April 3rd, 2001

The Coen Brothers

“What’s in the box?”

That’s the question that befuddled film critics and head-scratching deconstructionists of Higher Cinema following The Coen Brothers’ 1991 Palme D’Or winning Barton Fink. The box is bequeathed to John Turturro’s Fink by John Goodman’s salesman-cum-serial killer and may or may not contain a head. Or perhaps it contains the clue that will crack the code to the enigma that is the Coens. There’s something in there. But what? The Coens themselves are never going to let on. They’re insufferably disingenuous in interviews, lapping up the intellectual curiosity like flattered prick-teasers, all goofy grins, coyly blank expressions and faux-inarticulate responses, not giving anything away primarily because they have nothing to give away. Still, people are mesmerised by the partnership, as if there is something unreachable, almost supernatural about their modus operandi. “You know, they finish each others’ sentences. . .” The Coens are not supernatural but densely superficial. Their films are full of red herrings, wild goose chases, arbitrary recurring motifs (the hat in Millers Crossing, the hair lacquer in O Brother Where Art Thou, the wallpaper in Barton Fink), all whimsical distractions from the pretty vacancy of their movies.

It’s not that they’re lazy. They’re prolific and have gained a reputation for presenting their scripts and storyboards as fully-worked out faits accompli to their actors. This endears them to the studio beancounters as they tend to deliver ontime and within budget. It’s also why big-name actors (Jeff Bridges, George Clooney) are so happy to work with them. It isn’t just the kudos of being associated with arthouse types but because they don’t have to stretch themselves, improvise. They can have fun playing what are essentially hams (quirky hams, but hams nonetheless). The Coens’ acclaimed “tightness” is actually constricting – their films never seem to breathe because the actors breathe no life into them. The Coens provide cinema for cinema’s sake, a mass of contrivances, post-modern references and technological trickery for jaded, elitist cineastes who equate content with quaint sentimentalism, to feast upon.

So, Blood Simple, essentially a morally and financially cheap b-grade thriller with a perverse penchant for gratuitous violence is feted by filmcrit equivalents of prog rock lovers for its virtuouso special effects. Ditto Raising Arizona, an inconclusive, patronising fable about white trash misshapes, distinguished only in that it seems to have been filmed by a dwarf on a skateboard. With the big budget Hudsucker Proxy, The Coens got the commercial bruising they were cruising for when they attempted to take their cinematic affectations to a wider audience. They were unimpressed, wanted more than the mere artifice and cardboard characters (especially Paul Newman’s Sydney Mussburger) the film offered. Hudsucker bombed. Real people found nothing in it, except one decent joke which was nicked from an old Sergeant Bilko episode anyway.


Chastened, The Coens made Fargo, often regarded as their finest moment. And here’s the biggest irony, watching critics who revered the Coen’s hall-of-mirrors approach now come full circle, basking in the “warmth” and “humanity” of Frances McDormand’s police chief. But it was hokum! Sure, it’s content but of the tritest kind – the message being that through honest, painstaking efforts, the essentially decent American policefolk will prevail over the occasional bad apple of a villain. No wonder they were thinking of making it into a TV series. It would have sat fine in the tradition of McCloud and Murder, She Wrote, as glibly reassuring as a fake coal fire on a Sunday afternoon.

The tiresomely, wilfully pointless The Big Lebowski found the brothers merely exhibiting all their Coenisms (the sing-song dialogue, John Goodman shouting a lot, the avuncular storyteller type, the studied indifference to the fate of its characters). Things wore still thinner with O Brother Where Art Thou. While the intelligensia congratulate the Coens’ ability to “play with and parody” other film genres, to say nothing of the allusions to Homer’s epic Oddyssey, they overlook that this playfulness arises from an ability to produce anything truly epic themselves. The reason music plays such a big part in Coen brothers’ movies is that it must over-compensate for the lack of heart, soul, moral energy, emotion and resonance in the actual scripts and storylines. You leave their films feeling swindled not stirred. What’s in the box? Nothing. There never was. We’ve all been Coenned.

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