Yes, we know they're quirky, but the off-beat violence in Fargo is a far cry from the off-beat comedy in The Big Lebowski, and the calculated wackiness of Raising Arizona is polar opposite to the premeditated somberness of No Country for Old Men. To say they have defied genre is irrelevant: they have tackled film noir (Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn't There), romantic comedy (Raising Arizona and, unfortunately, Intolerable Cruelty), even a musical, of sorts (Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou), but the resulting movies stretch the bounds of their respective genres while comfortably standing on their own as immediate cult classics. All that, while—for the most part—doing quite well at the box office right here in the U.S. of A.
And it's not just their attention to detail and a knack for unorthodox technique in their cinematography, the crowd-pleasing plot twists, the meticulous musical scores nor the top acting talent that lure the sophisticates and laymen alike. It's that the Coens, who only make movies about Americans in America, make being American seem really cool, mysterious, dangerous—sexy…
The trick starts with the type of landscape the Coens choose: not just the skyscrapered New York in the Hudsucker Proxy or the gorging sprawl of L.A. in Barton Fink, but the cold vastness of the Midwest in Fargo, the dust and heat of the Southeast in Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou, the heft and starkness of the Southwest in No Country for Old Men. The Coens love the land seen only by unfortunates traveling by Greyhound and the "frontier" people choosing to live away from the metropolises. Most of their films spend vast amounts of time caressing, in stark wide-angle, the landscapes of quite typical America that almost no one ever gets to see on film.
What drives the Coens' films forward is a remarkable ability to craft characters in just a few strokes who, were it not for their strangeness, would seem like American stereotypes. By breathing humanity into these usually square, and always flawed, personalities, the Coens do like Tom Waits: they make quintessentially American archetypes.
The small-town cop in Fargo, played with light-footed focus by Frances McDormand, aside from being female in macho Midwest, is also pregnant, talks with a Midwestern accent funny to anyone not used to it, and, with her tensed lower lip and chin and a dull stare, appears to be dimwitted. By the middle of the movie, she's intelligent and compassionate; by the end, she's also gutsy and funny. McDormand walks away with an Oscar, the world thinks differently of pregnant Midwestern cops.
The cuckold barber in the '50s black-and-white The Man Who Wasn't There, played by Billy Bob Thornton, is completely impassive, doesn't have the guts to stand up to his wife's lover, and is so boring that his turn to illegal activities is prompted by his desire to open a dry cleaning business. He smokes a lot, though, and over the course of a movie engages in blackmail, puts a cigar cutter through a man's throat, gets his pants unzipped by a horny teenager—played, incidentally, by 15-year-old Scarlett Johansson—and dies on the electric chair. What started with a flaccid impassivity turned into an impenetrable cool.
What's more, the Coens don't reserve their memorable characters for the leads: with a quick "Hey-soos!" and a 10-second shot of John Turturro's character in The Big Lebowski polishing his bowling ball to matador music, the Coens have made a legend. John Goodman's bible salesman, in Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou, is everything you expect a Bible salesman to be: sleazy, loud, and self-aggrandizing—although he's got one eye. But he's so much more, and when a minute later he's swinging a log at people's jaws, it's hard not enjoy his gusto while hating him at the same time.
And then there's the bad guys.
Peter Stormare plays one of the Fargo kidnappers with an icy calm from the very beginning, going through witnesses, cops, and people who simply piss him off showing no more hesitation than someone chopping down weeds. But by the time he's slowly and skillfully feeding a body into a wood chipper, we know there's a new kind of fucked-up.
Until, that is, Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh (what a name!) in last year's No Country for Old Men—methodical and unstoppable like Jason from the Halloween series, except he doesn't wear a mask and looks only slightly like a psychopath because of his Prince Valiant helmet hairstyle, and is, therefore, completely and utterly believable. Plausible for our troubled times, prompting at least two known cases of movie goers calling family members on their way from a late night viewing back home just to have someone to talk to in the darkness. Killing people with a pneumatic stunbolt gun used on cattle?! Classic!
The Coen Brothers: Collaborations in the Collection runs at MoMA through August 28. Go here for schedule and tickets.