Joel and Ethan Coen Essay - Critical Essays

Coen, Joel and Ethan


Joel and Ethan Coen 1955– and 1958–

American screenwriters; Joel directs and Ethan produces their films.

Within a few years of the release of their first film, Blood Simple (1984), brothers Joel and Ethan Coen were considered successful filmmakers, although not by the usual standard of box-office popularity. Their unconventional films appeal to only a subset of the movie-going public, but critics consistently give their work serious consideration: their 1991 film, Barton Fink, won that year's Cannes Film Festival awards for best film, best director, and best actor. The fact that the Coens maintain the financial backing of major studios and final editing rights to their work indicates that they are respected, if not always understood, in Hollywood.

Biographical Information

The Coen brothers were born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to two college professors: their father, Edward, taught economics, and their mother, Rena, was an art historian. Despite this background, both brothers recall their childhoods as less than intellectual. "My mother once wrote an article, 'How to Take Children to an Art Museum,'" Joel remarked in an interview, "but I don't recall her ever taking us." Instead, the brothers spent their early years engrossed in television, watching films such as Pillow Talk and Boeing Boeing. Joel began making movies at the age of eight, casting his brother and other neighborhood children in dramas and comedies shot with a Super 8 camera. Joel later pursued this interest in college, moving to New York to attend New York University's film school. Ethan, meanwhile, studied philosophy at Princeton, then also moved to New York, where he rented an apartment near Joel's and supported himself as a statistical typist for Macy's department store. Joel worked as an assistant editor and production assistant on low-budget horror films, including the cult classic The Evil Dead, written and directed by Sam Raimi. The brothers have said they were not exceptionally close as children, but, as Joel remarked, they "kind of rediscovered each other after college, really through making movies." In 1980, they began writing Blood Simple. Unable to find a studio to back the project, the brothers raised the necessary funds by selling limited partnerships in the film. Through elaborate pre-planning—storyboarding every scene and shot—and creative filmmaking techniques, they were able to produce a film that had the look of a much more expensive production.

Major Works

Blood Simple won the United States Film Festival's Grand Jury prize in 1984 and the Independent Spirit Award for best director from the Independent Film Project in 1986. Created in the film noir tradition, Blood Simple has been compared to the works of James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett. The story is a variation on the classic lover's triangle, with a quartet of main characters. The husband, Julian Marty, hires a private detective, Visser, to kill his wife, Abby, and her lover, Ray. Visser takes the money and frames Abby for the murder of her husband. Ray discovers Julian's body and, thinking he is protecting Abby, disposes of it. Ray's subsequent cryptic comments to Abby confuse and frighten her, reinforcing the theme of paranoia that pervades the film. With their second film, Raising Arizona (1987), the Coens explored the genre of madcap comedy, but not without their signature quirks. The protagonists, H.I. ("Hi") and Edwina ("Ed") are a pair of losers who decide to leave the criminal life behind and pursue their idea of the American dream. Plans of raising a family are thwarted, however, with the discovery that Ed is unable to conceive. They decide to rectify the situation by stealing one of the "extra" children of unfinished furniture magnate Nathan Arizona, but their plans are complicated by H.I.'s vindictive boss and his former cellmates, recently escaped from prison. Their situation becomes still more desperate when they discover that they are the targets of a psychopathic bounty hunter, the Mad Biker of the Apocalypse, who also turns out to be H.I.'s long-lost brother. The madcap pace and excessive but bloodless violence of Raising Arizona prompted some critics to describe it as something like a live-action "Road Runner" cartoon. Miller's Crossing (1990) returns to the film noir genre. Tom Regan, the central character, is an adviser to the Irish Mafia, headed by Leo O'Bannion, who are entrenched in a war with the Italian mob. Tom seems to be working for Leo, but is also involved in an affair with Leo's girlfriend, Verna. That relationship in turn affects how Regan deals with a petty grifter, Bernie Bernbaum, Verna's brother. Tom keeps his plans hidden from everyone, including viewers, until the end of the story. While working on the screenplay for Miller's Crossing, the Coens hit a period of writer's block. This became the basis for their next film, Barton Fink (1991). Fink, described by many critics as a Clifford Odets-like figure, is a successful, serious Broadway playwright lured to Hollywood to write a Wallace Berry wrestling film. Obsessed with the importance of writing a story about the "common man," Fink ignores the common man, Charlie Meadows, living next door and spends much of his energy concealing his writer's block from the studio. Fink's mental deterioration, along with his obsession with "the life of the mind," caused some critics to question whether the ending of the film should be taken literally: Some suggest that the violent conclusion, in which the "common man" neighbor is revealed to be the serial killer Madman Mundt, occurs inside Fink's mind. The Coens returned to the madcap with their next film, The Hudsucker Proxy, coauthored by Sam Raimi. Described as a cross between a Preston Sturges and a Frank Capra film, Hudsucker Proxy is the story of the elevation of a likeable idiot, Norville Barnes, to the presidency of Hudsucker Industries by the movie's villain, Sid Mussburger, in an attempt to gain control of the company. Despite his limited intellect, Norville succeeds by introducing his pet project, the hula hoop. The Coens return to the themes of Blood Simple—mindless violence and actions based on limited knowledge—with their next film, Fargo (1996). In order to resolve his financial difficulties, car salesman Jerry Lundegaard hires two petty criminals, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud, to kidnap his wife so that he can collect a ransom from his wealthy father-in-law, Wade Gustafson. Things go wrong almost immediately when, in spite of Jerry's insistence on "no rough stuff," Carl and Gaear kill three people—a policeman who stops them for an improper license plate and two witnesses. Many more random and planned acts of violence punctuate the film which, unlike some earlier Coen works, is far from bloodless. The hero of the story is the very pregnant Chief of Police Marge Gunderson, who discovers Jerry's guilt and captures Gaear in the end, catching him in the act of feeding portions of his partner Carl's body through a wood chipper.

