“We grew up in America, and we tell American stories in American settings, within American frames of reference.” — Ethan Coen
That’s the consensus. There is, however, a point of contention over what is truly a Coen brothers film. Having watched nearly all of their movies recently, I have come up with three main distinguishing criteria: Characters, Comedy as a Shield, and Endings, and two rather personal ones: Collaboration with Roger Deakins and dolly-in shot. This is the first part where I’ll explain these criteria. In the second one, I’ll discuss my 10 favorite scenes of their filmography.
A myriad of idiosyncratic, whimsical and enigmatic characters inhabits the world of the Coen brothers’ films. An outlaw on a journey to fulfill his American dream, the laziest man in LA county takin’er easy for all us sinners, and an inexorable friendo beyond good and evil are only a few examples. This is one of the reasons why their films are memorable. Even the side characters, the ones with a few-minutes of screen time leave a lasting impression on you, like Jesus and Nihilists from The Big Lebowski:
Nihilist #1: His girlfriend gave up her toe!
Nihilist #2: She thought we’d be getting million dollars!
Nihilist #1: It’s not fair!
Walter: Fair?!?! Who’s the fucking nihilist around here, you bunch o’
There are many awkward pauses, characters breaking off their sentences in the middle, losing their train of thought, ridiculous body languages, and weird facial expressions. In nearly all of their films, however, there is a consistent behavior which ends up hilarious – especially on multiple viewings. That is, characters repeating certain words, phrases, and sentences. For instance, in Miller’s Crossing: “what’s the rumpus?” “Ethics;” or in The Big Lebowski: “Shut da fuck up, Donny,” “That rug tied the room together,” “man.” This is also apparent in specific scenes. In Fargo, When Lou and Marge are investigating a crime scene, Lou repeats “yah” and “oh, yah” 10 times.
In No Country for Old Men, Anton Chigurh asks “where does he work?” three times from an old lady to glean information on Llewelyn Moss.
In Burn After Reading, there’s a scene where the characters are trying to know what is on the CD Monolo found. Monolo repeats “On the floor there” and “It was just lying there” And every time he says so, we get a low-angle medium shot of him, amplifying the comedic effect.
Comedy as a Shield
“But it seems to us that comedy is a part of life. Look at the recent example of the people who tried to blow up the World Trade Center. They rented a panel truck to use for the explosion and then, after committing the crime, went back to the rental agency to get back the money they left on deposit. The absurdity of this kind of behavior is terribly funny in itself.”
This sums up their approach to comedy: a serious event, mingled with comedic moments, creating a shield which protects us from drowning in the tragedy of the story. When we laugh at the scenes, we get some distance, and some perspective, on the underlying messages.
“Look how horrible people can be; isn’t life great?” — Ethan Coen
Take this scene from Fargo: Marge stumbles upon the whereabouts of the kidnappers. She catches one of them, Gaear, shredding the other one, Carl, into pieces in a wood chipper. This would’ve been enough to let us know what’s going on. The Coen brothers, however, have added a neat comedic touch: a upside-down leg with socks. It makes you laugh and makes the scene less oppressive.
In this scene from Burn After Reading, Harry, heart-broken over divorce and devastated over the murder, is taking it out on his passion project. Then, amid all the wrath, we get a medium shot of a dildo going up and down with no intention of giving up; an incongruent and hilarious section of an otherwise serious moment.
In Barton Fink, after the mysterious death of Audrey, there’s a two-shot of Barton, sitting in dismay, and Audrey, lying there soaked in blood. This moment lingers until Barton suddenly squeals, leaving you with no option but to laugh.
Of the many elements that reward multiple viewings, one of the best is that their films have ambiguous endings that encourage multiple interpretations. Barton Fink,The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man and Inside Lewin Davis all have endings that demand scrutiny from the audience. They mystify you on the first viewing and encourage you to be more investigative during the next ones.
