The Brothers Grim: The Films of Ethan and Joel Coen



Viewer beware.


To casual observers, the films of Ethan and Joel Coen notoriously confound audience expectations. Refusing to adhere to genre conventions or movie-marketing ploys, the Coens' cinema can even leave professional journalists like Charlie Rose searching for a common denominator. Viewers who try to locate a common theme, directorial signature, or political streak may only see technical bravura, sly cinema in-jokes, or sidesplitting gags. But the depth and breadth of the Coen brothers' body of work—one of the most impressive and, strangely, influential in independent cinema today—bespeak an intelligence and cultural acuity that is rich, highly topical, and certainly hard to pigeonhole. Audiences may be excused for missing the obvious point of the Coens' work. It's not about the message; it's the medium. Or so these high priests of the lowbrow art of moviemaking would have you think.


But think again. The eleven movies the fraternal filmmakers have produced to date not only upend expectations, but they also show how our view of the world profoundly affects what we accept as "reality." The Coens' cinema dresses up belief to look like knowledge, testing the viewer's perspicacity or, at the very least, jolting us out of our escapist comfort zone. While watching a Coen movie, it's a good idea to keep in mind the warning of Blood Simple's narrator, "Nothing comes with a guarantee." Their self-conscious movies all implicitly carry a similar message: caveat spectator.


Trickster Mythmaking

Like the West African trickster god Eshu, the Coens and their films encourage us to leave our assumptions at the theatre door. Eshu is a provocateur who dons a two-colored hat, revealing only the red side to one man and the white side to his friend, to show that people can be simultaneously right and wrong. Like this mischievous but benevolent god of the crossroads, the Coens, through their films, show how perspective is key to one's perception of reality. Exposing the Coens as prankster mythmakers, who create nebulous, dreamlike story universes, this book is a body of work that both draws on and subverts storytelling tactics. Part of the Coens' subversion and artistic agenda is to make you laugh. And laugh you will, perhaps without noticing the potent lessons of perception woven into each work. But giving their films a second look with new eyes rarely hurts.


Coen films often make us rethink our roles as observers, telegraphing intrinsic dualities of human nature, such as truths and lies, the revealed and the hidden, male and female, and dreams and reality. Barton Fink with its horror-movie feel not only mordantly razzes Hollywood's slavelike studio system of the 1940s, but it also suggestively and slyly warns against an informer—a "fink"—who trusts his chummy neighbor, only to discover he has given information to a murderous madman. All the while, the astute Fink viewer may wonder if these things are really happening or if the contents of Barton's head are spilling onto the cinematic canvas. Fink is a surreal journey into the imagination and a sardonic exploration of how art is made, experienced, and contemplated.


  • Client:
    Scarecrow Press
  • Date:
    May, 2007
  • Category: