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Tracking the Coen Brothers

Szymon Ryzner | Sunday, September 21, 2008

After an award-winning year for their film “No Country for Old Men,” Joel and Ethan Coen have made their return to comedy in “Burn After Reading.” The fraternal filmmakers have a long history in Hollywood, ranging from dark comedies to more serious projects.

The Coen brothers have been in the business for more than two decades, but have been interested in film since their youth. Joel got his first shot in the industry working in film editing with director Sam Raimi on his film “Evil Dead.”  From there, with the help of Raimi, the Coens were able to write and direct their own first film, 1984’s “Blood Simple.”  Like many of their future projects, “Blood Simple” paid homage to various past films that they enjoyed, combining horror and noir aspects.

Their next film, 1987’s “Raising Arizona,” was a comedy starring Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter. With its comedic timing and unique style, it developed the Coens’ style. With outlandish characters and dark entertaining plots, “Raising Arizona” depicted a couple that so desperate for kids that they kidnapped one.

The pair’s filmmaking careers continued with 1990’s “Millers Crossing,” a gang-oriented noir. The duo followed that project with 1991’s “Barton Fink,” the brothers’ ode to writer’s block. In “Barton Fink,” they further mastered their sense of the bizarre with a brilliant, character-driven storyline chock full of symbolism and allusions to such films as “The Shining” and “Eraserhead.”

The brothers are well known for their classic 1996 film. “Fargo.” “Fargo” was a crime thriller with dark comedic elements mostly set in Brainerd, Minn. With characters ranging from stupid goons to desperate car salesmen, the Coens were once again merciless to the characters they created and effectively created a memorable plot built on their various failures. With “Fargo,” the Coens proved themselves to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Collectively the duo received seven Academy Award nominations that year, and the film came home with two Oscars.

“Fargo” was followed in turn by their most popular comedy, “The Big Lebowski.” The story of “The Dude” and his escapades has entertained audiences since the film’s release in 1998, earning a permanent place within cult filmdom. 

More recently, the Coens released “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” a bluegrass-tinged comedy loosely based on the classic Greek myth “The Odyssey,” 2003’s “Intolerable Cruelty,” a romantic comedy, and “The Ladykillers,” a remake of a 1955 film. Their most recent success was 2007’s “No Country for Old Men,” an epic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name. The film three Academy Awards and cemented the brothers’ place in the history of American film. 

The brothers are known as much for their techniques as they are for their films. Examples of such trademark stylistic elements include similar casting choices, strong dialogue, and a fond appreciation for old films. Many of their films star the same actors, including Francis McDormand, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, John Goodman and George Clooney. The characters in their films are also usually strange or off-kilter, either in their mannerisms or speech. The Coens also have a tendency to set their projects during time periods in which the characters are facing extraordinary crises. The wit and banter they write for their characters is often quoted and cited, and their character work is some of the best in the film industry. 

The Coens have successfully made a wide range of films while dabbling in a variety of genres. With several new films planned for the future, including an adaptation of Michael Chabon’s novel “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” fans of film can look forward to many more “Dudes” and Anton Chigurhs on the big screen.