In his article “No Country for Old Men – The Coens’ Tragic Western,” Richard Gilmore writes:
“The movie ends with Bell telling his wife Loretta (Tess Harper) about two dreams that he had had the night before. Both dreams have his father in them. The first is about some money that Bell loses. The second has his father riding past him in the night, carrying fire in a horn. Bell ends his description of the dream by saying, “And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and that he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. Out there up ahead.” Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to human beings in order to save them from extinction. To make a fire is an art. It is by the arts that human beings thrive, and I take that original art of making fire to stand, metonymically, for all the arts. Fire beats back the darkness, the darkness of fear, of ignorance, of hubris, of greed. I read Bell’s dream of his father to be a dream of carrying on the fire of memory, the fire of the stories that one has of what one has seen in this world. It is the fire of the wisdom that those stories can yield with the telling of them. This, too, is an important role to play, to be the bearer of this fire. It is less heroic in the eyes of the world than that of lawman or outlaw, but it is probably more important to human survival and thriving than either of those.”
Collaboration with Roger Deakins
“People confuse pretty and good cinematography. It was Freddie Francis who said “There’s good cinematography, bad cinematography and the cinematography that’s right for the movie.”
“I don’t think have a style; I have a style that suits the project I’m on.” — Roger Deakins
The Coen brothers regard Roger Deakins as one of the best DPs in recent memory. They have collaborated with him on the majority of their projects, including O Brother Where Art Thou?,Fargo, and No Country for Old Men. The distinct look and feel of the films is a testament to him abiding by the philosophy in those quotes. This collaboration might not be as distinguishing feature of a Coen brothers film, but working with Deakins compliments their vision. For me, it can go beyond that. O Brother Where Art Thou didn’t resonate with me on a script level, but I relished the alluring cinematography.
And he has this to say about the Coen brothers:
“They can shoot anything and make it interesting, they’re true poets of the cinema.”
Granted, the dolly-in shot is not exclusive to the Coen brothers. They, however, employ it frequently and with more creativity than most other filmmakers. They use it in two ways: frenetic and gradual. For the former, we can refer to The Big Lebowski, Miller’s Crossing, and Raising Arizona (the gifs below), where the frenetic dolly-in shot adds to the comedic sense of the scene. The subtler use occurs in conversations, which allows the Coens to avoid unnecessary cuts and keep and audience engaged. To elaborate on this, I’ll use two scenes from Fargo and A Serious Man.
Notice how we’re gonna go from a wide frame – which establishes the setting, with the curtains behind him akin to bars – to the final close-up. As the conversation starts to go south, the camera gradually dollies in on Jerry. The final wide shot frames him isolated in his own prison, conveying his predicament.
There is a similar one in A Serious Man, with the exception being that the final shot is an extreme close-up.
Top 10 Scenes
I’m not claiming these are the absolute top 10 best scenes from the Coen brothers, nor I think one is better than the other. This is just a fun way of talking about some of my favorite scenes. Let’s delve into it.
Miller’s Crossing – Look into Your Heart
DP: Barry Sonnenfeld
The Context of the Scene:
In order to prove his loyalty to Johnny Casper, Tom has to kill his lover’s brother, Bernie. He is told to take Bernie into the woods and put a bullet in his brain.
The dissolved shot is used to convey the passage of time as they go deeper in the woods. Shots alternate between singles and two-shots as Bernie keeps begging and Tom remains silent. John Turturro’s impeccable performance in selling the desperation of the character is a joy to watch. Finally, they stop and we get a wide shot of Bernie kneeling and Tom ready to make his decision. As camera dollies in on his face, the sound of birds crescendos. Bernie repeats “Look into your heart.” He shoots, but Bernie is still alive. He asks him to disappear and never come back.
Burn After Reading – The First Death
DP: Emmanuel Lubezki
The Context of the Scene:
Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Francis McDormand) are looking for ways to blackmail a former CIA agent. Chad breaks into his house to steal new data. On his way out, Harry (George Clooney) arrives, leaving him no choice but to hide in a wardrobe.
We get a point-of-view (POV) shot of Chad peaking the room, waiting for an opportunity to escape. The placement of the mirror on the left side is a good choice as it allows us to see where’s Harry. Harry takes a quick shower and starts putting on his clothes. The first close-call passes. When he approaches the second time, we get a quick shot of an empty holster, indicating that Harry has a gun. Three rapid cuts to the wardrobe opening, dolly-shot on Chad’s funny reaction and finally, the gun firing sells the abruptness of the act, catching you off-guard.
