Tuesday, November 2

Pulling Rabbits: On The Coen Brothers

I don’t think that people properly realize how incredibly strange the Coen Brothers’ films really are. They have an uncanny talent to lure you into the depths of their demented minds and make you feel just a little too comfortable there. And before you know, a group of nihilists torturing a stoner by throwing a ferret at his genitals doesn’t seem all that strange.

Nothing to see here, move right along

I think this is one of the reasons some people tend not to "get" their comedies: they don’t get funny until you realize how absolutely ridiculous they are. Burn After Reading, for example, is a movie that is made like a spy movie, but it is actually about a bunch of absolute idiots who hump and kill each other over something that is completely worthless. There is this great plot element about “classified” information that is really just some dudes memoirs. They are not important. To anyone. But the movie is made with such suspense it’s hard to pop this bubble. But when you do, laughter will ensue.

This actually makes sense in the movie

The Coen brothers have something you might call a rythm: first they make a noirish, serious movie, then they make a screwball comedy. Rinse and repeat. They have made 15 films so far, and only two of those don’t fit in that mould. But don’t think for a moment that this makes their movies predictable. Especially their endings are pretty unique: sometimes everybody ends happily ever after (Intolerable Cruelty), sometimes it’s uncertain what is going to happen (Raising Arizona) and sometimes everybody simply gets murdered (Burn After Reading).

But the thing that really makes their movies differ from each other is their setting. Now, when most directors make a movie somewhere, they either shoot in a place where the scenery is nice or somewhere where they can rent cameras cheaply. But when the Coens make a movie someplace, the movie looks and sounds like the spirit of that place. Fargo is set in Minnesota, and the movie just gives you the chills, so cold does it look. Oh Brother, Where Art Thou is set in the American South, and everything looks  like the brothers dragged their celluloid through the Mississipi river. They don’t use settings. They use places.

From Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

The Brothers themselves are notoriously difficult to grasp, and their films never seem to truly open themselves either. There always is a little edge, a little something that can never really be explained. Maybe that's what always drives me back into the demented world they create. I don't know. The only thing I know is that I always return for seconds.


I could write an entire essay on how the works of Sufjan Stevens and the Coen Brothers share similar tones and themes. For now, let me just suffice in sharing this wicked song with you. It's from the album Illinois. Get that album. It's brilliant.

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