Critical Reception

Critical response to the technical aspects of the Coen brothers' films has been generally favorable, while response to the stories has been mixed. A great deal has been written about their creative process and up-front planning. Their judicious use of storyboarding to pre-plan every detail of a film before they begin is credited as one of the ways in which they are able to maintain tight budgets. Eric Pooley remarked, "When Joel and Ethan began to write Raising Arizona, in May 1985, they worked in a disciplined, visual way, and when they were through, the result was a lean shooting script—a blueprint with no excess. Reading the script is like watching the movie—the thing emerged so fully formed from their imaginations that little changed between typewriter and camera." Many critics have asserted that this process results in tight, integrated stories. Hal Hinson, speaking of Blood Simple, commented, "Everything plugs into the film's basic idea: that we are dependent in our judgments upon what our senses tell us, and that our senses lie—that in life we never really know what's going on." Tim Pulleine similarly praised the Coens' unity of story and structure: "Miller's Crossing assumes a precision of correspondence between content and form which is all too rare in the cinema today." The Coens have also been commended for well-written dialogue. Jeff Evans suggested that the specific choice of words for each of their characters tells viewers as much about them as the messages those words contain. Discussing the character of H.I. in Raising Arizona, Evans noted, "When we hear his rural, native speech layered over comically by the language of pop jargon, advertisement, cliché, we recognize the violation and ethical confusion that language can wreak on character and action." However, not all critics are as sympathetic to the Coens' concepts. As critic Richard K. Ferncase asserted, "There is something fundamentally annoying about Blood Simple that irritates in an incipient, barely perceptible fashion—like the pesky fly that crawls around M. Emmet Walsh's ear and temple. Garish and vacuous, Blood Simple is, in the final analysis, a catalogue of noir and suspense clichés, a film about unpleasant characters that is itself unpleasant to watch." Several critics have faulted the Coens for failing to present characters with whom the audience can empathize. Tad Friend concluded, "This aloofness from the viewer's sympathy is why the Coens have remained high-brow darlings and box-office lepers." John Harkness asserted that the Coens are often misinterpreted: "People think their notorious press conferences and interviews, which consist of misdirected remarks and gnomic mumbles, are a put on, but really they work to hide the fact that the brothers don't believe in much of anything—they have enormous abilities, but are sphinxes without riddles. One suspects that Ethan's comment at the Cannes press conference for Barton Fink that their films are just frameworks on which they can hang cheap jokes was not a joke at all. There is an emptiness at the heart of their work which can be ignored when the films are entertaining, but which shows up dreadfully when they aren't." McKinney maintained that this detachment from the characters is successful in some cases. Of Barton Fink, he commented, "At their most original, the Coens have exercised the darker, more difficult impulse to unite characters and audience not in the warmth of a common affirmation, but in the chill of a common alienation. It's an empathy that says not 'I recognize that man's situation and now don't feel so lonely,' but 'I recognize that man's situation and now I'm lonelier than before.'"

