In Defense of the Coen Brothers


What do the movie-making Coen brothers--the joyously ironic brains behind my favorite movie of 2000, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”--have in common with Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Bunuel and Stanley Kubrick?

Great movies on their filmographies? A mastery of dark comedy? Both true, but that’s still only partly right. The directors above, who gave us--respectively--”Fargo,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Rear Window” ’Belle de Jour” and “Dr. Strangelove,” share another bond: They’ve all been accused, sometimes repeatedly, of disliking or even hating the characters they create. And, in some extreme cases, of disliking humanity itself--including those who buy tickets to their movies.

It was Andrew Sarris, in his influential director rankings in “The American Cinema,” who flayed Wilder for “the superficial nastiness of his personality” and damned him as “too cynical to believe even his own cynicism.” As for the Coens, whose movies and tone are reminiscent of Wilder’s, they’ve been called “smug,” “superior,” “contemptuous,” ’cold-hearted,” “cruel” and even “superficially nasty.” Film Comment’s Kent Jones recently wondered of the Coens: “Do they like the people they create?” and decided, “I’d say yes, but in the same way that a hunter likes his trophies.” That’s a typical knock; I’d hate to count all the similar ones I’ve read.


Anyway, I say: “Baloney.” And “What’s the rumpus?” After having been mightily entertained for years by the movie-making Coens--Joel directs, Ethan writes and they both produce--I think it’s time to leap to their defense, to try to clear them of this baseless charge of cruelty to their characters, of mental and physical abuse to their own fictitious creations.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my clients, the Coens, may well have ushered us all into a dark, strange and violent cinematic world: a realm of murder, bloodshed, mayhem, gang wars, corrupt business, crooked politics and even degenerate bowling champs (John Turturro in “The Big Lebowski”). They may have encouraged us to laugh at all the denizens of those underworlds. But I insist that they do not despise either their own invented beings or those of us who chuckle delightedly at their outrageous antics.

I am convinced that the Coens not just like, but may even love, madly, not only their own characters (we’ll call them Coenites) but the actors who play them (such as Coen regulars Turturro, Holly Hunter, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi)--as well as the audiences whom they labor to please.

Doesn’t the care that they lavish on their imaginary people--on the dialogue, the casting, the staging and the way they’re photographed (by their first cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld or their current collaborator Roger Deakins)--bespeak love? The Coens can put a special glow on even the creepiest of their people, like M. Emmet Walsh’s seedy private eye in “Blood Simple” or Turturro’s sleazy stoolie in “Miller’s Crossing.” They give these roles (like George Clooney’s Ulysses in “O Brother” or Nicolas Cage’s H.I. in “Raising Arizona”) a unique, absurd eloquence all their own. The Coens exaggerate these characters to make us laugh, but also to heighten the ways the Coenites reveal the follies of American society and the American psyche--which is probably the Coens’ main theme. Like all the best comedy movie-makers, they excel at holding a slightly cracked mirror up to nature.

Consider their subjects. “Blood Simple” and “Raising Arizona” are about the vagaries and hypocrisies of American family life, seen through the dark filter of murder or kidnapping. “Miller’s Crossing” is about the worlds of gangsters and big city politics, “Barton Fink” is about Golden Age Hollywood and how the studio system seduced and debauched first-class writers, “The Hudsucker Proxy” is about dirty big business and false dreams of success. “Fargo” is about life, crime and morality in the heartland. “The Big Lebowski” is about crime, political divisions and social class in modern Los Angeles.

All these films have serious, dark, meaningful subjects. Yet they’re done with a loopy comic zest that turns them into literate romps, smart and dizzy fun-rides. In early Coen films (shot by Sonnenfeld), one of their most characteristic shots was a rapid-scuttling low-angle track zipping along ground level or across the top of a bar, like a frantic toy. But you can see that zest even more in the characterizations.


Remember, the Coens brought all these people to life. So why are they accused of cruelty?

Actually, that’s the standard argument against any top-notch filmmaker who indulges in dark comedy or caustic social criticism--though the rap against the Coens is sometimes that they’re not socially critical enough, that they touch on big issues (such as Southern social injustice, poverty and crime in “O Brother”) only to trivialize and make them absurd. But that’s a bum rap too. You can learn a lot from comedy; as Bernard Shaw once said, “If you want to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh or they’ll kill you.” And the Coens crack jokes about the way American society works--and the way it seems to work in our movies and books. That’s what gives their movies that special edge and style.

