The United States of Coen
“The LADYKILLERS,” the new Coen brothers film, is the story of a florid robber (Tom Hanks) and the prayerful black matron who foils him. It takes place in the fictional town of Saucier, Miss. Where it really takes place, though, is the South. The Coens have been there before: It’s where they go when they want to find snoozing police chiefs, devout Baptists, white linen and the occasional gruesome death, all of which abound in this film.
Though set in the new, multicultural South -- brought forth most of all in the soundtrack, which mingles classic gospel, hip-hop and Baroque chamber music -- “The Ladykillers,” like so many of their films, feels like a throwback. It wavers between the farcical and the gothic.
There are those American film auteurs -- John Ford, Billy Wilder, Martin Scorsese -- whom we associate with certain places and times. The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, represent another tradition. (And we can call it a tradition: They’ve been making films together now for 20 years.) They are itinerants. In 11 films, they’ve represented no fewer than eight states and at least a dozen cities or towns.
They’ve made films in California, Minnesota, New York, Louisiana, Arizona, Texas and Mississippi, and with a mind to the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘90s and 2000s, which is to say nothing of the befogged Jeff Lebowski of “The Big Lebowski,” the Dude as he’s known, who lives around the time of the Persian Gulf War but is stuck in a cloud of marijuana smoke wafting over from the 1960s.
Joel, who takes credit for directing and cowriting, and Ethan, who takes credit for cowriting and producing (in fact, they both do everything), build each story around their vision of a place, even going so far as to include geography in the titles, as in “Raising Arizona” and “Fargo,” a city in North Dakota; they craft characters and find houses and cars and clothes and music that bespeak the place down to the minutest detail; and then, poof, they pick up camp and go somewhere completely different for their next project.
The Coens grew up in Minneapolis. They attended Simon’s Rock College in Massachusetts, a school for gifted students below college age (“We couldn’t get out of Minneapolis fast enough”). Joel, 49, continued on to New York University, and Ethan, 47, headed to Princeton. They now both live in Manhattan, Joel with his wife, actress Frances McDormand, who’s appeared in five of their films, and their adopted son, Pedro, 9, on the Upper West Side.
Ethan lives close by in the Murray Hill neighborhood with his wife, Tricia Cooke, an editor who’s worked on seven of their films, and their daughter, Dusty, 3, and son, Buster, 5. Sitting in either corner of an overstuffed couch in a Century City hotel last week (with their blue jeans, loose shirts and 5 o’clock shadows, the brothers looked as though they might have been more comfortable in the gloomy Hotel Earle from “Barton Fink”), the Coens said they began thinking hard about landscape and locale from their first moments in film. A few years ago, they planned to make a film called “To the White Sea,” about a World War II fighter pilot from Alaska who is shot down over Japan and traverses the country on foot to get to the Pacific Ocean. “That was going to be all about landscape,” said Joel, the more talkative and taller of the two. (The project foundered for lack of money.)
They made “Blood Simple,” their 1984 debut feature, in and around Austin, Texas, where Joel briefly attended graduate school. The film opens with a curt monologue from a reptilian private detective, played by M. Emmet Walsh.
“What I know about is Texas,” he mutters. “Down here, you’re on your own.” This cartoonish rendition of the Lone Star ethos shoves us, like some incensed ranch hand, into a Texas of barren expanses and roads stretching menacingly into the night.
“Location is often a starting point in our thinking about stories,” Joel said. “It’s not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind, but it’s got to be there pretty early.” In “Blood Simple,” whose bare-bones plot begins with adultery and murder and ends with more murder, they were inspired by a spate of true-crime books from the early 1980s that they called “very Texas.” As untested independent filmmakers (“Blood Simple” was made for $750,000), they used locations and crew members drawn from around Austin and among Joel’s friends as a matter of economy.
Even so, the film touched off the Coens’ fascination with the South and Southwest generally, a fascination that continues with “The Ladykillers.” They are constantly taken anew with the region’s “backwards-looking, melancholic” feel, Ethan said. “The Civil War is still going on down there.” So taken were they, in fact, that they were inspired to write their second film, “Raising Arizona” (1987), partly by the Southern accent of actress Holly Hunter. Hunter plays Edwina, the headstrong but infertile police officer who, with her conscientious ex-con husband, played by Nicolas Cage, kidnaps the child of an Arizona furniture magnate. That Hunter is from Georgia and Arizona is in the Southwest didn’t bother them; they have always gone for a “generic” regional feel, the Coens said.
Why Arizona? They’d never been to the state before that.
“It was a good title,” Joel said. “Maybe because of the title?” Ethan thought about this for a few seconds, nodding, and then added: “We wanted this kind of Road Runner terrain too.” In fact, cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld’s antic dollying shots and Carter Burwell’s mishmash score, which combined cowboy yodeling with a banjo rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, do call to mind the Warner Brothers cartoon. The Coens’ Arizona is a Reagan-era frontier land, full of pistol-wielding convenience-store clerks and eloquent fugitives. Was the Grand Canyon state ever really like this, John McCain notwithstanding? One can only wish.
‘Miller’s’ unnamed environs
Their third film, “Miller’s Crossing” (1990), was a stark departure from the deserts and highways of “Blood Simple” and “Raising Arizona.” A story of feuding Irish and Italian gangs in the 1920s, it is relentlessly urban, down to the labyrinthine plot. All grimy streets and tenement apartments, it takes place in an unnamed city that people usually think to be Chicago or perhaps Boston. Again, the Coens wanted a “generic” feel, this time of the Northeast.
The illusion of the Northeast may be there, but the film was shot entirely in New Orleans, where the Coens liked the nondescript period look of the buildings. Additionally, they wanted a city with a working trolley car, because they couldn’t afford to build one (such are the details they cling to).
