, she didn’t know a Black Comedy from any other kind of comedy, but she knew what she liked and she got it.
I love the husband and wife dynamic, how deeply in love they are but it’s not a sexy love, they’re not tearing each other’s clothes off, no–they are best friends.
I love how thrifty Marge is and her and Norm’s eating habits–lots of fast food and meat and potatoes. It’s so real.
I love how smart Marge is and that Norm is a painter–a good one; that he paints pictures of birds for stamps.
I love the ineptness of Carl and Gaer and their sheer evilness; that we don’t even really know Gaer’s name–we know him as the big guy. I love the sudden violence that is shocking, heartbreaking and, yes, funny.
I’m in love with this film.
The Big Lewbowski is one of those films I’ve seen…uh…15 times. Literally. I love it every time I see it. It is gorgeously original. An iconic character right up there with Shane, with Philip Marlowe. And John “freaking” Goodman. Oh…Philip Seymour Hoffman…God rest his brilliant soul. The casting is perfect. The soundtrack–so many great needle drops.
JC: Once again, I could not have said it better on both of them.
After two debatably polarizing works (O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Man Who Wasn’t There) and two minor entries (Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers), Joel and Ethan Coen came back with a vengeance in 2007 with No Country for Old Men, which is an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel of the same name. This was their return to Neo noir crime thrillers and as of 2018, I happily proclaim it to be The Coen Brothers Neo noir crime thriller to end all Coen brothers Neo noir crime thrillers. The hot hazy barren landscape of a Texas town just confirms my point. The plot centers on a hunter (Josh Brolin), who steals a million dollars from a crime scene massacre littered with dead drug cartels. He decides to keep the all the cash for himself, but it is not too long before a psychotic yet determined hitman (Javier Bardem) trails him for the money while at the same time, killing anybody who comes in his way. Tommy Lee Jones is the aging sheriff on the trail, who bemoans the brutal violence that seems to have become a part of everyday life. Though it may be bleaker than their other work, Joel and Ethan Coen inject it with a dry sense of humor (dark of otherwise) which could be their way of implying that their is still a sense of humanity in the world. Even If Joel and Ethan Coen decide to never make another Neo noir again, they can at least be proud that this one ranks as their absolute greatest example (at least in my opinion).
In between 2008’s Burn After Reading and 2016’s Hail Caesar!, the Coen brothers made two unique films in between their highly entertaining 2010 remake of True Grit. In 2009, they crafted what may be their most Jewish film to date with A Serious Man and in 2013, a character study of a musician entitled Inside Llewyn Davis.
I would love to hear your opinion on all of these Pam and after your reply, we will conclude with our five favorite Coen brothers films 🙂
PLS: I agree that No Country is their best Neo noir and, technically, there’s a good argument that it’s their best film period. I have a particular affinity for this film because a lot of it was filmed in Marfa which is just down the road a ways from where I’m from, that’s Odessa which is also in the film and my birthplace El Paso is a prominent location in the film also. The dialect and mannerisms are spot on, as is the dress. Getting these nuances right is another Coen Bros. signature.
The murder weapon is so left of field. It’s technical term is Captive Bolt Pistol. Most people just call it a cattle gun. I mean who but the Coen’s would come up with that. The Anton Chigurh character–one of cinema’s most chilling villains. Here you have the High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider influences. The specter element but here the specter is pure evil which conjures up even more film references. It’s a mash up, which is yet another signature; you could describe No Country as an operatic Neo Western.
True Grit to me surpasses the original. The dialogue is so authentic to the time and place. And like Miller’s Crossing, it has a poetic ring. That is the feature of True Grit that stands out the most to me–and of course Jeff Bridges wonderful performance. It is a beautifully shot film too, but there is a bleakness to it that is relentless–and, strangely, that’s not a bad thing.
The other films you mentioned I have not seen. I know that I should have seen them and, Lord willing, I will. Especially Inside Llewelyn Davis. It can’t be a coincidence that Josh Brolin’s character is named Llewelyn in No Country.
JC: Love it that you are in complete agreement with me on No Country for Old Men and I find it fascinating that it was filmed in an area of Texas where you are original from. I agree with everything you have just said about not only No Country for Old Men, but also True Grit. You are totally correct that it surpasses the 1969 original. In fact, the Coen’s version of True Grit comes off as the kind of commercial western that the two would watch If they were members of the audience.
PLS: Absolutely. So astute of you to differentiate True Grit and Hudsucker Proxy as “commercial” but indeed they are–in a uniquely Joel and Ethan Coen kind of way.
JC: Why thank you for the lovely compliment 🙂
JC: And now for the grand finale, me and Pam are going to list out Top 5 Favorite Coen Brothers Films beginning with number 5.
