Total Recall: Welcome to Coen Brothers Country
A look at the filmography of the two-headed writer-producer-director.
Even with seemingly multiplex-ready movies like Intolerable Cruelty (75 percent) and The Ladykillers (55 percent), Joel and Ethan Coen have rarely been boffo box office draws. But the brothers release their movies with surprising regularity, and never seem to have much problem getting projects off the ground. It's probably because the duo makes weird movies. But not too weird. The Coens are essentially genre craftsmen -- crime thrillers, neo-noirs, a stoner comedy here or there -- who finesse their movies with signature arch dialogue and a morbid, mannered sense of humor. It's an approach that limits box office but opens countless doors to produce a loyal and rabid cult following. Here's a trip through the filmography of America's most valued team of auteurs.
Combining the shocks of a slasher film with the moral ambiguity and twisty plotting of film noir, the Coens' debut, Blood Simple (1984, 98 percent), shook American independent cinema to its core. Creepy and deliriously malevolent, its the story of a bar owner who hires a sketchy private eye to kill his cheating wife (Frances McDormand); double and triple crosses and bloody mayhem ensues. With their first film, the Coens show an aptitude for the stylistic quirks that would become their trademark: the balancing the macabre with a loopy sense of humor.
The first Coen brothers film to display their knack for quirky comedy, 1987's Raising Arizona (90 percent) helped seal the filmmakers' reputation and cement their loyal following. Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter are brilliantly cast as a cop and ex-con husband/wife who resolve their infertility with kidnapping. Though not their biggest hit, it's infinitely quotable ("Edwina's insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.") and original score by Carter Burwell is not to be ignored.
As an homage to classic gangster movies,1991's Miller's Crossing (90 percent) is hypercharged; the language is harsher, the violence more brutal, the plotting more labyrinthine. Albert Finney and Gabriel Byrne star as Irish mobsters, threatened externally by the Italian mob and internally by their shared love of a woman (Marcia Gay Harden). In some ways, Miller's Crossing is the Coens' most straightforward work; while it has a streak of dark humor, it features impeccable 1920s décor and intriguing tale of loyalty throughout.
Legend has it the Coens had such a bad case of writer's block while writing Miller's Crossing that they took three weeks off to script Barton Fink (1991, 93 percent), a 1930s-set black comedy about -- what else? -- a Hollywood scribe with writer's block. A fledgling New York playwright who sells out (at the cost of...his soul!) and moves to the City of Angels, Barton Fink (played marvelously by Coen regular John Turturro) holes up in the seamy Hotel Earle, where exquisitely dismal wallpaper peels off the walls as a heat wave sweats the city. The heat especially ramps up when Barton's gregarious neighbor (John Goodman) is around; almost hellishly so, you might say. But as every smart filmmaker is wont to do, the Coens offer no overt explanations of what's really going on -- just a well-told tale with visual imagery aplenty, and an ode to the sometimes infernal nature of the creative process.
The Coens spooned doses of their trademark guileless humor on The Hudsucker Proxy (1994, 58 percent), a period office comedy-cum-Christmas tale. Jennifer Jason-Leigh is pitch perfect in her role as post-war career woman ("Do you think this suit looks mannish?") against Tim Robbins's hapless dreamer ("You know -- for kids!"). Visionary in many ways, this film deserves a better reputation than it's garnered in its odd little sleeper life.
1996's Fargo (93 percent) is the Coens' most successful film to date, with seven Oscar nominations and two wins: Best Actress (Frances McDormand) and Best Original Screenplay. Fargo details a ransom kidnap scheme gone wrong, with very pregnant cop McDormand investigating the crime as the bumbling perpetrators attempt to cover their tracks. The Coens' bleak humor and taste for blood and violence never mixed as well as it did in Minnesota.