Is there anybody who doesn’t love the Coen brothers? Few other contemporary filmmakers have put together a body of work so singularly rich and diverse that consistently strikes the chords of audiences. They have created a unique world of stories populated with colourful characters that we’re only too happy to visit every few years. I think what resonates most is how deeply their films are rooted in American mythology, in stories passed down through generations, thematically similar to fables you would grow up reading (although sometimes more violent). They focus on regular people getting caught in outrageous situations beyond their depth. So TIFF’s ten-film spotlight is aptly named Joel & Ethan Coen: Tall Tales, happening over the next month in anticipation of their newest film Inside Llewyn Davis, which opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Christmas Day.
A love of classic film genres is hugely apparent in the Coen brothers’ work, and they’ve taken their stabs at gangster drama, screwball comedy, the Western, and particularly film noir. Their incredible first feature, Blood Simple, may have taken place in contemporary Texas but it fell right in with the worlds of classics like Double Indemnity or The Maltese Falcon. Like all noirs, it starts simply enough: a rich, jealous bar owner hires a private detective to kill his cheating wife and her new lover. But of course this all goes horribly, horribly wrong and no one emerges unscathed. Blood Simple is such a tightly scripted, moody shocker of a debut that it immediately launched the Coens to stardom. It also features a snake-like performance from M. Emmet Walsh as the drawling private eye, the first in a rogue’s gallery of memorable characters they would dream up, and pretty much started the whole neo-noir movement which has been popular ever since. The making of the film still stands as an inspiration to burgeoning filmmakers today; they raised money for production by shooting a teaser trailer for the film (starring a post-Evil Dead Bruce Campbell), and then when they took the completed movie to Hollywood and all the studios passed, it got screened at the New York and Toronto film festivals to massive acclaim, leading to a distribution deal.
Despite often handling dark subject matter, the Coen brothers are really funny guys, and their comedy shines through in everything they touch. Fargo is an essential film and marked their first trip to the Academy Awards, where they won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. A pitch-black comic crime thriller that doubles as an ode to Midwestern American charm, Fargo is a perfect gem of a film. Again, the Coens construct a noirish plot: car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is in financial trouble so he hires two criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife to get the ransom money from his rich father-in-law. Once again, things do not go as planned when the criminals kill a cop and a couple of passersby and attract the attention of pregnant policewoman Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, who won an Oscar for her performance). This time, however, things unravel in such an absurdly funny way that you can’t help but laugh, even when you’re watching someone stuff a body into a wood chipper. McDormand, Macy, Buscemi, and Stormare have all never been better than they are here, playing their outrageous roles genuinely, never winking at us. Even Fargo’s marketing campaign had a sense of humour, claiming it was based on a true story even though it wasn’t.
Fargo would be by far their funniest film if it weren’t for the competition from their follow-up venture, the all-time cult comedy classic The Big Lebowski. Here they take film noir and cross it with the stoner comedy, resulting in the most interesting subversion of the genre I’ve ever come across. It turned Jeff Bridges into the coolest guy in Hollywood and has such a massive following that fans celebrate Lebowski Fest each year in cities all over North America. If you haven’t seen it for some ungodly reason, I don’t care what you’re doing, make the time.
But back to mythology and the way it manifests itself in the Coen brothers’ work. Not many filmmakers would take on modern updates of such texts as Homer’s “Odyssey” or the Hebrew Book of Job, but that’s just what they did with O Brother, Where Art Thou? and A Serious Man, setting them in 1930s Mississippi and 1960s Minnesota, respectively. The surreal Barton Fink also takes heavily from the Book of Daniel among various other works of classic literature. Then there’s No Country for Old Men, an adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel. It’s as close to a straight modern Western as I’ve ever seen and uses the Wild West setting to examine the changing nature of violence and evil, and the way it becomes more complex and unstoppable as time goes on. In the old days, all you needed to defeat the bad guys was John Wayne riding in on a horse with guns ablaze. But in No Country’s world, the bad guys are ruthless and plentiful, and as evidenced by Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, they keep coming for you. It’s the ultimate mythological tale for our times.
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