Bright Lights Film Journal

What Makes Them So Successful? A Look into the Philosophy Behind the Coens’ Filmography

Ethan and Joel Coen on the set of No Country for Old Men: © Miramax Films and Paramount Vantage

The truth is that they tend toward philosophical absurdism, rather than nihilism, and this perspective is what either makes or breaks their film in terms of commercial appeal. The draw, of course, is that this effectively mirrors the chaos of everyday life. The Coens’ appeal might be that this is a fundamental contradiction with their depiction of camp and heightened realism. The prescription is seemingly not whether the Coens should sway their characters or postmodern pastiche one way or the other – they have found themselves at the very fringes of each style – but whether that combination magnifies the triviality of their go-nowhere conclusions and complex subplots, or falls right into their school of thought with finesse and subtlety.

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Literary fiction or genre fiction. Hollywood blockbusters or independent films. Mainstream pop or avant-garde. The divide between artistic merit and commercial success can seem more like a dichotomy of personal intention than a shifting gradient. But an auteur-like ethos of uncompromising artistry (an ideal that evolved out of French New Wave cinema, and has gone on to captivate the individualist mindset of American filmmakers) can sometimes produce entertainment that caters to large demographics (think Godfather); likewise, directors such as Ed Wood were delusional enough to believe that their aesthetic was palatable to a wider audience, and haphazardly took work, primarily for financial reasons.

This brings us to the Coen Brothers, whose artistic and commercial success have come hand-in-hand, free from the sharp division of creative intention or monetary incentive. Granted, it took the pair whose idiosyncratic style inspired the cinematic portmanteau Coen-esque decades of personal and career setbacks to reach such a pinnacle. Throughout the mid- to late 1980s, while the brothers struggled to reconcile their own penchant for off-kilter dialogue and untraditional genre recombinations– New York Times long-stay Vincent Canby would refer to Raising Arizona as “full of technical expertise, but with no life of its own. . . . The direction [being] without decisive style” – their reported box-office earnings were somewhat marginal. And by 1994, with the release of the The Hudsucker Proxy (a pastiche of Old Hollywood screwball comedies from the likes of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges that parallels Hail, Caesar! in its subject matter), being “Coen-esque” probably would have stood as an insult. Three of their films had lost their production companies millions of dollars: Barton Fink was the winner of the Palme d’Or, but also brought in only $6.2 million at the box office in comparison to a $9 million budget; Miller’s Crossing made it into Time’s “All-TIME 100 Movies” list, but only brought in $5 million for what was considered to be an $11-14 million (accounts vary) safe bet, according to the Atlantic; and The Hudsucker Proxy failed on both levels, invoking a tepid critical response and losing the trifecta of production companies that worked on the movie a grand total of $23 million.

But something happened.

Steve Buscemi in Fargo

I have no intention here to lay out an autobiographical dramatization of the Coen Brothers’ collective life story in order to give some sort of dramatic nuance or intriguing context to their likely mundane yet inspiring means of self-actualized living. For all we know, the Coen Brothers were kidnapped by nihilists themselves, read Albert Camus’s The Stranger and found it rather inappropriately funny, or even rewatched an older Fellini film and found something to pursue there. Nonetheless, they found a bridge to their commercial aspirations, which they admitted to being aware of as a certain burden during the filming of The Hudsucker Proxy, while defining their own kind of postmodernist approach to cinema, tackling philosophical dead-ends and absurdist paradoxes. (How can one finding meaning in an infinitely chaotic and non-meaningful world without deluding oneself?)

This formula (if you can call it that) seems to work when tempered by certain genre tropes: realism, dark comedy, etc. Leaning too far to one side or the other of the existentialist equation, while stirring less popular genre convention, tends to spoil the “metaphorical” stew of disparate influences. The late critic Roger Ebert, who tended to critique films based on their expected audience, latches onto the tail-end of this issue in his review for O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). He writes:

I do not demand that all movies have a story to pull us from beginning to end, and indeed one of the charms of “The Big Lebowski,” the Coens’ previous film, is how its stoned hero loses track of the thread of his own life. But with “O Brother, Where Are Thou?” I had the sense of invention set adrift; of a series of bright ideas wondering why they had all been invited to the same film.

