L13FC: Regionalism in Coen Brothers Movies

Welcome back to another rendition of the Lucky 13 Film Club featuring the Coen Brothers. Your friendly opinion is welcome here–don’t be shy–let’s talk to one another. I pulled from Wikipedia their eighteen films and each has a link that provides a synopsis in case you need a refresher.

After thirty years of filmmaking, we all have a favorite Coen film. When I was younger, my eyes and ears appreciated their strange storylines, quirky supporting characters, and their dark humor. As I aged, my interest in their work varied upon the project. Sometimes I felt their balance was off, that is, the story was too ludicrous for me to back emotionally–but always, throughout the decades, an element in the whole, a nugget in the creek, makes watching the film worth it. A performance. A character. A scene. A song. An idea that harkens back to the Greeks, and I like that about them; there is an endearing, universal quality about their stories. As screenwriters, they are the gods taking mythical pokes at the foolishness of man. They employ dramatic irony and we laugh. Well, I do.

I like Mojo.com. Have fifteen minutes? Watch this to help you remember the laughs and the technique of the Coen Brothers.

When I think of the Coen Brothers, here’s what comes to mind: 

  1. They remind me of Mark Twain. Folk tales–their films express America by the region including the vernacular and its superstitions and beliefs.
  2. They appreciate the genre of film noir. Miller’s Crossing is one of my favorites. Gabriel Bryne locks it for me.
  3. They love Hollywood and hate it, too.
  4. The songs and scores are a key part of the tale. Kudos to Carter Burwell.
  5. The themes are universal: heroism, friendship, greed, loss, betrayal, strange love, sacrifice
  6. The setting plays a huge role in their films. The violence of nature infiltrates and determines the violence in man.
  7. Romanticism. Naturalism. Modernism. Post-Modernism. It’s all there in the visual form. Like watching instead of reading the assigned anthology of the second half of a U.S. Lit course. While I still prefer to read the anthology, I enjoy seeing the stories on the screen.

Which region do they personify best? Also, what performance or character resonates? Which repeat actor starring in a Coen film grate on your nerves? For me, that’d be Frances McDormand. I like Jeff Bridges and Steve Buscemi. 

75 Comments on “L13FC: Regionalism in Coen Brothers Movies

  1. For me, it has to be “The Big Lebowski”, with Walter as one of the great characters in movie history. I know my daughter, whose degree is in Classics always had a lot of time for “O Brother, where art thou?” with its modern representations of so many incidents from the Odyssey.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Walter is undoubtably John Goodman’s best role. I just watched the Big L. the other day and was happy I still laughed just as hard. Jesus the bowler by John Tururro is brilliant. That’s another quality of the Coens that I like. They make a movie around Hollywood and decide to focus on a bowling league. It is a trademark of theirs–showing average people partaking in average activities that are decidedly Amercian. I was in bowling leagues for years and I swear they captured the crazy obsession-strangeness of Americana. This was far more funny than the ridiculousness of the scenes with was Maude Lebowski, although, the scene with the snickering Nazi-esque Knox by David Thewlis always makes me laugh aloud. What’s the scene of Walter’s that does it for you?

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  2. Perhaps my taste is too plebian. I did not care for Miller’s Crossing, The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Ladykillers, A Serious Man, True Grit, Inside Llewyn Davis or Hail Caesar! I found True Grit a waste of time. The original was much better; the Coen’s was a disgraceful parody. No Country for Old Men was too frightening for me. Javier Bardem is a thing of nightmares; I think he would even frighten Hannibal Lector.

    I especially enjoyed Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Intolerable Cruelty, and Burn After Reading. I think the characters, the situations, and the settings all had some connection of one sort or another with my life.

    As I said, I guess my taste is too plebian.

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    • Stop! You like what you like and you don’t what you don’t. That’s what makes us all unique. I, liked True Grit. Hmm. A disgraceful parody. Well, I’ll be! It just makes me curious as to why you think that. Some thought Maddie was too cold, but I adored her in the role! I thought she was magnificent. I thought mumbling Jeff Bridges was fine. Maybe it’s Matt Damon’s character? I like the original movie, too, with John Wayne. But I thought the girl was too, oh, I don’t know, girly?
      I have heard it said that Javier Bardem plays a psychopath realistically on screen better than any performance. I know I thought he was chilling.
      That’s a great film for connecting to regionalism. The Texas border with its vacant, dead landscape and the heartless, cold violent nature of Bardem’s character was perfect. It’s a fine movie, but not one I’d watch over and over. Looking at your favorites, I notice you liked the Coen comedies better than the dramas.
      I will say the Coens like to make harsh movies–their comedies are whacky strange and their dramas are whacky strange. To the extreme. If you like your movies with less bite, then you probably don’t like many Coen films. — Alright by me!