This diachronic take on geography -- the there-but-not-quite-there mood of a film that takes place in the Northeast but was shot in Louisiana -- contributes to a sense of alienation in some of the Coens’ work that has been commented on often. Such a mood is prominent in “Blood Simple,” “Barton Fink” (1991) and, more recently, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001). Sometimes their characters are grounded in locales and yet oddly dislocated from them. Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Reagan in “Miller’s Crossing” is an example; Steve Buscemi’s bewildered hit man in “Fargo” is another. In “Blood Simple,” Walsh wears a cowboy hat and bolo tie but drives around in a VW bug.
Do they think about this dislocation? Not really, the Coens said.
Does it perhaps stem from their own lives, they’re asked, from moving from Minnesota to Massachusetts to New York and New Jersey in their youths, and then, over the last 20 years, all over the country?
Nothing there, either. The first instinct for these artists, steeped in the history of their medium, is always to point not to themselves but to other films. (One gets the feeling they could carry on an hours-long conversation in nothing but film titles.) So rather than talk about their childhoods they refer to “The Glass Key,” the 1945 Alan Ladd noir, and “Red Harvest,” a 1932 gangster picture on which “Miller’s Crossing” is loosely based.
Just as often, the Coens have books in mind. Their fascination with the South comes partly from a love of its literature, particularly William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor’s gothic sensibility and cruel twists of fate show up in “The Ladykillers,” even though it takes place in the present day, and Tom Hanks’ character is continually quoting Edgar Allan Poe, who himself is often thought to be Southern but was in fact from Boston. (Again with the dislocation.) Even the Coens admit their fourth film, “Barton Fink,” is dripping with the sense of dislocation. John Turturro’s title character has moved to Hollywood from New York to work on a screenplay for a big studio, and in the process of writing, or rather not writing, goes insane. The main inspiration for the story, they said, was the book “City of Nets,” Otto Friedrich’s study of Los Angeles in the 1940s.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose first film with the Coens was “Barton Fink” (he’s shot every one since), said, “There was a sense of decay we wanted to get across.” They shot numerous exteriors around Hollywood, in bedraggled corners of old studio lots and in the less picturesque parts of Griffith Park. But they decided to cut them out to make it “more claustrophobic.” The result is a film that takes place mostly in Barton Fink’s head.
A film that screams L.A.
Not so “The Big Lebowski” (1998), the Coens’ Raymond Chandler-inspired paean to Los Angeles. Unlike “Miller’s Crossing” or “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994), a nod to 1930s screwball comedies that opens on a mock New York skyline, “The Big Lebowski” positively screams L.A.
The Coens’ most realistically site-specific film, it is filled with decrepit apartment complexes, old bowling alleys and pancake houses (much of it was shot near Deakins’ home in Santa Monica). It counts among its characters the unemployed hero, who walks around in a Thai stick- and White Russian-induced haze; a bad performance artist; and a gang of German nihilists who dabble in electronic music and porn. There is nowhere “The Big Lebowski” could have been set but L.A.
“The only thing we left out was a religious charlatan,” Joel said.
“The Man Who Wasn’t There,” their darkest film since “Barton Fink” (so dark, indeed, they made it in black and white), is set in Santa Rosa, Calif., in the late 1940s. Like “Barton Fink,” it is a meticulous film about a man, this time a laconic barber played by Billy Bob Thornton, who feels increasingly alienated from the world around him. If “The Big Lebowski” is the Coens’ paean to the city, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is their nightmare vision of the suburbs.
Although “O Brother, Where Art Thou” is a completely different kind of film taking place in a different state, the Coens went for a similar washed-out feel. Deakins said they wanted “a dry, dusty, otherworldly look. Like an old, faded postcard.” But the film was shot in the summer, when Mississippi is lush. To achieve the desired effect, the Coens removed all the greens from the final print digitally. To find places to shoot, they took a long, slow drive through the South. (The Ku Klux Klan rally scene, incidentally, was shot on the Disney lot in Burbank.)
It was, they said, the most fun they’ve had scouting locations.
In “O Brother,” as in “The Ladykillers,” the Coens relied entirely on non-original music to help define the story’s locale, and the soundtrack of classic bluegrass, compiled by T Bone Burnett, attracted as much attention as the film. It almost single-handedly revived interest in American roots music. “The Ladykillers” soundtrack may prove to have a similarly rejuvenating effect on gospel.
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, a decade after they first picked up a camera, that the Coens decided to set a film in Minnesota. “Fargo” (1996), to date their most acclaimed endeavor, also conveys the strongest sense of place of any of their films. The film is so thoroughly set in the frozen North it makes one cold just to watch it. Though they are generally reluctant to relate their own lives to their films, the Coens said that “Fargo” was based “on a lot of direct experience of the locale. Sometimes our stories are very specifically bound up in the landscape.”
“I guess Minneapolis is a nice place if you didn’t have to grow up there,” Joel said, and this sentiment comes across in the film. The main character is not really McDormand’s indomitable policewoman, nor William H. Macy’s hapless car salesman, whose kidnapping plot she unravels, but, rather, the snow. “Fargo” is filled with never-ending snow; gray, horizon-less expanses of snow that are even more dreary than the expanses of road in “Blood Simple.” The landscape, like the characters, and like the eerie Hardanger fiddle music, inspires shivers.
Tellingly, the most relatable character in the film, Buscemi’s hit man -- “the audience surrogate,” Ethan called him, in a rare moment of critical objectivity -- is a coldblooded murderer. He is, as Joel put it, a geographically neutral guy in an insanely specific place. Given enough snow, even normal people can be driven to kill, they seem to be saying.
Apparently, the Coen brothers don’t miss Minnesota much.
James Verini can be contacted at email@example.com.