Principal Works

Blood Simple (screenplay) 1984
Raising Arizona (screenplay) 1987
Miller's Crossing (screenplay) 1990
Barton Fink (screenplay) 1991
The Hudsucker Proxy (screenplay) 1994
Fargo (screenplay) 1996

(The entire section is 18 words.)


Hal Hinson (essay date March/April 1985)

SOURCE: "Bloodlines," in Film Comment, Vol. 21, No. 2, March/April, 1985, pp. 14-19.

[In the following essay, which includes an interview with the Coen brothers and Barry Sonnenfeld, their cinematographer, Hinson discusses the making of Blood Simple.]

In his novel Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett wrote that after a person kills somebody, he goes soft in the head—"blood simple." You can't help it. Your brains turn to mush. All of a sudden, the blond angel whose husband you just buried starts getting strange phone calls. You reach into your pocket for your cigarette lighter—the silver-plated one the Elks gave you with your name spelled out in rope on the...

(The entire section is 5041 words.)

Barry Sonnenfeld (review date July 1985)

SOURCE: "Shadows and Shivers for Blood Simple," in American Cinematographer, Vol. 66, No. 7, July, 1985, pp. 70-72, 74.

[In the review below, Sonnenfeld, the cinematographer for Blood Simple, provides a behind-the-scenes look at low-budget production.]

There is almost no problem in the making of a feature film that cannot be solved by throwing money at it. More lights, more time, more crew, a bigger crane, a re-shoot, can all be bought with a big time budget.

One of the challenges of shooting Blood Simple, a Texas murder mystery shot in Austin, Texas, was to make a $1.5 million movie look like ten times that. The money was raised...

(The entire section is 1815 words.)

Harry M. Geduld (review date July/August 1985)

SOURCE: A review of Blood Simple, in The Humanist, Vol. 45, No. 4, July/August, 1985, p. 43.

[In the following review, Geduld criticizes Blood Simple as lacking in creativity and unable to provide engaging characters.]

This nasty little thriller (stylistically distinguished only by some clever uses of extreme closeups) provoked me into recalling the masterpieces of the genre, in particular Billy Wilder's 1944 adaptation of James M. Cain's Double Indemnity. Notwithstanding the work of Hitchcock, Wilder's film remains for me the outstanding movie example of what E. F. Bleiler has called "the inverted detective story," that narrative form in which the...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Eric Pooley (review date 23 March 1987)

SOURCE: "Warped in America," in New York, Vol. 20, No. 12, March 23, 1987, pp. 44, 46-48.

[In the following review, Pooley discusses the Coens' film production methods.]

It's the last week of February, and 400 people have turned up at the Gotham theater for a screening of a comedy called Raising Arizona. The film has excellent word of mouth, and a host of industry types, including director Jonathan Demme, are on hand to see it—but Joel Coen, 32, who directed and co-wrote the film, is not among them. Neither is his brother, Ethan, 29, who produced and co-wrote it. Instead of seeing what people think of their second movie (their first was the stylish, godless...

(The entire section is 3638 words.)