For this pampers-stealing, gun-blasting, dog-chasing scene, I’m gonna borrow from this article on what makes a good action scene by our very own Graham Austin. He comes up with 4 conditions:
1. Physically believable.
2. Establishing geography.
3. Expressing character.
4. Escalating tension.
The first condition is satisfied. Since, however, this is a comedy, some beats are exaggerated for the sake of laughter. Establishing geography is crucial for following the action and this scene does a fairly good job. It could’ve been enhanced with fewer shaky-cam moments and more wide shots. It shines the most when it’s about expressing character. As H.I. is battling the odds, we get medium close-ups of the facial expressions that tell us what’s going on. And finally, it escalates tension. This is evident in the number of dogs that join the chase throughout the scene. However, there are enough tension relievers that the viewer is not overwhelmed by the action.
True Grit – Cogburn Vs Lucky Ned
DP: Roger Deakins
The Context of the Scene:
Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) hatched a scheme with La Boeuf (Matt Damon) to rescue Mattie and defeat Lucky Ned. La Boeuf rescued Mattie and now they’re in a vantage point looking down at Cogburn going against Lucky Ned and his crew, one vs. four.
An extreme wide shot gives the audience a complete picture of the landscape. The rest of the shots establish the positions of the characters to give us a clear idea of how the action is gonna happen. Notice how shot #4 frames the gun and Cogburn, indicating the upcoming threat.
They exchange some banter and finally, it starts. Each hit is shown and we still get wide shots to avoid any confusion. La Boeuf is struggling to find a steady target. Cogburn is shot, but has taken three of them down. Lucky Ned is still alive. Just as he is about to pull the trigger, La Boeuf fires; back to the extreme wide shot. After a few seconds, his body falls down.
What this intro achieves in 4 minutes, some films don’t in their entire runtime. In one word, it’s “clarity.” Narration by our protagonist, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thronton) is straight to the point, with lines simple enough to give a clear picture. This is emphasized by the camera work and shot choices. For instance, when he says Frank is talkative, the camera dollies in on his lips. Another contributor to the clarity of the film is the black and white aesthetics. You’re not distracted by other colors and hell, it’s beautiful. Look at the shot below, see how the slanting rays of the sun have glided the ground
A Serious Man – The Ending
DP: Roger Deakins
The Context of the Scene:
Trapped in the labyrinth of questions, protagonist Larry Gopnik has survived a tapestry of unfortunate events without losing his integrity. He received a letter notifying him about $3000 fees for legal services for his detained brother. He can’t afford this. There is, however, a simple yet immoral escape route. Earlier in the story, a student by the name Clive offered him a bribe in exchange for a passing grade. Here comes the moral dilemma.
He can either sacrifice his moral integrity for the sake of money or he can remain faithful to his principles at the cost of devastating financial pressures. As he ponders this, we get closer shots. They are alternated between Larry and the grade sheet. At the brink of the final judgment, we get a close-up that reflects the pencil on his sunglasses, showing how excruciating a dilemma this is. Immediately after writing the passing grade, the telephone rings. Larry jolts as we cut to a wide shot to capture his reaction.
In the beginning of the film, there’s a cross-cut between father and son, and here in this scene, we have the same style. There must be a connection between the two and the scene is open to interpretation. I’m going with the religious aspect. Larry, for the first time, commits an immoral act and now he and his son are gonna suffer the ramifications. When Larry picks up the phone, it’s his doctor and as he asks him to come to his office, the camera slowly dollies in on him, showing his apprehension. Then we cut to the son on the verge of getting hit by a tornado. The final three-shot of him, his villain, and the tornado carries a specific meaning that I have yet to figure out. Notice how the depth of field changes in the last two frames, what’s going on?
Fargo – Kidnapping
DP: Roger Deakins
The Context of the Scene:
Sure that her rich father would cave in, Jerry has hired two guys, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormer), to kidnap his wife. This is how the kidnapping happens.