      Liked by 2 people

      • I don’t generally like remakes of films. I liked the original True Grit just as I liked the original Monte Walsh but not the remake.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t seen them all. The Big Lebowski I loved, but maybe because I was a ten-pin bowler too! Tried Hail Caesar but couldn’t get through it, and struggled with Burn While Reading though got through to the end. I think, like your man a gray, I’m also too plebeian.

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    • You’re a bowler, Fraggle? No way! That’s awesome. I grew up in Illinois–the Midwesterners love their bowling. It was a sport (besides darts!) I excelled in. When I was in the Navy in Scotland, I was ranked 2nd in the North Atlantic Region League. Ha! What a dubious award. 😉
      There were scenes in Hail Caesar I liked very much, but it was one of those films that was off. I don’t care for George Clooney.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I am in a strange place where the Coens are concerned. I was amazed by ‘Blood Simple’ at the time, and so keen to see more. ‘Raising Arizona’ suffered from Cage’s over-acting, but then along came ‘Millers Crossing’ which was a love letter to gangster films, and I was hooked.
    ‘Barton Fink’ and ‘Hudsucker’ had genuine quirky moments that seemed to take them in a new direction, then there was ‘Fargo’. This could have been one of the best films of the age, if not for McDormand. I just cannot tolerate her in that film, (and in so many others) but everyone else was point-perfect. ‘Oh Brother’ descended into slapstick, and reminded me of a not very good silent film from another era.

    But then there was ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’, which I think is simply sublime. McDormand earned her money in that one, but Thornton earned my respect as an actor even more. I didn’t even bother with the next two, which both seemed shallow to me. And besides, you know I hate remakes.
    ‘No Country For Old Men’ was a modern western at a whole new level, and my second favourite Coen film. Just beautiful to look at. Photographed! The next two I watched and didn’t like. The brothers seemed to think they were being ‘arty’, and ‘clever’. Left me cold.

    The along came ‘True Grit’. Another remake. Completely pointless, and losing everything that was warm, amusing, and endearing about the original. They REALLY annoyed me with that one.

    So I stopped watching their films, and haven’t seen the rest on the list.
    (Sorry if the comment is too long. 🙂 )
    Best wishes, Pete. x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pete, I’m always happy to hear your opinions and your history with the Coens. I do believe they inspire a love/hate reflex. You either love that one or hate it.
      I agree totally with ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’. I thought Billy Bob showed fine acting skills, too.
      I wanted to look at the Coen filmography through the lens as regional storytellers.
      They have distinct style for focusing on the vernacular and superstitions of a region in the U.S. That’s what I think makes them unique and interesting. There’s plenty of Coen films that leave me cold, but when I look at what they choose to focus on– it take their story telling to a different level.
      Always it’s a plebian culture.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It turns out I haven’t seen many of their movies, so I really can’t comment on them. I have liked Bridges though in anything I’ve seen.

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  6. I think they are among the very best filmmakers working today. I love the vast majority of their work. They have made one of of my favorite movies of all-time (No Country for Old Men) and one of my very favorite comedies (Raising Arizona). I adore movies like Miller’s Crossing, Blood Simple, and Fargo. And the sheer variety of movies they do – True Grit, Inside Llewyn Davis, Buster Scruggs, Hail, Caeser! My goodness, I love the Coens.

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  7. The Coen brothers are geniuses in my book. Sure, some of their films don’t resonate with me–Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Oh Brother Where Art Thou–but others–No Country For Old Men, Fargo, Raising Arizona, Blood Simple, True Grit and, of course, The Big Lebowski–are some of my favorite films.
    To me, the Coen’s are very Capraesque. They celebrate the simplicity of good and deride the complexity of evil, although they explore both with equal aplomb.
    I think Frances McDormand is a brilliant actor. Her portrayal of Marge in Fargo might very well be my favorite film performance ever.
    Which region do they represent best? That’s a very difficult question…Since I’m from west Texas, I’d have to say their representation of it is pitch perfect.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Welcome, Pam. I love that all the bloggers have their favorites and there’s no symmetry to it. I dislike Frances McDormand, for example, but that’s okay! Thanks for answering the regional question. Texas is a unique state with a unique identity. “the simplicity of good and deride the the complexity of evil” I think is a fair statement. I think of Ethan’s degree in philosophy from Princeton. I see a lot of “big ideas” themed in their work. For me, there are about five that are fantastic. Some no so, and others fair-to-midling. But when they get it right–the characters, storyline, wow-factor– they have left their mark.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Right. Like I always say, the love of film– of anything, really–is personal. What I love you hate and vice versa. That makes it fun. I get the feeling–I’m probably wrong–that the Coen’s don’t really care what we think about their films. They’re only trying to impress themselves. That’s what affords them the license to travel freely through so many genres.

