My Coen Brothers Odyssey

by Aaron West

June 24, 2024

It was probably 1992, maybe 1993, when I was in some video store and saw an odd looking film on the shelf. Barton Fink? What could this be about? Oh, it’s from the guys who directed Raising Arizona and Blood Simple. I gave it a shot, and on the other end, I had found my gateway to art cinema. From there it was a gradual jumping off point, looking for more films like Barton Fink, and eventually that led to some of the greatest filmmakers. I’d always come back to Barton Fink, and it always brought something new with me, but it had been a long time.

Since then, over the years, I had seen all of the Coen Brothers collaborative efforts. Like many of you, some became my favorite films of all time. Even when they missed, it was never wasted time to watch their films. If anything, it planted a seed to jump back into their world.

For this month’s Coen Brothers Screwball Comedy Journey, I decided to re-watch all of their films, from Blood Simple to Hail, Caesar, but why stop there? I also included their recent solo efforts, Drive-Away Dolls and The Tragedy of Macbeth, both of which were the only first time viewings.

I’ve binge watched many directors, film series, TV shows, and you name it. That’s become a typical approach, and sometimes with varying degrees of success. With TV shows it can be tough because it is easy to forget what happened in specific episodes. With directors, especially those who are more on the artistic side, it can be a roller coaster. For example, I watched the Bergman Box Set in a few months, but it helped that I had time to process each film in between, plus many were re-watches. With the Coen Brothers, not only were these re-watches, but they were often films I had seen countless times. Seeing The Big Lebowski again felt like hanging out with my favorite, crazy, old friend. Seeing Fargo again reminded me how they caught lightning in a bottle and took their career to a new level.

The best part was that these films are not only a conversation with the audience, but they are a conversation with each other. There are so many hidden references to so many of their films that it’s impossible to miss them, and I’m sure that I’d find even more on the next viewing. With Inside Llewyn Davis, Llewyn happens to sleep on couches, which also happens frequently in A Serious Man. Neither of these are game changers when it comes to connecting the films, but there’s no doubt they are deliberate. The cat in Inside Llewyn Davis is named Ulysses, another overt reference, this time to O Brother, How Art Thou? I even found a connection to the “Living Without Intestines” magazine from Intolerable Cruelty, which made me howl with laughter, and I can’t share it because it’s a spoiler.

In The Ladykillers, Tom Hanks’ lead character at one point says to Gawain (Marlon Wayons), “Oh no, Gawain, would that it were simple.” Anyone who has watched Hail, Caesar will remember the “would that it were so simple” scene between Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich. This month there were countless “Leo point” GIF scenes.

They are so methodical, calculated, and deliberate with their filmmaking that these are unlikely to be coincidences. They are also funny, and I appreciate that sometimes they have in-jokes within their films, which probably tickle them even if very few in the public catch on.

It feels trite to say that they are amazing filmmakers. They’ve balanced making entertaining, easily digestible yet challenging films for so many years that it’s almost ab objective fact that they are among the modern era’s greatest filmmakers. Watching them all in a short amount of time while sprinkling in other filmmakers, and often high quality films, shows that they are just operating on another level.

I expected to be surprised by this experience. What wasn’t a surprise is that their solo efforts didn’t quite measure up, although they both had moments, and I don’t think we can glean anything about what each brother contributed to their body of work from these single examples. One of them is dark and the other funny, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from their work, is that tonally it’s not wise to go in with any expectations.

The biggest surprise is that I ended the month with different favorites than when I went in. Here is a list to the order in which I watched them, bookended by each solo film. Here is a ranking of my favorite films of theirs. My favorite film changed. I’m Serious, Man!

A Serious Man was one of their more impressive efforts in what had been a fertile albeit less consistent later era. This was the film that got my attention when I saw it in theaters, and this was the one that hit me hardest during this Odyssey.

Their faith plays a large part in many of their films. It probably informs all of their work to a certain degree. In A Serious Man, faith is front and center, and sometimes they are playful about it. Other times, they are dead serious. I’m not Jewish, although I have studied both the history and the religion. It’s a fascinating religion, and in a way impenetrable for an outsider. The more I’ve learned about Judaism, the more I’ve learned that I cannot possibly fathom what it is like to live with that faith. This is not just the history and politics, although that is a big part, but also the traditions and practices of the religion. It seems to be a never-ending exploration. A Serious Man feels like the Coen Brothers doing their best to share their world view, even with some of their pet peeves, but they leave us with more questions than answers. That may be how they see the religion, or how they see the world through the lens of religion. Whatever they are going for, to paraphrase another Coen’s film, it feels like “a window to their soul” (Burn After Reading).