What Ebert fails to realize is that this feeling of invention being “set adrift” has defined the Coen Brothers’ philosophical intention almost entirely since the release of Fargo in 1996. Their most recent return to vague, early-20th-century period homage, Hail, Caesar!, displays much of the surface-level directionlessness that Ebert and other mainstream critics have frequently lamented, yet praised in other Coen films. The film circles around Eddie Mannix, a no-nonsense lower-level film executive at Capitol Pictures portrayed with noir-like stoicism by Josh Brolin. He is tormented by a career offer made by an employee at Lockheed, who derides the film industry as a type of babysitting for spoiled adults. Throughout the film, Mannix’s day-to-day life is interwoven with the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock; a Socialist group of film writers who ominously refer to themselves as The Future intend to extort $100,000 (somewhere around $1 million in today’s currency) from the production company through his ransom.

But as we descend into the Coens’ assemblage of fast-talking Hollywood one-percenters, Mannix’s character arc and inclinations toward miraculous self-revelation seem increasingly nonexistent. Moreover, almost every character lacks the ability to alter themselves or their environment: Hobie Doyle, a Western movie star miscast as a refined romancer in a period drama, never overcomes his ineptitude as an actor; Baird Whitlock, who has found a new leftist political calling, quickly abandons this line of thinking after being literally pummeled by Mannix; and Laurence Laurentz, played with delicious pretentiousness by Ralph Fiennes, never quite wins his battle with the studio for creative reign and a new leading man. With the blanket of institutional hierarchy impeding these characters’ desires, it should come as no surprise that no one truly get what they imagine they want – by the end of the film, they are obligated to return to their assigned roles, to positions that grant their life some semblance of meaning or fulfillment. Though the Coen Bros. aren’t giving us static characters, they’re placing them in a world that prefers stasis; a universe that prefers caricatures, like the indivisible mass of Communists or the revolving same-faced journalists, rather than ordinary people. Are we closer to this kind of world than we think we are? However poignant the question was, bringing it up might have been a turn-off for mainstream audiences.

Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) in Hail, Caesar!

Among several cringe-inducing moments in Hail, Casear!, there is a particular scene in which Burt Gurney (something of a Gene Kelly caricature) inadvertently drops a suitcase full of money into the depths of the Pacific. The image will strike those who have seen Fargo or The Big Lebowski as a motif récurrent among the Coens’ oevure. The interconnected framework of the plot unfurls itself in an instant, and renders the plight of The Future (the poster children for McCarthy’s vision of the Reds) essentially fruitless. All those Commies were looking for was money after all – it was only a matter of time before they “mismanaged” their funds. The cash subsequently becomes something of a MacGuffin, just like many of the character arcs themselves – a catalyst for the Coens to explore greed, existentialism in the context of a capitalistic institution, and how to navigate one’s life among the un-assuagable disarray of human interrelations.

As some academics and film critics have pointed out, the films of the Coens do not always simply amount to “nothing” or a “pointless” excursion. And yet, this is an analytical phenomenon among casual filmgoers that is not to be discredited – on the contrary, it should be explored with zeal. What exactly is this Coen effect that seems to push against the fringes of absurdity and non-meaning? And why do some people find this completely alienating or, worse, nonsensical?

Scarlett Johansson in Hail, Caesar!

Film review aggregators are not without an innate bias. Those who are more displeased with a film, or any type of service for that matter, tend to self-report their feelings because they are roused by emotion. Still, Hail, Caesar! maintains a 46 percent score from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes in comparison to the 85 percent average critic rating. IMDB, which consists entirely of user-base scores, marks the film at 6.5/10 average out of 43,000 reviews. One of the more scathing reviews was titled, “People were quietly leaving the theatre.” While their box-office receipts would tell another story – the film brought in a somewhat modest $63 million against its $22 million budget – this might have resulted from being Academy Award winners. It may only indicate that people were more willing to give it a first-time watch based on their accolades, or largely varying word-of-mouth descriptions.

