Total Recall: Welcome to Coen Brothers Country

A look at the filmography of the two-headed writer-producer-director.

by |

Though many of the Coens' films can be labeled cult classics, perhaps none embody the term moreso than The Big Lebowski (1998, 74 percent). Jeff Bridges stars as pot smoking slacker hero Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski, who seeks restitution for his rug, urinated on by a pair of gangsters who mistook him for a different Lebowski -- namely, the "big" one (played by Charles Durning). Along with his bowling buddies, The Dude embarks on a wild chase that's as funny, depraved, and plain unpredictable as Los Angeles always feels like it should be.

With O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000, 79 percent), the Coen brothers took their thriller tropes (ill-fated criminal plans, ironic stereotypes, and a detached tone) and magically applied it towards an Odyssey-inspired farce. Starring George Clooney as the beleaguered but resourceful Odysseus, O Brother is a sepia-toned fantasia of throwaway jokes, slapstick, and killer bluegrass. In fact, the music proved popular enough to spawn a virtual cottage industry with multiple soundtracks, a documentary, and even a national tour.

Though the brothers have flirted with the shadowy realms of film noir, 2001's The Man Who Wasn't There (79 percent) is the closest they come to making a headlong plunge into the genre. Billy Bob Thornton stars as a classic fall guy, and playing the character as a deeply emotionally repressed square, Thornton is at his most controlled, wringing pathos out of an increasingly dire scenario. Featuring sharp, evocative black and white cinematography and an excellent supporting cast, The Man Who Wasn't There is an existential nightmare replete with odd touches and arguably the brothers' most emotionally pained work.

Demonstrating that their penchant for screwball comedy was not limited to marginal environments or period-piece conceits, the Coens set Intolerable Cruelty (2003, 75 percent) in no less a setting than modern day Beverly Hills. True to the genre, stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney are a suing wife and a wealthy divorce lawyer. Untrue to the genre, the stars go together like a rug and a chair.

The Ladykillers (2004, 55 percent), a remake of Alexander Mackendrick's 1955 crime comedy, relocates the film's original London heist to the Deep South, and swaps the British war widow for the equally archetypal black matriarch. Though The Ladykillers lacks the toothy bite of its macabre predecessor, it garnered some noteworthy festival awards for long-time Coens cinematographer Roger Deakins and the matriarch herself, Irma P. Hall.

Whether you enjoyed their more recent forays into comedy or not, one thing's for certain; with the ultra violent No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen mark a return to their darkly comic, sinister roots that made them cult favorites in the first place. Consider it a dip into the Western genre: the story of a hunter and an assassin facing off over a bag of stolen cash, set against the backdrop of the parched Texas plains. With plenty of firepower to spare, No Country not only revives that clever Coen knack for finding humor in the morbid, but it may just be the closest they'll get to making an all-out action film -- and one with valid awards season prospects, to boot. And that, we say, was well worth the wait.

Authors: Alex Vo, Sara Schieron, Timothy Mead Ryan, Nicholas Hershey, Jen Yamato