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    • To allthingsthriller: Great to see you on here – even If I am a few days late (busy lately) 🙂 Remember when we did our Coen Brothers entry back in July of 2018? 🙂 Great times 🙂

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  8. The Dude abides and really ties the movie together. I get tears in my eyes at the ‘funeral’ of Donny; but not from sorrow, from laughing. Each character has the perfect actor. So much reminds me of WC Fields or Laurel and Hardy. You know what’s coming and you wait and wait, like Goodman attacking the car. And it gets personal because it seems when I am howling with laughter, Goodman says, ‘Shut the @#@# up, Donny.’
    So many great movies. I tend to enjoy the comedies the most. I think that No Country is a work of art, I don’t think I want to watch it again.
    Their skill in movies is so great it even makes Nicholas Cage watchable. Or maybe he’s okay in Arizona because Holly Hunter is so wonderful.
    And the music and the language in O Brother. And Tim Blake Nelson’s apology in the movie theater for leaving Pete…’We thought you were a toad’.
    Yup, pretty good film makers even if they grew up in Minneapolis.

    wc

    Liked by 3 people

    • I like to kid around with my grown sons and say “Shut the f**k up, Donnie” for years, now. I agree with you on No Country. Holly Hunter is great and she and Cage make a dynamic duo. Yes, coming from Minnesota!
      By the way, I’ve been doing a lot of research of the northern neighborhood of Minneapolis in 1942. It seems it is the “anti-semetic” capital of the country, according to an article I read. Do you think there’s truth in that?

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      • It was and still is filled with Polish descendants. Very blue collar. Great restaurants and a lot of polka bars, whose idea of a mixed drink is a shot of whiskey with beer chaser.
        I know there are a few synagogues there. As far as being anti-semetic, I really can’t say.
        The Coen brothers actually came from St. Louis Park, a heavily populated Jewish suburb of Minneapolis.

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  9. I have this love/hate relationship with the Brothers. I find them inconsistent: Hail, Caesar! was a mess, but their next movie, Buster Scruggs, was a beauty.

    Favorites: Blood Simple (1984), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) (FAVORITE), A Serious Man (2009) and Buster Scruggs (2018).

    Least favorites: Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) (HATED), The Ladykillers (2004), Burn After Reading (2008), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and Hail, Caesar! (2016).

    Good but not great: Raising Arizona (1987), Miller’s Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), No Country for Old Men (2007) and True Grit (2010).

    As for the acting in their films, Mr. Emmet Walsh’s slimy private detective (Blood Simple) is still my all-time favorite Coen character. Walsh was brilliant! I also found Billy Bob Thornton’s barber (Man Who Wasn’t There) fascinating.

    Just my opinion. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Eric,
      Hey, everyone has one, that’s what I wanted. For everyone you hated, another blogger thought it was the best. For everyone you loved, other bloggers can’t stand it.
      I do believe you, though, that they are inconsistent. It’s easier to talk about their characters than whether you liked the film or not. YOu bring up a great one, Mr. Walsh. I had never seen ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ and was very impressed with Billy Bob’s character. I thought it slick and interesting. I liked ‘Inside Lewis Davis’ a lot because of the music. It’s my style. But, it is dark and depressing and John Goodman’s character in that one was decidedly creepy. A lot of people didn’t care for Maddie in ‘True Grit’ but I thought she was brilliant. I loved her cold character–her dialogue and relationship with Marshall was realistic to me. I knew a lot of gruff men who didn’t show emotion but had a soft spot. It worked for me, their relationship. KInd of like Arya and Sandor in GoT. Anyway, back to Coen Bros. Overall, John Turturro impresses me the most. All of his characters are memorable. I just think he’s a great character actor.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Thanks for the links to Wikipedia. It’s amazing how you can type in a query on almost anything and someone has a summary of that topic on Wikipedia. Amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Which region do they personify best?
    I find theie regionalism to be a post modern retread of hollywood dream factory sterotypesm not at all reaistic but funny on its own terms,..but fargo had a consistent regional tone that was ethnographically offensive but hilarious. i gt a kick out of the los angeles hotel room as hell in Barton Finkwell executedm and the idea of reteling the wizard of oz as a True Grit remakewas smart alecky audacious.

    Also, what performance or character resonates?
    I liked Javier Bardem in no country for old men, one of their few movies that rewards a second viewing, I also found Nicolas cage hilarious in Raising Arizona

    Which repeat actor starring in a Coen film grate on your nerves? \
    i cant stand that three named creep who played buster scruggs. he is unwatchablel

    In general i enjoy seeing th eirmovies once..but never a second time, except for no country for old men,,,and ifound more to lke in a recent revisit to an improved version of blood simple than i did the original release.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. “Barton Fink” – a trip inside a writer’s mind. Brilliant.
    “Fargo” – capturing exactly what you say: “regionalism”. A flawless movie.
    “No Country For Old Men” – region AND age. A surprising choice for Best Picture, but well deserved.
    “The Hudsucker Proxy” – a love letter to Hollywood of the 30’s.

    Tip of the iceberg to be sure – I love virtually all of their films except for two.

    Liked by 1 person

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