Poster tagline: “A high stakes, low life, mid-level CIA thriller.”

So what went “wrong” here, in regard to being able to cater to both the mainstream and critical realm simultaneously? The disconnect could arise from a philosophical incompatibility with audience’s genre expectations. The film was advertised as a screwball comedy with camp elements and fond appreciation of Old Hollywood schlock, an aesthetic that the Coens had unsuccessfully tinkered with before in The Hudsucker Proxy. But the humorous elements of Hail, Caesar! were few and far between, and when they appeared, they were closer to black comedy and satire than the crowd-pleaser raunchiness of 2008’s Burn After Reading. This kind of abstract comical exercise, paired with historical tie-ins to films like Khartoum (which they themselves acknowledge as sub-par), does not sit well with certain audiences when fastened to the kind of arbitrary chaos Mannix must go through to find guidance in an absurd and unpoetic world. Ultimately, he chooses to stick with his career as the head of physical production, despite the “babysitting” he is compelled to do. But without drawing the aforementioned philosophical connection, it appears outwardly that nothing has fundamentally changed, and the political subplot has meaninglessly resolved itself via a deus ex machina (or outright stupidity in the case of Gurney). There is perhaps too large a gap to fill in between these elements for mainstream viewers to really care to do so.

A similar phenomenon manifests itself in a different form from outright detractors. For some, the Coens become sadistic tormentors, cruel deities even; placing characters in labyrinthone situations that cross paths mercilessly with each other without rhyme or reason. The meaninglessness complaint is still there, but instead of merely dismissing this stylistic choice as a failure, they choose to confront each film’s nihilistic tendencies as a symptom of an implacable ego or masturbatory whimsy. Mike D’Angelo of The Dissolve in his retrospective on the Coens states that “their need to give their perplexed hero a never-ending beatdown comes across as weirdly sadistic,” referring to their cynical and darkly entertaining masterpiece A Serious Man. Another columnist, for Den of Geek!, writes: “the brothers are, in fact, sadistic bastards with a disturbing taste for schadenfreude, desperate to pull viewers through a portal of pain and misanthropy . . . [they] keep on serving up these wretches and dragging them through the wringer in the name of making a good movie, and possibly in an attempt to generate ‘pain for pleasure.’”

While the “effect” can provoke a number of reactions in different circles, at least the Coens are eliciting an emotional reaction (which is more than can be said about blockbusters like Batman Vs. Superman). Admittedly, Hail, Caesar! was also met largely with indifference from critics (sites like Rotten Tomatoes skew upwards for what they deem a “postitve” review, which is anything past the 6.5 range), and was derided as a middle-of-the-road retread for those who have already seen the Coens’ greatest work operate under a similar labyrinthine structure of professional relationships gone awry.

The truth is that they tend toward philosophical absurdism, rather than nihilism, and this perspective is what either makes or breaks their film in terms of commercial appeal. The draw, of course, is that this effectively mirrors the chaos of everyday life. The Coens’ appeal might be that this is a fundamental contradiction with their depiction of camp and heightened realism. The prescription is seemingly not whether the Coens should sway their characters or postmodern pastiche one way or the other – they have found themselves at the very fringes of each style – but whether that combination magnifies the triviality of their go-nowhere conclusions and complex subplots, or falls right into their school of thought with finesse and subtlety. (A key exception being Burn After Reading – a film that hyperbolized its own meaningless to such an absurd level that it became hysterical.).

