Okay. Let’s say you’re super excited for the premiere of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, the new film by arthouse über-siblings Joel and Ethan Coen, but you’re afraid your lack of familiarity with the Coens’ back-catalogue will leave you high and dry in the post-movie unpacking with your friends. And let’s also say that you were going to use the Brattle’s recent retrospective to fill your cinematic blindspots, but what with the holiday shopping and your burgeoning work and/or class load, you lacked the time and/or money to make it out there. Well, Incredibly Specific Person I Just Made Up, you’re in luck – this handy, Hassle-approved cheat sheet will make you a scholar of Coenology in no time!
BLOOD SIMPLE. (1984)
SYNOPSIS: A man hires a private investigator to prove his wife’s infidelity; for the first, but by no means the last time in the Coens’ filmography, things go awry.
PLACE IN THE CANON: Like MEAN STREETS before it and RESERVOIR DOGS after it, the Coens’ debut announced a bold new voice in American film. Also like those films, it is considerably leaner and meaner than what would follow.
RECURRING COEN PLAYERS: Frances McDormand, who, not coincidentally, is also Mrs. Joel Coen.
CULTURAL TOUCHSTONES: Film noir, Alfred Hitchcock, Flannery O’Connor, Neil Diamond (or, in the directors’ cut, the Four Tops).
KEY LINE: “The truth is… he was alive when I buried him.”
RAISING ARIZONA (1987)
SYNOPSIS: An ex-con and his police officer wife kidnap a wealthy quintuplet as a solution to their infertility. Things go awry.
PLACE IN THE CANON: After their gritty, minimalist debut, the brothers showed the world that they could go funny as well, albeit with the same cockeyed slant. The result is one of the great slapstick farces of the modern era.
RECURRING COEN PLAYERS: McDormand, Holly Hunter (likewise, Ethan’s wife), and John Goodman, the bellowing heart of much of the Coen oeuvre.
CULTURAL TOUCHSTONES: Chuck Jones cartoons, MAD MAX, the Lindberg baby.
KEY LINE: “I’ll be taking these Huggies… and, uh, whatever cash you got.”
MILLER’S CROSSING (1990)
SYNOPSIS: A complex, stylized look at the Irish mob during Prohibition. (Read the Hassle review HERE)
PLACE IN THE CANON: This one was initially overlooked as being more staid than its predecessors– so much so that the Online Film Critics’s Society named it the #1 overlooked film of the ’90s. It has since been elevated to one of the Coens’ most revered.
RECURRING COEN PLAYERS: John Turturro, Jon Polito, and the frequently doomed Steve Buscemi.
CULTURAL TOUCHSTONES: THE GODFATHER, YOJIMBO, pre-code gangster flicks.
KEY LINE: “Nobody knows anybody– not that well.”
BARTON FINK (1991)
SYNOPSIS: An acclaimed playwright moves to Hollywood to make a quick screenwriting buck. Things get weird. (Read the Hassle review HERE)
PLACE IN THE CANON: By far the Coens’ most surreal feature, BARTON FINK was also the first film to win Best Picture, Director, and Actor at the Cannes Film Festival. Maybe not the best starting point, but it will certainly stick with you.
RECURRING COEN PLAYERS: Turturro, Goodman, Buscemi, Tony Shalhoub, Michael Lerner.
CULTURAL TOUCHSTONES: Milton, William Faulkner, Harold Lloyd, KISS ME DEADLY, Wallace Beery wrestling pictures.
KEY LINE: “Fade in: A tenement building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Early morning traffic is audible, as is the cry of fishmongers.”
THE HUDSUCKER PROXY (1994)
SYNOPSIS: A giant industrial company appoints a naive stooge CEO as part of an elaborate stock market scam, but said naif has an idea that could change everything.
PLACE IN THE CANON: This film netted the Coens’ their biggest budget so far, with a high-powered producer (Joel Silver) and some of Hollywood’s best actors (Tim Robbins, Paul Newman, Jennifer Jason Leigh). Rather than selling out, however, they used these resources to construct the most dazzlingly stylized film of their career. Co-written by the Coens’ ex-roommate and all-around chum Sam Raimi.
RECURRING COEN PLAYERS: Buscemi, Polito, and the voice of an uncredited Goodman.
CULTURAL TOUCHSTONES: Frank Capra, Charlie Chaplin, screwball comedies, MGM musicals.
KEY LINE: “You know– for kids!”
SYNOPSIS: A used car salesman hires a pair of hitmen to kidnap his wife so he can extort money from his father-in-law. Things go awry, don’cha know. (Read the Hassle review HERE).
PLACE IN THE CANON: This is the one that broke the Coen brothers through to the mainstream– it’s as dark as anything they’ve done, but the goofy accents helped it go down easier. Possibly the only Coen brothers film your grandma has seen.
RECURRING COEN PLAYERS: McDormand, Buscemi, Peter Stormare.
CULTURAL TOUCHSTONES: PSYCHO, Minnesota nice, the John Deere catalog.
KEY LINE: “I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work dere, Lou.”
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)
SYNOPSIS: Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski meanders into a web of intrigue when rug-pissers mistake him for Jeffrey “The Big” Lebowski. (Read the Hassle review HERE).
PLACE IN THE CANON: Initially deemed a disappointment following the massive success of FARGO, the cult of LEBOWSKI has grown exponentially, making it now perhaps the Coens’ most beloved film. Think of it as PAUL’S BOUTIQUE syndrome.
RECURRING COEN PLAYERS: Jeff Bridges, Goodman, Buscemi, Turturro, Polito, Stormare, the Volkswagen from BLOOD SIMPLE.
CULTURAL TOUCHSTONES: THE BIG SLEEP, Busby Berkeley, the first Bush administration, weed, Creedence.
KEY LINE: “Fuck it, Dude. Let’s go bowling.” (Honorable mention, from the TV edit: “Do you SEE WHAT HAPPENS when you FIND a STRANGER in the ALPS???”)
O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000)
SYNOPSIS: Three escaped convicts make their way through Depression-era Mississippi in search of buried treasure. Tight spots ensue.
PLACE IN THE CANON: Perhaps best remembered for its Grammy-winning bluegrass juggernaut of a soundtrack (curated by the great T-Bone Burnett), O BROTHER is in many ways the Coens’ most ambitious film. Watch for a cameo by the EVIL DEAD cabin!
RECURRING COEN PLAYERS: Turturro, Goodman, Hunter, George Clooney, Stephen Root.
CULTURAL TOUCHSTONES: THE ODYSSEY, GRAPES OF WRATH, Preston Sturges, Robert Johnson, Harry Smith’s ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC.
KEY LINE: “I like the smell of my hair treatment! The pleasing smell is half the point!”
THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE (2001)
SYNOPSIS: There’s no way I can improve on the Coens’ own synopsis: “It’s the story of a barber who wants to be a dry cleaner.”
PLACE IN THE CANON: With the reassessment of MILLER’S CROSSING, this one has perhaps inherited the crown of Most Overlooked Film of the Coens’ career. If you haven’t seen it, it’s pretty great. There are even aliens in it!
RECURRING COEN PLAYERS: McDormand, Polito, Shalhoub, Billy Bob Thornton, Richard Jenkins.
CULTURAL TOUCHSTONES: DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Camus, UFO literature.
KEY LINE: “Me, I don’t talk much. I just cut the hair.”
INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003)
SYNOPSIS: A gold-digging socialite aims to marry a womanizing divorce lawyer in order to score sweet divorce money. Somehow, things go awry.
PLACE IN THE CANON: Widely seen as the Coen brothers’ first true misstep – everything about it just seemed too unironically “Hollywood” (due surely in part to the fact that the script had been bouncing around Hollywood for years before the Coens signed on and rewrote it). That said, beneath its beautiful leads and rom-com trappings beats a surprisingly nasty little heart.
RECURRING COEN PLAYERS: Clooney, Thornton, Jenkins.
CULTURAL TOUCHSTONES: Howard Hawks, THE AWFUL TRUTH, and other screwball comedies of their ilk.
KEY LINE: “Objection, your honor! Strangling the witness!”
THE LADYKILLERS (2004)
SYNOPSIS: A remake of the classic Ealing Studios farce, with Alec Guinness’ gentleman thief re-imagined by Tom Hanks as a southern dandy.
