The Coen Project Part 18: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Buster Scruggs is about people facing death and what comes after death. Each short gives us a different version of this through the lens of a different familiar western trope.

Coming to you live from a new ortholinear split keyboard that I don’t fully know how to use. I’m hoping that my new inability to type over ten words per minute will knock some well of latent creativity loose in my brain. I am as of yet unclear on how to write a parentheses or an exclamation point, so this may be a fruitful exercise in prosaic economy. We’ll see how it goes.

In 2018 The Coen Brothers did the most 2018 thing possible, joining the wave of Netflix auteurism with a western anthology film, something they most likely wouldn’t have been able to get away with in a traditional release.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs consists of six short films, each exploring a different facet of the Western genre. While the shorts range from serious to outright cartoony, there’s one obvious throughline — they’re dark. Really dark, even for the Coens. It’s tempting to think that the directors have arrived at some kind of nihilistic logical extreme, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. I’d argue that the relentless and at times uncomfortable bleakness of Buster Scruggs is more a product of its format than any other factor.

Due to the nature of our work, my friends and I are shown more animated short films than the average citizen. The ones we see are usually well made, but over the years we’ve noticed that they frequently border on emotional manipulation. Why? My working theory is that in order to stand out in a competitive field of shorts, creators feel the need to pack a feature-length level of emotional impact into a running time of under ten minutes.

The Buster Scruggs shorts operate similarly, but with violence and death instead of emotionalism. If you’ve only got less than twenty minutes, something has to happen, and it takes a lot longer to earn a happy ending without being trite.

I’m not going to go into all of them in equal depth into all of the shorts, but I’ll try to touch on how they build on each other thematically. After several watches, it became clear to me that Buster Scruggs is about people facing death and what comes after death. Each short gives us a different version of this through the lens of a different familiar western trope.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The title track of the anthology combines the blood-drenched depravity of Westworldwith the cheerful goofiness of singing cowboy heroes like Roy Rodgers, or more recently, Hobie Doyle.

Taken by itself, this is mostly a fun musical experiment and an excuse to let Tim Blake Nelson do his thing for seventeen minutes. But after a second viewing I realized that Scruggs introduces the major thematic thread of the anthology.

When Buster Scruggs is ultimately defeated by a newer singing sharpshooter, his soul leaves his perforated body and floats up to heaven on literal wings as he sings the Oscar-nominated song “When a Cowboy Gets His Wings”.

In voiceover, this is how Buster Scruggs frames his death:

I’ll see all of you sonofaguns in the bye and bye and we can sing them sweet airs together, and shake our heads over all that meanness in the used-to-be.

This feels a little odd because we just saw him murder a whole bunch of people. Buster does not apparently subscribe to a transactional theological model.

Near Algodones

The second short features James Franco as a bank robber who goes through an alternating series of lucky and and unlucky occurrences. After cheating death several times, he finally ends up sentenced to death by hanging for a crime he didn’t commit.

Here we get our next version of a confrontation with death. The robber is remarkably chill about it. Next to the him on the gallows is an old man who is crying uncontrollably out of fear. The robber looks over and remarks: “First time?”.

For me this short is mostly significant for its inclusion of one of the great Coen-isms, “sumbitch”, which has made appearances in Raising Arizona and O Brother Where Art Thou.

Meal Ticket

I will be honest: I spent the majority of this short’s run time screaming “IS THAT LIAM NEESON???” at my laptop screen.

Yes Christine, that is Liam Neeson, playing a sideshow impresario whose sole attraction is a limbless man (Harry Melling), listed in the credits as “The Artist,” who dramatically recites various passages from the English canon.

If the average person’s life in the Coen Brothers’ West is pretty bad, try being disabled. The Artist is smarter than the impresario, but has no power in their dynamic due to his physical difference. His talent appears superhuman to his audience, but he’s treated as sub-human, ultimately replaced by a literal animal.

The Artist’s death scene isn’t even shown on screen. Because he has no autonomy as a person, he doesn’t get to confront death on his own terms. Like his life, his death is orchestrated by those born with more power than him.

All Gold Canyon

All Gold Canyon offers a welcome relief from the literal and spiritual darkness of Meal Ticket — it’s a master class in landscape cinematography that made me angry I missed the film in theaters. They clearly had to lean pretty heavily into CG to execute it, but it’s beautifully done. Definitely better use of a CGI deer than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (never forget).

Plot-wise, it’s a man-versus-nature story that turns into a man-versus-man story. An old prospector (Tom Waits) painstakingly figures out the location of a vein of gold, only to be ambushed by an opportunistic thief.

The prospector comes out on top in the struggle despite getting shot in the stomach: “IT WENT CLEAN THROUGH! IT DIDN’T HIT NOTHING IMPORTANT”. Our geriatric hero faces down death and beats it fair and square.

This us our first and only happy ending of the anthology. And boy is it gonna go downhill from here.

The Gal Who Got Rattled

The Gal Who Got Rattled is the most fully realized story of the anthology, but it falls most unfortunately victim to the short film syndrome I mentioned earlier. This segment is so good, yet has such an unfair bummer of an ending.

The titular Gal is Alice Longabough (Zoe Kazan), sister of Gilbert Longabough (Jefferson Mays). Both Longaboughs are heading to Oregon via wagon train, looking forward to a theoretical business opportunity for Gilbert and a theoretical prospect of marriage for Alice when they get there.

Alice is smarter than her brother but has to endure his condescension and play along with his bone-headed schemes for the sake of her own survival. When Gilbert dies on the trail, Alice is forced to deal with his posthumous business ineptitude.

A chance to escape this joke of a life happens when Alice meets Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), a trail hand who feels similarly trapped in his situation. What follows is an incredibly sweet series of interactions that make Alice’s ultimate death pretty much unbearable to witness. Zoey Kazan and Bill Heck do way too good of a job making us love these people.

If this were a feature length effort, I’d have to imagine we’d get a happy or at least happier ending for our ultra-endearing romantic pairing. There would be plenty of dark moments along the way to temper the ultimate victory.

Despite leaving me feeling personally victimized, Gal gets to the meat of what the anthology has been hinting at thematically. A lot of this plays out in conversations between Alice and Billy. Alice explains her late brother’s worldview in contrast to her own experience.

He had very fixed political beliefs. All of his beliefs were quite fixed, even those that…fortune did not tend to endorse. He would upbraid me for being ‘wishy-washy’. I never had his certainties. I suppose it’s a defect.

Billy has spent enough time dealing with the hardships of the trail to know Gilbert’s certitude is an illusion:

Down the ages, from our remote past, what certainties survive? And yet we hurry to fashion new ones. Wanting their comfort.

This sentence could work as a thesis statement for much of the Coen’s filmography. It reminds me of the opening monologue from Blood Simple:

But the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or even Man of the Year– something can always go wrong.

In light of this conversation, the ending of Gal at least makes sense — it’s a harsh enforcement of the truth of Billy’s outlook.

Billy also says the following:

Uncertainty——that is appropriate for the matters of this world. Only regarding the next are we vouchsafed certainty.

He’s talking about the afterlife, but it’s not clear if he means that he’s certain that there is one and he knows what it’s going to be, or that he won’t be certain about anything until he actually gets there and finds out. Buster Scruggs got to take his afterlife for granted. Is Billy correct in doing the same?

The Mortal Remains

Saul Rubinek is Frenchman, Tyne Daly is Lady, and Chelcie Ross is Trapper in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

The last short takes place in a stagecoach headed to Fort Morgan and consists mostly of a conversation among five characters. They are an old trapper (Chelcie Ross), a married religious lady (Tyne Daly), a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), and two bounty hunters: Thigpin (Jonjo O’Neil) and Clarence (Brendan Gleeson).

Mortal Remains is a discussion of the theme present in all of the prior shorts: the human confrontation with death. The journey of the stagecoach and its arrival at the Fort Morgan hotel is an allegory for this confrontation. Once I figured this out, every line of dialogue and character action took on a clear significance.

At the beginning of the characters’ discussion, it is mentioned that only the bounty hunters have been to Fort Morgan before. For the other three, it’s their first time. The bounty hunters sit on the opposite side of the stagecoach from the others, giving us a clear visual barrier. Thigpin and Clarence have experienced death, the others haven’t.

The three non-bounty hunter characters express differing theories about humanity.

The Trapper believes that people are fundamentally knowable:

People are like ferrets. Or a beaver. All pretty much alike…I don’t doubt it’s the same even if you travel to Siam.

The Lady pushes back against this idea, asserting that people are not all alike, but instead are distinguished by their morality or lack thereof, as defined by religion:

People are not like ferrets. And I speak not on my own authority, but on that of the Holy Bible.

The Frenchman argues that we can’t actually know each other, only ourselves.

I know we must each spin our own wheel, and play our own hand. I cannot bet for you. Porquoi Pas? I cannot know you, not to this degree… We may call each other friend, but but we cannot know each other so.

The Lady again appeals to moral authority, saying that the Frenchman’s argument is invalid because he has pursued a life of “vice and dissipation”.

Eventually the Lady gets so worked up by the Frenchman’s attack on her reality that she almost passes out. The Frenchman tries to get the driver to stop the stagecoach, but Thigpin flatly informs him that the coachman will not stop. It’s policy. The road to death can’t be halted for anyone.

Once the commotion has died down, Thigpin and Clarence proceed to explain the nature of their work as hired assassins. Their M.O. is that Thigpin tells a story to distract their target so that Clarence can kill them. The stories are crucial to the operation:

People can’t get enough of them, like little children. Because, well, they connect the stories to themselves, I suppose. And we all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the stories are us, but notus. Not us in the end especially. The Midnight Caller gets him, not me. I’ll live forever.

Stories can distract us like they distract Thigpin and Clarence’s victims. But they also allow us to rehearse life events by living them second hand (us, but not us). This is especially true of death. We’ll only ever experience it once for real, but will have witnessed hundreds of people die on screen and in books before our time comes.

Thigpin goes on to describe the moment his victims die:

It’s always interesting watching them, once Clarence has worked his art. Watching them negotiate the passage… Watching them try to make sense of it as they pass to that other place.

The lady asks him if they ever succeed in making sense of it.

How would I know? I’m only watching.

At this moment the stagecoach abruptly stops — they’ve arrived at Fort Morgan. Thigpin and Clarence hop out and start to haul in their body, but the three passengers are hesitant to go into the hotel and face their (allegorical) deaths.

The Lady states that she must be helped down from the stagecoach. When the trio are at the door, she demands that one of the two men open the door for her. She expects this passage to be laid out for her with no surprises. In both cases, she is helped by the Trapper.

The Frenchman is the last to go in. He watches the stagecoach drive away — no turning back. After a long pause he puts his hat on and then enters the hotel confidently, shutting the doors behind him.

Each of the three characters have an incomplete version of reality, but the Frenchman’s outlook seems to prepare him the best for his confrontation with death and whatever comes after. Animals don’t think about death. We do, and that’s not insignificant. We can’t assume that there’s nothing on the other side, but we can’t act like we know precisely what it is (or isn’t) either. Both are paths of certainty, which Billy Knapp describes as “the easy path”. The Frenchman rejects certainty, so he’s the most equipped to “negotiate the passage” into the unknown.

The Coen Project Part 17: Hail Caesar!

Mannix is a Christ figure, shouldering the sins of the actors he supervises to protect the films they appear in. A martyr for the cinema, Mannix receives none of the glory or wealth of his actor counterparts, but sacrifices the comforts of a normal life to the altar of storytelling.

I am normally chill about trailers. Some of my friends go out of their way to avoid seeing them, but I assume that their effect on my viewing experience will be negligible. This assumption was proven faulty when I saw the Coens’ seventeenth feature, Hail Caesar!

Based on my multiple viewings of the trailer on youtube, I expected a heavily plotted noir-comedy centered on the kidnapping of George Clooney’s movie star character. When the film I was looking forward to did not materialize on screen, my lizard brain deduced that Hail Caesar! was just an unfocused mess. I loved all of the scenes, but I was confused as to what they were supposed to coalesce into.

Re-watching the film two years later after I had forgotten why it disappointed me was an entirely different experience. The synopsis listed on Amazon video gave me a more accurate sense of the film’s intent than the trailer had: “Hail Caesar! follows a day in the life of a studio fixer”.

And as a day in the life of a studio fixer, it works fantastically. All other plot threads are ancillary to Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) and the decision that he has to make by the end of the day: whether or not to leave his job at Capitol Pictures for a cushier gig at an Lockheed.

Knowing what the film wasn’t left me free to enjoy the scenes featuring the actors under Mannix’s purview without expecting them to be propulsive plot points. These vignettes are so disconnected from each other that they could be reworked as short films; they’re also arguably the most fun comedic pieces the Coens have done.

The standout set of scenes features Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a specialist in corny westerns who has been transplanted onto the set of a romantic comedy helmed by auteur director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Things do not go well for Hobie, who hasn’t spoken many lines of dialogue in his career beyond “Whoah there”.

Hail Caesar’s production history dates back to 1999, when Joel and Ethan pitched George Clooney a “thought experiment” in which he would play an idiot 1920’s matinee idol — an opportunity to complete the “Numbskull Trilogy” that he began with O Brother Where Art Thou and Burn After Reading.

The project remained a thought experiment for over a decade. According to Joel: “Hail Caesar! is a movie that George Clooney keeps announcing to the press every couple of years, and it doesn’t even exist as a script; it’s only an idea.” By 2013 the Coens finally conceded that there was a “good chance” that Hail Caesar! would follow Inside Llewyn Davis as their seventeenth release.

Depicting the Golden Age studio system at the height of its post-war machinery, Hail Caesar! is the Coens’ most fully realized period piece, filmed with vintage techniques and richly textured production design at a where’s-where of classic Los Angeles locations. But these are the Coens, so it’s no doe-eyed “love letter”: the fakery of Hollywood’s most outwardly glamorous era is lambasted in every scene.

The film industry takedown is what most critics focused on. But Hail Caesar! goes one step further, replacing the facade with something more meaningful. Returning to a broader theme of narrative explored in O Brother Where Art Though,  Hail Caesar!  is a celebration the human duty of storytelling and the sacrifices that it demands.

Religion as a motif is present from the opening shots. We see a crucifix followed by Eddie Mannix in confession, boring the priest with some very minor sins. Later, Mannix holds a meeting with representatives of four religious traditions to get their opinion on the script of Capitol Picture’s tentpole release, Hail Caesar: A Story of the Christ. This devolves into a heated but pointless theological debate. (Highlight: “God’s a bachelor, and he’s very angry.”)

But unlike the theological exploration that is A Serious Man, Hail Caesar! has little of importance to say about the actual God. It’s really about another religion, the one that people of every creed partake in: cinema.

Baird Whitlock is Capitol’s biggest movie star. Played by George Clooney in his idiot wheelhouse, Whitlock’s time on the set of Hail Caesar! is cut short when he is roofied by an extra and transported to a house in Malibu. He awakes to find himself in the hands of a “study group” of communist screenwriters, who he promptly befriends, insisting that he too is on the side of “the little guy”. The only problem is that they’re holding him for ransom. 

When Whitlock is finally delivered from his captors and expresses a desire to quit acting to pursue Communism, he receives a strong dressing down from Mannix:

“You’re gonna do it because you’re an actor and that’s what you do, just like the director does and the writer and the script girl and the guy who claps the slate. You’re gonna do it because the picture has worth, and you have worth if you serve the picture and you’re never gonna forget that again”

Baird’s sin isn’t being a casual revolutionary Marxist — it’s putting his own whims over the film that he’s supposed to be serving. His movie-star status counts for nothing if he fails to contribute to the story. Well told, the story is the ultimate good.