We can see a bit of this in the 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis, which concerns itself with the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene of the late 1960s. This is an era often recalled with nostalgia and mythos, with grandeur and the American ideal that anyone can make it if they try hard enough. Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) is a struggling musician, a talented couch-surfer haunted by the death of his former musical collaborator. Throughout the film, he strives to be truly heard (not just listened to), and ultimately ends up face down and bloody behind the venue in which Bob Dylan is discovered by The New York Times. Has his failure been presaged throughout his life, or is it just the result of a random assortment of setbacks and coincidences? Perhaps consumed with the guilt over his partner, Davis may never have truly wanted the victory of artistic validation on some subconscious level. But can we really call his story, his very existence, a failure? These aspects require a certain level of interpretation; his actions could be evidence for any self-composed narrative, his regrets only becoming so in retrospect. You could even argue (if you subscribe to the individualist-leaning psychology of Abraham Maslow) that Davis has self-actualized: he garners a record deal with a producer, maintains a steady but meager income at the Gaslight, and has a slew of acquaintances that are willing to house him at his most destitute. The audience is consequently faced with their own absurdist quest for meaning framed by Llewyn’s artistic journey. While they might be able to point their finger at certain moments that irrevocably change Davis’s future for the worse, viewers would then have to assume that: a) Davis is entirely culpable not only for his own actions, but for not having the premonition to change them according to the corresponding situation – this effectively criticizes his “essence” as a human being; and that, b) Llewyn Davis is an agent of free will. Neither of these are a given, just as in real life.

Straddling this line between determinism and existentialism, the Coens were able to unify a melange of existential ambivalence without being didactic, which complemented the sombre palette of the film. Kenneth Turan of Los Angeles Times wrote: “While the bleak, funny, exquisitely made Inside Llewyn Davis echoes familiar themes and narrative journeys, it also goes its own way and becomes a singular experience, one of their best films.” Metacritic, a review aggregator similar to Rotten Tomatoes (which thankfully eschews the dichotomy between fresh and rotten), grades the film at an intimidating 92 percent – the highest score any Coen Brothers film has received from the website. And while it garnered a modest $33 million at the box office, the return was three times the amount of their limited budget. Financial gain aside, the notion of a chaotic and unassailable universe had melded well with a narrative of incomprehensible defeat.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) in A Serious Man

After all, we are pattern-seeking creatures, seeking purpose in a world that defies convention. We have entire social constructs – i.e. science and mathematics – that look to demystify the unpredictability of the universe, but even respected figures within the scientific community like Karl Popper could see the hypocrisy in this approach. A Serious Man, arguably the Coens’ magnum opus, does more than simply suggest these grandiose themes – it openly addresses them with almost obsessive-compulsive fervor. The film centers around Larry Gopnik – a professor with a failing marriage and indifferent children – who is on the verge of receiving tenure at a Minnesota university. Over a series of days, his uncontrollable rumination on God’s intentions and the universe’s predictability consumes him, as his delusions (or are they?) of sadistic persecution increase. Despite the advanced mathematical proof that Larry Gopnik’s brother is working on – an attempt at mapping the probability of a certain outcome taking place in the universe – he is still unable to make sense of his own life’s day-to day drudgery. He still believes that being a “good man” will somehow require whatever-omniscient-being-is-floating-up-there-in-the-sky to reciprocate his kindness with reward.

Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner)

In true Camus-inspired rhetoric, Rabbi Nachtner ironically champions the Acceptance of the Absurd, rather than advocating a religious explanation for the odd coincidences that have befallen Gopnik. His brother aims to map the master clockwork behind the universe itself, and as a result, ends up in prison on supposedly unrelated charges (sodomy and solicitation). Suicide seems to be a gruesome but viable resolution to this fundamental disharmony, but Gopnik is so stubborn that he would rather insist on better spiritual treatment than give up the fight against the nature of his reality. His son seems to be the only one overcoming his personal struggles, primarily by ignoring the larger questions and smoking an inordinate amount of pot with friends. Not much has changed since the 1970s.

The film went on to be nominated for an Academy Award in 2009, and, similar to Inside Llewyn Davis, it more than tripled its budget in box-office sales. Yes, A Serious Man may have dealt with profound subject matter, but the Coens managed to temper it with light-hearted humor and a bildungsroman that weaved throughout the primary storyline. The result was a black comedy, concerned more with absurdity as a joke than the complete and utter darkness of meaninglessness. After all, why does meaning matter in a reality that is unable to be extrinsically manipulated by humans?

But there’s also something far greater at play here than simply outside forces like critical reception and the academy. The ideological and philosophical extremes that the Coens obsess over can slide into stories involving unchecked greed, diverted ambitions, and fleeing criminals just as much as they can encompass sheltered film actors, amateur bowlers, and personal trainers. The veteran duo knows how to draw the human condition out of a multitude of stories, because they recognize the occasional frustration of existence. Fundamentally, their philosophical approach to almost every film is the same – it is subject matter that seemed to primarily determine their commercial success after Fargo.

Jeff Bridges, Steve Buscemi, and John Goodman in The Big Lebowski

It might be too easy to suggest that mainstream audiences are more entertained by violence and mortality than the escapades of more menial professional work. These larger themes require the finesse of a skilled auteur to not fall into the same pit of mindless killing and exploding vehicles. The Coen Bros. paint in finer strokes, but that subtlety might be lost on some audiences when ordinary characters are plodding along through the banalities of modern living, like the titular protagonist in The Big Lebowski (a box-office bomb and critical failure that has garnered a cult-classic status over the last twenty years). The film’s renewed success might just be the result of repeated exposure on channels like Comedy Central – even the Lebowski Fest founder Will Russel admits that, “I think my dad recommended it to me, and I remember I liked it alright but I was just like okay, that was kind of interesting . . . I think it takes a few times because the first time a lot of people watch it they get caught up in the plot and none of that stuff really matters.”

Not many audiences like to participate. Many would sooner be spoon-fed tied-up loose ends and internal catharsis. Fargo, a (very) loose amalgamation of actual murders that took place (you may have heard of the story of Helle Crafts, a woman fed into a wood chipper in Connecticut), garnered two Academy Awards and pulled in eight and a half times its budget; No Country for Old Men, based on the title novel, brought in $171.6 million in 2007 and received the Oscar for Best Picture. Call it what you will – an award offered based on the merit of their entire filmography or otherwise – is it possible that these films spoke to a wider demographic of people because they involved guys with guns and clear antagonists? Whether or not they are actually the Coens’ best films remains debatable, but the Academy would have us believe so.

Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men

Take a film like No Country for Old Men. The relentless insidiousness of Javier Bardem’s portrayal of Anton Chigurh, as well as the dark subject matter, provided a backdrop void of black humor and odd coincidences. The movie is still undeniably a product of the Coens; the ending provides little direct closure, no subtle nods or winks to the audience, and a few quips slither their way into the dialogue. But they are undoubtedly caught within the framework of a violent Cormac McCarthy novel, in which their cold and disillusioned distillation of a meaningless world has Darwinistic consequences. Hunted animals are a constant motif here. In an absurdist world, the survival of the fittest can become a rigid morality on which to base your actions. Painted into a black corner, one cannot hope to search for meaning in the first place. The gritty violence and the lack of ambiguity made for their most commercially successful film to date.

Granted, some might say that Hail, Caesar! itself contains clear antagonists and punishable felonies. Why was it met with indifference or ambivalence? But the film, though inspired by true personalities and historical allusions, also lacks the dead serious subject matter that gave weight to the campy aspects of Fargo. Most know that the “academy” does not view the Coens’ brand of humor as fitting for a Best Picture nomination, nor the humor of any other filmmaker for that matter. Not even the darkest of comedies that deal in existential angst could penetrate the portentousness of the self-congratulatory, older white men that run the Oscars from behind the scenes. The last time the ceremony awarded a Best Picture to a comedy was in 1978, for Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. And after films such as Bridesmaids and Midnight in Paris were snubbed four years ago, The New York Times felt it necessary to publish, in their opinion pages, the opinions of six different writers on the subject.

It is readily apparent that the Coens rarely set out with commercial success in mind. Box-office performance seems to rely on a variety of factors, but the simplifying of their post-modern aesthetic, and the occasional crime-related storyline, could have something to do with it. Either way, the quality of their films is still defined by their conveyance of philosophical complexity and ambiguity; how they can depict elements of both nihilism and determinism simultaneously, and suggest that either could be true in our reality. According to the Coens, we can only ascribe to something a deeper meaning, never truly define what’s behind it. Likewise, I can only argue that the Coens’ films concern this sort of existential drudgery. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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All images, unless otherwise noted, are screenshots from the films.