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Mayhem, Murder, and Minnesota: The Films of the Coen Brothers

Mayhem, Murder, and Minnesota: The Films of the Coen Brothers

Joel and Ethan Coen might be the two finest filmmakers working in America today. There are few directors who have captured more entertaining, accurate, or varied instances of the American experience.

Nearly all of their films center around some sort of crime or illicit behavior. Sometimes the protagonist is the perpetrator. Other times he is a victim or an unwitting bystander sucked into the chaos. Almost always though, the protagonist is a fool.

The brothers will often write their characters into tight metaphorical corners and then try to get them out again. The result makes for some bizarre twists and turns, narrative-wise. I would like to recommend a few of these well-crafted films from our collection.

If you are going to start with any Coen film, I would say that Fargo is the most logical. First off, you will be able to figure out quickly whether their blend of grim comedy and stark violence is for you. Secondly, it is beautifully shot, capturing frigid North Dakota and Minnesota (the brothers' home state) that will have you shivering.

Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, played by William H. Macy, hires a couple of thugs to kidnap his wife. He hopes that he can split his wealthy father-in-law's ransom money with the criminals, but things immediately start to go awry and get very messy.

The only person who can clean things up is Frances McDormand's small town sheriff...who is also seven months pregnant. Her character, Marge Gunderson, is a strong, sharp heroine with the ability to reduce Lundegaard to a puddle of stammerings. Meanwhile, one of the thugs reduces the other into a very different kind of puddle.

Most of the characters speak in a dialect known as "Minnesota Nice." Dialogue is peppered with cute phrases such as, "Oh, ya!" and "Don't ya know!" even as the bodies start to pile up.

I would never call the Coen's use of violence excessive, but you would be the best judge of whether you can handle such happenings, especially when they break out the wood chipper. Despite that upleasantness, Fargo is a treat for fans of classic film noir. McDormand won a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance, and the Coens won for best screenplay.

Miller's Crossing is my favorite movie to watch on St. Patrick's Day. The Irish-American gangster film takes place during Prohibition and stars Gabriel Byrne as right-hand man Tom Reagan.

Tom finds himself in the unenviable position of working for two small-time mobs in an even smaller town. As he tries to play one gang against the other for profit, simple survival soon becomes his ultimate goal.

Quick-witted dialogue and tommy gun bullets fly in equal share, and mob boss Albert Finney commands a hilarious scene of pre-bedtime destruction after a couple of hitmen sneak into his house.

The story originates from the Dashiell Hammett novel The Glass Key. Before the Coens filmed their adaptation, it had also been made into Akira Kurosawa's samurai film Yojimbo and the first Clint Eastwood spaghetti western: A Fistful of Dollars. All three films are worth seeing.

The Big Lebowski was the Coen Brothers' follow-up to Fargo. Upon its release, the movie confused just about everyone who was expecting another cold, quirky tale of murder. Though the movie does revolve around another false kidnapping, its tone is much sillier and its language much filthier.

Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski is the laziest guy in L.A. He's a burned-out hippie who is still mentally living in the 70's, even though the Gulf War has just started. Due to a case of mistaken identity, the Dude is thrust into a complicated ransom situation at the behest of a wealthy businessman who shares the Dude's given name. Luckily, we don't have to figure out all of the pieces of the complex puzzle. Just enjoy the ride.

What makes the movie hilarious is the idiotic, repetitive banter between the Dude and his bowling partner, Walter Sobchak. Walter is also living in the past—but for a different reason. He is still stuck in the headspace of his service in Vietnam. The war is a metaphor for every aspect of Walt's life...especially bowling.

Jeff Bridges and John Goodman as the Dude and Walter bring a flourish of inepitude and a Sobchak-sized arsenal of "f-words" to the occasion. The two find themselves entangled in an updated take on the plots of Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled crime novels.

I should also mention the pair's timid friend Donny, played by the brilliant character actor Steve Buscemi. Donny is constantly told by Walter to shut up, despite never really getting the chance to say anything. He really ties the movie together.

Buscemi is a frequent collaborator with the directors and is actually in all three movies I've mentioned so far, stealing scenes in each picture.

Though audiences and critics were scratching their heads when it first came out, The Big Lebowski has over time become the most seen and most beloved Coen Brothers film. With in-depth analytical books and an annual convention known as Lebowski Fest, the movie has a life of its own.

I would like to finish up with No Country for Old Men, which is fueled by author Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name. McCarthy grapples to understand the motives of evil forces as a serial killer named Anton Chigurh hunts down a satchel containing two million dollars, now held by one Llewelyn Moss.

Moss, played by Josh Brolin, has no idea what he's in for as Javier Bardem's Chigurh randomly murders people in his path with an electric cattle bolt gun. Meanwhile a sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones, acts as McCarthy's philosophical conscience, lamenting how such evil can exist in the world. 

Chigurh is steadfastly determined and often meticulous in his actions. When a shotgun blast leaves his leg full of buckshot, he escapes to his hotel room, lays down a plastic sheet, and, with the precise care of a surgeon, extracts the offending bits and stitches himself up with medical supplies he stole from a pharmacy. Such a scene might not be for the squeamish, but the detailed focus on each step of his "operation" is fascinating.

No Country for Old Men is a tight chase film with brief moments of humor and lots of moral ponderings, making it a good companion piece to Fargo. Bardem won an Academy Award for his portrayal, and the brothers won for screenplay again, but also won their first Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture. 

We have many more of the Coen Brothers' films in our collection, and they almost all fall within a similar range of dry, morbid humor based around criminal misdeeds. What I like most about their works is that each one is always set during a specific time and place in America.

They may be set in the Deep South during the Great Depression or suburban Minnesota in the 1960's, but wherever and whenever they are, the Coens commit fully to their setting, capturing a quirky, darkly comic slice of our nation.

The Coens' latest film is Inside Llewyn Davis, which follows a folk singer in New York City, close to when Dylan arrived there as well. Though it is much less crime-based than those films that came before, it still offers the theme of protagonist as a fool in a strange, unforgiving, and sometimes funny world. It stars Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, and Justin Timberlake. The trailer is below.