That style has made the Coens critical darlings of a sort ever since their first film, the spine-tinglingly stylish 1984 low-budget film noir “Blood Simple”--most of whose characters were trapped in infidelity and a series of botched murders. But the Coens have also been viewed with alarm ever since their high-octane second movie, 1987’s “Raising Arizona”--a rowdy, no-holds-barred comedy in which a lady cop (Hunter) married to a habitual criminal (Cage) try to cement their unlikely union by kidnapping babies.

Since then, they’ve centered their films on outlaws, criminals, layabouts, murderers, business fakes, detectives or swindlers. And, because they’ve often shown characters getting swallowed up in murder (“Fargo,” “Miller’s Crossing”), in madness (“Barton Fink”) or in greed (“The Hudsucker Proxy”), they’re obviously susceptible to charges that they haven’t devoted themselves to showing humanity at its best. (Neither, by the way, did W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton--or master American comedy writer-director Preston Sturges, whose “Sullivan’s Travels” was the inspiration for “O Brother.”)

That dark view is especially present in “O Brother,” whose main characters are three incredibly dumb chain gang fugitives (Clooney’s addled con man Ulysses Everett McGill, Turturro’s junkyard-dog mean Pete and Tim Blake Nelson’s sweet nitwit Delmar) fleeing through Depression Mississippi landscapes filled with treacherous relatives, sadistic sheriffs, corrupt politicians, murderous Ku Klux Klansmen, brutal Bible salesmen and thieves, hypocrites and double-dealers of all varieties.

But even if these Deep South Coenites are almost all mentally or morally challenged in some way, does that mean we, or the Coens, can’t like them? In a great comedy, you tend to relish all the characters, as long as they make you laugh. And the wonder of most of the Coens’ creations is how simultaneously real and surreally humorous they are. Often, they’re inspired by movie stars--in “Miller’s Crossing,” Gabriel Byrne’s weary gang lieutenant Tom Reagan suggests Humphrey Bogart, in “Hudsucker Proxy,” Jennifer Jason Leigh’s crisp girl reporter Amy Archer echoes both Kate Hepburn and Rosalind Russell, and in “O Brother,” Clooney’s Ulysses is a cut-rate Clark Gable. The Coenites are often deliberately conceived as “acts” or turns. (In Ulysses’ case, the character deliberately apes Gable.)

The Coenites do the same crazy things movie people used to do in ‘30s screwball comedies or ‘40s films noir--which are the two main influences on Coen movies. Yet they also show surprising emotion and depth--not just in “Fargo” but in all the other films as well. In “Raising Arizona,” Cage and Hunter’s H.I. and Ed are a truly wistful and dreamy couple, despite their insanity; in “Miller’s Crossing,” Byrne’s Reagan is full of buried bitterness and love for his boss Leo (Albert Finney); in “O Brother,” there’s a joyous bond between the fugitive stooges and an almost rhapsodic vein in scenes such as the fervent baptism and the lyrical interlude with the sirens.


Does it make sense finally, though, to accuse directors of cruelty to the characters? Hitchcock was attacked because his characters sometimes died. (They were in suspense movies!) Wilder was trashed because he made fun of his people’s pretensions and follies. (They were in comedies!) Even Ingmar Bergman has been accused of cruelty to his female characters because he showed them suffering. (Drama is about suffering!) The Coens aren’t just pelting stones at their own creations out of sadism. They’re playing with the truths of our culture and fiddling also with the pop images and myths that culture inspired; all of our injustices, pretense and flummery.

And they put these Coenites in a wondrously funny world. In “O Brother,” there’s a great goofy gallery of images of the American Depression--derived primarily not from life, but from the images in books (William Faulkner), movies (Busby Berkeley musicals and “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”), photos (Walker Evans) and songs (Alan Lomax’s folk song anthologies).

The golden, burnt landscape, shot in Mississippi, has been imbued with magic and the people turned into grand comic figures, bigger and more rambunctious than life. Hate them? Most of the time, you can’t help loving them.

Recently, Andrew Sarris decided to revise his opinion of that nasty guy, Billy Wilder, zooming him all the way up to his private Pantheon. And that’s where Wilder always belonged. The Coens (and their Coenites) belong in ours.