Joel and Ethan Coen Critical Essays

Introduction

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.'"