David Edelstein (essay date April 1987)

SOURCE: "Invasion of the Baby Snatchers," in American Film, Vol. 12, April, 1987, pp. 26-30, 56.

[In the following essay, Edelstein describes a visit to the set of Raising Arizona.]

If you've ever left something on the roof of a car and then realized the goof several miles down the road, you'll get a kick out of a bit in Raising Arizona, Joel and Ethan Coen's farce about a babynapping and its aftermath. What's left on the car roof is an infant, and when the awful truth is discovered, the occupants—a pair of escaped convicts—make a squealing 180-degree turn and go barreling back to where the babe has presumably landed. Cut to the infant in his carseat in the...

(The entire section is 3482 words.)

David Handelman (essay date 21 May 1987)

SOURCE: "The Brothers from Another Planet," in Rolling Stone, May 21, 1987, pp. 59, 61, 114, 117.

[In the following essay, Handelman provides a behind-the-scenes look at the Coen brothers at work, both on the set and during the writing process.]

Pacing and smoking, pacing and smoking, in their rented house, Joel and Ethan Coen are waiting for the phone to ring. Every time Ethan finishes a cigarette, he mutters, "Butt me, butt me." Joel occasionally stops at the window to scream at Los Angeles, a visceral but controlled scream of rage. It is 1984; after writing the film-noir-like Blood Simple in 1980, raising funds for it in 1981, directing it in 1982 and editing...

(The entire section is 3095 words.)

Tom Milne (review date Summer 1987)

SOURCE: "Hard on Little Things," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 56, No. 3, Summer, 1987, pp. 218-19.

[In the review below, Milne provides a plot summary of Raising Arizona.]

Joel Coen is an original, no doubt about that. A B-movie noir with the tang of nightmare terror, Blood Simple led one to suppose that his line of descent was by James M. Cain out of the horror comics. Raising Arizona offers no grounds for changing that view, except in suggesting that somewhere back along that heritage Antonin Artaud must have bred in the bloodlines of both the Theatre of Cruelty and the Theatre of the Absurd.

More comedy than thriller, Raising...

(The entire section is 1174 words.)

Rodney Hill (essay date Summer 1989)

SOURCE: "Small Things Considered: Raising Arizona and Of Mice and Men," in Post Script, Vol. 8, No. 3, Summer, 1989, pp. 18-27.

[In the following essay, Hill suggests links between the themes of Raising Arizona and Of Mice and Men, comparing the psychological roles of their characters.]

Little things mean a lot, we often hear. But the philosophy that "the best things come in small packages" is frequently rejected in America, where bigger is always called better—and where the biggest is definitely the best. Such a contradiction seems indicative of a fundamental cultural flaw: instead of embracing truly worthwhile (although perhaps small)...

(The entire section is 3036 words.)

Richard Jameson (review date September 1990)

SOURCE: "Chasing the Hat," in Film Comment, Vol. 26, No. 5, September/October, 1990, pp. 32-33.

[Below, Jameson favorably reviews Miller's Crossing.]

Ice dropping into a heavy-bottomed glass: cold, hard, sensuous. The first image in Miller's Crossing hits our ears before it hits the screen, but it's nonetheless an image for that. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) has traveled the length of a room to build a drink. Not that we saw him in transit, not that we yet know he is Tom Reagan, and not that we see him clearly now as he turns and stalks back up the room, a silent, out-of-focus enigma at the edge of someone else's closeup. Yet he is a story walking, as his...

(The entire section is 1618 words.)

Tim Pulleine (review date Winter 1991)

SOURCE: "Neo-Classic Hammett," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 60, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 64-65.

[In the following review, Pulleine praises Miller's Crossing for its unity of plot and structure.]

Blood Simple, the first feature of Joel Coen (writer-director) and his brother Ethan (writer-producer), was widely seen as updating the protocols of the school of writing most readily associated with James M. Cain. Now, after the high-pitched comic detour of Raising Arizona, the Coens have turned for inspiration to a different area of crime writing, the novels of Dashiell Hammett. This time they have adhered to the period of the originals: the milieu of...