Mannix is a Christ figure, shouldering the sins of the actors he supervises to protect the films they appear in. Mannix receives none of the glory or wealth of his actor counterparts, but sacrifices the comforts of a normal life to the altar of storytelling.

Like Christ, Mannix is tempted by the Devil: the head-hunter from Lockheed who attempts to draw him away from his job by arguing that it isn’t important:

“I don’t mean to denigrate; I’m sure the picture business is pretty damned interesting. But it’s also pretty frivolous, isn’t it?”

Mannix knows that the frivolity is just on the surface. As I got into more specifically in my notes on O Brother Where Art Thou, storytelling is pretty crucial to our ability to function as human beings. And while we think of film and television as a form of entertainment, the moving image is the dominant form of storytelling culture in our time. On that level, it’s hard to understate how important the job of making movies is. Even the guy who claps the slate is serving humanity.

Stray Observations:

  • Best Tilda Swinton Quote: “Don’t play dumb Eddie, I’m talking about *dramatic pause* ON WINGS AS ANGELS”
  • Best Scarlett Johannsen quote, after Mannix referred to her ex-husband as a minor mob figure: “Vince was NOT minor”.
  • I’m gonna dog on La La Land again. Hail Caesar! is both a better movie about Los Angeles and a better movie about the movies. La La Land frames the film industry in the exact opposite way that Hail Caesar! does: as a granter or denier of ego-driven personal dreams, rather than a collective effort to make stories for the world.

The Coen Project Part 16: Inside Llewyn Davis

Even though Inside Llewyn Davis is a period piece, it feels like a sharp reflection of the moment of its creation, more than any prior Coen film.

In 2005, the late Blake Snyder published Save the Cat, a screenwriting guide that Hollywood has since embraced a little too wholeheartedly. If the major blockbusters of the past decade have all appeared to be cribbed from the same template, it’s because they were: Snyder’s book breaks down screenplay structure into a series of “beats”, which it claims are the key to a successful script. It even specifies on which page these beats should occur. The titular piece of advice is that in order to make a protagonist likeable, they should be made do a good deed of some sort early in the first act, i.e. saving a cat.

In the Coen’s 2013 release Inside Llewyn Davis the protagonist, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), is a folk singer couchsurfing his way through 1960’s Greenwich Village. He literally saves a runaway cat within the first ten minutes. If anyone else had made this movie, I would have read this moment as either a hilariously literal implementation of Snyder’s formula or an unfortunate coincidence. But since we’re talking about the Coens, I have to wonder if it’s a deliberate jab at the Hollywood trope.

This “Save the Cat” moment actually functions the way that Snyder intended, at least initially. Llewyn is not an immediately likeable character — he’s surly, condescending and most often passive. Despite his bad luck, we get the sense that this guy could make a success out of his life if he would just change his attitude.

But the cat sticks around for more than just a first-act beat — Llewyn ends up carrying the animal throughout most of the film. He loses him, finds him again, and eventually leaves him in a car on the side of the highway, reversing his good deed from the beginning of the film. This subversion of Snyder’s formula mirrors the character’s inability to change or grow significantly, an anti-arc that would typically be frowned upon by Save The Cat apologists.

With the cat, the Coens again dare us to discern some deep significance in what seems like a really obvious symbol. There are even “clues” in the dialog: Llewyn’s ex-girlfriend Jean (Carrie Mulligan) screams “EXPLAIN THE CAT”, when she finds it deposited in her own apartment. When Llewyn calls the cat’s owner, the secretary on the other end mishears him say “Llewyn is the cat”. I don’t think it matters what the cat symbolizes. It’s Llewyn, it’s the pain he’s carrying, it’s his dwindling musical ambition, pick your poison. But as we find out late in the film, it’s not even the same cat that he started with — the symbol itself is a fraud.

What’s not as obvious is that Inside Llewyn Davis is a film about dealing with death. Although it’s only directly addressed later in the story, Llewyn has just lost his friend and musical partner Mike to suicide. The revelation of Mike’s death reframes the central struggle of the story: It’s not that Llewyn doesn’t have the strength to make it as a folk singer, it’s that he’s not sure how to move forward in his life at all without his best friend.

This pain bubbles to the surface when Llewyn blows up at the same couple that hosted him previously, screaming at the wife for attempting to sing Mike’s part of a song that she requested Llewyn sing at a dinner party. At this moment, we understand that Llewyn’s bad behavior and ennui has been largely the result of his grief, invisible but omnipresent.

Even though Inside Llewyn Davis is a period piece, it feels like a sharp reflection of the moment of its creation, more than any prior Coen film. We can strongly feel that Llewyn is a part of a movement of young people at odds with the values of the rest of society and its encompassing economic system. Llewyn struggles to make money, but money is not the goal — the goal is to make meaningful music. He clashes with his older sister, who has embraced a more conventionally stable life path.  He’s literally unable to communicate with his father, whose senility reads as a stand-in for intergenerational lack of understanding, impenetrable even by the universal language of music.

I have to caveat this with the fact that generational labels are made up and not-very-useful ways to describe huge swaths of the population, but it’s hard to watch this and not feel the similarities to my own “generation”, one that has been broadly marked by a desire to pursue lives of meaning over lives of economic gain. This pursuit of meaning often comes with an embrace of the past — Llewyn and his Greenwich Villiage colleagues are reviving a form of music that was last popular before they were born, playing songs that are over a hundred years old. Connecting to the past in this way has its dangers — at worst, a person’s life can turn into a pastiche of a life past, centered around traditions and art forms that the person can’t really take meaningful ownership of. This is why we make fun of “Millenials” with old-timey sailor tattoos and other anachronistic affectations — their quest for authenticity has made them glaringly inauthentic.

Llewyn’s inability to break with the values of authenticity that he lives by ensures that he won’t be commercially successful. Refusing to give in, Llewyn thinks he’s a martyr for his art. Maybe he is. What he’s preserving is inarguably good and beautiful, but he’s preventing himself from discovering new meaning of his own. Would Bob Dylan be as revered today if he had never pulled out an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival? What seemed like a betrayal then is seen now as an act of artistic courage.

To close out, let’s go through some of these amazing music scenes that are available as clips. Justin Timberlake was an inspired casting choice as Jim, the clueless husband to Llewyn’s ex-girlfriend Jean. In addition to the sheer joy of watching Timberlake perform folk music, the character adds much needed lightness to what would otherwise be an almost unbearably dour film. Even in terms of color language, Jim’s sweaters are the only bright spots in the relentlessly desaturated color palette. I have watched this clip probably forty times:

Next, In a prophetic coincidence, Adam Driver makes a cameo as baritone country singer Al Cody, who along with Llewyn assists in Jim’s ridiculous space-themed pop-folk number. Everything about this is great:

And lastly, Llewyn’s performance of The Death of Queen Jane for a Chicago music manager. This scene illustrates how crucial Oscar Isaac’s casting was. In order for this scene to work the musical performance has to obviously great, so that the rejection at the end lands as a purely money-driven decision. Isaac pulls of both the music and the acting with incredible subtlety.

The Coen Project Part 15: True Grit

While the Coen version of True Grit is structurally a straightforward Western, on a deeper level it engages with a type of narrative that the directors had never attempted before — the coming-of-age story.

I’ll admit that I was dragging my feet a little bit getting myself to re-watch and think about True Grit (again, I really want to get to Hail Caesar), which if memory serves I saw for the first time in theaters my senior year of high school. I remember little of my reaction, but it was likely the perfect Coen film for that time in my life. While the Coen version of True Grit is structurally a straightforward Western, on a deeper level it engages with a type of narrative that the directors had never attempted before — the coming-of-age story.

A well-known version of True Grit was released in 1969, starring John Wayne and helmed by prolific genre director Henry Hathaway, but it would be a mistake to categorize the Coens’ 2010 release as a remake. In an interview, Ethan stated that they hadn’t seen the prior film since its release when they were kids, and that its existence was “kind of an irrelevancy” to their desire to adapt Charles Portis’ original novel. This is a statement that only Joel or Ethan Coen could make without coming off as a total asshole.


Their writing approach for True Grit was similar to their adaptation method for No Country for Old Men — faithful to the story that they loved on the page. They adhered closer to the novel than Hathaway’s version, bringing the story’s point of view back to the young woman who seeks revenge for her father’s death.

Critics at the time seemed almost baffled by True Grit’s straightforwardness: Roger Ebert noted that it wasn’t ”eccentric, quirky, wry or flaky”. I have no idea what it means for a movie to be “flaky”, but he’s correct in that True Grit is the Coens’ most unsubverted genre exercise. It proves beyond any doubt that the directors don’t rely on any of their genre-morphing weirdness to make their movies entertaining. They’re just that good.

The setup is simple: fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross’s father has been killed by a man in his employ, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Local law enforcement in Fort Smith, Arkansas has made no effort to accost the murderer, so Mattie takes matters into her own hands, enlisting the services of an old and drunk U.S. Marshall named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her find Chaney. Already on the hunt is Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon), who is attempting to track down and arrest Chaney for prior crimes in his jurisdiction.

Like many coming-of-age films, True Grit’s success hinges on the performance of a very young actress, in this case Hailee Steinfeld, who at thirteen was about the same age her character during filming. The Coens are lucky that their nationwide search for such a precocious kid payed off — Steinfeld is able to play Mattie as smart and determined without coming off as an neurotic do-gooder. A slightly lesser actress could have made the film work as a Western, but it’s Steinfeld’s subtlety that makes True Grit work as a coming-of-age story and nabbed her a best supporting actress nomination in the process.

I think that there are essentially two types of coming-of-age stories: one having to do with sexuality and one having to do with mortality. The ones about mortality are less common, and when done well are in my opinion the more universal and impactful version. While it wraps its coming-of-age narrative in a standard Western revenge plot, the emotional core of the Coens’ True Grit is comprised of Mattie’s journey towards an understanding of death.

Most mortality coming-of-age stories lead up to an experience of death towards the end, but in True Grit the pivotal death happens upfront. For someone who has just lost a parent at a young age, Mattie is oddly devoid of emotion. She goes about the arrangements for her father’s avengement with a strange sense of ruthless enjoyment, manipulating everyone in her path to her advantage. She’s driven not by grief or even anger, but by obligation — killing your father’s murderer is just the done thing in 1870’s Arkansas. Her behavior isn’t really stoicism, it’s a lack of understanding of what has just happened to her.

The harrowing finality of death isn’t real to Mattie until she’s tasked with cutting a hanged man down from a tree along the trail that she and Rooster are traveling. The man’s face is decayed beyond recognition. She cuts the rope suspending the corpse and watches as it slams unceremoniously onto the ground below. Before Mattie can come down from the tree, Rooster has sold off the body to a passing horseman. When Mattie asks what happened, Rooster explains that neither he nor the horseman knew the dead man, but that “it is a dead body, possibly worth something in trade”.  The incident doesn’t have a major plot significance, but we can see the wheels turning in Mattie’s head — life is fragile, death is anonymizing. Again, Steinfeld’s performance is what makes this scene’s emotional content land.


Killing soon loses its glamour, too. When Mattie finally comes face-to-face with Chaney, she has the jarring realization that the man who killed her father is a human being. He has plenty of his own problems, only one of which is Mattie. “Everything is against me. Now I am shot by a child,” he laments. This is not exactly the face of evil that Mattie was looking forward to courageously defeating. Doling out death is only palatable when you’re able to dehumanize your victim, and in a stark contrast to No Country’s villainous Anton Chigurh, Chaney is about as human as they come. 

Mattie does ultimately kill Chaney, but nearly at the cost of her own life.  The kick of the rifle knocks her into a rocky pit where she’s bitten by a poisonous snake. With death all around her and the value of life seeming less and less significant, the lengths to which Rooster goes to save her humbles Mattie, striking the final blow to her former flippancy in the face of mortality. More death doesn’t fix death — only love can do that. 

Stray Observations:

  • The pronunciation of LaBeouf’s name, LaBeef, cracked me up every single time it was spoken.
  • Side note — If  I hear one more critic refer to a modern genre film, especially a Western, as “gritty” I will fully lose my mind.


The Coen Project Part 14: A Serious Man

Probably the closest thing to a horror film that the Coens have yet made, a semi-surrealist American nightmare set in a stand-in for their own Minnesota hometown.

I had never seen A Serious Man, the Coens’ 2009 follow up to No Country For Old Men and Burn After Reading prior to watching it for this entry. I expected something lighter than both preceding films, but what I got was probably the closest thing to a horror film that the Coens have yet made, a semi-surrealist American nightmare set in a stand-in for their own Minnesota hometown.

A Serious Man takes the grinning fatalism present in their previous films and puts it in a explicitly religious context. While many Coen films engage with religion on some level, it’s typically just a part of the overall texture of the world or a red herring ancillary to the  primary themes. In A Serious Man, however, Judaism is front and center: the film is about man’s relationship with God, and this God’s causal link or lack thereof to what happens in a person’s life.

The Minnesota of A Serious Man is drawn more from the filmmakers’ real life than the Minnesota of Fargo, but it feels more unreal. With its near-identical houses situated on an endless expanse of flat Midwestern plains, it reminds me of the ghost towns built for nuclear testing. Suburbs like this were probably normal-looking to people who actually lived in them, but in modern cinematic language, they represent of the darker aspects of the post-war American dream. It’s the perfect setting for the waking nightmare that is A Serious Man.


Similar to O Brother Where Art Thou’s use of mythic structure in the form of The Odyssey, A Serious Man borrows a biblical myth, Job, as a guiding narrative template. Minus the happy ending where Job gets all his stuff back. Like in No Country and Burn After, we’re not gonna get a feel-good conclusion.

The germ of A Serious Man was a planned short film based on a real-life rabbi from Joel and Ethan’s childhood, who would hold a private audience with each bar mitzvah kid: “…he was a sphinx-like, Wizard of Oz type character, and we thought that would make an interesting short movie”. Eventually, the Coens expanded the project into a feature script set in a suburban Minnesota Jewish community like the one they grew up in.

The film begins with an apparent non-sequitur of a prologue — an Eastern European Jewish ghost story, with dialogue entirely in Yiddish. A man invites an old friend inside his home to escape the cold and have a hot meal. The catch is that his wife knows this friend to be already dead. She’s convinced that their guest is an evil spirit — a Dybbuk, dead but not dead. She unceremoniously stabs him in the chest with an ice pick, he barely flinches before bolting.

While you could infer that this opening depicts the ancestral source of our mid-century protagonist’s bad luck, the Coens have stated that the purpose of the scene is to frame the story as explicitly Jewish from the outset. I think there may be a little more to it, which I’ll get into later.

Primed by this weirdness, we are plunged into the world of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor whose life is falling apart. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) has announced that she wants a get, or Jewish ritual divorce, so that she can marry the insufferable widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Sy and Judith kick Larry out of the house and into the Jolly Roger motel, which Sy remarks is “eminently liveable”. The resulting legal fees are more than he can feasibly afford on his pre-tenure Professor’s salary.

Meanwhile the kids aren’t doing much better — his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is hounded by a bully from Hebrew school to whom he owes twenty dollars for marijuana. On top of everything, Larry has to take care of his homeless brother Arthur (Richard Kind), an odd man who spends most of his time in the bathroom draining a sebaceous cyst.

Larry is baffled by his plight, giving us our signature Coen Brothers repeated phrase: “What is going on?” As a devout Conservative Jew, Larry assumes that God is somehow involved with what is happening, and upon the advice of everyone in his life, seeks the counsel of his community’s rabbis.

The film is divided into sections by title cards, one for each of two rabbis that Larry goes to for “answers”.

Rabbi number one is the young Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg), who is trying really hard to be what he thinks a rabbi is supposed to be. He concludes that Larry is “losing track of Hashem” and that his existential confusion is simply a matter of perspective — he just needs see the things that are happening to him as God’s will.

This unhelpful piece of advice is familiar to most people of faith. The same people who tend to give this directive would not describe the objectively bad things that have happened as God’s will or even potentially God’s will prior to their occurrence. Rabbi Scott suggests a situation where you should be able to figure out what God is doing, at least in retrospect. If this seems logically futile, well, try harder.

Larry approaches Rabbi number two after the untimely demise of Sy Ableman, his wife’s intended replacement husband. This rabbi, Nachner (George Wyner), takes a more stochastic approach to God’s intentions. He tells Larry a story of a Jewish orthodontist who finds the Hebrew letters spelling out “help me” engraved on the inside of a gentile patient’s teeth. Convinced that it’s a sign from God, the orthodontist attempts to figure out what it means, ultimately going to Nachner for help as Larry did. So was it a sign, or not?

“The teeth, we don’t know. A sign from Hashem? Don’t know. Helping others? Couldn’t hurt”.

Larry is infuriated by Nachner’s conclusion, which to use a colloquial text expression, amounts to: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.”

Not knowing how or even if God is operating within our lives is a central struggle for any religious person. In Christianity, this topic has been wrestled with by everyone from Saint Augustine to Veggietales. What Larry still doesn’t understand is that we always have to decide how to act, whether we think we have the answers or not.

While only the first two rabbis get title cards, a third rabbinical audience occurs when the newly Bar Mitzvahed and very stoned Danny approaches the ancient Rabbi Marshak. To Danny’s delight, the old man intones the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, and then returns his previously confiscated radio. His advice is concise and actionable: “Be a good boy”.

I want to talk about the physics in A Serious Man, A. because I’m a nerd and I can’t not, and B. because I think the concepts mentioned on screen point to a deeper understanding of what the film says about God. The first physics scene involves a very opaque explanation of Schrodinger’s paradox, which is a thought experiment devised by Erwin Schrodinger to illustrate the logical problems with quantum mechanics back when they were being debated in the 1920’s. If the quantum state of a particle could determine whether a cat lives or dies, and the particle is in a quantum superimposition of those two states, then the cat is both alive and dead. I read this reference as a callback to the Dybbuk of the prologue, a man who may or may not be actually dead.

This leads into a scene where Larry reveals his dependence on the objectivity of mathematics to his understanding of the world as he debates the fairness of a midterm result with a student.

Clive: Yes, but this is not just. I was unaware to be examined on the mathematics.

Larry: Well, you can’t do physics without mathematics, really, can you?

Clive: If I receive failing grade I lose my scholarship, and feel shame. I understand the physics. I understand the dead cat.

Larry: You understand the dead cat? But… you… you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing; the stories I give you in class are just illustrative; they’re like, fables, say, to help give you a picture. An imperfect model. I mean – even I don’t understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works.

Larry understands the math, but he hasn’t yet accepted the causal ambiguity at the heart of modern physics.

The second physics-centric scene is one of a handful of dream sequences that occur as Larry’s grasp on the causality of his life begins to crumble. Again in a classroom, Larry derives Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that if the momentum of a particle is known, we can’t know it’s position, and vice versa. Or in Larry’s exasperated wording: “It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on.” As he speaks, the camera reveals a cartoonishly gigantic chalkboard full of calculations behind him. Like his trips to the rabbis, science only leads Larry to the conclusion that the truth is unknowable. Like the cat and the Dybbuk, God’s presence in his life is in a state of quantum uncertainty, both real and unreal. 

But Larry isn’t the only scientist in his family. He stumbles upon his brother Arthur’s notebook, entitled “The Mentaculus”, which contains pages of fantastical numerologic diagrams, symbols, and illustrations. Arthur believes that the Mentaculus is a “probability map of the universe”. While Arthurs’ methods of understanding the world are inscrutable to Larry, they seem to have some functional value — Arthur is banned from an illegal card game because of his unexplainable winning streaks. Still, the cosmic understanding that Arthur has discovered or stumbled upon doesn’t succeed in making him happy — he’s unable to relate to other people, and envies Larry’s personal connections, however broken and dysfunctional they’ve become.

Since it’s hard to form a real conclusion about a film that’s about not being able to form a conclusion, I’ll wrap up with my favorite scene.

 Larry’s son requests that his father adjust the TV antennae on top of the house so that he can watch F-Troop. Larry climbs up on the roof, giving us a bird’s eye view of the suburban environs that stretch out seemingly forever — interminable tops of more or less identical houses, a man watering his lawn, kids riding by on bikes. As Larry tweaks the metal appendages of the antennae, the signals phase in and out — indecipherable messages from far away. The music in this scene gives it a twilight-zone-esque sense of surreality. I couldn’t find the full clip of the scene, but here’s the track from the score:

Stray Observations:

  • This is a great simple explanation of the uncertainty principle, one of the foundational concepts of quantum physics:
  • For the record, the Veggietales episode that deals with the whole bad things happening to good people thing is is entitled The Ballad of Little Joe, and recounts the story of Joseph and the Egyptians in produce-populated Western form. I will go to bat for Veggietales any day. I can’t vouch for their theological nuance, but they were funny and clever as hell — my brothers and I quoted them endlessly growing up. The animation itself a pretty awesome example of working with what you have — CG animation systems at the time couldn’t support naturalistic limbs or simulations, so anthropomorphic vegetables was a way to create animation that looks pretty decent to this day.
  • Another great Coen Brothers interview moment: 

    A fan asks if this film, along with No Country and Burn After, are about the emptiness of American society. Ethan cracks up as Joel struggles to give even a semi-serious answer to this question.

The Coen Project Part 13: Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading mirrors No Country’s pessimism, presenting inevitable suffering, failure and death in a farcical rather than purely dramatic context. The thematic parallels allow the films to work companion pieces, similarly to the complementary pairing of Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink.

Around the same time that they were adapting Cormac McCarthy’s novel into the screenplay for No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan were kicking around another idea. As an exercise, they wrote characters for some of their favorite actors: George Clooney, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt, and Frances McDormand (who also happens to be Joel’s wife). All of the characters that they came up with were uniquely stupid, delusional, and/or narcissistic.

To give their pack of idiots a playground, the Coens constructed a spy thriller plot — “mostly because we’d never done one before”. The resulting script became Burn After Reading, released in 2008. As with many of their films (The Big Lebowski, Fargo), Burn After Reading uses the narrative framework of a serious genre but populates it with characters that you don’t normally see in that genre, creating humorous juxtapositions.

Burn After Reading mirrors No Country’s pessimism, presenting inevitable suffering, failure and death in a farcical rather than purely dramatic context. The thematic parallels allow the films to work companion pieces, similarly to the complementary pairing of Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink.

The story begins with the rage of Osbourne Cox (John Malcovich), a low-level CIA analyst who is fired from his job for being an alcoholic. Convinced that his dismissal was a political “crucifixion,” Cox tells everyone that he quit, and decides to shore up his self-worth by writing a “memoir”. Cox’s wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) takes the firing as an opportunity to divorce Cox and continue to sleep with Harry Pfarrar (George Clooney), a clueless deputy U.S. Marshall. She gives her divorce lawyer a CD containing Cox’s personal financial information, and incidentally, a copy of his in-progress memoir. The divorce lawyer’s assistant abandons the CD in the ladies locker room of Hardbodies, a local gym. It’s picked up by Linda Litsky, a self-obsessed gym manager, and her dim-witted but endlessly positive associate, Chad Feldheimer. The pair mistake the innane contents of the CD for government secrets, and plot a blackmail scheme to extort Osbourne Cox and get rich, mostly so that Linda can pay for a slate of cosmetic procedures.

