Famous for the Oscar-winning movies Fargo and No Country for Old Men, the team of filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen are less well-known for their spiritual undertakings. Today’s most popular notion of sophistication emphasizes cynical humor, and the Coen Brothers are certainly renowned for an eccentric impudence that can seem snarky: as when showing a human appendage sticking out of a woodchipper in Fargo or a childless couple becoming kidnappers chasing after scrambling infants in Raising Arizona. But if a mocking view of compulsive and ruthless behavior characterizes contemporary hipness, it is also a sign of emotional desperation. Behind the frequent violence and threat and neediness in Coen Brothers scenarios is a remarkable confrontation with the meaning of mankind’s existence, humanity’s grappling with the unknown, and individuals’ relationships with God.
In the Coen Brothers’ newest film, True Grit, a remake of the 1969 Western that brought John Wayne his long-awaited Academy Award, an opening epigraph quotes Proverbs 28:1: “The wicked flees when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.” It’s not the first time the Coen Brothers have used a religious tag; their 2009 A Serious Man began with a quotation from the eleventh-century biblical scholar Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you”). These references announce a hermeneutic purpose, using Scripture and proverb to explain unpredictable circumstances, but the quotations also evidence the Coens’ interest in following a moral precept and demonstrating its truth and efficacy in inventive accounts of worldly experience. It is the classic tradition of storytelling that addresses fundamental human concerns.
An ecumenical filmmaker such as Steven Spielberg assiduously applies Judeo-Christian values to tales about innocence and experience, belief versus skepticism. Spielberg’s interest in bearing witness through drama equates filmmaking with a form of testimony. The Minnesota-born Coen Brothers, whose name is a derivative of Cohen, the Hebrew term for leader or rabbi, match Spielberg for films of sermonlike roundedness and intent that usually—and always humorously—investigate the complex ways characters face up to their natures and confront their fates. The Coens’ narratives are folkloric, and, in the attention they give to language that often revives and spoofs esoteric argot, their films present scriptural voices that all creeds can recognize.
This is not the reading the mainstream secular media prefer. Received opinion of the Coens places inordinate attention on the sheer shock of their films’ bloodiest scenes rather than on the intricate play of ideas and dialogue and deep feeling. But a more insightful appreciation of the Coens was recently encouraged by Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop, a remake of the Coens’ debut feature, Blood Simple, in the style of a traditional Chinese folk legend. Zhang’s translation highlights the existential aspects of the Coens’ storytelling, distilling the Postman-Always-Rings-Twice fatalistic plot of Blood Simple to its cosmic essence: elemental figures, hyperintense psychology, and lunar landscapes—settings in which mankind’s spiritual nature is writ large.
This is also the method of True Grit, the Coens’ first classical Western. It follows their acclaimed modern Western/serial-killer film, No Country for Old Men, as if to improve on it and bring its desolation closer to spiritual consciousness. The Western—the primal American movie genre—allows the Coens to essay the same fundamental historical precepts as a biblical epic. True Grit’s opening image—a dark cabin illuminated by a fireplace glow that has the distant appearance of a crucifix (a site of agony and redemption)—sets the stage for the story of teenage Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) avenging her father’s death at the hands of an outlaw. Looking back, narrating her memoir in a matured, remorseful voice, Mattie surmises, “You must pay for everything in this world. There is nothing free except for the grace of God.” Underneath her sorrowful wisdom is heard the old-timey hymn “Lean On Jesus.” It’s not a scoffer’s joke. Mattie’s sojourn through the turbulent, brutal West, where she hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) a drunken bounty hunter, to effect her mission, becomes a sincere, multilevel search for satisfaction, self-knowledge, the father she misses, the authority and succor she craves.