(The entire section is 765 words.)

William Preston Robertson (essay date August 1991)

SOURCE: "What's the Goopus?" in American Film, Vol. 16, August, 1991, pp. 30-32, 46.

[In the following essay, Robertson describes a day in the shooting of Barton Fink.]

Listlessly scratching his facial stubble, Ethan Coen gazes thoughtfully out through impenetrably dark sunglasses at the path Barton Fink must traverse. Ethan glances at me, then away. A second later, he looks at me again. He gestures vaguely outward. "Gloria Swanson used to live here," he says dully. He drops his hand limply at his side and stares ahead again.

Ethan has good reason to be excited. It's "Lipnik by the Pool" Day on the set of his and his brother Joel's latest movie,...

(The entire section is 3249 words.)

John Powers (review date September 1991)

SOURCE: "Finking It," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 1, No. 5, September, 1991, p. 4.

[In the following review, Powers praises Barton Fink but accurately predicts its box office failure.]

Let me begin, as you secretly want me to, by boasting about the weather. The day is bright, the temperature a placid 27 degrees, and the smog's been carried up-country by the Santa Ana winds that Raymond Chandler made part of the local mythology. In short, it's one of those natty Los Angeles mornings that once prompted that Julian Temple (remember him?) to remark over brunch, "If we had days like this in London, we wouldn't have Mrs Thatcher. Yes, there's something about the sunshine...

(The entire section is 638 words.)

Richard T. Jameson (review date September 1991)

SOURCE: "What's in the Box," in Film Comment, Vol. 27, No. 5, September, 1991, pp. 26, 32.

[Below, Jameson offers a mixed review of Barton Fink.]

What's terrific about Barton Fink has been terrific about Joel and Ethan Coen's work since the last sequence of Blood Simple, when Frances McDormand did everything she could to keep a wall or a door between her and M. Emmet Walsh's implacably murderous private dick as he menaced her in a dark apartment. In the new film, the principal space is the hotel room where Barton (John Turturro), social-conscious New York playwright drafted to knock out genre scripts in 1941 Hollywood, struggles to get past FADE IN....

(The entire section is 1330 words.)

Richard Grenier (review date November 1991)

SOURCE: "Hollywood's Holy Grail," in Commentary, Vol. 92, No. 5, November, 1991, pp. 50-53.

[In the following excerpt, Grenier asserts that the ending of Barton Fink fails to live up to the promise of its beginning.]

Barton Fink is not the story of a Jewish Galahad. Created by Joel and Ethan Coen, scripted by the two brothers working as a team, directed by Joel, produced by Ethan, Barton Fink is the first movie in the history of the Cannes Film Festival to win three top awards (best film, best director, best leading actor, John Turturro). With The Fisher King sharing the Silver Lion at Venice, it makes an impressive one-two for the new...

(The entire section is 1646 words.)

Tad Friend (interview date April 1994)

SOURCE: "Inside the Coen Heads," in Vogue, April, 1994, pp. 348, 350-51, 407-08.

[In the following interview, Friend talks with the Coen brothers on the set of The Hudsucker Proxy.]

Susan Sarandon crept up to the magnificent double doors. It was February 1993, in Wilmington, North Carolina, and she was visiting her longtime companion, Tim Robbins, who was filming The Hudsucker Proxy. The set's lavish scale clearly took her aback. Was this a Coen Brothers film? Weren't they supposed to be small-budget, art-house, seat-of-the-pants productions peopled with little-known character actors? She poked her head through the doorway to survey the scene: the gargantuan...

(The entire section is 3890 words.)

John Harkness (review date August 1994)

SOURCE: "The Sphinx without a Riddle," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 4, No. 8, August, 1994, pp. 7-9.

[In the following negative review, Harkness suggests that the Coens tried to combine the works of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges in The Hudsucker Proxy.]

There's a fine line between homage and rip-off. The Coen Brothers' originality lies not in their stories, which are derived from any number of better-known sources, but in the sheer aplomb they bring to the film-making process, the relentless darkness of their humor and the ironic twists they give to familiar tales.

Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing are film noir plain but not...

(The entire section is 1909 words.)

Jonathan Rosenbaum (review date 1995)

SOURCE: "Crass Consciousness," in Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism, University of California Press, 1995, pp. 248-53.

[In the following review, Rosenbaum criticizes inconsistencies in Barton Fink.]

I'm not one of the Coen brothers' biggest fans. I walked out of Blood Simple, their first feature. The main sentiment I took away from Raising Arizona and Miller's Crossing—their second and third efforts, both of which I stayed to the end of—was that at least each new Coen brothers movie was a discernible improvement over the last. Raising Arizona may have had some of the same crass, gratuitous condescension toward its country...

(The entire section is 2694 words.)

Kim Newman (review date June 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Fargo, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 6, No. 6, June, 1996, pp. 40-41.

[Below, Newman provides a plot summary and favorable review of Fargo.]

Minnesota. Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, deeply in debt, goes to Fargo to meet Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud, two criminals. Jerry gives them a car off his lot and arranges with them to kidnap his wife Jean. He plans to extort a million dollar ransom from his wealthy father-in-law Wade Gustafson, giving Carl and Gaear half of what he claims is only $80,000 dollars. Carl and Gaear snatch Jean but are stopped on the road near Brainerd by a policeman because the car still has dealer license plates. Gaear...

(The entire section is 1069 words.)

Michael Wood (review date 20 June 1996)

SOURCE: "The Life of the Mind," in London Review of Books, Vol. 18, No. 12, June 20, 1996, pp. 18-19.

[In the following review, Wood expresses that, althourhg he finds the movie flawed, Fargo is the Coens' best work since their first two films.]

The screen shows a flat, empty road from a very low angle, a torn tire lying on it like a piece of junk sculpture. Then the towers of a city in the distance, then a set of ramshackle houses, a pasture and a farmhouse, the white screen of a drive-in, a field full of oil pumps. A drawling voice, all wide vowels and unclosed consonants, starts to philosophize. "The world is full of complainers, and the fact is, nothing...

(The entire section is 3153 words.)

Devin McKinney (review date Fall 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Fargo, in Film Quarterly, Fall, 1996, pp. 31-34

[In the following review, McKinney praises some aspects of Fargo but asserts that the Coens condescend to the characters.]

The Coen brothers have spent 12 years and six movies walking a tightrope of their own devising, flirting with the nihilism and ex-cathedra contempt for the poor materials of reality that are marks of the gifted undergraduate. What has saved them from hipsterism is a sense of irony that is not merely ironic, a consistent faith in the power of controlled craft to open up holes of chaos in content, and a study of the quirk so monastic and intent it yields ambiguities not...

(The entire section is 2216 words.)

Jeff Evans (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Comic Rhetoric in Raising Arizona," in Studies in American Humor, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1996, pp. 39-53.

[In the essay below, Evans explores the use of language in Raising Arizona, suggesting that a major theme of the movie is the use of language for self-delusion.]

Joel and Ethan Coen's film Raising Arizona is about the American dream and its more specific components—such as the American family and notions of community in America—filtered through the culture-clashed psyche of the 1980's. In their reinvestigation of our central cultural myth, the Coens use several rhetorics to disturb their audience's traditional assumptions about the...

(The entire section is 4467 words.)

Further Reading


Behrens, Michael A. "Cinema Brats: The Coens and Their Scripts." San Francisco Review of Books 17, No. 1 (January 1992): 25-6.

Behrens finds the work of the Coem brothers to be guilty of the weaknesses they parody.

Ferncase, Richard K. "Neon Noir: Blood Simple." Outsider Features: American Independent Films of the 1980s Greenwood Press (1996): 67-76.

Ferncase proides a mixed review of Blood Simple and summarizes the reactions of other critics to several of the Coen brothers' films.

Francke, Lizzie. "Hell Freezes Over."...

(The entire section is 166 words.)