Joel and Ethan Coen Criticism - Essay

Hal Hinson (essay date March/April 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)