Celebrating the Coen Brothers

By Brent Glass


The Coen Brothers are stalwarts of the film industry.  Since their first movie, Blood Simple., was released in 1984, the directing duo has rarely settled for anything but greatness.  Most recently, the Coens wrote and directed Inside Llewyn Davis – a film about a week in the life of a struggling singer trying to create a name for himself in the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.  Like many Coen collaborations, the film left some people nonplussed.  Where was the resolution?  It is a factor that some viewers – unenlightened ones, if I pretentiously do say so myself – find infuriating.   Today, their résumé is expansive:

(1984) Blood Simple.  

(1987) Raising Arizona 

(1990) Miller’s Crossing 

(1991) Barton Fink 

Nominated for three Oscars.

(1994) The Hudsucker Proxy 

(1996) Fargo 

Nominated for seven Oscars, won four (Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor)

(1998) The Big Lebowski 

(2000) O Brother, Where Art Thou? 

Nominated for two Oscars.

(2001) The Man Who Wasn’t There 

Nominated for one Oscar.

(2003) Intolerable Cruelty 

(2004) The Ladykillers 

(2007) No Country for Old Men

Nominated for eight Oscars, won six (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing).

(2008) Burn After Reading 

(2009) A Serious Man

Nominated for two Oscars.

(2010) True Grit 

Nominated for ten Oscars.

(2013) Inside Llewyn Davis  

Nominated for two Oscars (Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing).

Many of these films have similar threads running through them.  Often, the familial filmmakers make noirs, a genre essentially extinct, save for mediocre attempts to revive it such as The Good GermanThe likes of Double Indemnity do not exist – at a high level, at least – in the modern era, except when the Coens decide it’s time.  Their works are paradoxical.  At times, the gist will be clear: there is a God, or some higher being doling out justice.  However, just as the viewer deems this to be true, Joel and Ethan throw some amalgam of existentialism and doubt into the mix.  Wait, this isn’t what I thought it was going to be, is it?  This leaves the viewer to decipher what the meaning really is, if there is one.  Another one of their trademarks is to include things that add absolutely nothing to the crux of the film.  Don’t read into the films too much, ya hear? 

Some directors don’t venture far from the niche they create.  This is not true for the dynamic duo.  Some may argue against that statement, but I think the Coens have shown mastery in mysteries, thrillers, westerns, and screwball comedies.  Do not think I have contradicted myself.  One may refer to the previous paragraph in which I stated the Coens often make noirs.  This is true.  However, a film can be considered a noir by the content – the motifs, themes, and moral ambiguity – not just the monochromatic imagery.  The two have many great qualities, but the most quintessentially Coen is their ability to deliver dry, ironic, and sardonic humor in dark and grim scenes.  One of my favorite scenes can be found here.

The first Coen flick I saw was No Country for Old Men.  I was in high school and just beginning my film fanaticism.  Initially, as I assume is the case with countless others, I thought the Coens were twins.  Not so.  Joel Coen was born on November 29, 1954 in St. Cloud Park, Minnesota and Ethan on September 21, 1957.  Also in St. Cloud Park.  Their mother was an art historian at St. Cloud State University and their father an economist at the University of Minnesota.  They were raised in a Jewish household.  Joel went on to the Institute of Film and TV at New York University and Ethan attended Princeton University for philosophy.  Obviously, the Coens had no lack of intelligence.

Joel and Ethan began writing screenplays in the early eighties while Joel was working in various roles on industrial films and, eventually, as an assistant editor for Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1983).  The next year, the Coens released their first film, Blood Simple.  It was met with critical acclaim.  While both brothers were involved with the writing and subsequent directing, Joel was listed as the sole director and Ethan as a producer.  This was because of guild regulations that prevented two directors from being listed unless they were an “established duo.”  Apparently, being brothers was not enough to be considered “established.”  It wasn’t until the release of The Ladykillers in 2004 that both Joel and Ethan Coen were listed as directors.  Therefore, their résumés look slightly different.  For example, the film Fargo won many Oscars but the Coens weren’t an “established duo.”  Consequently, Joel took home the Oscar for Best Director but Ethan received his prize for Best Picture, since he was the producer.  They are two of seven directors to win three Oscars for the same film.  Most recently, the Coens returned to music.

In Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens reverted to what made O Brother such a success.  Music and movies are the core of popular culture.  In 2011, the two industries accounted for $17.5 billion.  As a result, many musicals/ movies with music-themes do extremely well.  Most recently, one should recall Disney’s Frozen.  However, there are those films that wade underneath the mainstream.  Llewyn Davis is one of those films.

While Llewyn Davis was never as hyped as The Wolf of Wall Street or American Hustle, I believed it would garner some acclaim.  I mean, it’s the Coen brothers.  Celebrated directors in their own right.  True enough, many top critics have given the film solid marks.  However, hoi polloi has not embraced the movie as warmly.  Additionally, and unsurprisingly, the Academy failed to recognize the greatness of this folk tale about a folk singer.

Inside Llewyn Davis was nominated for two Oscars.  Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins) and Best Sound Mixing.  Exhilarating, right!?  I take back the sarcasm for Deakins’ sake.  The man is responsible for some of the most beautiful displays of cinema in the past twenty years.  The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and Skyfall are a few examples.  He’s also worked on every Coen brothers’ film since Barton Fink (1991).  But, Sound Mixing?  C’mon!  Oscar Isaac deserved a nod for his soulful, back-breaking performance, Justin Timberlake and other writers for this little number, and the Coens proved their Oscar-worthy directing in the very first scene.

Oscar Isaac

The film opens with Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) on a stage.  Not a large one.  Maybe, maybe 75 people watch and listen as Llewyn plucks his guitar and intones the lyrics “Hang me, oh hang me.  I’ll be dead and gone.  Wouldn’t mind the hangin’ but the layin’ in the grave’s so long, poor boy.”  The entranced crowd slowly taps their feet, ashing their cigarettes on down beats, taking for granted the talent a paper plane’s flight away.  Davis continues his incantation while the mastery of the Coens ensues — I wouldn’t be surprised if the seven other people in the theater thought we were watching the performance live.  Seamlessly, the Coens transition from perspective to perspective, placing the viewer at the heart of the performance.  A waitress walks by, blocks the camera as she passes, and moviegoers shift their heads to the left – as if it would actually change their view.  First impressions may not be everything, but they count for a lot.  The first scene left me enchanted.

The film would have failed without a talented actor at the helm.  Ethan and Joel made no mistake in picking Oscar Isaac.  He was able to embody the tortured artist, desperately wanting to be successful in playing his music while shooting himself in the foot the whole way.  The film focuses on one tumultuous week in Llewyn’s life.  He lives in the moment, couch-to-couch, playing his guitar where he can.  He has a couple friends, though he’s not a great friend.  He’s prone to drink, lose his temper, and knock-up girls.  His life is that of a rolling stone.

The Coen brothers have done much to advance the scope of cinema.  Inside Llewyn Davis is no different.  While it is underappreciated now, I believe the picture will stand the test of time.  Go see it.  Thanks, Joel and Ethan.


Brent Glass is a Michigander who graduated from Eureka College in May of 2013. He spent time at the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis, IN (a non-partisan think tank) where he worked on political economy pieces for Detroit, MI and Elkhart, IN. Additionally, he spent the summer of 2012 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA, working on social media management. Currently he is working as a freelance writer for Sagamore Institute, creating a social media management business (Connect You Consulting) and working full-time as a Management Assistant to the owner of a car dealership. He plans to further his education in the fall of 2014 in public policy.


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  1. Minnesnowta: The Land of Atmosphere, ‘Fargo,’ and… ‘Fargo’ « Saying Something

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