-John Charet’s Top 5 Favorite Coen Brothers Films (5-1)-
5. Fargo (1996)
With the arguable exception of their 1984 filmmaking debut Blood Simple (which remains a pitch perfect exercise in style to this day), Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo still seems to rank as their most straightforward narrative to date. Please do not mistaken that for faint praise though because one can only come to that conclusion after comparing it to their past four outings (Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy). The key to what makes it unique lies in how Joel (serving as both director and co-writer) and Ethan (credited as just a co-writer) treat the material. Allegedly based on a true crime story with a wintry Minnesota town as it’s backdrop (circa 1987), it is understandable for the viewer to think that it will be a bleak and serious to the bone story with an equally cynical ending at first glance. Shockingly enough, the result is a considerable far cry from that. What we get is a darkly humorous Neo noir mystery crime thriller with a warm heart. In fact, that warmth would not have been possible without Frances McDormand’s Oscar winning lead performance as the town’s pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson, who comes off as someone akin to a kindhearted mother of sorts. If that is not relaxing enough, the criminals she is trying to apprehend are either incompetent or full of bad luck. That Joel and Ethan are able to take some shocking sequences of graphic violence, a considerable amount of comedy (black or otherwise), their understanding of the regional setting (usage of the word “yah” and “you betcha”) and blend it all together into one satisfying whole is only further proof of how effortless the Coen brothers are in elevating small achievements into bigger ones. Not only that, but they also succeed in ending this kind of film on a (spoiler alert) happy note. Is Fargo a quintessential Coen brothers classic? “You betcha.”
4. Barton Fink (1991)
Reportedly written when Joel and Ethan were suffering from writers block on their previous film Miller’s Crossing from a year earlier, Barton Fink may be the closest the two brothers will ever come to making their equivalent of Federico Fellini’s 1963 classic of Italian cinema 8 1/2. While nobody would ever mistaken Joel and Ethan as being anything like the New York playwright turned Hollywood screenwriter of the title (John Turturro), writers block does serve as the subject that our lead protagonist is trying to overcome while writing a script centering on what he calls “the common man” circa 1941. What starts off as a darkly satiric look at Tinsel Town suddenly turns into a nightmarish vision of paranoia jam packed with all sorts of metaphors (visual or otherwise). As has been noted elsewhere, the cinematic influences here include the works of Franz Kafka, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and The Tenant and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (courtesy of the “Hotel Earle”). Blend them all together into one and you get Barton Fink; truly the blackest and weirdest masterpiece that the Coen Brothers have ever churned out.
3. Raising Arizona (1987)
After making their filmmaking debut three years earlier in 1984 with the dark and stylish Neo noir thriller Blood Simple, Joel (director and co-writer) and Ethan Coen (co-writer) had decided to follow that up with something much lighter in tone or at least by comparison. The result was Raising Arizona and for me, it may just be the funniest and most energetic of their great comedies. This may also serve as the filmmaking duo’s first experimentation with surrealism (a trademark that would occur in some of their succeeding works). To illustrate this point clearer, each (or at least most) of the film’s sequences are shot (courtesy of then cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld) at such a wild and crazy pace (fast in other words) to make it look as If the viewer was watching a cartoon. This style coincides perfectly with the similarly wacky plot involving a newly married ex convict (Nicholas Cage) and his infertile wife’s (Holly Hunter) plan to kidnap one of the male quintuplet babies that belong to a wealthy family and pass him off as their own son. As you have guessed, sheer hilarity ensues. Along with Jeff Bridges Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski in The Big Lebowski, Nicholas Cage’s Herbert I. “Hi” Mcdunnough may be the Coen brothers greatest comedic lead character. Cage injects “Hi” with a considerable amount of liability and despite all the crazy situations he gets into, his philosophical outlook surprisingly comes off as rational in quieter scenes. As quirky as The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are, neither of those other Coen brothers comedies are as enjoyable to the max as Raising Arizona.
2. No Country for Old Men (2007)
In terms of social commentary, No Country for Old Men ranks as Joel and Ethan Coen’s (both serving as directors and writers this time) most timeless work and If it was not for a certain other film of theirs from a decade earlier, this one would have served as my number one favorite out of all of their films. Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 crime novel of the same name, the result (in retrospect) can currently be viewed (among other compliments) as the Coen brothers Neo noir to end all of their other Neo noirs. McCarthy’s novels have been reported to contain elements relating to the Southern Gothic, post-apocalyptic and Western genres/sub-genres (read here) and given the style and thematic material that shapes at least half (or most) of Joel and Ethan Coen’s films, it fits them perfectly like a pair of well worn shoes. Set in a Texas town (circa 1980), the plot centers on a hunter (Josh Brolin), who stumbles upon two million dollars left in the aftermath of a bloody massacre involving drug runners and in the process, decides to keep the money for himself. At the same time, a psychotic relentless hit man (Javier Bardem) is after the money and is not afraid to murder anyone who comes across him. The chain of events that ensue attract the attention of the town’s aging Sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones), who laments how unbearably violent the modern world has become. The cynical worldview presented here in the story feels every bit as (If not more) relevant today as it was when the film was theatrically released back in 2007. As bleak as the film is though, Joel and Ethan Coen still inject it with a very dry sense of humor (black or otherwise) throughout in order to give one the feeling that their is still a sense of humanity in the scary world that is presented here in this film. As of 2018, the Coen brothers have yet to make another pure Neo noir crime thriller (let alone a Neo Western), but even If they don’t, Joel and Ethan Coen can be proud that No Country for Old Men remains (at least for me) the richest example of the kind that these talented filmmaking siblings have ever brought to the screen.
1. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Compared to Fargo, The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men, my ranking of Miller’s Crossing as my number one favorite film of the Coen brothers may seem a little surprising. Standing on it’s own though, it only feels like that 50 percent of the time because in retrospect, the film seems to have grown in stature over the past decades and years since it’s original theatrical release 28 years earlier in 1990. While it most certainly is a masterful Neo noir crime thriller, the result goes much deeper than that of Fargo and No Country for Old Men. Unlike those two well established classics, this one also works as a pastiche that references elements of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, the literary works of Dashiell Hammett (i.e. Red Harvest and The Glass Key) and even Carol Reed’s The Third Man (read here). As typical for Joel and Ethan Coen, the two boys deconstruct their influences while paying homage to them at the same time. The plot centering around a former right hand man (Gabriel Byrne) inciting a war between the Irish and Italian mobs during the prohibition era 1920’s is not so much fascinating on paper as it is in execution. Each scene moves steadily to the next so effortlessly that the finished result looks and feels more like Joel and Ethan Coen’s 23rd feature film as opposed to just their 3rd. The Coen brothers have always been celebrated (and deservedly so) for their keen ear for dialogue, but out of all of the screenplays they have written, this one stands out for me as the most assured of them all. Two of the most memorable moments include Jon Polito’s ethics speech that opens the film and Byrne’s immortal “nothing more foolish than a man chasin his hat.” What really makes the dialogue electrifying stems from how refreshingly natural each actor delivers their lines. In other words, they blurt out each line as If they were full of energy in a subtle kind of way. If that is not enough, this film also features my favorite set piece that Joel and Ethan Coen have ever concocted and that is when Albert Finney’s character defends his turf by arming himself with a tommy gun belonging to a gangster he killed who was trying to kill him in his own house and then escapes from his own house and kills another gangster from the outside and to top it all off, he shoots at a car with gun totting gangsters that eventually crashes and burns. What makes this scene so special? The background song that plays the entire time is “Danny Boy.” Add to that some imagery involving a floating fedora hat and a sequence involving John Turturro’s character pleading with Byrne’s character to spare him in the woods and we have a complete package. Along with Barton Fink and No Country for Old Men, Miller’s Crossing is a masterpiece that gets better and better with each viewing. As great as those films are though, Miller’s Crossing still ranks for me as the crowning achievement of the Coen brothers.
P.S. I read somewhere. that Joel and Ethan Coen were watching the 1987 comedy Baby Boom when they were writing the script to Miller’s Crossing. I mention this because, I compiled this list while watching two great Stuart Gordon horror films (Re-Animator and From Beyond), which co-star one of my favorite scream queens Barbara Crampton. I wrote reviews on both films in the past here:
Now I would love to hear your Top 5 Favorite Coen Brothers Films Pam. From number 5 to number 1 🙂
-Pamela Lowe Saldana’s Top 5 Favorite Coen Brothers Films (5-1)-
5. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
4. The Big Lebowski (1998)
3. No Country for Old Men (2007)
2. Raising Arizona (1987)
1. Fargo (1996)
I would love to add Blood Simple to that list too. It’s a solid #6.
I really enjoyed this John. And as always I learned a lot. It’s way past my bed time so I’m going to turn in. Remember John, I saw Jaws in the theater when it first came out. Ha!
JC: I really enjoyed this special blog entry edition of mine as well. You are always knowledgable and always a pleasure to talk to as usual 🙂 And yes I remember that you did see Jaws in the theater when it first came out from that blog entry you wrote a few weeks back 🙂
P.S.–The summations of your top 5 Coen Brothers films are really, really good. Bravo John.
JC: Why thank you 🙂 I also feel that your summations of your favorite Coen Brothers films are great as well 🙂 And a Bravo to you too 🙂
UPDATE (09/07/2018): I have just updated my Top 5 Favorite Coen Brothers Films by placing Barton Fink at number 5 and moving Fargo up to number 4.
UPDATE (09/08/2018): I reinstated my original rankings 🙂