DOASKDOTELL Movie Reviews of Coen Brothers Films (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Blood Simple, Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn't There, No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, Romance & Cigarettes)

Fargo (1996, Gramercy/PolyGram, dir. Joel Coen, wr. Joel and Ethan Coen) is the name of a city on the Red River in North Dakota and also the name of one of the wittiest murder comedies ever made. William H. Macy plays Jerry Lundegaard, a used car salesman who sets up a road crime caper “just for a little bit of money,” in the words of pregnant detective Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who has her scheduled morning vomit along the road near Bemidji, MN. The film does end with a brutal arrest at a motel in Fargo, but not before bodies and legs have been ground up in a wood chopper. Much of the film is set in Minneapolis, with the skyline (IDS, USBank and Wells Fargo buildings) shown well. There is one scene near the end that carries the Minnesota drawl a bit far.

The Big Lebowski (1998, Gramercy/PolyGram, dir. Joel Coen wr. Joel and Ethan Coen) is not as engaging as Fargo. Jeff Bridges runs around in shorts with girlish legs—a real embarrassment that adds to comedy—as he plays “the Dude” slacker, who gets mistaken by gangsters who pee on his rug like a dog. This gets him into a wild goose chase to recover money, and journey into his dreams with a short interlude called “Gutterball.”  There are the usual delicious lines, like about treating “objects as women.”  And there is that wonderful image at the beginning of a tumbleweed rolling across and LA street, and at the end when Jeff gets ashes blown onto him “by the wind” after they can’t afford a “receptacle” from a funeral home.

Blood Simple (1984/2000, Circle/USA Films, Joel and Ethan Coen, R, 99 min). The Minnesota boys go to Texas to make thus sly thriller about a double crossing private eye Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), with Dan Hedaya as Marty, to slobbering saloon owner, Frances MacDormand as the cheating wife and John Getz as Ray, the other corner of the trapezoid. This is a gritty, funny thriller, with sudden twists, assassinations, fingers caught in windows, and a 15-minute sequence of corpse-burying without a word, with a corpse that won’t quite behave.

Barton Fink (1991, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 20th Century Fox, 116 min) exploits the idea of writer’s block. Barton Fink (John Turturro) comes to Hollywood to work for the evil empire in the 1940s, specifically to write a B-movie wrestling script. When he develops the writer’s block, other comic things go wrong. With John Goodman and Michael Lerner.

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, USA/GoodMachine, 116 min, R, UK) has Billy Bob Thornton as a barber, blackmailing his wife's boss, leading to a road trip of bizarre events leading even to UFO abductions, as well as shaved legs and a bit of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as if in an Aronofsky film. In black and white, and one particularly effective shot is the barber shop itself, with all of the textures and metallic surfaces that come out in monochrome.  

O Brother Where Art Thou (2000, Touchstone, dir. Joe Coenm wr, Ethan Coen, based on Homer's poem "The Odyssey") Everett, Pete and Delmar (George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson) escape from a chain gang in the south (no "Cool Hand Luke" here) into misadventures. John Goodman is the Bible salesman and cyclops.

No Country for Old Men (2007, Miramax / Paramount Vantage / Scott Rudin / Mike Ross, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, novel by Cormack McCarthy, 120 min, R). Perhaps this is the darkest of the Coen brother "black comedies" to the point that it is not funny at all; it's downright scary. In a way, it's a western, transposed into 1980 Texas, modern, pre cell phone and pre Internet so looking a bit Western with those scary rotary phone rings in old ramshackle border town (like Del Rio and Eagle Pass) motels. A hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles onto a ranch land crime scene with corpses, heroin, and a stash of money. He takes it, which doesn't really sound as believable as it should without explanation (as if he were looking for trouble already, it seems). The bad guy Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), with is foppish bowl haircut, is the ultimate psychopath, untraceable in broad daylight, as dangerous as an Al Qaeda terrorist today. There is an early conversation with a country gas station owner that goes around in chilling existential circles. Chigurh goes around with a transponder and sawed off shotgun, in an assembly that looks almost like a suitcase nuke. The good guy sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones -- who else?) and private eye Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) try and have some nice lines but their efforts don't come to much. At one point, Chigurh "buys" a coat from some young drifters at the border for $500, and at the end of the movie, with a car accident and a compound arm fracture visible on camera, he asks two teenage boys for a shirt, and one boy surrenders the shirt without asking for money. I'm told that the novel is told partly from their point of view.

This is a great looking film, anamorphic 2.35 : 1, with lots of wide shots of West Texas and eastern New Mexico.  We are seeing more of this: "independent" films for art houses made by major studios and marketed to urban adults, with major A-list stars, sometimes investing their own money in the films. The towns in that part of the world are not as close geographically as the script makes you think. I know, I lived in Dallas for most of the 1980s (I was there in the timeline of this film), and visited all of these areas with the help of Southwest Airlines peanuts fares and rent cars. The film brings back memories. 

Burn After Reading (2008, Focus / Working Title, dir. Coen Brothers, 97 min, R) is an irreverent situation comedy about what happens when a CD drive of an ex-CIA employee's memoir winds up in the hands of some greedy gym employees. John Malkovitch, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, George Clooney. Blogger

Romance & Cigarettes (2005, United Artists / Icon, dir. John Turturro, orig, music by John Chihara, 105 min, R) is, well, a musical, with the Coen Bros. as executive producer. An ironworker Nick (James Gandolfini) has a torrid affair with Tula (Kate Winslet) while his wife (Susan Sarandon) grows confused. The opening shot is predictive: Nick's feet, with his balding legs and laggard appearance, and toward the end, we see the X-rays of his lungs, as his whole body has become decadent with nicotine and smoke. There is lots of funny dialogue among the ironworkers on the bridge girders, about circumcision, about Tony Curtis almost lost his sex in the War, etc. The music, though, has a wonderful lilt to it. A retrospect of wistful times.



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