PLACE IN THE CANON: Widely seen as the Coens’ SECOND misstep, made all the more puzzling by the fact that it was released a mere six months after CRUELTY. The brothers lay low for a few years after this one; today, no one really talks about it one way or the other.
RECURRING COEN PLAYERS: Root, JK Simmons.
CULTURAL TOUCHSTONES: Uh, THE LADYKILLERS.
KEY LINE: “Easiest thing in the world!”
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)
SYNOPSIS: A man finds himself two million dollars richer when he stumbles across the remains of a drug deal gone wrong. He doesn’t quite think it through, and even if he did, he probably wouldn’t anticipate the unstoppable, pint-size psychopath with a cattle gun. (Read the Hassle review HERE).
PLACE IN THE CANON: After a brief hiatus, the brothers roared back into form with this terrifying, jet-black descent into hell. They proceeded to win all the Oscars.
RECURRING COEN PLAYERS: Root, Josh Brolin.
CULTURAL TOUCHSTONES: CAPE FEAR, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, the Cormac McCarthy novel upon which it was based.
KEY LINE: “What business is it of yours where I’m from… friendo?”
BURN AFTER READING (2008)
SYNOPSIS: An ex-CIA agent leaves a CD-R of his memoirs at the gym, where it falls into the hands of doofy trainers.
PLACE IN THE CANON: Basically their post-NO COUNTRY victory lap. Tonally, it’s not too dissimilar to CRUELTY and LADYKILLERS, but audiences cut this one more slack now that they knew how the cycle worked.
RECURRING COEN PLAYERS: Clooney, McDormand, Jenkins, Simmons.
CULTURAL TOUCHSTONES: ADVISE & CONSENT, Jason Bourne, bizarre sex devices.
KEY LINE: “Osborne Cox? I thought you might be worried… about the security… of your shit.”
A SERIOUS MAN (2009)
SYNOPSIS: Larry Gopnik, a Jewish math teacher in late-’60s suburban Minnesota, has a terrible, terrible life.
PLACE IN THE CANON: Peculiarly, no one seems to talk about this one either, despite the fact that it’s as strong as anything they’ve done. Perhaps it’s the overwhelmingly downbeat tone; I loved it, but it’s tough to really want to watch it again.
RECURRING COEN PLAYERS: Just Lerner this time around, unless you count the all-encompassing feeling of dread as a cast member.
CULTURAL TOUCHSTONES: Jewish folklore, The Book of Job, Jefferson Airplane.
KEY LINE: “Accept the mystery!”
TRUE GRIT (2010)
SYNOPSIS: A remake of the 1969 film of the same name, with Jeff “The Dude” Bridges filling the shoes of John “The Duke” Wayne.
PLACE IN THE CANON: The long-awaited reunion of the Coens and Jeff Bridges, both parties having finally won their respective Oscars. Not much else to say, apart from the fact that it’s really, really good.
RECURRING COEN PLAYERS: Bridges, Brolin.
CULTURAL TOUCHSTONES: TRUE GRIT– but more the novel than the movie.
KEY LINE: “I do not entertain hypotheticals. The world itself is vexing enough.”
OTHER WORKS: The Coens have written or co-written a handful of films they didn’t direct, including CRIMEWAVE (the sophomore effort by pal Sam Raimi, which is awesome), THE NAKED MAN (an enjoyable but forgettable indie film co-written by Ethan), and GAMBIT (which I honestly forgot existed until just now; I never saw it, and don’t think I’ve talked to anyone who has, but hey, Colin Firth is in it). They also shot segments for the anthology films PARIS, JE T’AIME and TO EACH HIS OWN CINEMA, their segment for the latter of which is a particular hoot. Finally, they wrote an incredible false commentary track for the DVD of BLOOD SIMPLE, ostensibly by film historian Kenneth Loring (actually BEST IN SHOW’s Jim Piddock), which is as essential as the film itself.
Lastly, one more hypothetical: Let’s say you’re in the middle of your post-LLEWELYN dinner conversation RIGHT NOW, and you don’t have time to read this entire article. All you really need to know about the films of Joel and Ethan Coen is that they have a singular knack for making fat men howl.