Few would argue that anyone but Joel and Ethan Coen are the best directing duo in the history of cinema. (Sorry, Wachowskis, Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending disqualified you from the running indefinitely.) They’re often cited for their versatility; they genre hop with ease, both on a film-to-film basis and within a single film. One writer posits that since No Country for Old Men, they’ve alternated from drama to comedy and addressed the same themes twice in three separate drama-comedy pairs.
They’re also well known for subverting expectations for the particular genres within which they’re working, often through a complex plot structure. One of the most original examples of their subversion of film norms is in their 1996 movie, Fargo. Until two years ago, I, like most people, subconsciously accepted the film’s “This is a true story” label as fact. In actuality, Fargo is, at best, loosely based on a few disparate events that took place at different times and in different locations. Nevertheless, the Coens maintained their “true story” stance for the duration of the film’s promotional period. In a way, this is a testament to the fetishization of the “true” story in Hollywood. The Coens sneakily entered into this genre without a “true” story to begin with, and the myth continues. Controversially, perhaps, one Coen brother stated, “We wanted to make a movie just in the genre of a true story movie. You don’t have to have a true story to make a true story movie.” Many people might not see his point, but I think that this statement exposes a vital aspect of art. In storytelling, there’s a distinction between “fact” and “truth.” A story can be factual without being true, or it can be true without being factual. Ultimately, a movie is just a movie; at best, it’s a re-creation of true events, not an exact replica of the emotions and decisions that constitute an original experience. Sometimes, in order to access and relate the truth of an event, you have to alter the facts.
Another common thread running through Coen-helmed films is everyday folks getting caught up, either wittingly or unintentionally, in the (often organized) crime world. Whether their characters are hiring a hitman to kill your wife and her new lover (Blood Simple.), hatching a kidnapping plot (Raising Arizona; Fargo; The Big Lebowski; Hail, Caesar!), engaging in a stock scam (The Hudsucker Proxy) or a blackmail scheme (The Man Who Wasn’t There), perpetrating a poorly-thought-out robbery (The Ladykillers, No Country for Old Men), or participating in ultimately bungled acts of espionage (Burn After Reading), the Coens are no strangers to depicting (often amateurish) crime gone horribly wrong.
Along with their proclivity to disrupt filmmaking norms and tell stories about failed criminal undertakings, their idiosyncratic yet realistic characters keep me coming back to their films. I like to think there’s a Marge Gunderson or a “Dude” within all of us.