You would think the kidnappers have hatched a brilliant scheme to fulfill the mission without any trouble whatsoever. But no, this happens in bright daylight with the most obvious approach. The wife is knitting and watching TV when she notices a masked man approaching. She’s frozen. Then he smashes the window. Now the scene becomes one chaotic mess. She bites Gaear’s hand; the mission has gone astray, but he is only worried about his hand and looks for some medicine. This indifference creates an incongruent hence funny moment. While he’s looking for medicine, we get a two-shot of him and the curtains behind him, suggesting that she’s there. She comes out screaming and blindfolded by the curtain and ends up unconscious, just lying there on the floor.
Blood Simple –Burying Scene
DP: Barry Sonnenfeld
The Context of the Scene:
Ray finds his lover’s gun at the scene of Marty’s murder. Given what’s happened so far, he concludes she (Francis McDormand) has committed the crime. So he decided to make the body disappear. While driving, he notices that Marty is still alive. Shell-shocked by this revelation, he runs away from the car and ponders what he should do next.
A tracking shot brings us to Ray digging a grave. The only source of light is that of the car and the only sound is crickets chirping. It oozes atmosphere. Keep in mind that this is their debut film. To communicate this amount of information through visuals in your first feature film is impressive. Ray fills the hole slowly, showing how his guilt still assails his mind. Tables turn once Marty unveils his revolver. He shoots but to no avail. The gun is empty. A close-up of ray grabbing the gun from him is a sign of relief. Now, he fills it as fast as possible, having do doubt that he deserves this.
Llewlyn Moss carrying a suitcase laden with money, has Anton Chigurh, the unknown assassin with a cattle stun gun, on his tail. Moss checks into a hotel. Wondering how Anton found his whereabouts previous times, he goes through the suitcase and finds a tracking device. He calls downstairs and no one picks up.
This scene shows how much Coen brothers trust their audience. It’s a pure visual storytelling. Shotgun ready, the light turned off, Moss is waiting for the unknown. It’s utter silence and the scene stretches to reach peak tension. Anton’s presence is conveyed by two cues: the tracking device and shadow under the door. Moss doesn’t know about his gun and Anton surprises him.
Moss manages to escape to the street. He hops onto a car but just a few seconds later, Anton shoots the driver in the head and keeps firing. He crashes the car. There are many POV shots throughout the whole scene and Anton’s face is, for the most part, not shown. This choice lends itself well to feel how it’s like to be hunted by such an inexorable force. The silence is evident here since there is no sound other than the shots being fired. By contrast, the shots are also more palpable.
Moss hides behind a car. A reflection shot shows Anton is on his way. As Anton approaches, the camera dollies in on Moss to capture his reaction. For the first time, we see Anton’s face and then, we get a POV shot of him tracking the blood. Moss starts firing and manages to escape, even though he is wounded.
Any scene from The Big Lebowski deserves to be among the best of Coen brothers. The Dude’s hallucination scenes, the pissing on the rug scene, Walter smashing a car thinking it’s the kid’s scene, all of the nihilists’ scenes, I can go on and on; but for now, I’m going with the brilliant introduction of the Jesus. Nobody fucks with the Jesus.
In a one-minute montage, you can get a perfect picture of his character and the kind of relationship he has with the Dude, Walter, and Donny. His pre-roll ritual and the Mohammad Ali dance after the strike is incredibly funny. Now, some of the ideas were suggested by John Turturro himself. Like the nail, licking the ball, shining the balls as a “psychological gesture,” and the dance. Another interesting touch is the Hotel California cover from Gypsy King. Later on, we see that Dude hates the Eagles, which makes this song appropriate for the introduction of his rival.
But this classic scene is not over. A dolly-shot from his glove to the three characters looks like a “Fuck you” to me. Follows up with Dude saying “Fuckin’ Quintana …That creep can roll, man …” Notice the blocking of the actors here. Walter and Dude are sitting next to each other with their backs turned into Donny, signifying that they neglect him. And this is consistent throughout the film. The characters repeating words and sentences that I talked about in the beginning is evident here. Walter repeats ‘Shut da fuck up Donny” and “8-year-olds Dude.” Donny repeats “I am the Walrus” and Dude, as always, “Man.” The rest of the scene includes Jesus shining his balls and some iconic lines like “Well, yeah, that’s just like, your opinion, man.”
If you disagree with my picks, I only have one thing to say: