One of the Coen Brothers’ most popular works, and with good reason, No Country for Old Men opens up as a dark-hearted thriller with a suitably soul-churning slow-burn style and some stunningly subfuscous cinematography from long-time Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins, and concludes as a burning bullet into the American soul and a deliberate, deeply textured dissection of Western iconography and the myth of the American Dream. For all its thematic heft, it’s an astoundingly sensory motion picture, where theme and content merge with form, and style becomes substance; every image and sound, no matter how slow and cavernous, coalesce into an abominable whole that attains a sort of lurching, poisonous, unspeakably despairing propulsive forward movement. It’s an indefinably visceral motion picture, the kind that feels humanity’s worst sorts in its very bones, and it sits back and shakes its head with a sense of hopelessness. For everything crawling under its skin, it never feels obtuse or over-written, and looking back on the 2000s, few cinematic achievements find craftsmanship so pure and perfected. Continue reading
If the Coens had fiction and the intellectual dents of the anarchic human brain on the mind with Miller’s Crossing, they doubled-down with Barton Fink. Probably the Coens’ strangest and most esoteric piece, Barton Fink is both a wry exploration of the “troubled artist” trope and a purposefully artificial construct to throw a kvetch Hollywood’s way. It’s a formalist’s dream, but it uses formalism to shoot formalism in the kneecaps and poke the wound a few hundred times. It’s no Sunset Blvd, but it’s one of the few Hollywood parables with the chutzpah to dive into the cynical stew of a Wilder and never come up for breath.
We’ve all heard this sort of story before, because Hollywood loves to self-aggrandize even in the negative. Barton Fink (John Turturro), an NY playwright, goes to LA to break into screenwriting. In the midst of seemingly trying his hardest to do everything but that, he meets Charlie (John Goodman), a neighbor whose local haunt happens to be Barton’s room. Along the way, Charlie teaches Barton a little about Hollywood living (namely that it ain’t). But the fact that we’ve all heard this story before is exactly what the Coens’ are preying on, for if we’ve heard it before, we’ve never heard it from a two-headed soothsayer.
Barton Fink begins with Barton Fink, and what the two authors who’ve created him want to do to abuse him. He’s one of the Coens’ finest characters, a fascinatingly neurotic loner ably played by consistent Coen Brothers collaborator John Turturro (by 1991 knee-deep on his way to becoming a stand-in Coen Brothers version of Alvy Singer, albeit more sniveling). However, there’s a key difference: here, the filmmakers don’t have sympathy for their lead character. They only find pity. He rants and raves about his writer’s block and the difficulties he has selling a story to the immolating, hollow, bogus Hollywood machine, but the film subtly undercuts his character by rendering him almost inconsequential, nothing short of a phony himself, an eternal victim without the backbone of the true New York underdog he claims as an identity. Ultimately, he is as artificial as the Hollywood cronies he has to deal with, or the famous Faulkner-esque writer he, and the Coens, admire, who is here rendered deranged fool. If the Coens are the most literate director-writers working in America today, they aren’t above tearing so-called literate Hollywood sell-outs a new one, and implicating themselves in the process. Continue reading
So I decided to continue my ’80s series into the ’90s. Whaddaya want, to fight about it? More reviews for me, more reviews for you. Everybody’s happy! Plus the ’80s didn’t necessarily end with the ’80s, if you know what I mean. The spirit of the ’80s was transformed, sure, but we see the influence of the decade’s films today. In the first few years, for instance, we see the emergence of a true cinematic two-headed giant, taking the genre-riffery that so populated the late ’80s and elevating it to more rigorous art with an analytic bent, combining the best of late ’80s playfulness with ’90s indie intellectualism. After all, someone had to pave the way for the soon-diluted hellish quirk fest that would be the late ’90s and early 2000s. After all, even the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
When Miller’s Crossing was released, the Coen Brothers were an unknown quantity still frolicking about in their wild years. They’d released one pitch-black neo-noir thriller and a second film its polar opposite, a light, frothy screwball comedy. The only thing the two films shared, their directors’ sure-hands aside, was a love for and desire to explore the heart of classic cinema. This same dogged spirit permeates Miller’s Crossing, their third film, and perhaps the one that best captures the spirit of what the Coens’ would become. Certainly, it’s the one that would pave the way most directly for Fargo, still probably their most famous film, if not their best. It is snarky, playful, inebriated yet sharp as a tack, smarmy, deconstructed and reconstructed, loopy, acute, and heady in the most amusing possible way. Calling it a comedy feels weird, but it’s undeniably funny; likewise, while it isn’t a “drama,” it deals with serious themes and finds itself in the company of their most textured films. The only sure thing you could call it – a gangster picture (and by god, this is not a movie, or a film, but a picture) – doesn’t even hold up under close analysis. It’s an unclassifiable beast of a project, an art film in genre clothing, but it wears its weight like air.
A Serious Man
A deceptively sedate but perpetually off-kilter movie, A Serious Man really has a lot going on under its sleeves, even if the characters seem more interested in re-fastening the cuff-links to keep everything from spilling out. It’s one of the two-headed director’s patented caustic satires of the very mundane oppression of everyday suburban America, only this time without as much salt and vinegar. Yes, A Serious Man is a combative, anxious film, and it takes a perturbed delight in unearthing the daily existential crises of a society that seems to run on wheels to the untrained eye, but it’s also a curiously warm film. Perhaps the Coens had a little bit of humanist fun left in them after 2008’s 60’s caper comedy re-reading Burn After Reading, and they decided to infuse just a smidgen of it into a decidedly brainier, more intellectual stew. Or maybe they just had Jewish guilt on the mind, and needed a little Jewish humor to save their tired souls. Either way, they produced some filmic dynamite, a work as rabidly intellectual as it is lightly feeling and genially flighty. It captures humanity looking the other way and takes a true delight in watching and letting the popcorn fly. Continue reading
After an unusually long gap for the insanely prolific Coen Brothers (three whole years!), they make damn-sure they remind us why we wait with such anxiety and anticipation for each release bearing their sibling stamp. With fantastic attention to detail, a well-realized sense of place that is all too familiar yet curiously distant, and a surprisingly laid-back yet aching, distraught screenplay backing them, Inside Llewyn Davis is their best release since No Country for Old Men and dangerously close to one of their top five films ever. It works as a meandering tribute to the underbelly of the greasy, cut-throat New York folk scene, an homage to the freewheeling works of James Joyce and their ability to uphold the common man as a mythic wanderer, and a picaresque exploration of the the day-to-day doldrums of human existence that combines unaffected social realism and moments of more obviously filmic, signature Coen Brothers flights of subtle fantasy. It’s an altogether plaintive film, but a deeply felt one with cheer tempered by aimless loss that chills to the bone. Continue reading