Mattie’s spiritual desperation recalls the Coens’ most plainly ethnic movie, A Serious Man, in which a mathematics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) deals with a failing marriage, estranged children, and workplace troubles by seeking out advice from a triumvirate of rabbis, leading to the crucial question, “What is my relationship with Ha’Shem [God]?” The question hangs in the movie’s atmosphere (set in the late 1960s, it uncovers a key moment of cultural revolution, when Jefferson Airplane songs and an emerging drug culture were unraveling social conventions). Larry’s moral quandary has the same urgency as Mattie’s. His lament, “Actions always have consequences, morally if not physically,” expresses Old West fatalism, 1960s caution, and even post-9/11 anxiety.
Common as agnostic pronouncements are in faddish Hollywood, where stars routinely embrace cults and exotic, indulgent philosophies, the Coens take a different route by regularly—steadily—examining their characters’ principles and their own ethnic-cultural roots. The lack of honor among thieves in Blood Simple, the post-Carnegie corporate ethics in The Hudsucker Proxy, the lapsed 1960s radicalism in The Big Lebowski, the Washington, D.C., conspiracies in Burn After Reading, the commercial exploitation of marriage vows in the legal comedy Intolerable Cruelty—all show the Coens reflecting on fundamental social values as a way of taking the contemporary moral temperature. That return to basics explains the genius of updating Homer’s Odyssey to the pre-civil-rights era American South in the Coens’ folk-music operetta O Brother Where Art Thou?; refracting film-noir codes in Miller’s Crossing and pulp-fiction fantasy in The Man Who Wasn’t There; the Yiddish folktale prologue of A Serious Man; and the collision of a black Southern Baptist woman with an unscrupulous white con artist/professor and his gang in The Ladykillers.
The latter was a remake of a 1950s British comedy that was a remake of a 1942 American film Larceny, Inc.—proof that the Coens are not gimmicky tale spinners. Their artistic commitment involves a kind of ethnographic research that takes them into the origins of myth, ethics, and instinct: They recontextualized The Ladykillers as a farce that subtly illuminates the precarious social ideas confronting Christian conservatives and liberals alike. (In a satirical twist, the church lady’s benevolence and the con artists’ disillusionment wind up in a donation to Bob Jones University.) Similarly, the Beltway hijinks of Burn After Reading take place between interplanetary opening and closing images, as if human foibles were seen from God’s point of view.
Essentially humane satirists, the Coens purposely spring their punchlines (varieties of moral reckoning) in the midst of a largely faithless era. The 1950s-set The Man Who Wasn’t There revisited the post–World War II moment when we supposedly lost our bearings, leaving cynical comic books, pulp fiction, and B-movies to celebrate our decline in the guise of subversive pop culture. In that film science fiction became an irrational replacement for religious dogma. Tellingly, in True Grit and A Serious Man, Mattie Ross and Larry Gopnik share a special kind of desperation: Their despair (“I felt like Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones,” Mattie remembers) moves them relentlessly toward an unsentimental hopefulness. Their personal stories show the essence of faith, even when it is not explicitly stated. And True Grit’s Twain-like language revives an era in which the Bible, quoted as vernacular, defined the ethos.
The classicism of the Western permits the Coens to reiterate the strange longing that was almost inchoate in No Country for Old Men, when Tommy Lee Jones, after witnessing the abyss, recounted a dream about seeing his father in the hereafter—a monologue that puzzled horror-movie habitués keyed up by the film’s cavalcade of senseless, unstoppable violence. They could not comprehend Jones’ belief in the hereafter but expected fashionable nihilism. Yet this longing—recurring as it does in the heartfelt twang of True Grit’s score (“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” sung dulcetly by the great folk artist Iris Dement) and in the film’s blasted landscape, which describes America’s long fall from paradise—is also what distinguished the Coens’ modern spiritual search in A Serious Man. The Coens’ most Jewish film holds hands with True Grit and its Christian fundamentalism. Both films reveal the brothers’ richest, most ecumenical meaning—and without a single snarky moment. Who knew America’s coolest filmmakers would turn out to be its most openly spiritual?
Armond White, film critic of the New York Press, is chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle.