More than any other filmmakers, the Coen brothers have wormed their way into my everyday. The Hudsucker Proxy is my all-time favorite comedy. I often emphasize the “stac” in “obstacle” in reference to O Brother, Where Art Thou? I answer texts with Sidney Musburger’s quick-fire “Sure, sure” (Hudsucker). I used to find out which students had seen The Big Lebowski by saying that nihilists “believe in nussing.” The ones who laughed had seen the film.
The Coens have assembled a unique corpus. They’re known for resuscitating outdated genres and styles—Westerns (True Grit, Buster Scruggs), screwball comedies (Hudsucker, Intolerable Cruelty), film noir (Blood Simple), and black-and-white (The Man Who Wasn’t There). They have a genius for rat-a-tat, loopy dialogue, supported by clever editing. No contemporary filmmakers have written as many memorable lines as the Coens. There are arresting images—the snowscapes of Fargo, the dystopian skyscrapers of Hudsucker, the endless roads and infinite vistas of the American West—and the Coens let the camera linger long enough to convey the atmosphere of places. There are no recurring characters in Coen-world, but there are recurring character types, often in minor roles: delightful, elderly, funny-looking, ordinary people, like the customers who witness Baby Face Nelson’s bank robbery (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and the convenience store owner that H. I. McDunnough leaves counting behind the counter after a robbery (Raising Arizona).
I’ve often puzzled over why the films appeal to me so much, and I did so again while watching their latest, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (made for Netflix). Buster Scruggs is a short-story collection on film, a set of stereotyped Western characters and stories—the singing cowboy who is, for a time, the quickest draw in the West; the hapless bank robber; the prospector who discovers the all-gold canyon; the wagon train headed to Oregon; the conversation in a stage coach. The mood modulates—or lurches—from silly to tragic, from darkly humorous to plain dark.
Like most Coen films, Buster Scruggs contains gruesome violence. The title character is a goofy, white-clad killing machine, as likely to shoot you through the head as he is to break into a song-and-dance number. Death’s shadow looms over the entire film. From the moment at the end of their first film, Blood Simple, when Abby pins Visser’s hand to a window sill with a knife and gives it a twist, through the nuking of the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in Raising Arizona, to the famous wood-chipper scene at the end of Fargo, the Coens have displayed a rare talent for grisly creativity.
It’s not as if every frame is blood-spattered; on the violence spectrum, the Coens are somewhere between zero and Tarantino. Often played for laughs, the killings and beatings are too brutal to be cartoonish, too funny to be tragic—they resemble a campy Titus Andronicus more than they do Hamlet. That only makes the violence more unsettling. We laugh, then worry that our laughter makes us complicit in the dehumanization of the characters.
That cruelty is consistent with the surface nihilism of the films. The Dude and his bowling buddies fight off nihilists (Lebowski), but does the Dude himself believe in anything? Cormac McCarthy might have written No Country for Old Men as a Coen screenplay, so perfectly does the relentless hit man Chigurh embody a Coen villain. Larry Gopnik (A Serious Man) sees himself as a modern Job. Like Job, the story ends with a whirlwind, but the Lord is not in the whirlwind. The rabbis Larry consults don’t give any answers, and it seems there’s no meaning to his trials. No deal with the devil. Just dumb bad luck.
Both A Serious Man and The Man Who Wasn’t There refer to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, explained by the lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider in the latter film as “the more you look the less you really know.” For the Coens, Heisenberg discovered a cosmic principle: Their world isn’t merely beyond control, it’s beyond understanding. The plots of their films turn on mistaken identities and unforeseen consequences, and the characters are left to fend for themselves. Visser’s smarmy voice-over at the beginning of Blood Simple sets the mood: “Now in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else—that’s the theory anyway. But what I know about is Texas, and down here, you’re on your own.” Coen-world is a moral, perhaps a metaphysical, Texas. It’s a world as cold and empty as the winter fields around Fargo, like Melville’s colorless all-color of atheism.
Yet for all that, things do get sorted out. Not invariably, but often enough to be noticeable, schemers are trapped by their own schemes, and things muttered in the dark are shouted on housetops. Mrs. Mumson (Ladykillers) discovers Prof. Dorr’s plot to rob a casino boat in Biloxi, Mississippi. When Dorr’s merry miscreants try to kill her, they get picked off one-by-one in humiliating accidents, their bodies ending up on “garbage island,” which, Mrs. Mumson’s preacher has warned, is “far from the kingdom.” Jerry Lundgaard almost instantly loses control of the kidnapping he sets in motion (Fargo). Ed Crane (The Man Who Wasn’t There) gets away with the blackmail and murder he committed, only to be sent to the electric chair for a murder he didn’t commit. Within Coen-world, a faceless, severe, Dantesque justice is at work, which verges on the sadistic.
Meanwhile, often enough to be noticed, the innocent abide. Mrs. Mumson tells the Prof. Dorr (Ladykillers) that she’s an “Angel,” a donor category for Bob Jones University, and the rest of the film vindicates her trust in unseen protectors. The Coens certainly don’t share her faith, but they don’t mock it either. Norville Barnes (Hudsucker) has something “you know, for kids.” Fresh from the Muncie School of Business, he introduces circles and color (hula hoops) into the gray, straight-line corporate world of Hudsucker Industries. The adults in the boardroom plot to stop him, but Norville survives and ends up leading the company with “wisdom and compassion” for years after.
The Coens put a female police chief at the center of their best-known film, Fargo. A strike for feminism, perhaps, but Chief Marge Gunderson isn’t your kick-ass female heroine. She’s pregnant, comfortably married, eats at buffets and Arby’s, speaks in clichés with a heavy Upper Midwest accent, her expressions wide-eyed and childish. But she’s shrewd, efficient, courageous, and triumphant. Toward the end of the film, she chides one of the criminals for killing for a “little bit of money”: “There’s more to life than money, you know. Don’t you know that?” For all their knowingness, the Coens put Marge forth as a genuine American heroine. Nothing in the film undermines her folksy common sense.
The Coens’ hipness isn’t skin deep, but it doesn’t go all the way down either. Despite appearances, they don’t “believe in nussing.” They believe in the ordinary. If this is postmodernism, it’s a David Foster Wallace kind of postmodernism, for, like Wallace, they’ve discovered that earnestness is the new cool.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. He thanks his sons, Woelke and Christian, for their insights on this piece.