Events spiral in typical anarchic Coen fashion, with each character making their respective situation worse with their delusions and paranoia about what’s actually happening. Cox is convinced that he’s actually being blackmailed, which he isn’t, and Chad and Linda believe they’re actually blackmailing him, which they’re not. They’re children playing make-believe, but with real death as the consequence of their shenanigans.


On the surface, Burn After Reading isn’t exactly groundbreaking in terms of characterization — writing morons is kind of the Coens’ brand. But never has the pathology of idiocy come into sharper relief than they are here. The problem isn’t just that these people are stupid — stupid people are able to not kill anyone and go about their lives just fine. The real problem here is narcissism, coupled with an utter lack of self-awareness.

John Malcovich’s Osbourne Cox provides the key example, as his delusional and selfish behavior is what drives the plot forward. He’s so privileged that he’s lost all grasp on reality. Despite his Princeton education, he’s the stupidest person because he actively believes that he’s very smart and that he’s fighting against stupidity.

Cox’s belief in his intelligence is so central to his identity that he’ll literally kill to protect it. The other characters have beliefs that they cling to similarly — Linda that her body is the most important thing about her, Harry that he’s loved and desired by every woman in his life, even the one he’s cheating on. Their blind adherence to these beliefs is what makes them so stupid.

The only characters who aren’t obsessed with their own perceived identities are Brad Pitt’s Chad and Richard Jenkins’ Ted, both of whom are devoted to Linda and both of whom end up dead.

The film offers an effective and hilarious framing device in the form of meetings between Osbourne’s ex-boss Palmer (David Rache) and the boss’s unnamed director (J.K. Simmons). The pair’s nonplussed bafflement as they try to track the insane series of events serve to punctuate the themes that Burn After Reading shares with No Country For Old Men.

“We don’t really know what anyone is after.”

“Not really, sir.”

Osbourne, Harry, Linda and Chad all believe that their pursuits have meaning, but when viewed from this outside perspective, it’s easy to see that the results of their combined actions form a morass of destructive chaos.

“Report back to me when, uh… I dunno. When it makes sense.” 

The second meeting between Palmer and the director brings the film to an abrupt end that resembles the closing scene of No Country, where Ed Tom Bell reflects on his retirement from police work after failing to defeat or understand Anton Chigurh. It’s a lot funnier, but it leaves us with a remarkably similar sense of irresolution:

J.K. Simmons’ character is clearly used to dealing with crime, but what he witnessed here is so random and pointless he can’t point to any salient takeaway from the experience:

“What did we learn, Palmer?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

Sometimes things just happen. No one gets what they want, no one gets what they deserve, and no one learns a lesson.

Stray Observations:

  • Best John Malcovich moment: emphatic cruciform arm gestures while screaming “THIS is a CRUCIFIXION!”.
  • Related John Malcovich moment: “F*ck you, Peck, you’re a Mormon! Next to you, we ALL have a drinking problem”.
  • Can’t forget to mention — John Malcovich’s pronunciation of the word “memoir” as “memoiah”.
  • Best Tilda Swinton moment: while hammering on a table, “I DON’T HAMMER”.
  • Best Brad Pitt moment – “You think it’s a Schwinn!!!”
  • Best George Clooney quirk: his interest in flooring. “What is this, pine?”
  • He’s never referred to by name in the dialogue, but J.K. Simmons’ character is called “Gardner Chubb” in the script.


The Coen Project Part 12: No Country for Old Men

No Country is an exceptionally difficult film because it doesn’t even hint at a resolution or solution to the fatalistic pessimism of the story. We’re left to figure out for ourselves whether harsh vision of reality it depicts is true.

I’ve been putting off writing this entry because watching No Country for Old Men never struck me as a refreshing activity for a weekend night. But since I’m anxious to make it to Hail Caesar it had to be done, so I’m glad I was able to work up the energy. The Coens’ Oscar-winning twelfth film is heavy stuff — if the violence doesn’t shake you, the existential despair probably will. While entertaining, it doesn’t give the viewer anything they’d typically want from a movie, like characters whose actions make sense, a happy ending, or an unambiguous moral. Instead, it unflinchingly performs fiction’s most important function: to hold a mirror up to the realities of human life, regardless of how disturbing the reflected image may be.

By the No Country‘s release in 2007 the Coens had proved willing to indulge themselves, playing with their favorite genre tropes and over-the-top dialogue for their own amusement. Look no further for examples than their two most recent films at the time, The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty. In a sharp turnaround, No Country For Old Men presents the filmmakers at their most restrained, mature, and in command of their craft and creative voices. If Fargo’s success and acclaim secured Joel and Ethan’s ongoing careers,  No Country cemented their place as masters in the canon of film history.

No Country is a direct adaptation of a book, Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same title. This fact didn’t surprise me — while the narrative plays to the Coens’ strengths as filmmakers, I don’t believe they would have necessarily arrived at it on their own. In fact, they didn’t even come up with the idea to adapt the novel: producer Scott Rudin sent Joel and Ethan an as-yet-unpublished manuscript of the book, to which he had just acquired the film rights.

The script was written as a faithful transposition of the source material onto film — much of the dialog is taken verbatim from the book. As Joel described the writing process: “…one of us types into the computer while the other holds the spine of the book open flat. That’s why there needs to be two of us — otherwise he’s gotta type one-handed.”

Like many of the Coens’ best films, the story is closely tied with the surrounding landscape, in this case the same 1980’s West Texas that was explored in Blood Simple.


Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a young Vietnam veteran who stumbles upon the scene of a botched drug deal while hunting in the desert. He snags a briefcase full of cash left behind in the struggle without hesitation, but leaves a surviving man bleeding out in the front seat of a truck. Later that night he decides to go back and help the man, but his compassion is quickly punished when he is spotted and pursued by two other drug dealers. Although he is able to escape, Llewelyn becomes the target of the psychotic cartel hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who sets out to kill Llewelyn and retrieve the stolen money.

The plot then centers on Llewelyn’s attempts to thwart his pursuer, their violent encounters resulting in some the most suspenseful scenes in the Coen filmography. Following the trail of destruction left by the two men is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), an aging detective baffled by the illogical nature of the violence he’s witnessing.

Thematically, the film hinges on the characterization of Anton Chigurh, one of the most terrifying villains ever presented on screen. Equipped with an unsettling haircut and a pneumatic bolt gun normally used to slaughter cattle, he kills not just because it’s his job, but because he seems to believe himself to be an agent of fate. He makes this idea literal in his habit of flipping a coin in order to decide whether to allow people to live or to kill them.

Llewelyn believes that he can fight fire with fire and defeat Chigurh, pushing back against fate. He succeeds in this for a short while, shooting Chigurh in the leg and escaping with only a wounded arm. But soon after, another group of drug dealers kill him while he waits to reunite with his wife in a motel room. By Chigurh’s logic, it didn’t really matter whether he was to one to kill Llwelyn or not. The result was the same — fate still found a way.


Llewelyn’s wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) attempts to retaliate against Chigurh’s bloody crusade with reason instead of violence. When he confronts her in her home, she attempts to convince him that he has the human agency to spare her life in the following exchange:

Carla Jean: You don’t have to do this.

Chigurh: People always say the same thing.

Carla Jean: What do they say?

Chigurh: They say, “you don’t have to do this.”

Carla Jean: You don’t.

Carla Jean reasons that a normal person should be able to walk out the door without killing anyone. But is Chigurh isn’t a normal person — he pulls out his coin to let chance decide instead.

Chigurh: Call it.

Carla Jean: No, I ain’t gonna call it.

Chigurh: Call it.

Carla Jean: The coin don’t have no say! It’s just you!

Chigurh: I got here the same way the coin did

Carla Jean refuses to allow a coin flip to determine if she lives or dies — she wants to prove to Chigurh that he alone can choose. But in Chigurh’s mind, there is no such thing as choosing when everything that leads up to the choice is random. Free will becomes an illusion.

The third character standing in opposition to Chigurh is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who attempts to protect Llewelyn, Carla Jean, and others from the madman’s vortex of destruction by following the rules of police work that he’s practiced for most of his life. But his rules don’t work against a killer who follows no ordinary patterns of criminal behavior. He can’t understand Chigurh, so he can’t fight him. He decides to retire because he feels “overmatched”.  Faith can’t provide him the order that he craves, either: “I always thought when I got older God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t.”

No Country is an exceptionally difficult film because it doesn’t even hint at a resolution or solution to the fatalistic pessimism of the story. We’re left to figure out for ourselves whether the harsh vision of reality it depicts is true.

How can we make sense of No Country’s pessimism in the context of the Coen filmography? An obvious parallel to draw is with the Coens’ very first film. 1987’s Blood Simple is also a violent thriller set in Texas, but the darkness in No Country runs deeper. Blood Simple is about bad choices that cascade into violence, and the basest aspects of human nature that drive us to make those choices. It’s the first in a long tradition of Coen films focusing on stupid people making stupid decisions, sometimes tragically (Miller’s Crossing), but more often hilariously (Raising Arizona).

In No Country, however, we’re not so certain that choices can be made at all. Everything feels inevitable: even Llewelyn’s initial decision to steal the money was made without much reflection on potential alternatives. Carla Jean offers us an opposing view, but her belief in choice was still unable to save her.

Fargo can provide another fruitful point of comparison. On the surface, No Country and Fargo are strikingly similar films: both involve a crime that spirals out of control, a killer on the loose, and a police officer who is left to deal with the wreckage, all set in an unforgiving rural environment. But even though Fargo presents a world of comparable brutality and randomness, it offers us a respite in the form of detective Marge Gunderson. Marge is able not only to survive and defeat the bad guys, but also to retain a sense of optimism and compassion in the face of the darkness surrounding her. This contrasts sharply with Ed Tom, who despite his best efforts fails and gives in to despair. In Fargo, humanity triumphs. In No Country, the best humanity can do is to soldier on.

The thematic content is a lot to parse through, but I’ll touch on No Country’s deservedly Oscar-winning direction by talking a little about this scene, in which Llewlyn faces down Chigurh in a hotel:

It’s the most pure piece of visual storytelling the Coens have ever done. Almost every shot is a micro story beat, especially in the beginning of the sequence: the flashing transponder, the door, the shotgun being pulled from the bag. On top of that, each sound we hear conveys story information. Similar scenes rely on music to cue the audience, but that shortcut isn’t used here — intervals of silence punctuated by perfectly timed noises are that’s needed to build the suspense to a terrifying peak. With this one scene, the Coens beat Alfred Hitchcock at his own game.

The Coen Project Part 11: The Ladykillers

I’m declaring The Ladykillers officially underrated. A comedy that takes place mostly inside one house over the course of a few days, it’s the smallest and least ambitious of the filmography so far, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do with aplomb.

The Ladykillers is technically the worst-reviewed movie in the Coen Brother canon: it comes in at 55% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, barely edged out by The Hudsucker Proxy at 56%. The self-indulgent Proxy deserved all the critical flak it got, but I’m declaring The Ladykillers officially underrated. A comedy that takes place mostly inside one house over the course of a few days, it’s the smallest and least ambitious of the filmography so far, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do with aplomb. It returns to the Coens’ core competency: idiots doing stupid stuff. Set in Mississippi, it’s also a return to the American South, one of the most important locales in the Coen-verse.

Incidentally, The Ladykillers is the first remake in the Coens’ catalog: it’s based on a 1955 British black comedy of the same name starring Alec Guiness. The bones of the story are left unchanged: a group of criminals pose as classical musicians in order to use an old woman’s basement as the starting point for a tunnel-based heist scheme. The lady catches on, and therefore must be killed — hence The Ladykillers.

The Coens take the liberty of replacing all of the characters with weirdos their own invention, and this is where their version shines. Yes, these characters are one-dimensional, but this is essentially a live-action cartoon — having five fully fleshed out human beings would not be fitting for the tone nor the scope. 

The Ladykillers embraces the heist trope of the Team Assemblage Sequence, introducing each member by demonstrating their heist-relevant attributes. Gawain (Marlon Wayans) has no skills other than being a custodian at the target of the operation, a floating casino. Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons) is an annoyingly optimistic “jack of all trades” who can handle the necessary explosives, hampered only by a persistent case of irritable bowel syndrome. A Vietnamese man known only as “The General” (Tzi Ma) is a functionally mute tunneling expert. College football reject Lump (Ryan Hurst) is the “blunt instrument” by which obstacles to the team’s ends will be removed.

At the center of it all is Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D., a professor of classics who appears to have walked off of the pages of a William Faulkner novel. Played by Tom Hanks in an impressive Coen-verse debut, Dorr talks his way out of every situation as though he’s reciting poetry. He also actually recites poetry. People like G.H. Dorr no longer exist in reality, if they ever did, but it doesn’t matter. The character is a vehicle for fun and ridiculous dialogue, simultaneously over-the-top academic and over-the-top Southern. Here’s Dorr describing the particulars of the building they’re attempting to rob: 

The door itself is of redoubtable Pittsburgh steel. When the casino closes this entire underground complex is locked up, and the armed guard retreats to the casino’s main entrance. There, then, far from the guard, reposes the money, behind a five-inch-thick steel portal, yes. But the walls… the walls are but humble masonry behind which is only the soft, loamy soil deposited over centuries by the Old Man, the meanderin’ Mississippi, as it fanned its way back and forth across the great alluvial plain, leaving earth.

Revisiting The Ladykillers after seeing The Post in theaters reminded me of how broad Tom Hanks’ skill set is. This is maybe his most mannered and directly comedic role, and he owns the character with as much commitment and specificity as any comic actor. 

The Ladykillers can be thought of as a companion piece to the Coens’ other Southern-set comedy, O Brother Where Art Thou.  It technically takes place in the present day, but it has a similar vintage feel as the depression-era O Brother. Both films are steeped in religious themes, however ironically — The Ladykillers finds its group of robbers debating the ethicality of different methods of murdering their devout elderly host. Mirroring the old-timey spirituals of O Brother, the evildoings are underscored by gospel music selections by producer T. Bone Burnett — The Soul Stirrer’s “O Brother Let us Go Back To God” is a repeated theme, played every time someone’s body is unceremoniously dumped onto a trash barge. 

Stray Observations:

  • As with Intolerable Cruelty, the Coens were originally only hired to write the script for The Ladykillers.  Barry Sonnenfeld, their cinematographer on Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing and Raising Arizona, was slated to direct but had to back out of the job.
  • This is the second Coen Film, after The Big Lebowski, where the plot to some degree hinges on a severed digit, in this case Mr. Pancake’s finger. 
  • The obligatory repeated line also goes to J.K. Simmon’s Mr. Pancake: “Easiest thing in the world!”
  • Dorr is the first character in the Coen-verse to speak the phrase “would that it were so simple”. I can’t wait for Hail Caeser. 

The Coen Project Part 10: Intolerable Cruelty

As far as rom-coms go, it’s a lot more com than rom. This is partly by design; the Coens are more interesting in playing with screwball and noir elements and crafting rapid-fire dialogue than they are in portraying an actual romantic relationship.

Intolerable Cruelty is the first Coen Brothers movie that isn’t entirely a Coen Brothers movie — it’s based on a concept by John Romano, which was adapted into a screenplay by the writing team of Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone. Joel and Ethan were brought in to do a re-write pass on the script, their first gig as writers-for-hire. After the project had bounced around in development for years with a handful of directors (including Ron Howard) attached to it, the Coens were given the opportunity to take it to production. With their ambitious planned adaptation of the World War II novel To the White Sea recently cancelled due to budgeting issues, they jumped on Intolerable Cruelty, a chance to put their spin on a forties-style screwball romantic comedy. And if you’re going to make a screwball comedy, you’d be insane not to cast George Clooney.

Clooney plays Miles Massey, an ace Los Angeles divorce attorney and author of the Massey pre-nup, the most financially iron-clad contract in the game. Get a Massey pre-nup, and you can be assured that both parties are in the union for love only. Miles takes the case of the wealthy Rex Rexroth (Edward Hermann), whose wife Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones) has finally caught him cheating and intends to “nail his ass” in the divorce proceedings. Turns out divorcing rich and stupid men is basically Marylin’s job, and Miles sets out to expose her serial gold-digging. But of course, things get complicated. In the course of the twists and turns that follow love is declared, murder is attempted, and a Massey prenup gets dramatically ripped apart no less than three times.

As far as rom-coms go, it’s a lot more com than rom. This is partly by design; the Coens are more interesting in playing with screwball and noir elements and crafting rapid-fire dialogue than they are in portraying an actual romantic relationship. The two leads also don’t have the best chemistry — Catherine Zeta-Jones in particular doesn’t contribute any warmth to the pairing. 

Despite the possible miscast of Zeta-Jones, the rest of the players bring their comedic A-game to the script. In a hilarious and probably intentional contrast to his role as the dead silent Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There, Billy Bob Thorton plays another of Marilyn’s dupe husbands, an oil tycoon who won’t shut up. Richard Jenkins is in his  exasperated wheelhouse as Marylin’s outgunned attorney, who has a penchant for yelling “objection!” before thinking through what he’s objecting to. And having only previously known the late Edward Herrmann as the grandpa from Gilmore Girls, it was fun to see him go full-on gross old man as Rexroth. 

Since they didn’t originate the script, It’s impossible to know for certain how much of the dialogue is the Coens’ writing, but nearly all of it bears their unmistakable smart-yet-stupid signature. They clearly had way too much fun with the latitude afforded by the genre, resulting in exchanges such as the following:

Rex Rexroth: Have you sat before her before?

Miles Massey: No. No, the judge sits first. Then we sit.

Rex Rexroth: Well, have you sat after her before?

Wrigley: Sat after her before? You mean, have we argued before her before?

Miles Massey: The judge sits in judgment. The counsel argues before the judge.

Rex Rexroth: So, have you argued before her before?

Wrigley: Before her before, or before she sat before?

I’m willing to guess that the Coens also added much of the funny physical business that adds to the characters, most notably Miles Massey’s habit of whitening his teeth at every opportunity. It’s impressive how completely they were able to make the film their own, despite it not being their original story. Intolerable Cruelty fits into the Coen-verse seamlessly.

In the climactic scene, Miles throws away his script during the keynote address at a Las Vegas divorce law conference and instead launches into a heartfelt speech about the value of love and the poison of cynicism:

“Now I am of course aware that these remarks will be received here with cynicism – cynicism; that cloak that advertises our indifference and hides all human feeling. Well I’m here to tell you that that cynicism, which we think protects us in fact destroys – destroys love, destroys our clients and ultimately destroys ourselves.”

My initial read on this monologue was that the Coens were using the character’s words to address the repetitive and unfounded criticism that their work is cynical. But knowing them, it’s probably meant as more of a send-up than a refutation of their critics. And since there isn’t a lot of warmth in this film otherwise (Miles and Marilyn are no Marge and Norm) it’s highly likely that they’re just messing with us. You want sincerity? Oh, here you go.

Stray Observations:

  • Film nerd reference: the movie playing during Rex Rexroth’s bed-bouncing demise is Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine, which appropriately is about a murderous railroad engineer.
  • Best grounds for objection: poetry recitation, strangling the witness.

The Coen Project Part 9: The Man Who Wasn’t There

While critics went nuts for the beautiful black-and-white cinematography and Thornton’s performance, The Man is easily my least favorite entry in the Coen filmography.

After the financial success of Fargo and O Brother Where Art Thou, Joel and Ethan were pretty much free to make any movie they wanted. Turns out they wanted to make a slow and confusing retro noir about alienation and haircuts, resulting in The Man Who Wasn’t There. The idea for the film came from the barbershop scene in 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy, which includes a prop chart detailing mid-century men’s hairstyles. The Coens held on to the the prop after filming, eventually making it the jumping-off point for their black-and-white noir experiment.

It’s hard to call The Man Who Wasn’t There neo-noir, since there’s nothing neo about it — it’s a near direct replication of the dark murder-centric films of the forties. A stone-faced Billy Bob Thorton plays Ed Crane, a second-chair barber who spends most of his time staring into space and smoking despite being married to the energetic Doris (Frances McDormand). Ed’s inner thoughts are revealed via narration, a staple noir technique that ‘s also necessary because the character is essentially nonverbal.

The plot is a mash-up of every forties noir element imaginable — a cheating spouse, blackmail, a money-making scheme gone wrong, inappropriate infatuation, and a handful of murders. In a parallel to The Hudsucker Proxy’s hula hoop, the narrative hinges on the fictionalized invention of a well-known product, in this case dry cleaning — Ed’s attempt to invest in the new laundry technology kicks off an ultimately fatal sequence of events. At a certain point this feels close to parody, especially when Ed intones: “Dry cleaning. Was I crazy to be thinking about it?” 

Unlike the tense mid-forties thrillers it draws influence from, The Man is set in 1949 and is permeated with post-war boredom and purposelessness. Ed is so crushed by alienation that he can’t even get through a haircut without having a minor existential meltdown: “It keeps growing, and it’s part of us, and we throw it away.”  The film seems less interested in the murders than in Ed’s complete inability to relate to other human beings and their daily activities.

This is kind of where the aliens come in. The wife of the murdered Big Dave tells Ed that she and her husband saw a UFO, which she believes was the source of the subsequent chaos leading to Dave’s death. Ed does not react (he doesn’t react to anything). Later, Ed sees a UFO himself in a scene that might or might not be a dream. The film ends up playing like the world’s longest and most boring episode of the Twilight Zone (and I love the Twilight Zone).

I wish that The Man leaned into its sci-fi twist a lot harder — it would have been fun to see what the Coens could do with the 50’s alien movie subgenre. Instead the UFO is just an obvious metaphor for their protaganist’s alienation that only serves to confuse and slow down the murder narrative. It isn’t easy to sit through. While critics went nuts for the beautiful black-and-white cinematography and Thornton’s performance, The Man is easily my least favorite entry in the Coen filmography.

When given the chance, the Coens are going to make the movie they want to make, without much regard to whether the end result is coherent to anyone else. They aren’t driven by a pursuit of some ultimate cinematic sublimation — they just have fun doing their jobs that they happen to be incredibly good at. Their movies are born of the creative joy of exploring an idea or image and following it wherever it leads, typically down weird corners of the human experience. It doesn’t always work, but it’s always interesting, at least to someone. 

This interview (looks like it’s at Cannes) ends with what is probably my favorite quote from a filmmaker about their work ever: after discussing the significance of Ed Crane being a barber, Ethan says:  “All this stuff is actually in retrospect, but you know, it sounds plausible, and the French like it.” This is what I love about these guys — their utter lack of ego despite the pretention projected onto their work by other people. 

Stray Observations:

  • Some high points: Richard Jenkins’ character’s drunken NorCal attorney recommendations, and Tony Schaloub as a fast-talking and fast-eating defense attorney.
  • Frances McDormand is typically great, but it’s less fun because she’s basically acting against a brick wall (Thornton).
  • The French did like it — Joel shared the best director award at Cannes with David Lynch for Mulholland Drive.